Have There Now Been Any Great Women Artists?

By Clark, Roger; Folgo, Ashley R. et al. | Art Education, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Have There Now Been Any Great Women Artists?


Clark, Roger, Folgo, Ashley R., Pichette, Jane, Art Education


In 1971, Linda Nochlin asked the tantalizing question, "Why have there been no great women artists?" (Nochlin, p. 22). Her answer to this question did not deny its premise: that, in fact, there have been no great women artists. Three years later, Barbara Ehrlich White, in her "A 1974 Perspective: Why Women's Studies in Art and Art History?," problematized this premise by pointing out the variety of ways in which the art and art history establishments had rendered women artists, great and good, invisible (White, 1976). Women artists, White observed, had just barely managed, by 1974, to get their works shown in museums. They'd only recently gotten their toes in the doors of "one-man" shows and art galleries. Perhaps most striking, however, White observed that "in basic art-history textbooks-Janson, Gardner, Gombrich-not one woman artist was mentioned!" (White, 1976, p. 341) How could there have been any great women artists if art historians failed to acknowledge any women artists at all? Even Nochlin, who claimed that "the fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists" (Nochlin, 1971, p. 25), was well aware of women artists like Artemisia Gentileschi and Angelica Kauffman. How could such artists even be considered for the pantheon of "great" artists if historians did not recognize their existence?

Our focus in this article is on the degree to which women artists have been brought into the mainstream of art history by art historians in their textbooks. We then examine the characteristics of art historians who have been most and least likely to admit women into their versions of art history. We are also curious to see how the definition of art itself may have been affected by the inclusion of women. Finally, we return to the question of "greatness" and whether the term can now be applied to any women artists.1

Change in the Classics

In mild contrast to White's finding, we found that it was not entirely true that pre-1974 versions of Janson, Gardner and Gombrich omitted mentioning women artists. In fact, in 1970, the 5th edition of Gardner's Art Through the Ages, by De La Croix and Tansey, devoted at least a paragraph of text and a picture of the works of two women artists: Käthe Kollwitz and Bridget Riley. Still, neither Janson nor Gombrich had, in fact, mentioned women artists by 1974. Janson's (1977) edition still had not incorporated any women artists. The 1986 edition of Janson introduced no fewer than fourteen women artists, including such staples, for most recent texts, as Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, Helen Frankenthaler, Barbara Hepworth, Gertrude Kasebier, Dorothea Lange, Judith Leyster, Berthe Morisot, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun. Oddly, in view of a feminist movement that, we will see, affected other authors of art history texts, Gombrich had still added only one woman- Käthe Kollwitz-to the approximately 234 total artists he wrote about in the 2002 edition of his text. The ratio of women to men artists in Gombrich's 2002 edition is about 0.43 to 100. By comparison, the 2001 edition of Janson included about 42 women artists in the approximate total of 634 artists mentioned in the book, for a ratio of about 7 to 100. The 2001 edition of Gardner included about 46 women in the list of about 536 total artists discussed, for a ratio of about 9 women for every 100 men artists.

Women artists appear to be on much more prominent display in recent editions of Janson and Gardner than they were in pre-1974 editions of these texts. But the same cannot be said of pre-1974 and current editions of Gombrich's text. Why might this be? One explanation, however essentializing it may be, is that Gombrich, in all 16 of its editions until 2002, had always been authored by a male art historian: E. H. Gombrich. One wonders whether the objections of feminist critics of art history like White may have been less likely to fall on sympathetic ears in Gombrich's case than in the case of Janson's book, which after all, was written primarily by a male, H. …

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