The first period of history in which women artists came to prominence was the Renaissance (1450-1600). Two developments made this happen. The first was the opening up of art education to upper-class women in Italy, an idea that was presented in Baldassare Castiglione's (1478-1529) influential book, The Courtier (1528). The second was the popularity of portrait art. As a result, a number of female portraitists became famous, including Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) and Fede Galizia (1578-1630). Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was also a painter of this period who was hailed as a child prodigy. For the first time a women sculptor, Properzia de' Rossi (1490-1530) became prominent for her work. The 16th century saw Dutch painters such as Caterina van Hemessen (1528-1587) and Lavina Teerlinc (1520-1576) gain acclaim for their work.
However, during the 16th century the endeavors of women artists were still limited within some categories of art like still-life, portraits and landscapes. The "great art" - covering religious and historical themes - was out of their reach due to the restrictions in society during this period. This began to change in the 17th century and Italy and the Netherlands remained artistic centers, with women artists gradually expanding the scope of their work. Italian painter Artemesia Gentileschi (1593-1652) painted large-scale religious scenes, while Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) painted large portraits and historical scenes. In the Netherlands, Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) and Maria van Oosterwyck (1630-1693) painted still lives of food and flowers, while Judith Leyster (1609-1660) painted portraits.
The 18th century brought new oppression to women artists as the policies of art academies limited the number of female members. At the same time, however, art focused on beauty and a number of artists were able to take advantage of this ideal. Among them was Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun (1755-1842), a French court painter famous for her portraits of Marie Antoinette (1755-1793). Although Vigee-Lebrun was praised for her painting ability, she was accused of paying a man to paint her portraits.
Art policies remained restrictive towards women during the 19th century, with the area of "great art" restricted solely to men. In order to enter the field of professional art, Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) pretended to be a man. The 19th century was fruitful for women sculptors, like Americans Anne Whitney (1821-1915) and Edmonia Lewis (1844-1911), as well as French artist Camille Claudel (1864-1943). The emergence of Impressionism in the later half of the 19th century allowed women to paint brighter, abstract and dynamic paintings. Well known representatives of this form of art were French painter Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and American painter Mary Cassatt (1844-1926).
The onset of the 20th century gave women artists new powers and freedoms. For the first time women dared to paint nude figures, challenging the stereotype of beautiful female bodies. Lottie Laserstein's (1898-1993) painting of an older woman at work, as well as Suzanne Valadon's (1865-1938) image of a pubescent girl are classic examples of this trend. Painters like Lee Krasner (1908-1984), Elaine de Kooning (1918-1989), along with sculptor Dorothy Dehner (1901-1994) were among the most prominent female abstract expressionists.
The feminist movement in the 1970s opened up new opportunities for women artists, with the emergence of the first venues for female art. New artistic fields emerged, such as the Op (Optic) art and multimedia installations. In 1971, the Feminist Art Program started at the California Institute of the Arts and Womanhouse opened to the public in 1972. Miriam Shapiro (b.1923) and Judy Chicago (b.1939) were the driving force behind this initiative. The installation The Dinner Party (1998) by Chicago, represents a triangular table with 39 place settings, each honoring a woman forgotten in history.
Tracey Emin (b.1963) is considered to be one of the most influential women artists of the 21st century. Emin is well known for her controversial work, including My Bed, which was exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 1998 and the city's Tate Gallery in 1999. The bed is surrounded by empty bottles of alcohol, stained sheets and cigarette butts. Emin said in an interview in The Big Issue (October 1999): "If there's no genuine feeling it comes across as if they've just chosen a subject and done a small project on it. What I'm doing is a life-long project."