Of all of the American
female artists in the AskART database, we have briefly highlighted 109 because of high number of book references or auction sales showing special marketplace strength. We find it particularly relevant that as a result of
their gender, many of these women likely had to conquer additional obstacles in
order to succeed. No doubt they all have stories to tell about struggling
to excel in what has up until recently been a male-dominated world.
(1800-1885), a leading portrait, figure and still-life painter of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and St. Louis is
considered to be America's first truly professional female artist. She had a
career of nearly sixty years, during which she supported herself and
successfully competed with male painters of that time, including John Wesley
Jarvis, Thomas Sully, and Jacob Eichholtz.
Of this selected list of female artists,
Margaretta Peale was born earliest in 1795. A talented
painter known for fruit still-life, she is regarded as one of the most skillful
artists of that subject during her time. Though she did experience the
protected domestic life that was typical of women of her era, she was privy to
an atypical, highly cultured family circumstance as the daughter of portraitist
James Peale. She painted as his studio assistant from 1828 to 1837. Unmarried,
she lived until the end of her life with her famous sister, the above-mentioned
portraitist Sarah Miriam Peale.
The youngest artist on this list is
Rachel Whiteread, born 1963. Known for her public
art projects, she completed a 24 by 33 foot memorial to Holocaust victims
titled "The Nameless Library" in Vienna, Austria. From England, she
studied at the Slade School of Art. Her use of a variety of materials
including plaster, polystyrene and steel, and her suggestion, but not delineation,
of figures and objects reflect the “pushing of the boundaries” in mediums and
styles of contemporary artists.
Four women on this list were centenarians:
Theresa Bernstein (1890-2002) had the longest-career of any
American woman artist. Others especially long lived were:
Grandma Moses (1860-1961),
Helen Turner (1858-1958), and
Martha Walter (1875-1976).
One female artist for whom gender bias was a significant issue is
Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908), one of the most famous women sculptors of the 19th century. She dedicated
herself to this medium at a time when the physical demands of the process meant
it was considered a male domain. Hosmer's father supported her education
aggressively, and in the mid 19th-century, she managed to establish
a studio in Rome, Italy where she became a part of a circle of intellectuals
that included novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne and Robert and Elizabeth Browning.
Critcher (1868-1964) was also a pioneer in what was very much a
man's world - Taos, New Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s. She was the only
female elected to membership in the Taos Society of Artists, an organization
formed in 1915 by painters including Joseph Henry Sharp, Ernest Blumenschein,
Bert Geer Phillips, and Victor Higgins. At that time, Taos was a frontier
art community where living conditions for "Anglos" seemed primitive. This
was especially true for women such as Critcher, who had led a relatively
refined existence as a portrait painter and Director of the Critcher School of
Painting in Washington DC.
Sixteen women in this group are documented as having studied in Paris before
1900, which means they too ventured into a primarily male environment.
Among this group are Cecilia
Jennie Brownscombe (1850-1936),
Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938),
Janet Scudder(1869-1940) and
Bessie Vonnoh (1872-1955).
In the 1880s, women were not
admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts or the painting ateliers, and they had to
find private teachers in academies such as Colarossi's and Julian's.
According to H. Barbara Weinberg in her book, The Lure of Paris, a big
disparity existed between fees for men and for women. In the studios of
Carolus-Duran, men paid only thirty francs per month, with discounts for
one-year enrollment, while women were charged one-hundred francs per month for
mornings only, with no discounts. According to Weinberg, over thirty American
women who became established professional artists were once students of Duran.
one of Duran's students at the Academy Julian, was from Cincinnati, Ohio. In
1887, having recently lost her parents, she turned down a well-paying position
as a drawing instructor and crossed the Atlantic with her small amount of
savings to settle in Europe with her sister. At the Academy Julian, she was
singled out as having special talent and had her first painting submitted to
the Paris Salon hung at eye level, a great honor in a floor-to-ceiling
Janet Scudder, also from Cincinnati, showed early talent for wood carving but
had to leave a job as a woodcarver in a Chicago factory because the union would
not allow female members. She went to Paris where she encountered
discrimination from one of her own sex, a female model who refused to pose in a
classroom where there were female students.
