Why Our History Has No Female Artists? Lets Try To Understand
If you’re feeling particularly anti-feminist, you might say that women are just not as creative as the menfolk were. Women were not as artistically inclined, were not as skilled, ‘were meant to stay in the kitchen’.
Or you might go in the other direction entirely and say, ‘you’re just making a mountain out of a molehill, there are plenty of women artists throughout history.’
The stats can disprove only the second statement, sadly. But that's what the rest of the article is for.
The artistic merits of male vs. female artists is a very subjective topic, because the interpretation of art in and of itself is highly subjective. We are not having a feminist debate today. This is a purely factual investigation. That being said; let’s take a walk.
What do we know about women? About their status in society?
The answers to that are a bit all over the place, but for the most part we can agree that women in general have enjoyed far fewer rights and liberties than men. Things are getting better, though. In a very ‘two steps forward one step back’ kind of way, but still. Progress is progress. Certain recent (extreme) regressions aside (*cough* Afghanistan *cough*).
Now you’re probably thinking, “Hey, you said this wasn’t a feminist article, why are we talking about women’s rights? You tricked me into reading about feminism!” To which I say; context is everything, lads. No one thing or phenomenon exists in isolation, especially not art. Art is linked to socio-cultural-political-environmental-etc. factors in many ways, the least of which is for those subjects to serve as inspiration.
Consider these examples.
There are three women. All of them want to be artists. They’re all strong independent women who don’t need no man. What could possibly stop them?
Heroine number one is a young European aristocrat from the 1600's. She was born just clear of what would be classified as medieval times, in a period where women were (ostensibly) reaching positions of power. Joan of Arc had just led the French army in the 100 year war, women were playing a larger role in religious and theological discussions in the Catholic Church; there was even a lady writer calling people out on their misogyny.
Let’s put that in perspective, though. These events were somewhat isolated; the general vibe of the time was that these women had been ‘allowed’ to participate. Which is icky all by itself, but it speaks to a larger problem. I promised that there wouldn’t be any feminist discourse though, so suffice it to say for now that these trailblazing ladies (and the relatively more liberal men who were in positions of power and could support them), were exceptions to the rule. How’s that, you ask?
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Well, apart from the usual issues you’ll hear about - mainly of the ye olde ‘go make me a sandwich’ variety, women not being allowed to own property, etc. etc., this means our young lady was still very much subject to the general rules of the time. Now let’s say she grew up around art, because that was one of the few ways to actually get into art back then. Maybe her dad was a painter. Maybe he doted on his daughter, taught her everything he knew, and, et voila, an artist was born. And maybe she was even really good at it; prodigious, even, and won patrons left, right and centre during her career.
None of that matters. The real problem occurs after she died, because once no one was around to champion her ownership of her work, or its visibility.
So now you’re thinking ‘how stupid do you have to be to instantly forget about her paintings? Like, surely her patrons at least would’ve kept track.’ And you are absolutely correct! I too am baffled by it! But alas, history states that that is exactly what happened. Women’s accomplishments are woefully underrepresented, even to this day, if not mis-attributed entirely.
And this story was based on a real person; Artemisia Gentileschi, of Italy. Unlike her male contemporaries, Artemisia's art wasn't 'rediscovered' until the 1970's, when the feminist movement began to pick up some steam. Her work was a footnote to her father's for the longest time, or it just wasn't talked about at all (which her dad would've been livid about, because he loved his daughter's work). And for those of you out there who will say she fell off the radar because her art just wasn't that good; here you go. Our gal was friends with Galileo and her style's been compared to Caravaggio. Your argument is invalid.
So that covers the murky, murky waters of (in)accurate attribution and/or willful undervaluation throughout history. That wasn’t the only issue though, and that brings us to heroine number two. Her problems were somewhat similar. She too lived in a patriarchal society, and there’s was a lot going on politically, what with colonisation and slavery and all. She worked in the house of this rich lady and sure, technically she was a slave, but at least she wasn't in the fields. Small mercies, she would tell herself. Her mistress was a relatively benign individual who let her do as she pleased when she wasn't working, which was an occurrence that actually happened, unlike the horror stories she'd hear about from other parts of the country. Anyway, she had a little loom in her room, and she'd spend evenings spinning away, trying to replicate the patterns she remembered from back home. Sewing, weaving, embroidery; you name it, she did it. The mistress would even come by sometimes and browse the shelves, ask our heroine questions about her designs and whether or not she could make them for her. All things considered; our heroine was relatively happy. All the slaves in the county wore the garments she made, let them retain a little piece of home.
