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Famous Painters: Angelica Kauffmann

Posted by Susan Benford

Swiss-born Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807) was known as a child prodigy who, before the age of 15, was assisting her father with church murals and accepting commissions in portraiture. angelica kauffmann self portrait music painting resized 600In addition to speaking four foreign languages fluently, Angelica Kauffmann was renowned as a singer and wrestled to choose between music and art, as memorialized in one of her most famous paintings, Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting. This Kauffmann painting recalls the popular 17th century theme in which 

Angelica Kauffmann.  Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting, 1792.  Oil on canvas, approx. 60" by 83".  Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

Hercules, at the Crossroads, must choose between Luxury and Fame. 

She audaciously rejected working in genres deemed acceptable to female artists, such as still life, to pursue history painting, the field that was the most lucrative, prestigious, and male-dominated in the 18th century.  In 1758, Kauffmann and her father toured Italy to study famous paintings and works of old masters; four years later, she settled in Rome and catered to travelers, many of whom were Englishmen on the Grand Tour. It was there Angelica David Garrick resized 600Kauffmann was exposed to artists like Benjamin West (1738-1820) who were exploring the emerging style of Neoclassicism

Her reputation in England was bolstered by her portrait of the English actor David Garrick (Does George Costanza of Seinfield look like him, or what?!), possibly the most frequently painted Englishman in the 18th century. Among the famous painters who did portraits of Garrick were:  

  • Sir Joshua Reynolds
  • Thomas Gainsborough
  • William Hogarth
  • Benjamin Wilson
  • Nathaniel Dance
  • Pompeo Batoni
  • Pietro Longhi

David Garrick was even painted more often than the king, George III (1). 

Angelica Kauffmann, David Garrick.  Oil on canvas, 1764.Burghley House, Lincolnshire, England.

With the encouragement of  Sir Joshua ReynoldsAngelica Kauffmann relocated to London which, like Rome, was a center of Neoclassicism. Kauffmann was dedicated to popularizing history paintings in Great Britain; there were no other female artists then working in such grand scale.  She opted for heroines drawn from classical history like Penelope, the wife of Odyssey who remained faithful during his 20 year absence; and Lucretia, another paragon of female virtue who committed suicide after being raped.  

Socially adept, admired for her diligence, and recognized for her paintings done for interiors designed by the leading architect, Robert Adam, Angelica Kauffmann was one of the 36 founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768.  Much ballyhoo was made of the fact that Kauffmann johann zoffany academicians royal academy resized 600and another Swiss painter, Mary Moser, were founders...

Johann Zoffany.  The Academicians of the Royal Academy, 1772. 

yet the history of painting reveals how flimsy this honor actually was:

  1. Just four years later in 1772, Johann Zoffany painted The Academicians of the Royal Academy grouped around a nude model.  Because all female painters were prohibited from working from a nude model, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser are present only as portraits on the upper right.
  2. Adding insult to injury, no other female painters were elected to the Royal Academy until Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970)-- 115 years later.  
Angelica Kauffmann was commissioned in 1778 to created four allegorical paintings for the Royal Academy's new lecture hall; today, these four Kauffmann paintings are in the vestibule of Burlington House, the home of the Royal Academy.
Angelica Kauffmann was not ultimately successful in endearing Neoclassicism and history paintings to the British, and had to augment her income with portraiture.  Nonetheless, she leaves a legacy in the history of art as a famous artist with an international clientele.  She was one of a handful of female artists who were financially successful and competed on par with male painters. 

1. JSTOR.  David Garrick and English Painting.  Lance Bertelsen

Note on spelling: Although Angelica Kauffmann signed her paintings as "Kauffman", the leading biographies of her spell it "Kauffmann", as noted in Women Artists 1550-1950 by Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin.

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Tags: famous paintings, female artists, Angelica Kauffmann

Survey of Female Painters

Posted by Susan Benford

With female artists becoming more mainstream in the last sixty years, it's easy to overlook the wildly improbable odds that confronted female painters during earlier eras of art history.

Historically, women artists were prohibited from seeing a nude male model (no less than Thomas frida_kahlo_self_portrait-resized-600Eakins was fired from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts after hiring a male model for his female students).  

With no access to studying the male body, female artists specialized by default in portraiture or still life paintings, genres which paid comparatively less -- and were considered less significant during most eras of art history.

Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Monkey. Oil on canvas, 1938. 16" by 12". Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

Nonetheless, these female artists are some who left enduring legacies in art history:

+Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625).  Imagine the rarity of this 16th century girl who received the same education as her male counterparts. Well-established as a portraitist by age 15, Anguissola became one of the leading Renaissance painters.  Discover why it has been so difficult to identify Anguissola paintings. 

