Men have dominated the art world for hundreds of years. Men created most of the world-famous paintings, and the most well-known artists throughout history are also typically men.
However, that’s not because women “aren’t as good” at art. The truth is that throughout most of human history, women were oppressed, subjugated, and regaled to the home, where they were unable to participate in artistic endeavors.
Women have fought against this oppression and pursued art against all odds throughout history. Female artists of the past paved the way for modern women to explore their creativity and blossom in a culture typically reserved for men.
Today, in honor of women’s history month, we celebrate these female artists, past and present, who have either impacted our cultural attitudes towards art or who are becoming famed artists as we speak!
Influential Female Artists Prior to the 19th Century
There were many art movements before the 19th century, but the Renaissance is the most influential and well-known. Unfortunately, there are limited records of women’s participation in these movements.
During this time, the oppression of women was commonplace worldwide, and it was improbable that any woman would be taken seriously as an artist. Although the period before the 19th century spans hundreds of years of art history, women had little impact on it, and those who did are often not remembered with as much enthusiasm as their male counterparts.
That doesn’t mean female artists didn’t exist, though. Here are some of the important female artists of the Renaissance and beyond that you should know.
Caterina van Hemessen (1528-unknown, c. 1565)
Catrina (or Catharina) van Hemessen was active during the Flemish Renaissance. She primarily created miniature portraits of women and was most prolific between the late 1540s and early 1550s.
Van Hemessen is widely regarded as the first painter, male or female, to create a self-portrait of themselves seated in front of an easel. This style of self-portrait seems to celebrate the creativity and artistry of the artist by showcasing their passion alongside their likeness.
Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1532-1625)
Sofonisba Anguissola was an Italian Renaissance painter. Born to a noble family, Anguissola received a well-rounded education that included instruction in the fine arts. Her artistic talents helped her secure an apprenticeship with local painters, opening the door for women to pursue education in the arts.
During her career, she impressed Michelangelo with her talent and served as a tutor for the Spanish queen, Elizabeth of Valois. She painted numerous portraits, including one of the Duke of Alba and formal portraits of the Spanish royal court.
Fede Galizia (c.1578- c.1630)
Fede Galizia was another Italian Renaissance painter who Anguissola’s success may have influenced. Although she is most well known for her still-lifes, she also painted portraits and religious scenes, usually on commission. Her incredible attention to detail, especially with jewels and clothing, made her a highly sought-after portrait painter.
Galizia is the first Italian artist to create a still-life painting. Bowl with Plums, Pears, and a Rose, created in 1602, is her only surviving signed still life and part of the Anholt collection in Amsterdam, according to Christie’s auction house.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c.1656)
Artemisia Gentileschi was the first woman to become a member of the Academia di Arte del Disegno in Florence and is one of the most accomplished artists of the 17th century. She’s generally considered a Baroque artist, and her early work is in the style of Caravaggio. However, she also became known for naturalistic depictions of the human form and skill in using color to express drama.
Unfortunately, most of history remembers Gentileschi because of the nefarious actions of a male contemporary. The Italian landscape artist Agostino Tassi raped Gentileschi, and this horrible event often overshadowed Gentileschi’s skill and prominence as an artist. A re-examination of her work in recent centuries showcased her true talent, and she’s now considered one of the most progressive artists of her time.
Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665)
Elisabetta Sirani was an Italian Baroque artist based out of Bologna. She made an incredible impact on the art community during her short life. She established the first art academy for women in Europe, training several young women (and men!) in painting techniques.
Sirani died at the very young age of 27, but that short time was enough to cement her as a brilliant artist of her time. She was diligent in signing and recording her work, a habit that allowed us to recognize hundreds of drawings, paintings, and etchings as hers.
Adelaide Labille-Guiard (1749-1803)
Adelaide Labille-Guiard was an 18th-century French portrait painter. As one of the first women to become a member of the Royal Academy, she was a fierce advocate for women in the arts. She was also the first female artist allowed to have a teaching studio at the iconic Louvre in Paris.
Labille-Guiard’s talent didn’t go unnoticed. She was so skilled that she became a portrait painter for the French royal family. During her time at the court, she created numerous portraits of royal women, including relatives of King Louis XVI. Although she survived the French Revolution, she was forced to destroy many of her royal commissions, lost much of her livelihood, and was considered a political suspect due to her connections with the royal family.
Maria Cosway (1760-1838)
Maria Cosway was a talented artist and musician who worked in England, France, and Italy. She commissioned the first portrait of Napoleon displayed in England and exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts.
Cosway founded a girl’s school in Paris, which operated from 1803 – 1809, then moved to Lodi in Northern Italy and founded another school for girls and a Catholic convent there, where she worked until her death.
Eunice Pinney (1770-1849)
Although most of Eunice Pinney’s work was created from 1809 to 1826, most of her subject matter involved the 18th-century style. This makes sense as her formative years took place in that century, so it’s not unreasonable to group her with 18th-century artists.
