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Art Matters is the podcast that brings together popular culture and art history, hosted by Ferren Gipson.

For statistics on the representation of women in gallery spaces, you might be interested to follow the work of the Guerrilla Girls art collective. Their graphic posters highlight figures like the low ratio of female to male artists in modern art sections of museums, and the high proportion of female nudes compared to male nudes. These disparities can also be found in art writing, where women artists are vastly outnumbered in art historical texts. Fortunately, this trend is changing with museums acquiring more works by women artists and the Baltimore Museum of Art recently announcing they would dedicate all of their 2020 programming to female artists.

Of the 1.5 million biographies on Wikipedia, only 17% are on women. The organisation Art + Feminism states that less than 10% of Wikipedia contributors are women, and this low number of female writers may factor into the gender imbalance of biographies across sectors. As these statistics come to light, more and more people are taking it into their hands to create entries for women artists and dedicate social media accounts to filling in the gaps left by popular historical texts.

Woman with Dead Child

Woman with Dead Child 1903

Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945)

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Phaidon's new book Great Women Artists provides a permanent printed home for these artists, compiling over 400 women in one volume and shining a light on artists missing from major art historical texts. One such text is E. H. Gombrich's best-selling art book The Story of Art, also published by Phaidon, which online includes one woman.

'[Gombrich] included [Käthe Kollwitz] in the German edition which was then put into the English edition,' says Rebecca Morrill, Commissioning Editor for art books at Phaidon. 'When that was published in 1950, it wasn't so unusual to do a book without any women artists in it, and I think we have to be a bit careful about judging the past by the values of the present... If we were commissioning today we would look for something that had far greater diversity.'


Gluck 1942

Gluck (1895–1978)

National Portrait Gallery, London

The book spans periods, regions, ages, ethnicities and is inclusive of trans and non-binary artists. The title Great Women Artists may read like a simple descriptor of the artists the book contains, but it's actually inspired by a 1971 essay by the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin titled 'Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?'.

'[The essay] challenged the idea of why greatness is a concept completely rooted in patriarchal structures which actively excluded women, and that's why women didn't have these positions of power and their work wasn't being collected by museums,' says Rebecca.

The strikethrough on the word 'women' acknowledges that this is not only a group of great women artists, but a group of great artists in any context. It's a nod to artists like Georgia O'Keeffe who famously said that she wanted to be known as a 'great artist, period'.

Vase of Flowers

Vase of Flowers

Mary Moser (1744–1819)

The Fitzwilliam Museum

Finding patterns

The volume spans 500 years with the earliest artist, Properzia de' Rossi, dating to the fifteenth century. When one compiles a list of this size, it's interesting to draw out patterns, like the increase of women artists over time. The influence of Royal Academy founding members Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffman was relatively rare in their time, but from the nineteenth century onwards there was a gradual increase in the number of women attending art academies and exhibiting their work in salon exhibitions.

Mirage (Ballet Dancer)

Mirage (Ballet Dancer) 1946–1947

Dora Gordine (1895–1991) and Morris Singer Art Foundry Ltd (founded 1927)

Dorich House Museum, Kingston University

Rebecca observed another pattern in the number of artists that lived and worked beyond the age of 90 years old. Louise Jopling was a Victorian-era painter who lived to be 90. She gained commercial success painting wealthy and famous sitters, and at one time was the primary earner in her family. Dora Gordine lived to age 96 and was a Modernist sculptor, painter and designer of Dorich House Museum in London. There's also Grandma Moses, who famously hit her artistic stride in her 80s and lived to be 101.

Portrait of a Lady

Portrait of a Lady 1551

Catharina van Hemessen (1528–after 1587)

The National Gallery, London

Pioneering women

I recently came across the work of sixteenth-century Flemish portrait painter Catharina van Hemessen and learned that she is often credited as the first artist to paint a self portrait seated at an easel. If you do a search for self portraits on Art UK, you'll find numerous examples of artists painting themselves in this way. It's amazing to think that something so commonplace began with a woman who many will not have heard of. It's one small example of how writing about women artists highlights the pioneering contributions of women who achieved success and broke new ground in the arts – often from a position of disadvantage.

'We often think we look at women artists that they are the first woman to have done xyz – the first one to join the Royal Academy, Amy Sherald was the first black woman to receive a commission for a portrait of the First Lady of America – but there are a number of artists who are just the first at all,' says Rebecca. 'Anni Albers was the first designer to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Diane Arbus was the first photographer to be included in the Venice Biennale in 1972. Laurie Anderson was NASA's first-ever artist-in-residence. Tacita Dean was the first artist to have concurrent exhibitions across three major public galleries in London.'

The need for writing about women artists will be ongoing as we not only make up for lost time, but document new artists emerging every day. It is also the hope that these writings will increasingly become better incorporated into general art discourse. If this discussion has inspired you to do some writing of your own, please follow us on Twitter to keep an eye out for news of our upcoming Wikipedia edit-a-thons. We'll be hosting events to create and expand on bios for women sculptors. 

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