Great Women Painters
“a rich resource . . . a brilliant and much-needed book.”
The title of this book boldly states its mission. By including the descriptor “Women” but crossing it out, the claim is clearly made: these artists are great period. Not great only “among women,” but among all painters. The introduction by Alison M. Gingeras lays out why this is even a question, how the very notion of artistic greatness has been defined in masculine terms.
Gingeras starts with the 15th century work by Christine de Pizan, “The Book of the City of Ladies.” Pizan was a brilliant philosopher (period) who proposed that an allegorical City of Women was needed in order for people to value and appreciate what women offered, their specific experiences. No historian or writer took her up on the task until the art historian Linda Nochlin looked at this issue in terms of art.
Nochlin famously asked “Why Have There Been No Great Women Painters.” She answered the question the same way this book does, by showing us a range of brilliant, talented women painters. Because the answer is that there have always been women artists. Even ancient writers such as Pliny and Plutarch mention them, though their work sadly hasn’t survived.
Women have always been creative. It’s just that their work, their talent hasn’t been valued. And making art has been harder for women throughout the millennia, as women historically haven’t had the freedom to study painting. This book showcases women from the past 500 years, with the oldest painter being a Florentine nun of the 16th century, Plautilla Nelli. Certainly there were women painting in the preceding centuries, but their work hasn’t been recorded. We may see it in ancient Cretan wall murals, for example, but there is nothing to suggest their inclusion. Women weren’t being commissioned to paint in important public spaces the way men were. Their works weren’t collected, and, as the introduction makes clear, still lags in commercial value compared to their male peers. The male-female pay gap exists here, too.
A common thread throughout the centuries and the different nationalities included here is that many women artists had a father or husband support their work. The main way a woman learned art was having a father teach her. Artemisia Gentileschi, who painted in the 17th century, not only trained with her father, he praised her talent as better than that of his many apprentices. Artemisia’s story is well known, her success eventually eclipsing that of her father as she painted for royal courts, but many others share similar backgrounds.
More than 300 artists are included in this beautifully illustrated book. Each painter is represented by a single image, a choice which must have been difficult to make for many of them. Since each artist has only a paragraph description, the main outlines of a life are sketched but richer details aren’t included. Enough is given, however, to spark interest for further exploration. The book functions as an encyclopedia in this way, not purporting to be definitive, but acting as a rich resource. The decision to organize the book alphabetically encourages leafing through the pages to discover who is included. Rather than being chronological or regional, the order is completely random (by chance of what the first letter of the last name is), so a contemporary artist may appear opposite a Renaissance portraitist.
A broad range of styles, from surrealism to abstract expressionism to impression, all appear. Every major artistic movement of the past 500 years included women, and the Phaidon editors have tracked down known and lesser known artists to convey the widest possible view of female creativity. Women of every background are included, including one fascinating 18th-century painter, Sarah Biffin, who was born without hands or feet. She had more than sexism to overcome in order to paint, but paint she did and beautifully so. The editors have truly built a City of Ladies in this brilliant and much-needed book.