The Trouble With Art

"A Mother" by Elizabeth Nourse 1888

Art. It has been described throughout history as an inclusive way to change, hearts and minds. Inclusive?  Well, no…but…We’ve come a long way…maybe! 

Troublemakers! How many times have we been told “I didn’t see the perfect candidate in that group of considerations.” It would be easy to think or say that there were no women creating important art throughout the years and therefore there were no women of fame in the art world. Not true. But if you were interested in learning about art growing up, or until very recently, chances are you were only exposed to the work of very few woman artists, especially here in the USA. 

Women are underrepresented in every corner of the art world. Visit any major museum in the US and you will be searching, and finally screaming “Where are the women!”  If you are loud enough, TroubleMaker, someone might point out one or two among the hundreds of works of art. Or if you are lucky, a major art institution or gallery is having a “women’s retrospective.” 

“I have always reacted to the term ‘woman artist,’ because I so rarely see the term ‘man artist.’ Both terms are frustrating in our era of gender fluidity,” says Art Professor Kimberly Cassibry. (Wellesley College)

We could assume that art is a privileged pastime, but quite frankly, in all walks of life, we are exposed to art every day. The push to include women makers in important U.S. exhibitions and retrospectives is finally happening..but artists will tell you that it’s “art” and although highlighting women is wonderful, it’s time to honor genius creators regardless of gender. Institutions are late to the table on buying fine art (painting, drawing, sculpture) by women to include in their male-dominated permanent collections (and some museums are buying but not exhibiting these pieces just to jump on the equity bandwagon.) 

What makes that “art” you might ask. One might describe art as something that encompasses a visual or emotional reaction. Often art is created and provoked by history, community, politics, sometimes encompasses literature, current events, even dreams. (Wait! There are a lot of TroubleMakers in all of those!) Art gives us an opportunity to use all our senses. It is subjective; what one might love another one might hate.  When we look at art we can go deep or we can just experience something that we love (or hate!) and wonder why we love it.

One of the greatest gifts to the United States is the art, galleries, and museums of Washington DC. In our Nation’s Capital, most are free and open to the public. Women are underrepresented in these places, so much so that the National Museum for Women in Arts was established with the hope of jumpstarting conversations about equity and highlighting women artists throughout history. You have to ask: Why do we need a museum just for women anyway?  Back to acquisitions, representation, opportunity, acknowledgment, and financial investment. 

“Some artists and scholars argue that gender-based shows encourage tokenism and relegate women artists to the sidelines, suggesting that they can’t compete or hold their own with equivalent work by male artists. Others argue that specialized attention to women artists is long overdue and a necessary corrective to the centuries of systemic gender discrimination embedded in museums, galleries, the academy and the marketplace,” says Nonie Gadsden, senior curator of American decorative arts and sculpture at the MFA in this Tuft University review of “Women Take the Floor at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The review also states: “Art museums have a long history of gender and racial inequality, with women—especially BIPOC women—being severely undervalued. A 2019 survey of US art museum collections found that the artists included were 87 percent male and 85 percent white.” 

Fine art throughout the centuries was considered just for the privileged.  The hidden secret is that art is everywhere, and in every moment of history art is present, sometimes taking center stage, and sometimes existing without us even being aware of it. So, of course, women have been making art since the beginning of time. Weaving, tapestry, knitting, and sewing for some, and for others, drawing, painting and mosaic work have always been done by women but seen as a “hobby.” Like literature art was seen as a man’s profession throughout the centuries and before the 1800’s women created masterpieces that were never seen. In the Victorian era, women were painting exquisite miniatures that were used as calling cards and letters of love by society. Often men would request them to be made for their pleasure and courting. Women certainly didn’t make a living from their efforts.  With a lack of exposure and opportunity, early women’s masterpieces were done in the home and often by women of means because materials were expensive and not easily obtained. These women were usually taught by a male family member.  Subject matter was restricted to what could be seen in one’s surroundings. These women’s names were not known but recently there has been a push to recognize them as accomplished artists.  It was only in the early 1900s that women who pursued art, and wanted to be immersed in it,  became parts of “Studios.” Art was produced while working alongside men.  Regardless of the output, women still were hardly considered for the exhibitions, with broader access to the public, that were becoming so popular.  Although praised by their peers the work was hardly seen. 

Journalist, historian and curator Katy Hessel’s new book, The Story of Art Without Men outlines the history of women artists from the 1500’s to present day. In it, you will find information on the brilliant women artists unrecognized and underappreciated. The photos of their art are a feast for the eyes. Be shocked (not at the talent) but that these art goddesses were never given their due. 

When considering your first or next purchase, take a look at the brilliance out there of TroubleMaking women creators. Buy art from women, whether it’s at your local festival, street fare, open studio, or gallery show. 

Maybe you’ve heard of Georgia Okeefe or Mary Cassatt..these badass TroubleMakers were talented and lucky; they had fame and fortune.  There are so many more amazing artists-so let us tell you about a few that you probably missed.

Here is a very short list (wishing we could include them all) for your journey of American TroubleMakers in Art:

Henrietta Johnston (1670-1729) The first female portrait painter in the American colonies

Elizabeth Jane Gardner (1837-1922 ) The first woman to exhibit at the Paris Salon, she applied to the police for a permit that would allow her to wear men’s clothing so she could go to life drawing classes (painting nude subjects)

Cecilia Beaux  (1855-1942) She completed her first medal-winning portrait in 1884

Elizabeth Nourse (1860-1928) Honored as one of the first women to be voted into the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts

Lilla Cabot Perry (1845-1933) Her wealth and connections helped her career..and she loved and painted cats

Alice Neel (1900-1984) Was an admired painter whose work focused on social issues. In her later life, her self-portraits celebrated the body unapologetically

Lee Krasner (1908-1924) The pioneer of American abstract painting, collage and assemblage. Yes, she was married to Jackson Pollack, but she was a respected artist of incredible talent well before they met

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) She benefited from wealth and connections but stands out as an ambitious widely exhibited artist in the 1960’s

Faith Ringgold (b. 1932) She is a painter, teacher, performance artist, and activist, she is well known for her painted story quilts

Simone Leigh (b. 1967) A sculpture artist, she represented the United States in the 2022 International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia in 2022. She is the first black woman given this honor

Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971) A contemporary artist using multi-media -collage, sculpture, and paint to celebrate black feminity 

"Self Portrait" Alice Neel 1980
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