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Brushed Off: Women Artists and Their Fight for Recognition

by Shelley Mosley

*This article originally appeared in the March issue of RA News. Subscribe to RA News and any of our other newsletters.*

Whether they were Renaissance portrait artists, 20th century photographers, or even modern day graffiti artists, women in the visual arts have faced overwhelming discrimination throughout history. They were discouraged from painting. They were forbidden to enter the arts guilds or arts academies. Their beautiful pieces of art were dismissed as "women's crafts,” (needlework, textile arts, etc.) Those rare women trained by their fathers or brothers often saw those same family members take credit for the women's paintings. Just like women authors had to publish under a man's name (i.e. Pearl S. Buck as John Sedges), women artists often signed their masterpieces with a masculine pseudonym.

Despite the odds against them, some of these fabulous females became famous in their own right, among them Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cassatt, and “Grandma Moses” (Anna Mary Robertson). However, there are artists with whom your library customers may not be as familiar. Many remarkable books about these women artists, such as Patricia Allmer, Roger Cardinal, and Mary Ann Caw's Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism or Marion Dell's Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell: Remembering St. Ives are hard to find, but well worth the search. After all, what librarian doesn't fancy a trip to the local art museum gift shop or used bookstore to dig for elusive treasures that will enhance his or hers fine arts collection?

Women Artists Reading List

Royalists to Romantics: Women Artists from the Louvre, Versailles, and Other French National Collections by Laura Auricchio, Melissa Lee Hyde, Mary D. Sheriff, and Jordana Pomeroy.

Thirty-five women artists from the most tumultuous period in France's history are featured in this gorgeous book. One-page biographies of each artist appear with images of her work. The focus here is on the women's personal lives and experiences. For example, Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun, daughter of artist Louis Vigée, rose to fame as Marie Antoinette’s official portraitist, only to be forced to flee France during the French Revolution. These personalized studies provide fascinating insights into these creative women as people, leaving criticism of their art up to the reader.

Women Artists by Margaret Barlow
From Renaissance artists like Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola to Latin American artists and sculptors such as Frida Kahlo, Barlow covers a broad spectrum of women's art in this lusciously illustrated, oversized volume. Barlow's notes put these artists in a cultural and historic context, which adds much to the appreciation of these fantastic females and their work.

Women Artists in the 20th and 21st Century by Ilka Becker, Uta Grosenick, and Paul Aston.
Fifty-six contemporary women artists as diverse as French painter/designer Sonia Delaunay and experimental artist/musician Yoko Ono grace the pages of this information-filled book. Besides painting and drawing, the authors also include the works of female artists in photography, film, performance/video art, traditional sculpture, and assemblage (sculpture from found objects).

Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists by Lisa E Farrington.
African-American women artists battled racism as well as sexism. This powerful study features women from the slave era to the 21st century. Author Lisa Farrington excels at exploring the impact of important historical developments on related artistic movements. She delivers an especially thoughtful, interesting look at how the Harlem Renaissance, FDR's New Deal, and the civil rights and feminist movements profoundly affected the work of African-American women artists. In this must-have book, readers will be introduced to such amazing artists as sculptor Edmonia Lewis, sculptor/educator/civil rights activist Augusta Savage, and professor/ painter/mixed media sculptor/writer/performance artist Faith Ringgold.

In Wonderland: The Surrealist Adventures of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States by Ilene Susan Fort, Tere Arcq, Terri Geis, Dawn Ades, and Maria Elena Buszek.
The surrealist movement in art -- with its focus on intuitive, personally symbolic imagery -- enabled many women artists across the U.S. and Mexico free reign to share the colorful images of their dreams and subconscious. Here, a top team of art historians brings to life 48 of these women and their works. 250 colorful examples of their art tell the story of big names, such as Frida Kahlo, as well as lesser known (but no less talented) women like Alice Rahon and Loren MacIver. Readers will love this vivid visual tour of how the surrealist aesthetic liberated the female mind.

Invisible Women: Forgotten Artists of Florence by Jane Fortune with Linda Falcone
In this gorgeous and exciting work, author Jane Fortune takes readers along on a giant treasure hunt through museums, archives, and other collections to unearth "invisible women," the long-forgotten female artists of a city famed for artistic greatness: Florence, Italy. At the end of the book, a "Women Artists Trail" map inventories the works discussed, and provides a handy walking-tour summary of Florence for readers inspired to re-create Fortune's quest (even if only from a comfortable armchair).

Graffiti Women: Street Art from Five Continents by Nicholas Ganz, et. al.
Ganz, a German graffiti artist who goes by his alter ego’s pseudonym (a name he created), "keinom," traveled the world to seek street artists and gather information for this book. This fascinating collection of street art by women like Lady Pink and Miss 17 -- all of whom had to break into the "boy's club" of graffiti art -- features 1000 illustrations.

Women Artists: An Illustrated History by Nancy G. Heller.
Full of splendid reproductions, Heller's book includes little-known artists not usually found in other art surveys. With an emphasis on modern artists from 1960 to the beginning of the 21st century, Heller features such diverse artists as Icelandic sculptor Katrin Sigurdardottir and Iranian photographer/videographer Shirin Neshat.

Danger! Women Artists at Work by Debra N. Mancoff.
The stories of sixty women, ranging from Renaissance artist Barbara Longhi, whose training in her father's studio was unheard of, to modern artists, such as feminist painter/sculptor/author Judy Chicago, are captured in six thematic chapters: "In the Company of Men"; "Blurring Boundaries"; "Looking at Bodies"; "Seizing the Narrative"; "Playing with Danger"; and "In Her Own Image." Mancoff reveals their on-going battle for basic recognition and acceptance. The beautiful, full-page prints of their works included here are testaments to their final victory.

A History of Women Photographers by Naomi Rosenblum.
From the age of the 19th century daguerreotype to present day, female photographers, from Julia Margaret Cameron to Margaret Bourke-White and Annie Leibovitz have encountered persistent discrimination, particularly the attribution of their work to men. Illustrations provide an impressive diversity of subjects. This third revised edition adds more photographers and fourteen additional images to the three hundred images in the original volume as well as an afterward on the impact of digital technology.

Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945 by Patricia Trenton and Virginia Scharff.
Ten essays by female museum curators and academics share the stories of women artists in the western part of the United States from 1890 to the end of World War II. The diverse group of artists featured includes women of Native American, Mexican, African, Asian, and Anglo descent. While much of the book focuses on California artists, there are interesting features on artists in Arizona and New Mexico, too. Trenton and Schraff's book also covers large regions of the American West, from the Pacific Northwest to the Great Plains and the Rockies


Although retired library manager Shelley Mosley can't even draw a proper stick figure, she has a great appreciation for those who can.