'That doesn't sound too bad, actually. She wasn't underappreciated at all, so what's your point?' You ask.
Ah, but see, the question is, was she appreciated? As an asset to society, sure, loved by her community and all that. But as an artist? Do we consider weavers artists even today? My point here isn't just that weaving is undervalued; the point here is to underline the pattern that emerges when you look at mediums that are traditionally considered ‘women’s work’, like jewelry making. Weaving. Embroidery. Sewing. Hell, cooking. If a woman cooks, it’s her duty, but if a man cooks, he’s a chef. Like, that’s just what they’re supposed to do, what makes it so special?
Rangoli, for example - traditionally done by women, versus Buddhist sand Mandalas - traditionally done by men. Both of them are patterns made with sand that are eventually swept away, but only the latter is considered ‘art’. Only the latter is considered a metaphor for ‘letting go’ and what not. Why?
There’s more, though; there were a lot of social undercurrents that also dictated the kind of stuff that a woman was not only allowed to do, but also had access to, which brings us to example the third; our wild child Parisian teenager. Now, Paris was kind of the art hub of the west in the 19th century, for arts of all kinds. Painting, fashion, sculpture, you name it. Business was booming, art schools were all the rage, people were flocking to Paris to study art.
Well, men were, that is. Heroine the third could not study art because she was a woman, and women weren’t allowed to go to art school. Or school at all, for that matter. See, there were very specific expectations society had of women, much as it does today; get married, make babies, manage the household, and all that jazz. Key difference between now and then though; at least now the government frowns upon that kind of discrimination. So, keeping that in mind, it's not so much a discussion about 'why were there so few women artists', so much as it is, 'why were there so few women in professional roles of any kind, save those that are 'female coded' like nursing and teaching?' Our protagonist may well have been from a progressive family, may have had a lot more freedom than the average girl while growing up, but she was, ultimately, still part of that society, and therefore, subject to its rules.
‘Oh, but there’s so many women who overcame their circumstances to follow their passions, she could’ve done the same!’ Aha! But to admit that she could overcome, you have to acknowledge that there was something to overcome, right?
TLDR; why were there so few female artists throughout history? It's the same reason there are few great female scientists. It's because society straight up did not let women go to school, and pointed and laughed when they tried to go anyway.
This gif just about sums it up.
And them’s the facts, folks. That being said, if you have contradictory opinions, we’d love to hear them, and if you can back your arguments up with resources, even better. Who knows, we might even feature you and your perspective in another article, if you’re convincing enough! After all, as Tom Clancy says;
“A lively discussion is usually helpful, because the hottest fire makes the hardest steel.”
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Written by Sambhavi Sinha, Content Writer at Skyshot Arts and Entertainment, who definitely was not listening to 'BO$$' by Fifth Harmony while writing this.
Brown, Taylor Whitten. “Why Is Work by Female Artists Still Valued Less than Work by Male Artists?” Artsy, March 8, 2019. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-work-female-artists-valued-work-male-artists.
Deegan, Rebecca, and Sim Wadiwala. “Here's Why We like Men's Art More than Women's.” Economy - Charitable Organisation, May 30, 2019. https://www.ecnmy.org/engage/heres-like-mens-art-womens/.
“Gender Debate in Art.” Kooness. Accessed October 9, 2021. https://www.kooness.com/art-gender-debate.
National Museum of Women's Arts. “Get the Facts about Women in the Arts.” NMWA, July 22, 2020. https://nmwa.org/support/advocacy/get-facts/.
NINE dot ARTS. “Gender in the Art World, a Look at the Numbers: Nine Dot Arts: Denver + Seattle.” NINE dot ARTS | Denver + Seattle, May 27, 2020. https://ninedotarts.com/gender-in-the-art-world-a-look-at-the-numbers/.
Reilly, Maura. “Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures, and Fixes.” ARTnews.com, November 18, 2019. https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/taking-the-measure-of-sexism-facts-figures-and-fixes-4111/.