Pinney was an American folk artist and one of the first Americans to work with watercolor. She portrayed a wide range of subjects, including landscapes, portraits, religious scenes, and more. Her works feature bold colors drastically defined with strong contrast lines.
Female Painters of the 19th Century
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)
As a celebrated impressionist, Mary Cassatt is perhaps the most well-known female artist of the 19th century. Cassatt also has the distinction of being one of the only American impressionists. The movement originated in Europe, and most American artists of the time focused on naturalism.
Cassatt ignored contemporary tradition and paved her own way in life. She never married, as she felt marriage would negatively impact her artistic career. She was a feminist who embodied the “new woman” perspective of the 19th century, the idea that women could be educated, independent, and active in society.
Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942)
Cecilia Beaux was an American portrait painter whose works included portraits of First Lady Edith Roosevelt. Although she worked when impressionism was at its peak, she preferred traditional figurative painting and was often compared to John Singer Sargent.
Beaux was recognized for her talent throughout her life. Eleanor Roosevelt presented her with Chi Omega Fraternity’s gold medal in 1933 and recognized her as “the American woman who had made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world.” She also received a gold medal for lifetime achievement from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She was the first woman to teach at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Sarah Cole (1805-1857)
Sarah Cole was an American landscape artist who is often overshadowed by her more famous brother, Thomas Cole. Thomas founded the Hudson River School and is celebrated as one of the most influential American artists of the 19th century.
Sarah only began exhibiting her paintings after her brother’s death. Most of her work is reminiscent of Thomas’s, copies of his work or reproductions of the same scene. She did paint original images, though, and most of her exhibited work was of these original subjects. Unfortunately, very little is known of her life, and most of her works have been lost.
Harriet Cany Peale (1799-1869)
Harriet Cany Peale was a member of the Hudson River School and a handful of other female artists. She first exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and exhibited at the Artist’s Fund Society later in life.
She’s most well known for an 1848 painting, Her Mistress’s Clothes, which portrays an African American woman dressed in the clothes of her white, wealthy mistress. Cany Peale was also an accomplished landscape and portrait artist.
Mary Josephine Walters (1837-1883)
Another member of the Hudson River School, Mary Josephine Walters, is best known for her landscapes in oil and watercolor. The majority of her work was forest scenes in the Catskill mountains, and she was highly skilled in depicting trees and leaves with immaculate detail.
Walters’s artwork was exhibited at several prestigious galleries while she was alive, including the National Academy of Design and the San Francisco Art Association.
Women Who Paved the Way: 20th Century Artists
Frida Khalo (1907-1954)
Frida Khalo was a Mexican artist best known for her self-portraits that often contained surrealist images alongside the realistic portrait. She was the first Mexican artist ever featured in the Louvre’s collection, and feminists often celebrate her for her blunt portrayals of the female experience.
Khalo was in an accident at a young age, which resulted in chronic pain conditions. It’s thought that this pain was the motivation behind many of her self-portraits, as she portrayed herself in morbid and painful situations.
Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986)
Georgia O’Keefe is often considered the “mother of American modernism.” She’s best known for her close-up paintings of enlarged flowers, which were often considered purposefully sexual, an accusation that O’Keefe rigorously denied.
O’Keefe holds the record for the most expensive painting by a female artist sold at auction. In 2014, her image Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 sold for 44.4 million dollars in a Sotheby’s auction. There is now a museum in her honor, the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where visitors can view many of her works and learn about her impact on women in the arts.
Felicia Browne (1904-1936)
Felicia Browne was far more than an artist. She is most well known for her political career, as she was an avid leftist and member of the communist party. She participated in anti-fascist and anti-Nazi rallies in Berlin and is remembered as the first British volunteer to die in the Spanish Civil War.
Much of Browne’s art is related to her activism. Her drawings and sketchings are held at the Tate Museum, and she’s often considered an “unofficial war artist.” She studied metalwork and won a prize for her design of the Tolpuddle medal.
Joan Mitchell (1925-1992)
Joan Mitchell was an American painter most commonly associated with the abstract expressionist movement. She was a member of the New York School of artists in the 1950s but spent most of her career in France.
Mitchell’s most significant influences were post-impressionist artists and her own feelings. She embodies the idea that abstraction is raw and primal. Her goal was to convey intense emotions with her work and, as she put it, “convey the feeling of the dying sunflower.” Her final act was to create the Joan Mitchell Foundation, a non-profit organization that awards grants to artists.
Yoko Ono (1933- )
Although Yoko Ono’s artistic career is often overshadowed by her relationship with John Lennon, she’s an accomplished artist in her own right and deserves recognition. She met Lennon at the Indica Gallery in London, where she had a gallery showing of her conceptual work Unfinished Paintings.
Once she became involved with Lennon, her work shifted from the video arts to the musical arts. She worked with Lennon on numerous albums and continued to work in music after his death. Ono has an impressive record as a humanitarian, continuing Lennon’s work towards peace and contributing to disaster relief programs. She received the Dr. Rainer Hildebrandt Human Rights Award in 2012 for her efforts.