+ Helen Frankenthaler (1929-2011). The pioneer of color field painting... and one of the rare famous painters of either gender acclaimed in her lifetime.  

+Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614).  After her Renaissance paintings were in greater demand than her husband's, he became the primary caregiver of their eleven children.  Portraitist to Pope Paul V, Fontana worked for 40 continuous years and created 135 paintings, making her one of the most prolific female artists in art history.

+Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652).  The first female painter in the Academy of Design, Artemisa Gentileschi shunned the prescribed Renaissance norms for women artists - portraits and still life paintings.  She opted instead to paint the same subjects on the same scale as male Renaissance painters.  

Explore Judith Beheading Holofernes - one of her most famous paintings - and the later life of Artemisia Gentileschi.

+Judith Leyster (1609-1660).  Believed to have been a student of Frans Hal, Judith Leyster was a genre and a portrait painter.  And the first female painter to be inducted into the Guild of St. Luke, Haarlem's painting guild. 

bonheur horse fair+Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899).  To sketch horses in preparation for her masterpiece, The Horse Fair, she

Marie-Rosalie (Rosa) Bonheur, The Horse Fair.  Oil on canvas, 1853-1855.  8' 1/4" by 16' 7 1/2".  Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

disguised herself as a man to sneak into the Paris horse markets. With this kind of tenacity, no wonder she was made an officer of the French Legion of Honor, the country's highest award, and became the first woman to be awarded its Grand Cross.  

+Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907). Influenced by Matisse, Cezanne and Gauguin, Modersohn-Becker forged her own style and laid the groundwork for German Expressionism.  Before her tragic death at 31, Modersohn-Becker was one of the first female artists to influence a major art movement

+Berthe Morisot (1841-1895).  The first woman painter to exhibit with the French Impressionists - and the creator of some of the most famous paintings of that era. Berthe Morisot was snared in a scandal when she modeled for the Manet painting, The Balcony. Undazed, Morisot continued to work with and exhibit alongside Impressionist painters. Explore one of her most famous paintings, The Cradle

+Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986).  One of the most recognized women artists ever (and certainly one of its most popular), Georgia O'Keeffe paintings are readily recognizable.  Explore some of her most famous artwork, the Jack in the Pulpit series. 

o'keeffe paintingsGeorgia O'Keeffe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit IV.  Oil on canvas, 1930.  40" x 30".  National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. 

+Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).  After suffering polio at age 6, Frida Kahlo was in a tram accident that subsequently required 32 operations. During one recuperation, she taught herself to paint. Now, Frida Kahlo paintings are among the most beloved in Mexican art. 

What a string of "firsts" accomplished by these female artists! 

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Tags: famous paintings, art history, female artists

More Famous Paintings of Berthe Morisot

Posted by Susan Benford

Although now considered famous paintings, works by Degas, Cezanne, Pissarro, Monet, and Berthe Morisot were rejected by juries of the Paris Salon (indeed, each rejected submission had a huge "R" painted on
monet impressionits reverse, spawning creation of the Salon des Refuses, exhibitions of rejected works).  As the world's largest art exhibition founded in 1748, the Paris Salon was organized by the Academy of Beaux-Arts, proponents of classical painting and traditional subject matter like history paintings.

Claude Monet.  Impression:Sunrise, 1872.  Oil on canvas, approx. 19" by 25".  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Undeterred, these "refuses" painters agreed to convene their own art exhibition in 1874 in the studio of photographer Nadar. The art critic Jules-Antoine Castagnary (1830-1888) reviewed the show and may have coined the enduring description of its painters when he observed (Le Siecle, April 29, 1874):

The common view that brings these artists together in a group and makes of them a collective force within our disintegrating age is their determination not to aim for perfection, but to be satisfied with a certain general aspect. Once the impression is captured, they declare their role finished...

If one wishes to characterize and explain them with a single word, then one would have to coin the word "impressionists". They are impressionists in that they do not render a landscape, but the sensation produced by the landscape.

Other art historians, however, contend that the label "Impressionist" came from the title of Monet's painting, Impression: Sunrise.  Regardless of its etymology, the label became the permanent description of Impressionist paintings and painters.

In the seminal 1874 art exhibition, Morisot exhibited nine paintings, including one of her best known paintings, The Cradle.  While art critics panned and scorned most of the Impressionist paintings, Morisot received positive reviews from Castagnary, morisot cradlewho commented:

 You cannot find more graceful images handled more deliberately than The Cradle… the execution is in complete accord with the idea to be expressed. 

This Morisot painting is about looking.  The young mother, the artist’s sister, Edma, gazes lovingly at her newborn against a background with a draped window; the gauzy tulle netting rendered in soft blues, ochres and pinks invites the viewer’s regard.

