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Top 6 Famous Female Artists and their Work

As a female artist myself, I sometimes get asked whom I think are the top 6 female artists throughout history. It’s a tough question, as there are many talented and famous women artists. For most of history, painting was a male dominated profession, so female artists only managed to break through and become mainstream in the 20th century. Like all professions however, there was never a time in history when there weren’t at least some women taking part. That being said, the list below is a list of my 5 favorite female artists and their work. They are a diverse group, spanning many centuries and many countries and continents. Each had their own struggles, ranging from issues such as mental health or learning disabilities to of course finding commercial success and making a name for themselves in the art world. Still, I find these female artists interesting both in terms of their own lives and their art.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532 – 1625)

Self Portrait (1556)

Sofonisba Anguissola was an Italian court portraitist during the late Renaissance. Born in Cremona, Northern Italy to a noble family, she was the oldest of seven children, with five sisters and one brother. She had the good fortune of having a father who encouraged all of his children to pursue their talents and receive a well rounded education, including in fine arts. This was unusual at the time, as women (and men) were expected to stick to their gender roles. Painting was strictly a male profession, as it involved studies in anatomy, and viewing nudes was not socially acceptable for women.

Elizabeth of Valois (1561-1565)

Eventually, her talents led her to the Spanish court, where in 1559 she became friends with the Spanish Queen, Elizabeth of Valois. Anguissola continued painting royalty until she got married, later retiring to her home country of Italy. She died at the age of 93 having left behind a mountain of groundbreaking work. Over the course of her career she gained an international reputation as arguably the first female renaissance painter of note. Her status as a master painter made way for future female artists to gain acceptance into the world of art.

Today we take it for granted that women can live and work independently, but back then it wasn’t even remotely socially acceptable. Not only did she work, but she thrived as a famous female painter. This went against the stereotypical image of a starving artist who was depicted as hungry and poor. Anguissola was accepted as an artistic master and traversed both social and class differences. 

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755 – 1842)

Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (1782)

Like her Italian predecessor, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was also a famous court painter. One of the first French female artists of prominence, she gained the patronage of Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France, before the French Revolution. Vigée Le Brun was sometimes a controversial artist. First, in 1783 she painted a portrait Marie-Antoinette in a Muslin Dress which showed the French queen in informal attire, a decision Marie-Antoinette herself had made and was later criticized for. Later portraits of the queen included her children in a more formal setting, showcasing the French monarch in traditional, motherly roles.

Marie-Antoinette in a Muslin Dress (1873)

Maternity was a common theme in Vigée Le Brun’s paintings. Her piece Self Portrait with Daughter Julie also caused a minor scandal because it showed the artist smiling, something that went against traditional artistic conventions dating back centuries. 

Self Portrait with Daughter Julie (1787)

Nonetheless, Vigée Le Brun later became one of the only 15 french female painters who gained membership to France’s Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture from the time of its foundation in 1648, until it was dissolved in 1793 during the French Revolution. Fleeing the violence of the war, Vigée Le Brun spent the next dozen years in Italy, Austria, Russia, and Germany where she continued painting royalty. Finally, in 1802 she returned to France where she lived until her death at the age of 86.

Personally I’m a fan of her work because she utilized quite unusual artistic methods at the time. Much of her work was created using pastels as a medium, as opposed to pure oil on canvas. Pastels, which are basically dry sticks of pigment dust used to draw, are of course quite popular today, but were not in 18th century France.

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992)

Mitchell in 1983

Joan Mitchell was one of the famous female painters of the 20th century. An American abstract expressionist, she had an extensive body of work both in the United States and in France. She painted large scale, multi-panel pieces – often landscapes. Her work was emotionally charged and powerful, sometimes even violent.

“The paint flung and squeezed on to the canvases, spilling and spluttering across their surfaces[…]”

Joan Mitchell
No Birds (1987/88)

Mitchell spent the last decade of her life living and painting in France. She was diagnosed with cancer in 1984, eventually passing away in 1992. A decade later in 2002, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City held a full-scale retrospective of her work. I personally had the pleasure of visiting the exhibition at the time and it made a lasting impression on me. Unlike many contemporary female painters, Mitchell still used classical techniques, albeit in new and previously unseen styles.

Since her death, Mitchell’s work has sold at auctions for substantial amounts. Many of her pieces garnered a price tag in the millions. Her piece Blueberry (1969) was one of the most expensive and famous paintings ever made by a woman, selling for $16,6 million in 2018.

Blueberry (1969)

Yayoi Kusama (1929 – )

Yayoi Kusama wearing her signature colored wig – 2016

Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese female artist focusing primarily on sculpture work and installation pieces. Growing up in pre-war Japan, she had a traumatic childhood. Her father was engaged in a series of extramarital affairs, which her abusive mother sent her to spy upon. Kusama’s only solace was in art, something which her mother actively discouraged.

At age 10, she started having vivid hallucinations. Kusama described them as “flashes of light, auras, or dense fields of dots.” She delved further into her art to escape both her family problems and her mental health problems. When WWII started, she went off to work as a seamstress, sewing materials for the Japanese army. 