Gilda Snowden (1954-2014)
Gilda Snowden was an abstract artist who used her own experiences of racism and sexism as inspiration. She was a professor of fine arts at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, serving as both a chair for the fine arts department as a curator and juror for numerous art exhibits.
The city of Detroit and her lived experience as a black woman served as motivation for much of her work. Her Flora Urbana series was inspired by small city gardens that replaced decrepit buildings, and her Self-Portrait series contained over 100 portraits of the back of her head and shoulders.
Tracy Emin (1963- )
Tracy Emin was a member of the Young British Artists, a group that worked together to showcase their work in the late 1980s. Emin is known for her confessional work, which often includes displays of female sexuality that had never been celebrated or even portrayed.
Most of Emin’s work is sculpture and conceptual. She was nominated for a Turner Prize in 1999 for her exhibition My Bed, an installation that showcased her real bed as used during a period of emotional distress. She does not shy away from showcasing her own humanity and sexuality, as the bed includes used condoms and blood-stained underwear.
Emin was one of the first female professors to teach at the Royal Academy and currently works there as a professor of drawing.
Jenny Saville (1970- )
Another member of the Young British Artists, Jenny Saville, is known for her large and unabashed paintings of nude women. Her focus is on female representation, showcasing human flaws in often unflattering ways to challenge the way women are usually represented as perfect visual objects.
Saville’s 1992 painting Propped sold at Sotheby’s for 9.5 million, making it the highest-grossing work by a living female artist ever to be sold at auction. Saville is still an active artist, currently working in large-scale charcoal drawings.
Contemporary Female Artists
Amy Sherald is an American portraitist who depicts African Americans in everyday settings. Her work focuses on In 2016, Sherald won the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait competition, becoming the first woman and the first African American to win the award.
Sherald had the honor of creating the official portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama, becoming one of the first African Americans (along with Kehinde Wiley, commissioned for the portrait of President Barrack Obama) to receive portrait commissions from the National Portrait Gallery.
Zoey Frank is an oil painter who specializes in figurative and still-life paintings. She studied at the Gage Academy of Art in Seattle and went on to earn a Masters of Fine Art in painting from Laguna College of the Arts and Design in Laguna Beach.
Thus far in her career, she’s received numerous awards, accolades, and prestigious features. She won a grand prize in the Artist Magazine’s All Media Competition in 2012, Art Renewal Center’s The International Arts and Culture Groups (TIAC) award in 2019, and numerous Elizabeth Greenshields grants. She currently works out of her studio and occasionally teaches online courses.
Karen Offutt is often compared to the 19th-century master John Singer-Sargent. She specializes in figurative painting in oil and uses almost abstract brushstrokes to convey the realism of the human she’s observing.
Offutt received the Outstanding Composition and Technique Award of Excellence from the Oil Painters of America in 2016, and in 2017 she was awarded finalist in the Portrait Society of America’s Members Only “Outside the Box” category. She currently teaches a class on the essentials of figure painting at the Atelier Dojo in Austin, Texas.
A Seattle-based painter, Juliette Aristides, specializes in still life and figurative works in oil, though she also has a robust portfolio of drawings. Her goal is to “understand and convey the human spirit through art.”
Juliette Aristides is the founder of the Classical Atelier at the Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, where the previously mentioned Zoey Frank studied. She received the Wilder Prize for drawing and the Albert Hallgarten Traveling Scholarship, in addition to the Elizabeth Greenshields grant.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of contemporary female artists creating excellent work, and they all should be celebrated. Unfortunately, there is not enough room in a single blog post to celebrate all of them. The four amazing artists showcased here are just a tiny sampling of the fantastic female artists currently working in the field.
Many More Throughout History as Well
The same is true for female artists throughout history. Although men are often remembered and celebrated more, thousands of women painted unique masterpieces and should be recognized with just as much vigor as their male counterparts. History is catching up and learning to recognize these incredible women for what they were: immensely talented and highly dedicated to their craft and courageous enough to go against the social conventions of their time to pursue careers in art. In my opinion, women who succeeded at art throughout the centuries are far more impressive than their male counterparts.
Though no list can ever be truly complete, Wikipedia did a great job of compiling different lists of more modern female artists. The list is an excellent resource for those who want to expand upon their knowledge of important female artists of the 20th and 21st centuries and will get you started down a rabbit hole to discover more.
Celebrate Female Artists Beyond Women’s History Month
The next time you find yourself in a conversation about essential artists, don’t forget the women on this list and the many others we didn’t have room for. Offutt deserves recognition in the same breath as Sargent. Emin needs to be discussed when Hirst is mentioned. Cole and Peale should be remembered with just as much zeal as their male counterparts. On and on throughout our past, we find amazing female artists that need to be recognized along with their male counterparts.
Let’s commit to giving them the recognition they deserve.