Berthe Morisot.  The Cradle (Le berceau), 1873.  Oil on canvas, 22 1/2" by 18 1/2".  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

While the pink ribbon delineates the separate worlds of mother and newborn, Morisot uses curves and diagonals to emphasize their connectedness.  Edma’s head and left arm, for instance, are aligned with the infant’s crooked arm to reinforce the gaze of mother to baby, reinterated by the drapery fold behind Edma’s head that points to the infant. The feathery, loose brushwork in the tulle epitomizes the style of painting that defined Impressionism and enraged art critics. 

Morisot continued to paint and exhibit, showing in a 1876 London art exhibition with Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Alfred Sisley, and in five of the seven other Impressionist art exhibitions. Frustrated that social mores prevented her from meeting fellow Impressionist painters in cafes, Morisot and her husband began hosting Thursday meals at their home; these attracted writers like Mallarme and fellow artists including Monet, Renoir and Degas.

Morisot died in 1895. Although her death certificate stated she had "no profession", she is now regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism and one of the leading female painters in art history.

Reader alert: I'd appreciate comments about the origin of "Impressionist", as I can find art history books citing both Castagnary and Impression:Sunrise as its source.

Tags: famous paintings, female artists, Berthe Morisot

Famous Paintings of Berthe Morisot

Posted by Susan Benford

Like many female artists, the life of Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was punctuated by a series of “firsts” and breaks from convention en route to creating her legendary, famous paintings.

Berthe Morisot was the first female artist to exhibit with the French Impressionists, and was one of the few female artists (from any period in art history) who participated in a pictorial movement from its onset. 

Not bad for an artist whose 1895 death certificate claims she had “no profession”

Born into an upper middle class family in Bourges, Berthe Morisot and her sister, Edma, were trained by Joseph Benoit-Guichard, who was scandalized when the Morisot women asked to paint en plein air (outside), a novel practice at the time. Benoit-Guichard introduced the Morisot sisters to Camille Corot (1796-1875), with whom they painted in the summer of 1861. 


Berthe Morisot.  Refuge in Normandy, 1865.  Oil on canvas, 18.1 by 21.7".  Private Collection.

Four years later, Berthe Morisot painted one of the first Impressionist paintings ever made, Refuge in Normandy.  This 1865 work portends some of the movement's defining traits like direct application of paint and rapid, short brushstrokes.

Landscapes typical of the time showed broad swaths of sky or countryside, but Morisot opts instead for a small rectangular section of sky that spreads diffuse light into the forest.  Her balancing of deep, shadowy greens with ochres provides depth and atmosphere in the forest, while the low view point renders the woods present and immediate. 

Manet balconyWhen Berthe Morisot was in the Louvre in 1868, her fellow artist, Henri Fantin-Latour, introduced her to Edouard Manet, who asked her to model for him.

She quickly became his favorite, first appearing in the left foreground in Le Balcon or The Balcony, considered controversial because Manet painted an immediate "moment" rather than a history painting and used vivid, saturated hues.

Edouard Manet.  The Balcony, 1868.  Oil on canvas, 67" by 49".  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

In an 1873 portrait of Berthe Morisot titled Le Repos, Manet inaccurately predicted Morisot wouldn't be recognizable in his finished work -- but she was, and Berthe Morisot shared in the scorn heaped upon another Manet painting. One critic went so far as to call Morisot the “queen of slovenliness” for the manner in which she sat (I frankly think she looks divinely comfortable!).

The friendship between Morisot and Manet endured.  Morisot entered the Manet family when she married Eugene, Edouard's brother, in 1874; he supported her career, and Morisot continued to paint.  Through the Manets she was introduced to numerous French Impressionist painters including Pisarro, Sisley, manet le reposRenoir, Degas, Cezanne and Monet, who joined her in showing in the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874.

Edouard Manet.  Le Repos (Repose), ca. 1870.  Oil on canvas, 59 1/8 by 44 7/8".  Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art.

Up next: Berthe Morisot exhibited nine paintings in the 1874 Salon -- more than nearly all of her peers. 

And for the art history buffs among us, a question: What painting and  famous painter was Manet directly referencing in his The Balcony

Tags: famous paintings, female artists, Berthe Morisot

Female Painters: Paula Modersohn-Becker

Posted by Susan Benford


Female painters Modersohn beckerRecognized now as one of the most significant female painters of the early 20th centuryPaula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) studied at the Berlin School of Art for Women.  She then moved in 1898 to Worpswede, an artist community near Bremen in northern Germany.  After a scathing review of her art paintings at a 1899 

Paula Modersohn Becker.  Self-Portrait with an Amber Necklace. 1906.  Oil on canvas, 24" by 19 3/4".  Offentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, Kunstmuseum, Switzerland. 

art exhibition, Modersohn-Becker retreated from Germany's public art scene.  Her style of painting - simple, primitive renderings of landscapes and people - was not understood by fellow Worpswede painters (including her husband, the painter Otto Modersohn), so she travelled to Paris for exposure to modern art and post-Impressionist paintings.

