Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Why have there been no Great Women Artists?

Here is a subject that has always rather fascinated me. I was recently reminded of the gulf between men and women in the art world when writing my ‘Numbers’ book, and researching a number list that placed famous artists according to their top auction room prices. Jackson Pollock held the record with 140 million dollars, whilst the highest price paid for a female artist was 11 million dollars, for Les Fleurs by Natalia Goncharova. That’s one hell of a gap.

Obviously I couldn’t possibly hope to pull apart all the strands of feminist art history here on my blog, and nor would I attempt to – but it is an intriguing question to muse on for a paragraph or two...

‘Why Have There been no Great Women Artists?’ was the title of a 1971 article by Linda Nochlin which introduced this debate. She suggests that a lack of access to art education, combined with a male dominated critical establishment, has made it difficult for women to forge artistic careers. It’s undeniable, of course, that female artists have at certain times gained recognition over the past few centuries– here are a couple of oft cited examples...

Vasari, the famous contemporary biographer of great Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo, in fact mentions four female artists (Properzia de’Rossi, Sister Plautilla Nelli, Sofonisba Anguissola and Madonna Lucrezia) in his 1568 book ‘Lives’. Of these, Anguissola is probably the most celebrated. It has been pointed out that she could not possibly have competed directly with her male peers, since it was forbidden for female artists to study anatomy from the nude model. This fact alone makes the fame she achieved in her lifetime all the more impressive - and explains why she undertook no ambitious religious paintings, finding herself instead stuck in portraiture.

I came across one of her portraits recently in ‘A Face to the World’ by Laura Cumming – it’s great, and unusually witty for the Renaissance. This lady must have had a sense of humour, surely. She portrays her master Bernardino Campi painting her portrait. This man who taught her everything she knew is drably attired and squeezed out to the shadows on the left of the frame – while Anguissola herself, richly attired, outsizes and outclasses her mentor. The portrait within a portrait compares their literal and metaphorical stature, leaving Campi dwarfed and sidelined.

Post Renaissance, another milestone was reached by Artemisia Gentileschi, the Baroque painter who became the first woman accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. She was the first female of the seventeenth century to gain success with the religious art that had been beyond the reach of even Anguissola. The violence in her ‘Judith and Holofernes’ garnered disbelief from critics that a woman had painted it. However, Gentileschi had had firsthand experience of violence herself. Her private tutor Agostino Tassi raped her and, during his subsequent trial, her testimony was examined under torture.

In eighteenth century England, female artists were also present – if sidelined – at the founding of the Royal Academy. Johann Zoffany’s famous group portrait of the first academicians appears at first glance to contain no women – but look at the right hand wall. The two cameos depict academicians Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser, whose status is theoretically equal to their male colleagues – but whose physical presence cannot be permitted in a portrait that features an unclothed model.

Kauffmann in particular was an incredibly celebrated painter in her day – she helped decorate the new St. Pauls in London, and was honoured with a lavish funeral in Rome. In ensuing centuries, however, her critical reputation has faltered completely. (It would be over a hundred years before another woman would be elected to the RA.)

The male domination of critical reputations has been a major obstacle to the existence of ‘great’ female artists. A popular case in point concerns the 19th century painter Constance Marie Charpentier. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired an unsigned portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes. Initially attributed to Jacques Louis David, it was declared a masterpiece, one of the finest examples of his work. In 1951, however, when it was discovered to have been painted by his pupil Madame Charpentier its value plummeted and many critics conveniently changed their mind about its quality.

Later that same century, Berthe Morisot was the sole female exhibitor in the first Impressionist exhibition For decades she was dismissed as a mere follower of her friend Manet. Only recently has critical opinion put forward the suggestion that her influence on Impressionism was considerable – and that she encouraged Manet in the outdoor paintings that would become the signature of the Impressionist approach.

Less than a generation later, Suzanne Valadon became the first female artist accepted to the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts. Her work, too, is largely unrecognized but I can’t see why. I think she knocks the spots off Renoir.

