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 Eakins 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 paintingand 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.

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

Above right: 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.

+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.

Georgia 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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