The influences are handily apparent - Modersohn-Becker was struck by the art paintings of Paul Cezanne (see Still Life with Goldfish), Henri Matisse (look a second time), and, as seen in Self Portrait with an Amber Necklace, by Paul Gauguin.  

It was rare at the time to execute a nude self-portrait, so Modersohn-Becker is dramatically asserting her confidence as both a female painter and as a woman. But she is not the eroticized and passive woman popular during and since Renaissance art.  Instead, 

Modersohn Becker still life goldfishModersohn-Becker presents a self-assured woman, a fertility goddess and a natural being, entwined with nature like the vines behind her.

Paula Modersohn Becker.  Still Life with Goldfish.  Oil on canvas, 1906.

She tenderly holds two flowers that echo the color and shape of her breasts.  A halo is formed with this pair of flowers and those in the vines and on her head.  Her amber necklace, resembling a lei seen on Gauguin's women, repeats this circular motif. 

Tragically, Modersohn-Becker died at the age of 31 shortly after childbirth.  In her seven years as an artist, she produced over 700 paula modersohn beckerpaintings and 1,000 drawings - remarkable, considering she had no recognition from the art world or fellow artists. 

Now, Modersohn-Becker is recognized in art history for helping shape the transition from the Symbolism of Gauguin to German Expressionism, and -- belatedly-- as one of the most famous female artists of the 20th century. 

Paula Modersohn-Becker.  Year unknown.




Tags: female artists, female painters, Paula Modersohn-Becker

Famous Paintings: Portrait of a Noblewoman

Posted by Susan Benford

guerilla girls naked metThe dearth of famous paintings by female artists isn't art history news, but after recently seeing the Guerilla Girls poster, Do Women Have to be Naked to get into the Met Museum?, I was curious - which woman in art history was first deemed a famous painter?  Introducing Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) of Bologna, Italy.

Renaissance art was informed by the guild system in Florence and Siena, which educated artists, helped with commissions, and discouraged female artists.  The system, though, was more relaxed in Northern Italian cities like Bologna. The daughter of Prospero Fontana, a Late Mannerist painter (and occasional head of the local painter's guild), Lavinia was tutored by him and exposed to Renaissance art by Correggio, Raphael, and Parmigianino.

By the 1570s, Lavinia Fontana was a highly regarded painter not only of portraits -- the typical, if only, option for female painters because they were forbidden to study anatomy - but also of large altarpieces, and art paintings depicting mythological and religious themes.  She was the most sought after portraitist in Bologna, and was patronized by the Bolognese Pope Gregory XIII.  When her reputation eclipsed that of her husband, the painter Gian Paolo Zappi, he became her assistant and primary caregiver for the couple's eleven children.  After Fontana's fame spread to Rome, she moved there to become a portraitist at the court of Pope Paul V. 

lavinia fontana portrait noblewoman

Lavinia Fontana.  Portrait of a Noblewoman, ca. 1580.  Oil on canvas, 45 1/4" by 35 1/4".  National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC.  Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay.

Portrait of a Noblewoman epitomizes Fontana's technical prowess in what is believed to be a wedding portrait. Fontana's use of  a dark background amplifies the noblewoman's sumptuous attire. With light pouring in from the left, every reflection from her jewels is captured, as is the textural differences among the silk, satin and lace of her wedding attire (most Bolognese wedding dresses during the Renaissance were red).  The woman modestly averts her eyes from the viewer while she strokes a small dog, a frequent symbol of fidelity. Hanging from her belt and dangling in the foreground is an oddity - the pelt of a marten whose head and jaws are bejeweled, another marker of her wealth.

lavinia fontana self portraitLavinia Fontana accomplished some "firsts" in art history -- she had a continuous 40 year long career; she produced some 135 art paintings, making her the first female artist in Western Europe to work competitively with men, outside a court or convent; and she had one, if not the, first stay-at-home husbandsl 

Left: Self Portrait, Lavinia Fontana.

Tags: famous paintings, female artists, Lavinia Fontana

Female Artists: Artemisia Gentileschi's Later Life

Posted by Susan Benford

One of the first female artists with a reputation beyond her native judith beheading holofernes gentileschicountry, Artemisia Gentileschi endured a tumultuous childhood (read about the early life of Artemisia Gentileschi) but thrived nonetheless.

She and her father, the painter Orazio Gentileschi, were acquainted with the renowned Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 - 1610).  In one of the best known Artemisia Gentileschi paintings, Judith Beheading Holofernes, (right), her rendition of this apocryphal legend was influenced by Caravaggio's version created about two decades earlier (below). The violence and drama of her painting, enhanced by use of chiaroscuro, are typical of the Caravaggisti, or followers who imitated Caravaggio paintings. 

