Historically, women artists have not been attributed the recognition and standing of their male counterparts. Despite the fact that art in its broadest variety of forms has been visibly produced, influenced and shaped by both women and men from as early as Palaeolithic cave paintings, male artists take centre stage in art history, and both classic and contemporary female artists have had to forge new pathways to bring their work into prominence.
During the renaissance period, a number of female artists began to be recognised, but not without resistance. Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614), is sometimes regarded as the first female career artist, with her family relying on her commissions for income, and her husband both serving as her agent, and raising her eleven children. Controversially, her works were among the first by a woman painter to include nude female figures.
During the 19th century, women artists began to specialise in portraiture, and during the later period, impressionism. Women such as American artist Lilla Cabot Perry, who was inspired by mentor Claude Monet, brought new exposure to the French impressionist style as it developed, and in 1894, French painter and artist’s model Suzanne Valadon, became the first woman painter admitted to the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
In the early twentieth century, women came to be extremely prominent in the Newlyn Art School, a colony of artists based in the Newlyn and St. Ives area’s of Cornwall. These artists were drawn by the fantastic light of the peninsula, and the subjects of fisherman, harbourside, village and seascapes of Cornwall. English artist Dorothea Sharp, who was vice president of the Society of Women Artists during the early part of the century, was celebrated for her spontaneous impressionistic style; her stunning painting “rocky coastline” was sold at Anthemion Auctions in Cardiff for £3,600. Of the later period, artist Joan Gilchrist, whose work “Sancreed” recently sold for £450, garnered a tremendous following for her naïve depictions of seascapes and rural scenes; being sometimes regarded as the Cornish L.S. Lowry.
Over the course of the 20th century, women began to infiltrate and shape many expanding fields including abstract art, realism, surrealism and modernism. Female photographers also rose to greater prominence, dealing with subjects from race and culture, fashion and rock and roll to feminism. American photographer Margaret Bourke-white created the industrial photographs that were featured on the cover of the first Life magazine, and by the 1970s, feminist artist Judy Chicago, whose work encompassed skills from needlework to welding and pyrotechnics, had founded the first feminist art movement in the United States. Her iconic piece, The Dinner Party, is permanently installed in the Elizbeth A. Sackler Center for feminist art at the Brooklyn Museum.
Among contemporary female artists, diverse genres, including women’s environmental art, continue to challenge both the production of art, and the way we engage with it. In 1992, sculptor Rachel Whitehead became the first woman to win the Turner Prize; her works include House, a concrete cast of the entire inside of a Victorian house, and the Judenplatz Holocaust memorial in Vienna, resembling the shelves of a library with the pages turned outwards.
Groundbreaking contemporary artist Bridget Riley is one of the pioneers of Op Art, a style using geometric patterns that produce a disorienting affect on the eye, and investigate our interactions with light and movement. Her compelling abstract works explore the nature of perception, and she is renowned as one of the most distinguished artists working today. Her painting “shade” was sold in a Fine Art sale at Anthemion Auctions for £2,300.