Art history can be limiting, in that, while it does give us some insight into the movements, the work, and the artists who have come before us, it ultimately presents a skewed impression of the art world. Why? Because those who were keeping a record of artistic developments, works of art and the artists who created them often seemingly 'forgot' certain groups or individual people due to their gender, ethnicity, or social standing, among many other things.
While we can’t undo the past, we can work towards building a richer picture of art history, celebrate the work of artists who were neglected or marginalized during their careers, and be thankful their work wasn’t lost or destroyed. To make a small dent, here are 14 women painters who were working in the 19th and 20th centuries who were forgotten in art history up until recently.
Caterina van Hemessen (1528–1588)
Caterina (or Catharina) van Hemessen was a Flemish Renaissance painter. She is the earliest female Flemish painter, in that she’s one of the only ones who can be verified by the work she left. She is mainly known for her series of small-scale female portraits completed between the late 1540s and early 1550s, and a few religious compositions. Van Hemessen is said to have created the first self-portrait capturing an artist seated at an easel. The portrait was painted in 1548 and shows the artist in the early stages of painting a portrait.
A number of obstacles stood in the way of contemporary women, including van Hemessen, who wished to become painters. Their training would involve the dissection of cadavers and the study of the nude male form, while the system of apprenticeship meant that the aspiring artist would need to live with an older artist for four to five years. This often began from the age of 9 or 15, which made it near impossible for many women to follow this path because other “expected duties” took precedent.
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653)
Today, Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi is seen as one of the most skilled painters during her time, but the artist had a difficult time forging a career as an artist. Trained by her father at a young age, she went on to study under Agostino Tassi who raped the young Gentileschi and unsurprisingly, due to the times, her reputation was called into question.
Nevertheless, Gentileschi went on to be the first woman to be admitted to the Florentine Academy of Fine Arts and she also became the head of the household when she separated from her husband, which was very rare at the time. Some of her most powerful works, such as Judith Beheading Holofernes and The Conversion of the Magdalene, focus on the females rather than their male counterparts.
Clara Peeters (1594–1657)
Clara Peeters was a still-life painter who came from Antwerp and trained in the tradition of Flemish Baroque painting. However, she probably made her career mostly in the new Dutch Republic, as part of the Dutch Golden Age painting. Many aspects of her life and work remain very unclear, especially outside the period 1607 to 1621.
Peeters was unusual for her time simply because she was a female painter, the earliest significant woman painter of the Dutch Golden Age. In contrast to their male counterparts, most female Dutch painters specialized in still lifes, which did not require knowledge of anatomy as this was difficult for female painters to get access to as part of their training.
Marie-Gabrielle Capet (1761–1818)
Marie-Gabrielle Capet was a French Neoclassical painter who came from a modest background. Her artistic training is of course unknown, but in 1781 she became the pupil of the French painter Adelaide Labille-Guiard in Paris. With the support of Labille-Guiard, Capet secured commissions from the upper middle class and nobility, and eventually royalty.
She excelled as a portrait painter, with her works including oil paintings, watercolors and miniatures. Despite her talent, Capet fell into obscurity after she died. This was for a number of reasons: the fashion for pastels having declined; because most of her works were in private collections that became dispersed over the years; and the fact that society at the time continued to diminish and “forget” the work of female artists.
Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749–1803)
As well as playing a hand in Marie-Gabrielle Capet’s career, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard was a successful portraitist in her own right. Male artists were so threatened by Labille-Guiard and other female artists working at the time that they would invent rivals for them and spread rumors alluding to sexual misconduct. Labille-Guiard was strong and kept fighting for her right to create art and actively supported other female artists to do the same.
The artist managed to prove her critics wrong and she was admitted to the Académie Royale, where she exhibited her works and became Peintre des Mesdames (Painter of the Ladies), which meant she was a painter to the king’s aunts.
Harriet Powers (1839–1910)
Harriet Powers was an African-American slave, folk artist, and quilt maker from rural Georgia. She used traditional appliqué techniques to record local legends, Bible stories, and astronomical events on her quilts. Thanks to a letter discovered in 2009, it was revealed that Powers was a literate woman, who transformed well-known stories she’d read herself into pictorial masterpieces.
