Trailblazing #5WomenArtists

Meet five artists from NMWA's collection who pushed boundaries in their fields and changed the art world forever

Portrait of Madame Merian (from "The Naturalist's Library," volume 30) (detail) (1835)National Museum of Women in the Arts

1. Maria Sibylla Merian

Merian (1647-1717) revolutionized botany and zoology through her scientific writing and images of indigenous animals and plants. At age 52, she embarked on a dangerous trip to Surinam, a Dutch colony in South America (modern-day country of Suriname), without a male companion.

Plate 70 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam (1719/1719) by Maria Sibylla MerianNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Explorer

Even though her Dutch homeland was more liberal than other European countries, women in Merian’s society were restricted to sheltered traveling experiences. Merian refused to bend to the social mores that controlled female exploration so strictly by traveling outside of Europe.

Plate 18 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam (1719) by Maria Sibylla MerianNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Innovator

Through studying insects, Merian paved the way for centuries of artist-scientists. She had grown bored with the dry and lifeless specimens of exotic insects that were available for study in the Dutch provinces. She wanted to see, document, and draw the creatures from life.

Plate 1 from Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam (1719/1719) by Maria Sibylla MerianNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Artwork Spotlight

The lavishly illustrated Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam established her international reputation. This engraving, Plate 1 (1719), is one of 72 that were based on the meticulous sketches and field notes Merian made during her time in Surinam.

"Art and nature shall always be wrestling until they eventually conquer one another so that the victory is the same stroke and line, that which is conquered, conquers at the same time."

Maria Sibylla Merian

Portrait of Rosa Bonheur (after Consuélo Fould and Rosa Bonheur) (1895) by Joseph B. PrattNational Museum of Women in the Arts

2. Rosa Bonheur

Bonheur (1822-1899), a 19th-century French artist who achieved a successful career, served as a role model for future generations of women artists. Her reputation grew steadily, and she won international acclaim for her animal paintings and sculptures.

[Rosa Bonheur] (1861–1864) by André Adolphe-Eugène DisdériThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Nonconformist

Bonheur forged her own path and built a life for herself that did not fit within the boundaries of societal norms. She studied her subjects carefully and produced many preparatory sketches before she applied paint to canvas.

Sheep by the Sea (1865/1865) by Rosa BonheurNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Artwork Spotlight

Rosa Bonheur created Sheep by the Sea (1865) following a trip through the Scottish Highlands in the summer of 1855. This painting demonstrates the artist’s commitment to direct observation from nature.

Bonheur, known for her unconventional ambitions and conduct, received special dispensation from the police to wear trousers to visit butcher shops and slaughterhouses. It was in these gritty locales that she closely studied animal anatomy to prepare for her paintings.

"My whole life has been devoted to improving my work and keeping alive the Creator’s spark in my soul. Each of us has a spark, and we’ve all got to account for what we do with it." 

Rosa Bonheur

[Sarah Bernhardt as the Empress Theodora in Sardou's "Theodora"] (1884) by W. & D. DowneyThe J. Paul Getty Museum

3. Sarah Bernhardt

Many know Bernhardt (1844-1923) as one of the most popular French stage actresses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But did you know she was also an accomplished painter and sculptor?

After the Storm (ca. 1876) by Sarah BernhardtNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Artwork Spotlight

Après la tempête (After the Storm) (ca. 1876) depicts a Breton peasant woman cradling the body of her grandson who had been caught in a fisherman’s nets. Bernhardt had seen this woman on the seashore and was moved by her story, which ended tragically with the death of the child.

The sculpture reveals Bernhardt’s mastery of the medium, particularly in her rendering of soft textures like fabric, netting, and hair in the hard marble. The work also hints at her knowledge of art history.

LIFE Photo Collection

Renaissance Woman

A talented sculptor, she experimented with many materials and tried her hand at painting and writing. Though she received awards at the Paris Salon, the press and other male sculptors (who accused her of pursuing an activity inappropriate for a woman of her time) criticized her.

"My life has been a struggle: a struggle to have my own way where I felt I was in the right."

Sarah Bernhardt

Lois Mailou JonesNational Museum of Women in the Arts

4. Loïs Mailou Jones

While known best for her painting, Jones (1905-1998) began her career as a textile artist, designing drapery and upholstery fabrics for firms in Boston and New York. She incorporated both traditional floral and Caribbean- and African-inspired imagery in her designs.

Grand Bois d’Illet (1985) by Loïs Mailou JonesNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Educator

A professor of art and design at the Howard University College of Fine Arts from 1930 to 1977, she trained several generations of Black artists, including David Driskell, Elizabeth Catlett, and Sylvia Snowden.

Ode to Kinshasa (1972) by Loïs Mailou JonesNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Cultural Ambassador

Jones’s ability to paint in a wide range of styles reflects her extensive training and the impact of her travels. In the early 1970s, she was a researcher and U.S. cultural ambassador in Africa. She gave lectures, interviewed local artists, and visited museums in 11 countries. 

Ode to Kinshasa (1972) by Loïs Mailou JonesNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Artwork Spotlight

Ode to Kinshasa (1972) is named for the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa. During her trips to Africa, Jones sketched objects she saw at museums. After returning to the U.S., she developed semi-abstract compositions inspired by these historical objects.

Arreau, Hautes-Pyrénées (1949) by Loïs Mailou JonesNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Artwork Spotlight

Jones traveled regularly to France, a place of escape from the racial discrimination that she faced in the U.S. She rendered Arreau, Hautes-Pyrénées (1949) on one of her summer sojourns, receiving an award for this work from Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C.

Jones's career spanned 70 years from the late Harlem Renaissance to her contemporary synthesis of African, Caribbean, American, and African American iconography. Despite formidable racial and gender prejudices, she achieved success as a designer, painter, and educator.

"You have to find something in life that you love doing....You have to feel you have contributed to life and grow with it." 

Loïs Mailou Jones

Benvenuti alla biennale femminista! (from the series "Guerrilla Girls Talk Back: Portfolio 2") (2005) by Guerrilla GirlsNational Museum of Women in the Arts

5. Guerrilla Girls

Since 1985, the Guerrilla Girls, a collective of anonymous feminist activist artists, have brought widespread attention to the issues of sexism and racism in the art world. By disrupting mainstream media, this group calls out bias in art, film, pop culture, and politics.

Horror on the National Mall! (2007) by Guerrilla GirlsNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Advocates

The collective is known for using “guerrilla” tactics to expose gender and racial imbalances within contemporary cultural institutions. To maintain their anonymity, group members wear gorilla masks in public and adopt the names of historic women artists, such as Frida Kahlo.

Do women Have to Be Naked update (from the series "Guerrilla Girls Talk Back: Portfolio 2") (2005) by Guerrilla GirlsNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Artwork Spotlight

The group reveals shocking statistics and presents them with sardonic wit and surprising graphics, highlighted in Do Women Have to Be Naked update (2005). This strategy shakes audiences out of complacency and encourages action.

Erase Discrimination (1999) by Guerrilla GirlsNational Museum of Women in the Arts

Activists

While the group continues to address sexism and racism in the art world today, the Guerrilla Girls also target Hollywood, mass media, art censorship, government corruption and apathy, and the battle for reproductive rights.

"How can you really tell the story of a culture when you don’t include all the voices within the culture? Otherwise, it’s just the history, and the story, of power."

Guerrilla Girls

Erase Discrimination (1999)National Museum of Women in the Arts

Leave Your Mark

These #5WomenArtists left an indelible mark on history. What mark will you leave?

For more information about these artists and the National Museum of Women in the Arts' #5WomenArtists initiative, visit nmwa.org.

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