Artemisia Gentileschi.  Judith Beheading Holofernes.  Oil on canvas, c. 1620.  Uffizi, Florence.

In comparing the Holofernes theme executed by each,  Mary D. Garrard (Artemisia Gentileschi; Rizzoli Art Series) observes:

"Her strategy was not so much to pay Caravaggio homage as to demand to be compared with him, to be taken seriously as an artist, perhaps even to go him one better."

In Gentileschi's rendition, Judith appears older, Abra is younger, and both unite to slaughter Holofernes.  The women dominate and control the action in a manner impossible to imagine with Caravaggio's timid females.  Gentileschi has not only demonstrated her superior ability to portray these women convincingly, but also has asserted her prowess in painting the Biblical and mythological themes typically handled only by male artists.

caravaggio judith beheading holofernesNearly four centuries later, her popularity is once again as pervasive as it was during her late career. Works of art previously attributed to Orazio and other Baroque painters, for example, have been attributed to

Caravaggio.  Judith Beheading Holofernes.  Oil on canvas, 1598-99.  57" x 76 1/2".  Palazzo Barberini, Rome. 

Artemisia Gentileschi.

The first art exhibition of Artemisia Gentileschi paintings was held in 1991 at Florence's Casa Buonarroti; significantly, the Casa was built by Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger, a nephew of Michelangelo and an early patron of Artemisia. Numerous books have been written about her (I'm a fan of Susan Vreeland's The Passion of Artemisia) and even a movie, Artemisia, was made in 1997. In it, the relationship between Artemisia and Tassi is portrayed as mutual and passionate -- but now you know that that is pure Hollywood, not art history!

Another of the famous paintings by Gentileschi, her Self-Portrait of 1630, typifies her tendency to challenge the status quo. The artemisia gentileschiposition in which she portrays herself is highly unusual, and would be daunting for any painter at any time in art history.

The Royal Collection, which owns this famous artwork, posits that she placed two facing mirrors on either side of herself. The mirror, traditionally an attribute of female vanity, is here associated with truth and accuracy -- and in the case of Artemisia Gentileschi,  with another break from tradition.

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Artemisia Gentileschi. Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1630. Oil on canvas, 38" x 29". The Royal Collection, St. James' Palace, London.

Tags: female artists, Artemisia Gentileschi

Female Artists: Artemisia Gentileschi

Posted by Susan Benford

Like all female artists of the Renaissance, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 - c. 1652) was forbidden to draw from the live, or naked, male model. Commissions for paintings from the Church and nobility were expected to incorporate characteristics like naturalism, tenebrism (the creation of forms by focusing a strong light source into a dark background) and drama enacted by men. Within these constraints of Renaissance art, female artists were forced into less prestigious and lucrative genres like still-life and portraiture. 

Luckily for Artemisia Gentileschi, her father was the established Renaissance painter Orazio Gentileschi, perhaps most memorable for his artwork in the Palazzo Rospigliosi-Pallavicini, the Borghese palace in Rome which also houses Guido Reni's breath-taking fresco, Aurora. In defiance of stereotypical roles in Renaissance art, Artemisia painted mythological and Biblical themes like her male peers, but she opted instead for women who were heroic, powerful or abused, such as Bathsheba, Susanna, Cleopatra, Judith, and Esther. 

famous paintings GentileschiThis choice of subject matter allowed her to define her own niche market in Renaissance art, the naked female form, but also recalled personal tragedy.

Orazio had hired the Italian painter, Agostino Tassi, to teach drawing to Artemisia; she subsequently claimed that he raped and sexually intimidated her. 

In the ensuing seven month court trial in 1621, she - as a teenager - was tortured with thumb screws to ascertain the truth of her claims; she was further subjected to relentless public humiliation from both the Roman judicial system and the public. Although Tassi was ultimately convicted (he also stood accused of raping his sister-in-law and one of his wives), Artemisia's honor and reputation were irreparably harmed.

Artemisia Gentileschi.  Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1620.  Oil on canvas, 78" x 64".  Uffizi, Florence. 

Orazio arranged a marriage of convenience to a Florentine painter, Pierantonio Stiattesi. Although the marriage was loveless and lasted until he abandoned her ten years later, it relocated Artemisia to Florence, and created a socially acceptable framework in which she could paint. And paint she did, in addition to mothering four children.

Although illiterate, she nonetheless flourished and became socially intimate with (and was unabashedly admired by) Galileo; had patrons including the Italian scholar, Cassiano del Pozzo, and Cosimo II de'Medici; and became in 1616 the first female painter in the Academy of Design (Accademia del Disegno). 

