Out of the shadows: Historical female artists finally shine

Why We Wrote This

A cursory look through art history may suggest that women have not played a significant role. New research shows otherwise, but doing justice to forgotten female artists requires more than identifying them.

Andrew Medichini/AP/File
Visitors admire paintings by Italian 17th century artist Artemisia Gentileschi, on display at Rome's Braschi Palace museum in November 2016. Some of history's greatest female artists are finally getting their due, after being eclipsed by male peers.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 4 Min. )

Go to a solo exhibition at the biggest art museums today and the artist on display is most likely to be a man; only about one-fifth of such shows at New York’s MoMA, Paris’s Centre Pompidou, and the Tate Modern in London featured women artists in recent years. Go back further in time and it becomes harder and harder to find female artists or their work. But that isn’t because they don't exist. They’ve just been forgotten.

Efforts like the nonprofits Advancing Women Artists and AWARE: Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions are putting female artists back into the spotlight. AWA has restored more than 60 paintings by around 20 different women painters from the Renaissance up to the 20th century. AWARE, meanwhile, has created an index of 20th-century female artists and their work so that information about them can be quickly accessed and put into a greater historical context.

AWARE co-founder Camille Morineau says she sees signs of progress in the growing interest of art collectors, museum directors, and the broader public in female artists, particularly the newer generation which is much more conscious of questions of gender.

For centuries they were consigned to historical oblivion, their paintings and drawings squirreled away in dusty repositories.

But now, long-forgotten women masters are being drawn out of the shadows by a dedicated band of art experts and enthusiasts. In Italy, France, and Britain, female artists are taking center stage as part of a broader push to rectify the gender imbalance in art history.

“We’re reclaiming history centimeter by centimeter,” says Rossella Lari as she applies paint from a minute brush onto damaged parts of a 22-foot-wide canvas. The restorer has spent the last couple of years in a low-key studio near the medieval walls of Florence bringing back to life “The Last Supper,” a painting by a 16th-century Dominican nun named Plautilla Nelli.

The restoration of this masterpiece – the only known Renaissance rendition of the famous New Testament scene by a female artist – marks the most ambitious project to date undertaken by the nonprofit Advancing Women Artists (AWA). It will be placed on permanent display at the Santa Maria Novella Museum in Florence this fall.

“I’ve walked many kilometers back and forth in front of this painting,” says Ms. Lari. “If I step back and look at it, it gives me a headache, it’s such a big challenge. But I’m happy to be in Nelli’s presence every day.”

AWA was established in 2009 by an American philanthropist, Jane Fortune, nicknamed “Indiana Jane” by one arts magazine for her intrepid unearthing of lost treasures. She died last year, but her mantle has been taken up by her longtime collaborator, Linda Falcone.

Ms. Falcone says the women artists of the Renaissance represent “a hidden page in history.” Female artists of the Renaissance faced great challenges; they had no legal standing of their own, they could not join guilds, and they could not train as artists.

AWA has restored more than 60 paintings by around 20 different women painters from that period up to the 20th century. Among them are Violante Siries Cerroti, who painted for the Medicis, and Artemisia Gentileschi, who was the first female member of Florence’s Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, Europe’s earliest drawing academy. Despite the considerable success enjoyed during their lives, these women artists were largely forgotten in later centuries, eclipsed by the male artistic geniuses of Italy’s Renaissance era.

It is not just the female masters of Renaissance Florence who have been overlooked. London’s National Portrait Gallery is presenting this year the first major exhibition to focus on the undercredited women of the Pre-Raphaelites circle, a radical artistic movement that was born in 1848 England amid mass industrialization. The exhibit devotes particular attention to key muses, models, and artists, including Evelyn de Morgan, Effie Grey (Lady Millais), and Joanna Wells.

For too long the Pre-Raphaelite movement has been seen as a movement of “fired up, sexy young men,” says curator Jan Marsh. “In fact, the whole movement was sympathetic and welcoming to women.” Elizabeth Siddal, the model of John Everett Milliais’s famous “Ophelia,” will be presented for the first time as an artist in her own right in the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters exhibit.

“One of the problems with women artists is that they are very modest in their aspirations,” says Dr. Marsh. “They always get obscured.”

Meanwhile, the Tate Britain will be highlighting women’s contribution to key moments in the history of British art since 1960 in its free display Sixty Years. Assistant curator Sofia Karamani stresses the importance of showing that “art history can be told by women artists only, despite the longstanding weighing on male artists.”

In the context of British art, she points to women artists who have finally come to prominence in their senior years, among them Rose Wylie and Phyllida Barlow. The display also showcases the work of younger generation artists like Charlotte Prodger, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, and Lindsay Seers who use a range of media and technologies to tackle contemporary issues like identity, homosexuality, and mental health.

Restoring knowledge of women artists

The urge to determine how many women artists are lurking in the shadows of art history – and ensure female artists are not overlooked today – drove Paris-based Camille Morineau to create AWARE: Archives of Women Artists, Research and Exhibitions in 2014.

The idea took shape several years earlier when she did the hanging for “elles@centrepompidou,” an exhibition dedicated solely to 20th- and 21st-century female artists in the collection of France’s national modern art museum, Centre Pompidou. “We literally pushed away men artists from the permanent collection,” she recalls. It brought to light 350 works of 150 female artists, filling more than 86,000 square feet.

Ms. Morineau realized then how little information there was on women artists, even on those who have been recognized as driving forces in the avant-garde.

“It was twice more work to write about these artists, to organize the narrative, to create the theories or intellectual context,” she says. “That experience showed me that the lack of information was crucial to explain the absence of female artists from museums, galleries, art collections. Because even if you're interested, there's no way you can find a woman artist on a specific subject or even if you want to show a period or a technique.”

AWARE notes it took 50 years for the spotlight to shift from the works of Robert Delaunay to his Ukrainian-born wife, Sonia, an equally important creative force behind France’s Orphism art movement, a colorful offshoot of cubism. Ms. Delaunay made history as the first living female artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre in 1964. French-American Louise Bourgeoise was 96 by the time the Centre Pompidou put together a retrospective of her work. She helped galvanize the feminist art movement of the 1970s.

The 21st century paints a brighter picture of progress, but the gender gap remains. Between 2007 and 2017, less than a fifth of solo exhibitions were devoted to women artists at New York’s MoMA. The numbers are hardly better across the Atlantic: less than 20 percent at Centre Pompidou and a bit more at Tate Modern in London, according to 2015 statistics published in ARTnews.

Morineau sees signs of progress in the growing interest of art collectors, museum directors, and the broader public in female artists, particularly the newer generation which is much more conscious of questions of gender. She is just finished showcasing the work of transvestite artist Grayson Perry at The Monnaie de Paris, where she is the director of exhibitions.

Asked who her favorite female artist is, Morineau finds it impossible to settle on just one.

“That’s the problem – or the beauty of it, or the scandal,” she says. “It is not like a few hundred.... It’s a few thousand that have been completely missed.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.