I believe it is important to recognise the pivotal role of women artist in the making of art, but due to gender biases many women artists have been excluded from credit or forgotten from the narrative of history.

They often faced significant barriers in obtaining training by being banned from drawing classes or selling and gaining recognition for their work. Things are still far from perfect but, it is necessary to understand the impact this bias has had on the art world and how do we go about telling the stories of women artists buried by a misogynist society.

There are no records about who the artists were of the prehistoric eras, but studies suggest that a woman was the first artist.[1] They created pottery, textiles, jewelry etc. Almost three-quarters of the handprints from the cave paintings are identified as women’s.  Ancient Indian history insinuates that for about three thousand years only women of the Mithila have been composing religious paintings of gods and goddesses from Hindu mythology. Even in ancient Western history, women are depicted as the principal artisans. Pliny the Elder, a writer from the first century C.E.  wrote about a few, including Helena of Egypt, who was a painter from ancient Greece.

Women have been excluded systematically through generations from records of art history due to a number of reasons.

  • Art forms like textiles, pottery were determined as minor crafts and not considered “fine art”.
  • A lot of the work produced by women artist wasn’t signed. Some women artists used initials or even adopted male names.
  • Many women artist worked under a workshop system during the Medieval and Renaissance periods often under the control of a male head. So they remained unofficial in their status.
  • Mistaken identity and incorrect attribution. Dealers went as far as to change the signatures as in the case of some paintings by Judith Leyster(1630) that were reassigned to Frans Hals.
  • And finally, the men who dominated the discipline believed women to be inferior artists.

 

Judit Leyster, Self-Portrait, c.1630

Judit Leyster, Self-Portrait, c.1630

 

Only a limited number women found their way into the tales of greatest artist. They had to overcome a great deal of inhibition in order to excel.  Here are few of the greats I admire that defied conventions and give us the kind of physical, almost overwhelming experience and inspiration: Artemisia Gentileschi, Bertha Wegmann, Anna Ancher, Olga Bozanska, Camille Claudel, and Maria Wiik.

 

 

During the late 20th century, feminist art historians such as Linda Nochlin or Griselda Pollock started demanding not only equal rights for women and men but also a long overdue recognition of the role of women artists in history and society. This emergence led to a boom in women teaching and studying at art schools increasing their role in both art historical discourse and artistic production.

But how do we go about talking about women who art history forgot? Do we just insert these female artists into the pages of art history, ignoring the fact that they have been historically overlooked?  Does it mean having exclusive courses, books, and shows in galleries and museums? Is this “positive discrimination” a solution that only isolates these artists from being part of the movement and influences they are integral to?

 

 

There are many questions to be asked which artists and historians continue to confront today. There is definitely a lot of work to be done to make sure women artists achieve the historical recognition they deserve. One way, I believe, is to appreciate and celebrate their continuous contributions. I hope this very brief article invites us to rethink on how equality can be accomplished amongst all humanity and in particular in the cultural sector.

 

Ayuesh Agarwal

 

[1] Dean R. Snow, ‘Sexual dimorphism in European upper Paleolithic cave art’, American Antiquity, Vol. 78, No. 4 (October 2013).