One of Artemisia Gentileschi's most famous paintings is Judith Beheading Holofernes (above) which illustrates an event from the Old Testament Book of Judith.  As the Assyrian general, Holofernes, prepared to destroy the land of Judah,  Judith went with her maidservant, Abra, to Holofernes' camp.  Posing as a deserter from the Hebrews, Judith seduced him with her beauty, plied him with alcohol, and severed his head.  After it was displayed from the city walls, the Assyrians disperse.  Quickly, legend has it!

Coming next... The later life (and success) of Artemisia Gentileschi

Tags: female artists, Renaissance art, Artemisia Gentileschi

Female Artists: Frida Kahlo

Posted by Susan Benford

The dearth of female artists winning Oscars was excruciatingly apparent when Kathryn Bigelow of Hurt Locker won for Best Frida Kahlo Nikolas MurayDirector, the first woman so honored.  This got me thinking of female painters who also attained such "firsts"...

Here's a debut post about a group of remarkable female artists, of whom Frida Kahlo will be the first.

Frida Kahlo (1907 - 1954) was a legendary beauty whose life and art paintings fueled interest in Mexican art.  After suffering polio at

Frida Kahlo. Photo by Nikolas Muray.

the age of six, Frida Kahlo endured a near fatal accident at the age of 18 that crushed her spine and pelvis. In spite of 32 subsequent operations over 26 years, Kahlo never fully recovered, suffering chronic pain for the remainder of her life.

Remarkably, Frida Kahlo taught herself to paint during her initial recuperation and painted for nearly three decades, leaving an oeuvre of nearly 200 Frida Kahlo paintings.

In 1929 she married the Mexican artist, Diego Rivera (born Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos frida kahlo wedding portraitAcosta y Rodríguez, for heaven's sake), known for his murals of the Mexican Revolution. The conflicts in their tempestuous and volatile relationship were apparent even in Frida and Diego Rivera, one of the first Frida Kahlo paintings of the pair.  

He alone is carrying painting tools, although each was an accomplished painter.  Kahlo portrays herself solely as a traditional wife, foreshadowing her lifelong struggle between this Mexican persona and her role as painter. 

Frida Kahlo. Frida and Diego Rivera, 1931. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 in. x 31 in. Acquired 1936. Albert M. Bender Collection, Gift of Albert M. Bender. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  

Frida Kahlo paintings are almost exclusively small, self-portraits in which she wears traditional Mexican clothing and surrounds herself with attributes associated with superstitions and folkloric beliefs.  Her paintings often explore her sexual and cultural identities through subjects seldom broached in Western art history or even by most female artists; these include childbirth, abortion and miscarriage. 

Kahlo's painting style incorporates her enduring fascination with Colonial and pre-Columbian artwork, with Mexican folk imagery like ex-votos (folk images placed at a church altar to thank Jesus for fulfilling wishes), and with the culture and ethos of Mexico.

Frida Kahlo paintings are readily identifiable but defy stylistic classification, although Andre Breton, the father of Surrealism, famously tried.  When visiting Diego Rivera in 1938, he labelled Kahlo a "natural Surrealist", to which Kahlo retorted that she hadn't known this frida kahlo the two fridasbefore Breton's arrival.

Kahlo stated:

"I never painted dreams.  I painted my own reality."

In spite of her resistance to Breton's label, he penned the intro for the catalog of her New York

Frida Kahlo. The Two Fridas, 1939. Oil on canvas, 5'9" x 5'9". Museum of Modern Art, Mexico City. 

art exhibition that year. 

This depiction of her "reality" is painfully portrayed in one of the best known Frida Kahlo paintings, The Two Fridas (above).

Painted during her divorce from Diego Rivera in 1939, Kahlo contended that he loved the Mexican Frida, dressed in a traditional peasant blouse and skirt on the right, but not the European Frida, who sits on the left in Victorian, European attire.  The two Fridas are united through their joined hands and a sole artery, whose blood flow comes from the minute portrait of Diego Rivera clasped by Mexican Frida.  The European Frida - the woman scorned - grips forceps and futilely tries to staunch the flow of blood coursing to their hearts and linking them to Rivera.  These detailed, exposed hearts leave no ambiguity about Kahlo's pain over Rivera's philandering and the demise of their marriage.

The next year, however, she and Rivera reconciled and remarried. Frida Kahlo became - or envisioned herself as - his protectress, as she depicted both of them in The Love Embrace of the Universe.  Sadly, she died a mere five years later.  

frida kahlo love embrace

Frida Kahlo, The Love-Embrace of the Universe, 1949. Oil on masonite,  approx. 28" x 24". The Modern and Contemporary Mexican Art Collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman.