The debates about why there have been no great female artists have inflamed controversy. There are some who suggest that painting, as a reflection of individual personality, will inevitably reflect differences in the sexes – such that it can be seen as a pointless exercise to compare the art of women and men. Women, so this somewhat chauvinistic argument goes, will always excel at fine genre scenes, flower paintings, pastel portraits etc. An example can perhaps be seen in the work of Mary Cassat, whose pictures (e.g.‘The Bath’) depict scenes of motherhood and domesticity that are very different to the more public scenes depicted by the male Impressionists.

Yet for me this argument lacks clout – for it describes an unanswerable, chicken and egg scenario. Did Cassatt paint motherhood because she wanted to, or because she would not have been permitted access to the brothels and bars that made more eyecatching subject matter for the likes of Degas and Lautrec?

And why, if women excel at pastel shades and floral art, have some male painters like Fantin-Latour, Van Gogh and Monet, gained greater recognition for their flower paintings? It doesn’t hold water as an argument.

Linda Nochlin has herself been criticized for the title of her 1971 essay. By asking “Why Have there been no Great Women Artists”, she implies that it’s a given. She discusses the reasons, but still cannot permit herself to believe that a woman has ever achieved great things in art.

This argument is taken up by Griselda Pollock and Roszika Parker in their book‘Old Mistresses’. It’s years since I read it, but I do recall they disagreed with the implication of Nochlin’s question. Some of the greatest and most influential visual art has been made by females, they argue – but it has mostly been produced anonymously. The male critical establishment, by drawing a line between ‘high art’ (gallery art made by the named artist/author/genius) and craft (objects made anonymously, often for practical or ornamental usage) has effectively shut out an army of creative women from the very debate about greatness. In the twentieth century, as our interpretations of what can be considered art broaden, though, so we can more fairly consider that the gorgeous and breathtaking collections of textiles and intricate lace which fill half of the V&A, for example, do deserve to be called ‘great art.’

This was emphasized to me recently when I was watching (of all things) David Dimbleby’s TV show on the Seven Ages of Britain. Chatting to camera about the Bayeux Tapestry, he commented in blasé fashion that it had once been assumed to have been the work of French monks – but that now it was widely believed to have been designed and executed by English Nuns. Did I hear that correctly? Yes I did – scholars agree that this exceptional artwork of the period was indeed most likely the work of women.

And what of the contemporary art scene? You might assume that the gulf between male and female artists has closed in the modern age – but this would be jumping the gun rather. My ‘Numbers’ book research told me that the highest price paid for a living artist (Lucien Freud) was 33.6 million dollars – whereas the highest price for a living female artist (Marlene Dumas) came in more than five times less at 6.4 million. Still one hell of a gap.

Tracey Emin examined this issue in a 2006 Channel 4 documentary, ‘What Price Art?’ Emin herself had been outraged to learn that, on a recent list of the thirty most influential figures in contemporary art, only one was a woman. She interviewed a senior figure at Sothebys who suggested that, in an art market dominated and driven by collectors, white men from the City set the agenda. They preferred, he said, buying ‘macho’ art (or rather, work by other men) that offered them self-validation. Now, I don’t really like the implication of this suggestion, but it strikes me as probably quite true – an art market, and attendant critical infrastructure top heavy with wealthy men chasing the best investments.

The disturbing thing is that art critics like Brian Sewell continue to infer that the reasons for differing saleroom results must be biological. Quoting the lovely man himself in 2005, “Women are no good at squeezing cars through spaces. If you have someone who is unable to relate space to volume, they won't make a good artist.” With critics like him setting the agenda in books and newspaper columns, what do any of us expect?


  1. I completely agree with the "Art" v "Craft" argument. If a woman artist makes a piece of work based around a so-called craft practice it's not taken seriously, however, if a man should produce, for example, a piece of textile work, suddenly it becomes art.

  2. me too! is it wrong to think that Beatrix potter was amazing though? She was so inspiring to me when I was young!

  3. oh and Gwen Hardie (painter in new york) is awesome aswell

  4. I'd not heard of Gwen Hardie... Thanks Helena! I don't think it's wrong to think Beatrix Potter is amazing either... I grew up looking at her pictures!