Women Artists from Antiquity to Present

Despite facing countless obstacles in their education and honing of their talents, women artists have nevertheless created works pushing artistic boundaries throughout the ages

Reproduction of a Roman fresco (50-79 CE) showing a woman painting, from the House of the Surgeon at Pompeii; published in Delle antichità di Ercolano VII (1779) by Morghen, Giovanni Elia, 1721-1789; Morghen, Filippo 1730-1807Getty Research Institute

Finding Female Artists in Antiquity

Our knowledge of female artists in the ancient Mediterranean is limited. There are instances where women are shown painting in Roman frescoes, but no signed works survive, and literary sources mention only a handful of female painters.

Yet if we broaden our conception of art, and seek more than just famous names, we can find women undertaking creative work.

Loom-Weight (-0350/-0200) by Unknown artist/makerThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Take, for example, the traditional female occupations of wool-working and weaving. Very little clothing or fabric survives from ancient times, but tools for their production allow us to enter a realm of female craft and creativity.

This clay loom-weight shows Aphrodite, the goddess of love, riding upon a swan.

Music-making was another art form in which women participated, and a key element of religious worship. The Egyptian papyrus below belonged to a woman named Aset, who was a “singer of Amun.” Aset lived around 1069–900 BCE, and her title designated her as a priestess and ritual singer for the cult of Amun at Karnak.

Fragmentary Papyrus with Spells from the Book of the Dead, Unknown, 1085–730 B.C., From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Anne of Brittany Enthroned and Accompanied by Her Ladies-in-Waiting (1493) by Master of the Chronique scandaleuse (French, active about 1493 - 1510)The J. Paul Getty Museum

A Medieval Woman Illuminator and Family Business

Women were important contributors to the book trade in medieval France, both as patrons and producers. The woman who owned this manuscript was Queen of France. Women also often worked as manuscript illuminators, although their contributions can be difficult to detect.

A Demoiselle Speaking to Tristan, Palamedes, and Dynadan in Prison (about 1320–1340) by Jeanne de MontbastonThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Women artists’ anonymity was due to the book trade’s structure as a family affair. The male head of the household was expected to swear the necessary oath of office to the university (which controlled book production), while female family members worked under his supervision.   

Parisian artist Jeanne de Montbaston is one of the relatively few female manuscript artists who have been identified. Her name is known because after her husband’s death in 1353, she became head of the household and was left in charge of their bookmaking business.

On July 21, 1353, Jeanne took an oath as a libraire, a book contractor who was responsible for every aspect of production, from acquiring parchment, to working with the scribe and illuminator, to finding a binder. 

Jeanne had already worked alongside her husband as an illuminator, but was now raised to the position of manager of the family business.

Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) (1638-1639) by Artemisia GentileschiRoyal Collection Trust, UK

Pushing the Envelope in Early Modern Europe

Although women artists in the Renaissance and Baroque were far less common than their male peers, a few were able to excel in their art and even push artistic boundaries of style and subjects. Let’s explore two of these artists working in Italy: Lavinia Fontana and Artemisia Gentileschi.

Lavinia Fontana, 1552-1614, Bolognese Painter [obverse] (1611) by Felice Antonio CasoneNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614)

Often seen as the first professional woman artist working outside of a court or convent, Lavinia Fontana paved the way for countless women artists after her. Trained by her father, local artist Prospero Fontana, Lavinia became a successful portraitist in Bologna.

Lavinia’s early work, such as The Wedding Feast at Cana (c. 1575–1580), reveals several influences as she developed her own creative vision. Recent examination of both her drawing and painting from the Getty collection demonstrated that Lavinia based her composition on a drawing by Florentine painter Giorgio Vasari. Vasari’s work, which reimagines a Biblical tale in a Classical setting, was owned by her father.

The Wedding Feast at Cana, Lavinia Fontana, 1575/1580, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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The Wedding Feast at Cana, Lavinia Fontana, 1575/1580, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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The Wedding Feast at Cana (1575/1580) by Lavinia FontanaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

As is visible in the final painting, the drawing was a draft, which Lavinia modified as she was executing the painting.

The Wedding Feast at Cana (1575/1580) by Lavinia FontanaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

She changed the vessels on the credenza at left.

The Wedding Feast at Cana (1575/1580) by Lavinia FontanaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The Wedding Feast at Cana (1575/1580) by Lavinia FontanaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Fontana also changed the wine amphorae in front of the table.