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Upcoming: the "Female Artists" series continues with Artemisia Gentileschi (who wasn't so subservient in her marriage, even though it was centuries earlier than Kahlo's!), Judith LeysterRosa Bonheur, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Georgia O'Keeffe, Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, Helen Frankenthaler, Angelica Kauffmann, and Berthe Morisot

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Famous Painters Blogroll

Anguissola, Three Sisters Playing Chess and Phillip II of Spain

Beckmann, Blind Man's Buff

Beckmann, Departure; Self-Portrait in Tuxedo; Sinking of Titanic

Bingham, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri

BonheurPlowing in the Nivernais

Bonheur, The Horse Fair

Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights

Botticelli, Primavera

Caillebotte, Gustave, The Floor Scrapers; The House Painters; Pont de l'Europe; Paris Street, Rainy Day; Fruit Displayed on a Stand

Caravaggio, Fashion and Art History

CaravaggioConversion of St. Paul

Caravaggio, Young, Sick Bacchus and Basket of Fruit

Caravaggio, Cardsharps and Fortune Teller

Caravaggio, St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy

Caravaggio, Taking of Christ (Kiss of Judas)

Caravaggio Paintings at the Villa Borghese

Cave Paintings

Cezanne, Bathers 

Cezanne, Card Players

Cezanne, Madame Cezanne Paintings

Cezanne, Most Famous Paintings

Cezanne, Red Dress series

Copley, Paul Revere

David, Death of Marat 

David, Death of Socrates

David, Napoleon Crossing the Alps

de Kooning, Retrospective at MoMA (Part I)

de Kooning,Excavation and Painting, 1948 

de KooningWoman I

Degas, The Bellilli Family, The Dance Class, In a Cafe (Absinthe Drinker)

Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People  

Diebenkorn, The Ocean Park Series

Duncanson, Robert Seldon.  Art History Welcomes Duncanson 

Durer, The Four Apostles

El Greco, Burial of Count Orgaz

El Greco, View of Toledo

FontanaPortrait of a Noblewoman

Frankenthaler, Color Field Painting and Mountains and Sea

Gainsborough, The Blue Boy

Gentileschi, Artemisia.  Judith Beheading Holofernes

Gentileschi, Artemisia.  Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting 

Ghent Altarpiece.  

GiorgioneThree Philosophers 

Goya, Duchess of Alba

Goya, Family of Charles IV

Goya, Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta

Goya, The Third of May 1808 

Goya, Duchess of Alba; Saturn Devouring his Son; Two Old Men; Half-Submerged Dog; Black Paintings

Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece

Hals, Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard

Hals, The Laughing Cavalier

Hals, Regents of St. Elizabeth's Hospital

Hopper, Nighthawks

Ingres, Grande Odalisque and Portrait of Madame Moissetier

Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx

Isenheim Altarpiece

Kahlo, Renowned Frida Kahlo Paintings.  

Angelica Kauffmann.  Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting and David Garrick.  

Klimt, The Kiss and Adele Bloch-Bauer

Lawrence, Great Migration Series

Leonardo, Lady with an Ermine

Leonardo, Painter at the Court of Milan, National Gallery, London 

Leonardo, La Bella Principessa 

Leonardo, New Mona Lisa

Leonardo, Benois Madonna and Madonna Litta 

Leonardo, Savior of the World(Salvator Mundi) 

Leonardo, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne

Leyster, Famous Female Painters

20 Louvre Paintings not to Miss 

ManetA Bar at the Folies-Bergere

Manet, Luncheon in the Studio

Manet, The Old Musician

Manet, Street Singer

MantegnaDead Christ

Matisse Paintings, In Search of True Painting

Matisse, The DanceThe Music

Matisse, The Cone Collection

Matisse, The Red Studio

Matisse, The Yellow Dress

Michelangelo, Crucifixion with the Madonna

Michelangelo, Famous Paintings

Michelangelo, La Pieta with Two Angels (latest attribution?)

Michelangelo, St. John the Baptist Bearing Witness

Modersohn-Becker, Famous Female Painters

Monet, Impression, Sunrise

Monet, Nymphaes, Le Pont de l'Europe

Monet Paintings at the Marmottan Monet Museum

Monet, Waterlilies

Morisot, Famous Paintings

MorisotMore Famous Paintings

Munch, The Scream

O'Keeffe, Jack in the Pulpit

Peeters, Clara

Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror

Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust

Picasso, Portrait of Gertrude Stein

Picasso, Las Meninas

Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ

Pippin, Domino Players and Cabin in the Cotton

Poussin, Assumption of the Virgin

Raphael, Sistine Madonna

Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer 

Rembrandt, Night Watch

Rembrandt paintings at Frick Show

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait at an Early AgeJeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, The Jewish Bride