Only two of her quilts are known to have survived: Bible Quilt (1886) and Pictorial Quilt (1898). Her quilts are considered among the finest examples of 19th-century Southern quilting.
Tina Blau (1845–1916)
Unable to attain an arts education like her male contemporaries, Austrian artist Tina Blau was taught by her father who believed in her talent. Blau became an accomplished landscape painter and the way she painted light and air felt innovative.
The artist, like many female painters at the time, constantly had to deal with critics questioning her abilities. A common belief at the time was that because she was a woman, there had to have been a man guiding her as no woman had the talent to be successful without a man behind her.
Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938)
Suzanne Valadon was a model for many artists including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and this is what she is remembered more for, despite becoming an artist in her own right after these modeling stints.
She had a penchant for figure paintings, which often included nude females. Valadon’s work was controversial at the time because she didn’t have any formal training, so didn’t stick to traditional standards. These made for raw, emotional works that of course led many of her male critics to dismiss her work, despite having had four major exhibitions during her career.
Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (1864–1933)
Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh was a Scottish artist whose design work became one of the defining features of the Glasgow Style during the 1890s. The Glasgow Style often took the form of furniture and silverwork, and placed an importance on Celtic imagery
Margaret, with her sister Frances, were students at the Glasgow School of Art studying courses in design. She worked in a variety of media, including metalwork, embroidery, and textiles and later collaborated with her husband, the architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who we’ve come to know better. She was inspired by Celtic imagery, poems by Morris and Rossetti, literature, symbolism, and folklore. Her husband once wrote of her: “Margaret has genius, I have only talent”.
Hilma af Klint(1862–1944)
Hilma af Klint was a Swedish artist whose paintings were among the first abstract art. However, she was overlooked with her male peers, including Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky, receiving the limelight. A considerable body of her abstract work predates the first purely abstract compositions by Kandinsky.
Klint belonged to a group called The Five, a circle of women who shared her belief in the importance of trying to make contact with the so-called High Masters —often by way of séances. Her paintings, which sometimes resemble diagrams, were a visual representation of complex spiritual ideas.
Lyubov Popova (1889–1924)
Her fascination with construction allowed her to join other constructivists in absolute rejection of easel painting. In 1921, she turned entirely to industrial design. She excelled in industrial design of clothing and fabrics and produced posters, book designs, ceramics, and photomontages. She died aged just 35 of scarlet fever in 1924 in Moscow.
Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944)
Florine Stettheimer was an American painter, designer, and poet. She was from a privileged background and with her sisters, Carrie and Ettie, she hosted a salon for modernists in Manhattan, which included Marcel Duchamp, Henry McBride, Carl Van Vechten and Georgia O'Keeffe.
In regards to her own work, she rarely showed publicly, preferring to exhibit to a private audience. Cushioned by family resources, Stettheimer refrained from self-promotion and considered her painting "an entirely private pursuit". She intended to have her works destroyed after her death, but lucky for us it was a wish defied by her sister Ettie, her executor.
Alma Thomas (1891–1978)
Alma Thomas was an African-American artist born in Georgia in 1891. She was an art teacher for 35 years, so her own art career took a backseat, meaning she didn’t find her signature style until she was in her 70s.
Thomas was an expressionist painter and her style saw her paint bold patterns in bright colors reminiscent of mosaic designs. Her late start in life meant she only exhibited once in her lifetime, just six years before her death in 1972. The show was at the Whitney Museum of American Art and she was the first female African-American artist to have a solo exhibit. Thomas’ work has also been shown at the White House on more than one occasion, with Jimmy Carter and more recently Barack Obama both admirers of her work.
Mira Schendel (1919–1988)
Mira Schendel was a Jewish refugee from Switzerland—although she was raised Catholic in Italy—who left an economically declining Europe in 1949 and settled in Brazil. She is now seen as one of Latin America's most important and prolific post-war artists and is thought to have reinvented the language of European Modernism in Brazil. Before her retrospective exhibition at the Tate Modern in 2013, Schendel really wasn’t known outside of Latin America. She is remembered for her sculptures, paintings and drawings on rice paper.