The Wedding Feast at Cana (1575/1580) by Lavinia FontanaThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Her renowned portraits were accepted as part of a conventional feminine genre, but Lavinia’s work on religious themes and figures pushed the boundaries of established subjects for women painters. She ended up producing the largest surviving body of work by a woman artist of her era.

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (about 1615-17) by Artemisia GentileschiThe National Gallery, London

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653)

Lavinia’s career arguably paved the way for Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the most prominent women painters of the following generation. Like Lavinia, Artemisia was trained in Rome by her father, Orazio, and mastered Caravaggio’s techniques of rendering light and shadows with him. She was one of the earliest women to join the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno in Florence in 1617. 

Lucretia (1627) by Artemisia GentileschiThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Artemisia performed on stage as a musician, mingling in many artistic and literary circles in Rome, Florence, Venice, and Naples. 

A powerful woman herself, her most well-known paintings focus on dramatic representations of Biblical and mythological donne forti (strong women), famed for their strength and virtue, such as Lucretia, as depicted here. 

Jael and Sisera (1620) by Artemisia GentileschiMuseum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Be it Lucretia, Judith, or Jael, as seen above, Artemisia painted each woman with realism and powerful emotion. She rendered female subjects with intense naturalism, detailing features and skin carefully, often using her own body as a model.

Drawing Outside the Lines: Three Trailblazing Artists

While drawing was essential to the production of paintings, it was also celebrated in its own right. The creative works of the following artists, rendered in pastel and chalk, reflect the pioneering spirit of these women, who were often among the first female members of the artistic organizations of their eras. 

A Muse (mid-1720s) by Rosalba CarrieraThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Famed as a portraitist, Rosalba Carriera depicts an allegorical type rather than individual here. Accordingly, the Venetian artist pictures the figure with a laurel crown, while the soft pastel lends a visionary quality befitting a muse, or divine source of creative inspiration.

A Muse (mid-1720s) by Rosalba CarrieraThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Unlike many female artists before her, Rosalba gained access to major artists's organizations, including the French Royal Academy.

Portrait of Anna Jadwiga Zamoyska by Angelica Kauffman and 1791The J. Paul Getty Museum

Angelica Kauffman produced this sensitive portrait of a nineteen-year-old Polish aristocrat while in Rome. A gray preparation modifying the texture of the sheet to better receive black chalk also softens the young woman's features.

Celebrated across Europe, Kauffman was a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. 

Landscape with a Thunderstorm, Emilie Mediz-Pelikan, 1896, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Finding inspiration on frequent hikes, Emilie Mediz-Pelikan captured this scene while on a trip to the Adriatic Coast of Italy. With green chalk on blue paper, she depicts a rain-soaked earth below a forbidding evening sky, which is rendered in a combination of conte crayon and orange chalk. 

Landscape with a Thunderstorm (1896) by Emilie Mediz-PelikanThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In the center of the composition, lightning crackles across the sky as sheets of rain scour the landscape.

Although she was denied access to the official art organizations of Vienna, Mediz-Pelikan’s daring use of color and rendering of ferocious atmospheric effects in this work assert the uninhibited creative agency of this artist.

Plush Pony #8 (© Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016) (1992) by Laura AguilarThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Redefining Latinx and Queer Identities in Photography

Moving into the contemporary sphere, women artists have sought to claim the opportunities denied their predecessors. As they progressed, it was essential that the creative visions of all women artists, including those from marginalized groups, were recognized. 

Plush Pony #5 (© Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016) (1992) by Laura AguilarThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In the works of photographer Laura Aguilar (1959–2018), several aspects of personal identity play an important role.  Her photographs ask viewers to rethink their views on mental health, body size, gender, and Mexican-American identity.

Motion #58 (© Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016) (1999) by Laura AguilarThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Aguilar celebrated the female nude—often in natural settings—and Chicanx queer/lesbian subjects, as in these images.

Plush Pony #6 (© Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016) (1992) by Laura AguilarThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Pushing for a Different World

From anonymous ancient artisans, to the pioneering painters of the early modern era, to contemporary photographers who continue to push the boundaries of the conventional, women artists have always been at the forefront of redefining creative work.

Despite facing obstacles in their artistic educations and discrimination in their careers, these artists have shaped their creative fields and advocated for a more inclusive world.

Credits: Story

© 2023 J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles


To cite this exhibition, please use: "Women Artists from Antiquity to Present" published online in 2023 via Google Arts & Culture, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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