Forgotten Women in Art History

Yes there were women prodigies and woman geniuses; the problem is they were seldom recorded in the history of man. Even prehistoric man had their women geniuses. Who do you think developed the use of fire? The making of Paleolithic art and early children art are gender neutral. Early Greeks and Romans recognized and recorded the ability of women, but mostly in poetry and on occasions in philosophy, medicine and history. They did name and recognize a few goddesses.

A small article in an issue of the NY times, which you may have missed, triggered this blog. Fatima Faizi and David Zucchino reported an article in May, on the Afghan assembly meeting dealing with peace. 30% women represented the assembly. When a female delegate offered a comment on peace, a male delegate told her to shut up. Then said “Peace has nothing to do with you, sit down! You should be in the kitchen cooking.” Faizi and David Zucchino in the NY Times International pg. A6Im, 4 May 2019. I suspect it may be part of a recurring problem in that area and others closer to home. Misogyny is an ingrained prejudice against women. Most men are not misogynists. Some men are. Some women are.

It is a primal emotion to want to express ones inner self. It is also gender neutral. Also for every expression of a thought or idea there is an anti-expression. This is one of the reasons we have debates and must have compromise. This blog is purposely biased towards the female. Some one will offer an argument in opposition, hopefully not via Twitter.

A. Gotthardt writing in Artsy ( states that “the first edition of H.W. Janson’s History of Art—the 572-page textbook long referenced in many art history survey courses—includes no women artists. No Mary Cassatt, no Frida Kahlo. Zilch. It was published in 1962, and women artists wouldn’t appear on the pages of later editions until 1987.”

Gotthardt further states that when writer Bridget Quinn got her hands on the tome, during her undergrad art history studies, she counted only 16 female artists. She was angry. “In more than 800 pages, this was all ‘official’ art history could offer,” she writes in her new book, Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order). Quinn’s first experience with Janson’s male-dominated instructional, inspired a career devoted to uncovering female artists who’d largely been left out of the canon. Quinn brings together 15 of these artists in Broad Strokes, published recently. Their lives and output span centuries and mediums—from Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi to Japanese-American post-war sculptor Ruth Asawa.

Gotthardt goes on to say, “what ties them together is their boundary-pushing skill and defiant commitment to their work, despite the unrelenting sexism they encountered in the art world. While today, many scholars now study these artists and alternatives to Janson’s book have been published, Broad Strokes reminds us that there is still work to be done. Louise Bourgeois may be a household name amongst today’s art aficionados, for instance, but she remains nowhere to be found in the most recent 8th edition of Janson’s History of Art. Alexxa Gotthardt These Women Were Missing from Your Art History Books

Rebecca Fulleylove comments that Art history can be limiting, in that, while it provides insight into the works, and the artists, it presents a skewed impression of the art world. Why? Because those who were keeping these records forgot certain groups or individual people due to gender, ethnicity, or social standing. While we can’t undo the past, we can work towards building a richer picture of art history, celebrate the work of artists who were neglected or marginalized during their careers, and be thankful their work was not lost or destroyed. Rebecca Fulleylove. The Women Painters Overlooked By Art History: Discover 14 artists finally getting the recognition they deserve. Fulleylove goes on to list 14 women painters who were working in the 19th and 20th centuries who were forgotten in art history up until recently.

Two of these artists are detailed here: Suzanne Valadon and Mira Schendel, citing the reference above.

Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938) was a model for many artists including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Although remembered as a model for artists, she was also an accomplished artist. She had a penchant for figure paintings, which often included nude females. Valadon’s work was controversial at the time because she had no formal art training, so did not adhere to traditional artistic standards and her work was raw and emotional. Despite having had four major exhibitions during her career, her art was dismissed by her male critics.

Figure B-1, ‘The Abandoned Doll’ is an example of her work.

B-1. Suzanne Valadon the_abandoned_doll

Figure B-1. Suzanne Valadon, The Abandoned Doll, 1921; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC          

In The Abandoned Doll, Suzanne Valadon portrays an intimate scene with a strong psychological mood. Seated on a bed, a fully clothed woman towel dry’s a girl. The girl, clad only in a pink hair ribbon, turns away from the woman and appears to inspect herself in a hand mirror. The pink bow echoes that in the hair of the doll, a symbol of childhood forgotten on the floor near the bed. This visual connection, combined with the girl’s maturing body, suggests that this is a moment of transition in her young life.

Though we know the figures portrayed here are Valadon’s niece and the girl’s mother, the artist refrains from identifying this as a portrait. In this way, the painting tells a more universal story of a girl’s journey from childhood to adolescence, which resonates with many viewers.

The Abandoned Doll exemplifies Valadon’s mature style: vivid colors, dark outlines, textile patterns, and simplified forms with awkward poses and distorted anatomy. She had no formal training; rather, she assimilated various artistic and intellectual concerns of the 19th and early 20th centuries from direct contact with artists, such as Edgar Degas, Puvis de Chavannes, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. However, Valadon’s style was highly personal, and her nudes typically are under idealized, active women, challenging the convention of the sexualized, passive female body.

Mira Schendel (1919 – 1988) was a Jewish refugee from Switzerland. Although she had Jewish heritage, she was baptized Catholic. She moved to Italy and became an Italian citizen. Because of racial laws introduced in Fascist Italy in 1938, she was stripped of her Italian citizenship and forced to leave university. She left Italy in 1939 and settled in Brazil. She is now seen as one of Latin America’s most important and prolific post-war artists. Before her retrospective exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2013, Schendel was relatively unknown outside of Latin America. She is now remembered for her drawings on rice paper, sculptures and paintings.

Figure B-2 is an example of Schendels work.

B-2Mira Schendel 93630

Figure B-2.Mira Schendel, Untitled, 1954, Gesso, wood, tempera on wood. 20 1/8 x 26 in.

The Adolpho Leirner Collection of Brazilian Constructive Art, museum purchase funded by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston



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