How far have we come since “There have been no great Women artists?“
Society taught us that before the 20th Century women, and not to mention people identifying as BAME and LGBTQ+, were not important figures in the history of art.
This wasn’t our fault, but the fault of a patriarchal past. A past where women were seen in the Western world as secondary citizens. Being perceived by society as biologically and intellectually inferior, they could not rise to the great heights of artists like Michelangelo. Not that long ago in the 1970s, it was finally accepted that women could pursue a career as an artist and art histories could be written about them. Surely this was enough?
For Linda Nochlin, an American art historian, this was not enough. The inspiration for her revolutionary essay and its title came from a male gallerist asking Nochlin the exact question: ‘Why are there no Great Women Artists?’. Why indeed. When we are asked to name the most famous artists, we immediately think of Leonardo, Michelangelo or Picasso. But back in the 17th century it was Rachel Ruysch, not Rembrandt, who was the most popular artist in the Netherlands. Whilst Rembrandt’s paintings fetched around 500 gilders, Ruysch’s would make between 750 and 2000 gilders. Though they are few and far between in Western Art History, female artists did exist and were successful. 50 years ago, this is what Nochlin wanted to expose.
Whilst Ruysch faded into obscurity over the centuries since, Rembrandt continued to rise to become a household name, alongside the ‘greats’ of Raphael and Titian. In the realm of art history such artists are referred to as ‘Old Masters’. Immediately and irrevocably this term excluded women. In her essay, Nochlin dismantled the idea as the artist as ‘genius’, an idea formed in the Renaissance and continually perpetuated by one white male art historian after another. She was not questioning the talent of Michelangelo or Rembrandt, instead how art history raises them up on an undisputed pedestal, which diminishes female artists in its path. What we were left with in the 20th Century, when women were given the opportunities to be educated and become art historians, was an uncomplete art history littered with gaps.
In 1971 Art History was forced to take a look at itself with the publication of the essay in ARTnews. Nochlin was not afraid to lay the blame for the lack of ‘great’ women artists squarely on the art world. She states, “The fault, dear brothers, lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education”. Considered by many as the beginnings of feminist art history, it has been quoted and referenced by numerous art historians and artists since.
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By Cherry Irvine: Arts COLUMNIST
The feminist art group known as Guerrilla Girls formed as a result of its publication. Their art persists in challenging institutions and their display of women artists.
In the 50 years since, institutions slowly, but surely, have come round to this way of thinking. In the past 5 years especially, women artists are finally getting the blockbuster exhibitions they deserve. Last year the Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c. 1656) was the star exhibition at London’s National Gallery. Her dramatic and emotive paintings have a rawness and painterly skill only comparable to her contemporary Caravaggio. The exhibition has resulted in Gentileschi’s name being not only recognised but placed as equal to her male counterpart.
But the general public still has some catching up to do. Many people still struggle to name female artists. In 2016 the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, launched a twitter campaign asking if we could name #5WomenArtists. Since then, various institutions have promoted the hashtag during Women’s History Month in March to not patronise but challenge people. The art market has even further to go. In 2019 Art News reported that in the previous 10 years, sales of female artists’ works accounted for 2% of the market. This was less than the total sales of Picasso alone.
Half a century is a long time, but time moves slowly in the art world. Recognition of women artists has improved in leaps and bounds through the emergence of a feminist art history, but there is still a long way to go. Generations of art historians, artists and thinkers, can and will be still be inspired by this article for years to come. Ask yourself, can I name five women artists? If not perhaps think about reading it for yourself.
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