Women in art history

The absence of female artists in museums or encyclopedias of classical art may give the impression that the role of women in art has been limited to that of muses and models.

The truth is that women have had a constant active presence as artisans and artists despite the obstacles they encountered to dedicate themselves to art at different times due to their gender.

A few artists even achieved international renown and a good economic and social position during their time, and yet art history condemned them to oblivion for centuries.

Women in art history

Research by anthropologists, archaeologists, and ethnographers suggests that prehistoric women were not subject to men. Their god was for over 20,000 years a fertile goddess without a face but with exaggerated female sexual attributes. Among other tasks, women work together in the production of ceramics, textiles, basketry and jewelry.

Texts and objects have come to our days from Greco-Roman civilizations that demonstrate that women participated together with men in cultural activities such as painting, poetry , music or the production of textiles and ceramics.

The first work signed by an artist

The first work signed by a woman is a 10th century manuscript in collaboration with another male monk. The convents in Europe were places of learning until the eleventh century under the orders of an abbess, but with the arrival of the Gregorian reform and feudalism, most of the convents were led by men and the nuns lost power.

While the nuns painted and copied illuminated manuscripts, the wealthy women of the aristocracy made textile works. Unfortunately, these types of works have hardly been kept in good condition due to their deterioration and wear.

In the 12th century some guilds of artisans began to admit widowed women capable of filling the position of their husbands. In the Middle Ages, the works of the workshops were not usually signed, but if a signature was included as a distinctive sign of the quality of the workshop, it was the teacher who signed, since it was banned from women.

With the humanistic current of the Renaissance , in the XV and XVI centuries, the recognition of women and the social status of individual artists improves. Women artists benefit from both improvements, but they still depend on men and to dedicate themselves to art they must have parents, husbands or patrons to support them.

Most of the artists of this time are the daughters of painters or sculptors and are instructed in family workshops with other students. Within the wealthy classes it becomes more common for young women to be instructed by established artists, although most prefer to get married rather than focus on an artistic career. Some successful artists will become court ladies with an international reputation and maintain contact with other highly influential artists, thinkers, and nobles of their day.

Women and art academies

With the change of status from craftsman to artist, the formal training of essential knowledge for the artist begins in the academies that rarely admit women until the 19th century. These disciplines include drawing of the nude from life to which women will not have access until the 20th century.

The lack of formal knowledge of male anatomy deprives them of the most prestigious commissions, but they paint scenes with more realistic female characters and with their own personality. On the other hand, they specialize in minor subjects of great commercial success during the Baroque, such as still lifes and portraits.

Thanks to the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, the education of boys was separated according to their gender and a greater number of women would access teaching positions for girls from wealthy families. At the end of this century, the first non-academic rooms were opened. Although women can participate, they are not considered to be capable of performing the most valued works with historical or mythological themes due to their ignorance of the male anatomy.

Artists and feminism

In the 19th century, women gained social and economic rights and the number of female artists grew, although this meant going against the current of the predominant female model and best seen by Victorian society. Several illustrators and photographers, a new medium without sexist restrictions or formal education, are financially independent and recognized for their professional achievements.

In this period the first societies of women artists arose from which they will fight against discrimination from official bodies such as academies. They will also create their own workshops and schools.

The artistic avant-gardes finish breaking with the norms of academicism and the new art formulas are exhibited in independent salons parallel to the official ones, attracting women artists.

In the late 1960s, artists and historians within the feminist movement vindicated the importance of the role of women, explored their quiet presence in art history and rediscovered characters like Artemisia Gentileschi and Frida Kahlo who became icons of feminism.


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