Women Artists   

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.

Sarah Peale (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.

Catherine 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 Beaux (1855-1942), 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.

Elizabeth Nourse, 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 exhibition.

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 Oakley (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. Lucia Mathews (1870-1955), who with her husband Arthur Mathews, was a leader of the West Coast Arts and Crafts 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, Margaretta and Mary Jane - had strong encouragement and tutelage from their relatives, Charles Willson Peale and James Peale. In the early 20th century, Georgia O'Keeffe (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, Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), a Color Field painter, was specially touted, and some say created in reputation, by New York Times critic 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.

Sources include:

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

If you have information to contribute on this subject, contact us via email: registrar@AskART.com

Artists with a connection to Women Artists
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