Female artists have been making art throughout history however their work has not always been as well acknowledged or received as that of their male counterparts. They faced challenges due to gender bias in training, travel, selling their work and gaining recognition.
Women artists have also often been mischaracterized in historical accounts, both unintentionally and intentionally. Scarcity of biographical information, anonymity, and naming conventions – whereby women take their husband’s last name – have been contributing factors. False attribution has also been intentionally practiced and art, made by women, has been reassigned to male artists for unscrupulous reasons.
InspiredByMyMom.com has chosen to honor the following three female artists during Women’s History Month this year.
Born in 1837 in the United States, Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau was a great artist in her own right however her vast collection of work is often accused of too closely resembling that of her husband’s, the famous William Bouguereau.
Elizabeth was among the first wave of Americans who sought art training in Paris after the Civil War. She arrived in Paris in 1864 and began studying contemporary and old-master paintings. While Paris beckoned all artists, women were still banned from studying at the École des Beaux-Arts. Undaunted by these discriminatory practices, Bouguereau enrolled in private classes.
She was one of the first American women to exhibit at the Paris salon along with Mary Cassatt in 1868 and Bouguereau’s paintings were accepted in 25 Paris salons. By the late 1870’s, she was studying with William-Adolphe Bouguereau whose work, she acknowledged, influenced hers and to whom she was eventually married in the late 1800s. She made her own way by producing works in a monumental style most often associated with male artists and, in 1889, she won a Bronze medal at the Exposition Universelle.
Elizabeth lived through two wars in France. During the Franco-Prussian War she acted as reporter for her journalist friends in America. During World War I, in spite of her advanced age and state of health, she did all she could to help American soldiers.
She passed away in 1922 in Paris, where she had lived most of her life, leaving a stunning body of works which express her unique voice and give her work a degree of separation.
Emily Carr has always been closely associated with Canada’s “Group of Seven” however she was never an official member of this artists group composed entirely of Canadian male artists.
Born in Canada in 1871, Emily was the second youngest of nine children and, although her father encouraged her artistic inclinations, she did not start to pursue her career until after her parents’ deaths. In the late 1800s, she attended the San Francisco Art Institute for two years and later travelled to London for further studies.
Upon returning to Canada in 1905, Carr took a teaching position at a “Ladies Art Club” but was promptly dismissed as the students did not take well to her behavior and boycotted her courses. She had no qualms about smoking and cursing her students out when she felt the need.
She continued her studies in France where she developed a more vibrant color pallet and, of the three grandes dames of modern painting in the Americas (which included Georgia O’Keefe and Frida Kahlo), Carr was the earliest and the first to have solo exhibitions in 1912 and 1913.
In 1927 she was invited to participate in an exhibition of West Coast Art in Canada’s capital, Ottawa, where she first met with the Group of Seven. The success of this trip was a further catalyst in Carr’s prolific career. Upon her return to the West coast, she painted Aboriginal studies until 1931 and then took the themes of the forests and coastal skies as her principal theme.
After suffering a heart attack in 1937, Carr devoted much of her time to writing and her first book “Klee Wyck” won the Governor General’s award in 1942.
Since her death in 1945, Carr’s ties to the Group of Seven have become secure in the popular imagination and often in art historical contexts as well.
Hilma af Klint was a Swedish artist whose life and work have may not yet received the recognition they deserve. She was a mystic whose paintings were amongst the first abstract art and she belonged to a group called “The Five”. Although she exhibited her early, representational works, she refused to show her abstract body of work during her lifetime.
In addition to the difficulties women faced in gaining recognition in an art world defined largely by men and her connections to the occult, modern art is dependent on its marketplace. Having not exhibited or sold any of her abstract works during her lifetime, and for so many years afterward, contributed to her obscurity.
Born in 1862, Hilma spent summers with her family at their farm and came into contact with nature at an early stage in her life which was to be an inspiration in her work. When she showed an early ability in visual art, the family moved to Stockholm where Hilma studied at the Academy of Fine Arts for five years.
It was there that she met Anna Cassel, the first of the four women with whom she later worked with in “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). When her younger sister died in 1880, the spiritual dimension of her life began to develop.
Through her work with the group, af Klint created experimental automatic drawing as early as 1896. When she painted, she believed that a higher consciousness was speaking through her. Her more conventional painting became the source of her financial income while the ‘life’s work’ remained a quite separate practice.
When she passed away in 1944, at the age of 81, she left more than 1,000 paintings, watercolours and sketches. In her will, she had stipulated that these ground-breaking works must not be shown publicly until 20 years after her death. She was convinced that only then would the world be ready to understand their significance.
40-plus years were to pass before inklings of her vast work began to reach public consciousness, beginning with the 1987 landmark exhibition in Los Angeles “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985” and the accompanying book.
Hilma af Klint was an innovator of 20th-century abstract art, one who worked with abstract imagery as early as 1906, arguably several years before her male contemporaries such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich.
If you enjoyed the HERstory of these women you may also like to read other stories in this series.