After the war, she studied Japanese style painting, but was dissatisfied with it, having instead shown a keener interest in American and European art styles. She found early success in Japan in the 1950s when she started covering everything in polka dots. Imagery inspired by her hallucinations.

“One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows, and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realised it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers. I ran desperately up the stairs. The steps below me began to fall apart and I fell down the stairs spraining my ankle.”

Yayoi Kusama
Transmigration (2011)

She travelled to the United States in 1957 and spent the next 2 decades involved in the avant-garde scene in New York. She continued working on her polka dot art, staging what she called Infinity Rooms by lining a closed space with mirrors on all sides and hanging colored neon balls at various heights to create the illusion of infinite space.

Infinity Mirror Room

In New York she protested the Vietnam War and staged provocative outdoor performance events with nude actors painted in her iconic polka dots. However, she struggled to find financial success and her declining mental health led to attempted suicide.

In the early 70s she moved back to Japan and checked into a hospital for the mentally ill where she continued working, despite being largely forgotten back in America. Then, in the 80s and 90s a series of international retrospectives caused a resurgence in popularity. In the decades since, her polka dot covered work has been displayed in museums across the world. 

Kusama’s work is a combination of her innerworld and outworld visions. She creates space for viewers to go through and each have a different experience. It’s best summarized as something between a dream and a spacewalk. Her original and individualistic universe is incredibly immersive. I just love how she transcends the internal to create something so profoundly external. 

Lee Bontecou (1931 – )

Lee Bontecou in her studio in 1964

Lee Bontecou is a female abstract artist from Rhode Island, best known for her geometric sculpture assemblages of found objects. Her work has an otherworldly quality, using innovative and unusual materials. Her most famous piece, 1964 was made from the remains of an old WWII bomber plane, and spans over 20 feet (6 meters) in length. 

1964

“Her constructions in canvas and metal, intricately sewed and tied together, swell outward from the wall in heavy forms that build into space. Here painting and sculpture meet; canvas becomes form; painting becomes structure.”

Lee Bontecou

The holes that appear in the center of her work became part of her artist signature. Many art critics at the time said it was sexually thematic and wanted to connect it to the feminist movement. Bontecou herself has denied these claims, expressing her dislike of the word feminism.

“Because art is art and it doesn’t mean whether it’s woman or man. It doesn’t matter… When I started, they wanted my things [to be] completely wimp feminine, and the gallery wanted to push that and I just wanted to throw up.”

Lee Bentocou

When she was young, Bentocou studied art in New York and Massachusetts, and later in Rome as a Fulbright scholar in the late 50s. Her early works focused on geometric shapes, though she later transitioned her style to more organic looking pieces such as flowers or fish.

Untitled (Flower) / Untitled (Fish)

Bontecou also spent 2 decades teaching art at Brooklyn College in New York and later moved to rural Pennsylvania where she’s been living ever since. Mostly reclusive in her later years, she did reemerge in the early 2000s with retrospectives of her work from the 50s and 70s, as well as new pieces that had not yet been seen by the public.

I loved seeing her work in museums and marveling at her choice of unusual materials. Who would have ever thought to create found art (art created from objects or products that already have a non-art function.) from items both mundane and exceedingly rare, such as the fighter plane.

Kiki Smith (1954 – )

Kiki Smith 2019

Kiki Smith is a female American artist still active today. She was born in West Germany in 1954 while her mother, Jane Lawrence, an opera singer, was working in Europe. Her father, Tony Smith was a well known minimalist sculptor. Following the death of both her father and her sister in the 80s, Kiki’s early work began exploring the existential meaning of the human body. 

Smith’s art is the synthesis of symbolism and magical stories. Her sculptures and prints explore fairy tales, myths, and legends often invoking images of birds and animals. 

Rapture (2001)

Ultimately, her material is completely original in tackling the female experience.

“There is so little representation of females by other females or in a sexually neutral way that I thought you could just make things forever and it wouldn’t be filling the gap.”

Kiki Smith

Being a famous female artist of the 21st century myself, I can really see something different in her experimentation and storytelling. The elements of originality are there and it’s quite clear she wants to share her own unique perspectives through her art.  

Animal Drawings 1999/2005

Women’s role in art history

While the biggest chapters were written in the past century, the story of women and art goes back hundreds of years. Artists such as Le Brun and Anguisola painted at a time when women artists were an exception. They were trailblazers and incredibly successful, eventually becoming famous court portraitists thanks to a combination of sensibility and mastery in their art. 

Thanks to female artists over the centuries pressing society forward, they have shown women can be strong not just in the artistic world, but in a wide variety of different professions as well.

I would conclude by telling all female artists working hard and perhaps struggling in their creative endeavors to keep going. It can take many years, even decades to reach the place you want with your work and your career. Juggling everything that life throws at us is a challenge, but a welcome one. After all, there’s a little bit of a real life superhero in each of us.

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