On the other end of the spectrum of late 19th early 20th-century women
whose art careers involved both the honing of their creative skills and the
battling of sex discrimination is Grandma Moses, the pivotal figure of the
20th-century American folk art movement. She does not appear to have had any
anxieties about her role as a female artist in society nor, in fact, did she
demonstrate any concern about whether she got any public attention for her
art. Were it not for the aggressive actions of relatives, her work would
have remained only as pictures circulating among her children and
grandchildren. With no agenda other than doing what she loved, Grandma
Moses painted favorite subjects of her domestic surroundings in Eagle Bridge in
upstate New York, a long way from Paris!
Others in our AskART list of "Notable Women Artists" fit easily into the
category of vanguard or groundbreaking women in the world of professional art.
Among this group is Violet
(1874-1961), one of the first preeminent women mural
painters. At the Pennsylvania Capitol Building, she created some of the largest
murals in existence, and this accomplishment was at a time when crawling around
on high scaffolding was not considered feminine. A total of twelve women
in this list are recorded as having worked on murals.
(1870-1955), who with her husband Arthur Mathews,
was a leader of the West Coast Arts a
Movement. They designed and executed handcrafted furniture and other
decorations. She painted murals on decorative screens, which was a more
socially accepted activity for a woman than the murals of Violet Oakley.
The life of Edmonia
Lewis (1845-1911) incorporated issues of feminism and racism.
She was one of the first black-women sculptors to earn national recognition,
and she is also credited as the first black artist to express themes of social
prejudices against her race. She worked in Rome in the late 1870s and 1880s,
and being both a woman and black, received a lot of special attention, much of
it unflattering. The other black woman on this list is
Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978), who was associated with the
Washington DC Color Field Painters of the 1970s, and was a generation later
than Edmonia Lewis. Thomas became the first black woman to have a solo
exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The success
of the show took the art world by surprise.
For some of the 'notable' women, special male sponsorship appears to have been
critical to their success. (Persons wishing to counter such patronizing
assertions can likely cite numerous women who have paved the way for successful
male artists). All three of the Peale women - Sarah,
Mary Jane - had strong encouragement and tutelage from their relatives,
Charles Willson Peale and James Peale. In the early 20th century,
(1887-1986) began as an art teacher, a
traditional role for women artists of that era. She was lifted out of that
world, however, when she was discovered and promoted by Alfred Steiglitz, her
future husband and sponsor of most of the prominent early New York modernists.
However, O'Keeffe distanced herself emotionally and physically from his circle
and control and distinguished herself as a highly independent, “woman alone” in
a remote part of New Mexico. A generation later in New York,
(1928-2011), a Color Field painter, was
specially touted, and some say created in reputation, by New York Times
Clement Greenberg who bought her paintings and brought her continually to the
attention of the public with his extensive writing.
Whether or not the above
referenced women would have succeeded as well without their alleged male
sponsors is unknown. Many women on this list worked as professional co-equals
to spouses, with each having distinguished reputations. In this category are
the previously mentioned Lucia and Arthur Mathews, who worked together in early
20th century San Francisco; Willem and
Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989) and
Lee Krasner (1908-1984) and Jackson Pollock in New York during
the heyday of Abstract Expressionism; Elmer and
Marion Wachtel (1876-1954), turn-of-the-century plein-air
painters in southern California; and modernists
Susan Rothenberg (b. 1945) and Bruce Nauman, living and working
together today in New Mexico.
With this list of notable female artists, we give you a montage of names of
women who have made distinctive contributions to American art. Some focused on overcoming male discrimination and others focused only on
expressing themselves as creative individuals, divorced from gender-driven
agendas. Although only a few more than 100 artists have been highlighted in this list of female American artists, we encourage you to explore the AskART database to discover the many more influential and inspirational artists.
Written by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, August 2004. Updated 2012.
AskART.com, Jules and Nancy Heller, North American women Artists of the Twentieth
Century; Erica Hirshler, A Studio of Her Own; Edan Hughes, “Artists
in California, 1786-1940”; Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki
Kovinick, An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West American Women
Artistsby Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein; Michael David Zellman, 300
Years of American Art
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