Since ancient times, women have been the muse of many a great art work. In terms of being artists themselves, women remained marginalised until the early 19th century. Thanks to the opening of art schools, the assertion of egalitarianism and the emergence of an art market, women finally achieved the recognition they deserved. Here, Barnebys has put together a list of ten women who played a key role in the history of art.
Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842)
Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun is still considered as one of the best portrait painters of her time. As women were just starting to join the Academy (the institution in charge of regulating and teaching painting and sculpture in France during Ancien Régime), Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun was already the favourite painter of Queen Marie-Antoinette and her Court in Versailles. Vigée-Lebrun was famous the world over and her mansion was a the place to be for fashionable Parisians.
In 1783, she presented La reine en gaule at the Paris Salon. The painting showed Marie Antoinette in muslin cotton, generally used for underwear. Under pressure, Vigee-Lebrun withdrew the painting and replaced it with a portrait of the Queen in a more traditional dress.
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)
Mary Cassatt was an American painter and printmaker and an important figure of the Impressionist movement. More a portraitist than a landscape painter, she joined Degas, Pissaro, and Morisot in her taste for outdoor painting, her sense of colour and her search for realism.
In 1882, the death of her sister marked a turning point in her career. Children and mothers then become her favourite subject. In 1890, after visiting an exhibition of Japanese prints, she became fascinated by this style of art. Her mastery of the technique of aquatint (type of etching) was admired by her colleagues.
In 1904, she received the Walter Lippincott Prize for her painting Caresses but she refused it. That same year she was awarded with the Legion of Honor.
Camille Claudel (1864-1943)
Sculptress Camille Claudel had an turbulent life. For ten years, she had a passionate love affair with sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Partners in art, they created several sculptures together, including Le Baiser (1886).
Despite their breakup, she inspired Rodin all his life. Rodin never doubted her artistic genius. Claudel's works were innovative, she grabs the intensity of the movement like nobody else.
"I have lots of new ideas," she said once to her brother Paul.
After an illegal abortion in 1892 she gradually suffered a mental breakdown. She died of solitude and isolation in an asylum in Montfavet (Vaucluse, France). She is now considered as one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th century.
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
Gertrude Stein was an American writer better known for her art collection than for her writing talents. In love with France, Gertrude lived in Paris and was an ambassador for modern art, including Picasso and the Cubists.
In a relationship with Alice B. Toklas for nearly forty years, Gertrude Stein became one of the greatest collectors of her time. Her talent for spotting young painters was outstanding. Matisse, Picasso, Picabia, Balthus ... all had paintings hanging in Gertrude’s apartment, 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris.
Coco Chanel (1883-1971)
Coco Chanel is a symbol of French elegance. She revolutionised fashion with her monochrome creations.
She began her career in fashion as an atelier in Paris, Deauville and Biarritz. She then went on to create her own clothes that she would wear on public occasions, which quickly had her being noticed for her talents as her designs were different from the traditional dresses women were wearing during that period.
Playing with feminine and masculine codes, Chanel created comfortable, stylish and practical clothes. She would adorn her simplistic creations with stunning accessories, and today, of course, the design house is known the world over for their classic designs and experimental jewellery and handbags.
Suzanne Belperron (1900-1983)
Suzanne Belperron was a jewellery designer who many argue is one of, if not the, most important figures in the history of French jewellery. As a designer for Boivin, she created very feminine and sensual pieces.
Suzanne Belperron was fond of gemstones (citrine, peridot, amethyst) and multicoloured jewels. Boivin jewels are rarely signed as Belperron found the act of signature very ordinary. She said: "My style is my signature."
Inspired by nature and foreign cultures, Belperron played with these influences and styles. Her jewellery quickly became the luxurious touch that embellished the outfits of the most famous and fashionable couturiers.
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
A victim of poliomyelitis at the age of six, Frida suffered from a bus accident that kept her in bed for months. And so she began to paint a series of self-portraits using a mirror placed over her bed.
Living in a very Mexico, and part of a patriarchal society, her surrealist paintings reflected her desire for freedom and travel, but also her frustration of not being able to have children due to the numerous surgeries she underwent. Frida Kahlo externalised all her sufferings through her paintings, in a fight against the life she was given.
Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)
Louise Bourgeois was a French visual artist, recognised for her monumental sculptures. Although not affiliated with a specific movement, she addressed women's issues based on her personal experience. She especially dealt with the concept of the mother-daughter relationship, the role of the father and motherhood.
In an almost therapeutic way, Louise Bourgeois reflects her childhood in her works. The phallus represents the father and the spider represents the mother.
Her mother died young and her relationship with her father was treacherous, for Louise Bourgeois’s creation was vital to survival. "Art keeps us sane," she once said.
Diane Arbus (1923-1971)
Diane Arbus discovered through her husband, a medium she ignored: photography. She built her own style and began to immortalise those on the margins of society.
Transgenders, disabled twins, dwarves ... anyone out of the norm of interest to her. Thanks to Arbus, people discovered the diversity of the American population.
Both praised and criticised in her lifetime, Diane Arbus left a legacy through her vision of humanity.
Marina Abramovic (1946-)
Marina Abramovic is like no other artist. Through performance art, she pushes the boundaries of physicality.
Marina Abramovic uses her body as an artistic creation and performance tool, and tests her body to the limits.
In 2012 at MoMA, she sat for seven hours in a chair for six days a week, staring at each person riding on the seat opposite to her. This artistic performance that lasted more than 700 hours is one of the longest ever conducted. Transcended by experience, Marina Abramovic perceives performance as a means of expression with the outside world.
These ten women have all contributed and shaped art history. As did Nikki de Saint-Phalle, Sonia Delaunay, Claude Cahun, Annette Messager, Sophie Calle and many others, the list is endless.
As Goethe summed up in Xeniès (1796), "The eternal feminine draws us ever onward and upward”.