Triumphs of Women in Art
French painter Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938) was excluded from life-drawing classes due to her gender. Nonetheless, she brassily went on to paint nudes and other vibrant works that challenged the status quo at the time. During her lifetime, Valadon’s art was popular and earned her a living, however – unlike her male contemporaries Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, with whom she studied – she is no longer a household name. As author Susie Hodge bluntly notes in her latest book, The Short Story of Women Artists, Valadon counts among the untold numbers of female artists who were “excluded, ignored, and generally expunged from art history.”
Variations on Valadon’s history abound in Hodge’s richly coloured, informative pocket guide, a compilation for the general reader that sharply breaks from Western art history’s traditional narrative. Hodge highlights sixty masterful, groundbreaking works of art made by women, from the Renaissance to the present day, while granting significant female artists their rightful places within movements that range from Rococo and Neoclassicism to Cubism and Surrealism. In Hodge's narrative, the male artists generally associated with key artistic periods are mentioned only when useful for context. With handy cross-referencing throughout, Hodge reaches beyond the usual categories of art history to examine breakthroughs by female artists in categories such as “Striving for Equality,” “Assertiveness” and “Rejecting Male Authority,” while exploring themes that range from identity and women’s work to empathy and the environment.
It is striking how many of these works are stunning yet unfamiliar, and how few names – beyond a handful of famous artists such as Camille Claudel, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cassatt, Käthe Kollwitz and Frida Kahlo – are recognizable. Renaissance artist Sofonisba Anguissola, who studied with Michelangelo, was internationally renowned in her day. The Flemish 17th-century painter Clara Peeters was a pioneer of the still life. Russia’s Natalia Goncharova was a leading Futurist and inventor of Rayonism, while Dresden-born Paula Modersohn-Becker is an under-acknowledged Expressionist trailblazer. Lee Krasner, meanwhile, a key Abstract Expressionist, was long overshadowed by her celebrated husband, Jackson Pollock.
Particularly striking is the art of the 17th-century Bolognese artist Elisabetta Sirani, who supported her family, opened a painting school for women and completed Baroque masterpieces that openly challenged the patriarchy. Sirani died suddenly at the age of 27 – a brief, remarkable artistic spark who, had she been male, might have become a fixture in our cultural narrative, one whose influence would have been, by now, recognized.
To explore a book such as Hodge’s is at once revelatory, gratifying and infuriating. Many of the women featured here had unconventional fathers – often artists – who wanted their daughters educated, and accordingly defied norms. There were many, of course, who were not as lucky. Some, including Sirani, were accused of passing off work by men as their own. As the book moves into the 20th century, women gain prominence, in part because newer disciplines such as conceptual art, lacking “strong male precedence,” are thus “more ‘female-friendly.’”
The content and scope is limited by the book's pocket-guide format, with some prominent and influential artists, such as Sophie Calle, barely mentioned. As for diversity among the artists of the sixty featured works, there are four by Black American artists, a handful by immigrants (such as Julie Mehretu, who was born in Ethiopia and now lives and works in New York City and Berlin), very few by artists from outside the U.S. and Europe, and none by Indigenous artists. Highlights include Indian artist Amrita Sher-Gil’s 1935 oil painting Three Girls and the dazzling 2009 multimedia work Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity by Japan’s widely celebrated Yayoi Kusama. The two Canadian artists represented are Agnes Martin (who emigrated to the U.S.) and – with no work shown, just a brief Post-Impressionist nod – Emily Carr. Biographical data is often minimal for artists from earlier periods, primarily due to historical neglect in terms of recognition and scholarship.
There is a telling bit of irony in the entry on the Guerrilla Girls’ screenprint The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist, a work that states: “Being included in revised versions of art history.” That piece was made in 1988. It is worth noting that, clearly, there is still a need for these “revised versions of art history.” And yet, absorbing the otherworldliness of Clarice Beckett’s Across the Yarra, imagining Louise Bourgeois’ Giant Crouching Spider tiptoeing through shallow water or mentally tracing the lines in the face of Elizabeth Catlett’s Sharecropper is to move past frustration into gratitude, and towards the familiar awe that arises during any encounter with a great and moving work of art.
The Short Story of Women Artists: A Pocket Guide to Movements, Works, Breakthroughs and Themes by Susie Hodge was published by Laurence King Publishing, and is available at the NGC Boutique. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.