Women In Art History

Throughout history women in the arts have had to contend with notions that genius is a man’s trait. They’ve been subjected to accusations their work was not their own, had to hide any trace of femininity from their work, and only allowed to create “as long as [she] remains from unsexing herself.” (Chadwick, pg. 31) As long as they conformed to their role in society and were noble and feminine, they could play at the arts. Never daring to greatness, because then, they may as well be a man and who wants that? Amiright?

Education for women has historically been to create “better wives and mothers.” (Chadwick, pg 34) Even as recent as the 1970s Home Economics was still standard for school girls. Now, I’m not knocking Home Ec or even the creators, they had their hearts in the right place. It’s just everyone should learn it, not just girls sewing poodles on their skirts. The term MRS degree and the idea that women need to settle down after college further denigrates the education of women as only having education to attract a husband. I’d argue this is past thinking, but even when I graduated the assumption was that I would get married, have kids, and not have time for art.  It is moving in the direction of the dodo, but not fast enough for my liking.

Therefore, any art education, serious art education, had to either be performed in secret, such as anatomy, or under male tutelage, where rape was a possibility. *cough* Artemesia *cough* (no, I’ll never let it go). If the women weren’t of noble birth, it was even harder to study the arts. Heaven forbid you slacked off caring for the household. Men were able to spend all day in the studio honing their skills and ignoring everything else.  “Women were isolated from the theoretical and intellectual debates that dominated the arts because in most cases they were barred from membership of the academies in Rome and Paris, the major centers of art education during the eighteenth century. Excluded from life drawing classes, they were insufficiently trained to work in prestigious genres like history painting.” (Chadwick, pg. 38) Guess what just so happened to have a resurgence in popularity.  If you said history painting, you’re a smart cookie.  Naturally, men will be seen as more skilled or more genius if they are the only ones privy to the game and change the rules when it suits them. Naturally, there will be less women artists. Their restrictions were greater. Yet, they still managed to leave their mark. I’m not saying women are better, I’m just implying it.

Women were entirely left out of the discussion while simultaneously being taught they must be polite and the opposite of men or they were no good. It would rarely occur to them to just show up en mass. Not ask permission. Start their own schools. They probably would have been arrested for indecency of some sort, though, but at some point, one must “Fuck Politeness” if one wants to “get shit done.”

Yet, we are still politely asking permission to be included. As if men are the gate keepers of art. The Guerrilla Girls put up posters in 1989 pointing out the exclusion of female artists in museums, but that hasn’t lead to much change almost 30 years later. Sure, the numbers went from 10% to 20% and a lucky one woman a year now gets a solo show at the Guggenheim, Met, and Whitney, but that seems a bit unexciting. We must either demand inclusion by joining forces and petitioning/boycotting museums for more female representation or create museums of our own, not just for female artists, mind you, but for equal representation. Then we must go to these museums and support these museums more than the ones which refuse to acknowledge female artistic genius is a thing. We can start with this one.

No more quietly whispering our suggestions with our hands raised while others shout over us when it is no longer their turn. I recommend starting by sending postcards of paintings by women to your local or favorite museums, asking them to include more women artists. You can either make your own or use the affiliate links below to purchase some and share with friends and women groups you may be part of. And maybe a few men would even like some 😉 Hopefully a bombardment of postcards featuring women’s art will help it sink  in. (You may need to turn off an adblocker to see the links to the cards.) Here’s a non-affiliate link to 30 Contemporary Women Artists Postcardsyou can’t see an image with that one though, so don’t hold me responsible. Or even better, get postcards from your favorite female artists who may not even be well-known and send them in. Show these museums what they are missing. Personally, I am on the look out for post cards by Sylvie Guillot and will most likely contact her for some if she’s interested. 

Chadwick, Whitney. Women, art, and society. 5th ed. NY, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1990. Print.

About Elisha

Elisha Dasenbrock is an award winning, international watercolor artist. She paints with a limited palette on claybord. Dasenbrock graduated from the American Academy of Art in 2009 and has been painting professionally ever since.