Rembrandt, The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild

Rubens, Venus and Adonis

Sanchez Cotan, Spanish Still-life

Sargent, El Jaleo

Sargent, Madame X

Sargent, Smoke of Ambergris

Steen, The Christening Feast 

Steen paintings at Frick Show

Tanner, The Banjo Lesson and The Thankful Poor

Titian, Assumption of the Virgin

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne

Titian, Man with a Glove

Titian, Nymph and Shepherd, Allegory of Prudence, Jacopa Strada, St. Jerome, Slaying of Marysas

Titian, Rape of Europa

Turner, J. M. W, The Fighting Temeraire

Uccello, Battle of San Romano

van der Weyden, St. Luke Drawing the Virgin

van Eyck, Arnolfini Portrait

van Eyck, Adoration of the Lamb

van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece

van Gogh, The Potato Eaters

van GoghMemory of Garden at Etten; Tatched Cottages; White House

van Gogh,  Portrait of Madam Trabuc; Morning: Going Out

van Gogh, Starry Night

van Gogh, Three Pairs of Shoes

Vincent van Gogh paintings up to 1889

Vincent van Gogh paintings, 1888-1890

Vigee-LeBrun, Marie Antoinette and Her Children, Self Portrait, Self-Portrait with Julie

Velazquez, Juan de Pareja

Velazquez, Pope Innocent X

Velazquez, Overview of Famous Paintings

Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Vermeer, Saint Praxedis

Vermeer, The Kitchen Maid

Vermeer, The Allegory of Painting

VermeerGirl with the Red Hat

Vigee-LeBrun, Marie Antoinette and Her ChildrenSelf PortraitSelf-Portrait with Julie

Warhol, Campbell's Soup Cans

Warhol, Marilyn Diptych and Gold Marilyn 

Warhol, Mao 

Whistler, Whistler's Mother

Anders Zorn

Famous Paintings by Art Museums

Learn about famous paintings to see in these art museums:

Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY). One of those intimate, small art museums with a stellar collectionExplore famous paintings at the Albright-Knox. 

Art Institute of Chicago: Plan to see these famous paintings at the Art Institute -- and download an ebook about them.

Louvre Museum, (Paris): one of the largest art museums in the world! Know which Louvre paintings not to miss in this sortable ebook. 

Mauritshuis Museum: explore works by renowned Dutch painters

Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City): download the ebook, Famous-Paintings-Metropolitan-Museum, to learn its must-see masterpieces. Or read the blog post, "Famous Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum". 

National Gallery (London): with 2300 famous paintings alone in its European painting section, discover highlights to see!  Art Paintings to See at the National Gallery.

Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam): 10 famous paintings not to miss

Washington, D.C. Art Museums: Explore forty famous paintings in Washington, DC in this article.

Whitney Museum of American Art.  Don't miss these 10 famous paintings at the Whitney.

Most Popular Posts

Michelangelo PaintingsThe Torment of Saint Anthony; The Manchester Madonna;Holy Family (Doni Tondo); and Entombment

Cave Paintings: explore this prehistoric art in Spain and France.

Picasso's Las Meninas: 58 Picasso paintings inspired by Velazquez's Las Meninas

Ghent Altarpiece: the van Eyck masterpiece, one of the most famous artworks ever made. 

10 Famous Paintings at the Prado. Don't miss a one of these.

Survey of Renaissance Paintings: want to know what Renaissance paintings were all about? Start with 20 of its most famous painters in this sweeping survey! 

Discover more of readers' favorite art history blog posts. 

Female Artists

While we long for the time when artists are artists and genderless, that time isn't yet here.

These are a few of the female artists who've left lasting legacies in the history of painting:

Sofonisba AnguissolaThree Sisters Playing ChessPhillip II of Spain

Rosa Bonheur.  Plowing in the Nivernais.  Horse Fair.

Lavinia Fontana. Portrait of a Noblewoman.

Helen Frankenthaler. Color Field Painting and Mountains and Sea. 

Artemisia Gentileschi.  Judith Beheading Holofernes.  Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting.

Frida Kahlo.  Frida and Diego Rivera.  The Two Fridas.  The Love Embrace of the Universe. 

Angelica Kauffmann.  Self-Portrait Torn Between Music and Painting.  David Garrick.

Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun.  Self-Portrait; Marie Antoinette and Her Children; Self-Portrait with Julie

Judith Leyster.  Self-Portrait.  The Proposition. 

Paula Modersohn-Becker. Self-Portrait with an Amber Necklace. Still Life with Goldfish. 

Berthe Morisot.  Refuge in Normandy.  The Cradle. 

Georgia O'Keeffe. Jack in the Pulpit Series. 

Survey of Female Artists

Art History Beyond Europe

A few forays into art outside Europe:

African Art and Bocio

African Mask of Idia


Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Great Wave

The Terracotta Warriors