I think we can all agree that female artists have been underrepresented in museums, galleries and art history texts. As the painter Agnes Thurnauer writes, “I started going to museums when I was pretty young. And very quickly, I began looking at the names of artists only to find there were no female first names.” In the original editions of the famous art history textbooks — H.W. Janson’s “History of Art” and E. H. Gombrich’s “The Story of Art” – not a single woman is mentioned. Does this mean that there were no great female artists? No female Michelangelos?
According to Laure Adler and Camille Viéville, the authors of “The Trouble with Women Artists,” the answer is an emphatic no.
What is true: It has been more difficult for women to succeed in the art world than for men. Historically, women were prevented from attending art school, and for most, it was impossible to find the resources to make art. Excluded as they were from the studios and apprenticeships, it is a miracle that any woman managed to put paint onto a canvas. Those who did were often ignored, their work forgotten or left to decay in attics.
Thankfully, advances have been made. In the late 19th century, women were finally admitted to art schools, and today, more women than men are enrolled. In the last few decades, there have been important retrospectives of the work of artists such as Niki de Saint Phalle, Louise Bourgeois, Judy Chicago and Paula Rego. Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Cindy Sherman and Frida Kahlo are household names. Since 2012, the prestigious Turner Prize has been awarded to five women, including Lubaina Himid, a woman of color. But there is a troubling historical hangover. The belief that women’s art is somehow less impressive than men’s persists, leading their works to be undervalued. The chain reaction continues as gallerists and curators populate their walls with the moneymakers, who happen to be men.
“The Trouble with Women Artists” seeks to provide a remedy, “reframing the history of art” by pulling together short biographies of 67 female artists, with examples of their work, in one beautifully produced volume. These artists, from different times and countries, represent various strands of art history, contrasting tastes and values, and they range from cubists to big game painters. Crowded together as they are, Muslims next to Christians, Africans next to Asians, all that these artists share is their identity as women, which itself might be a problematic categorization. Some of the artists resist being called “women artists,” after all. As the painter Joan Mitchell says, the true artist must be “neither woman nor man, neither old nor young.” Others have dedicated their work to complicating what it means to be a woman, protesting the restrictions inherent to gender binaries. The authors themselves declare that we should resist characterizing “these artists solely by their sexual identity.”
The authors never explain how these artists were selected. What was the rationale for inclusion? There is diversity in this collection, but is there enough? Some countries are represented. Some are not. The editors apologize for leaving some artists out, but there is a strange lack of discussion about the additional obstacles that women of color and working-class women faced. Recent books such as Nell Painter’s “Old in Art School,” which exposes the inherent racism of the art world, make “The Trouble with Women” seem oddly out of touch.
And yet, there is value in collecting these extraordinary works in one volume. In one of the earliest images, “Portrait of the Artist’s Sisters Playing Chess” (1555) by Sofonisba Anguissola, a mischievous little girl watches as her two older sisters face off across a chessboard. Other highlights include the green face of Sonia Delaunay’s “Finnish Woman” (1908) and a portrait by Georges Achille-Fould (a pseudonymous female artist) of the painter Rosa Bonheur (1893), who points at one of her glorious paintings of lions. In the background hangs another of her works, two enormous wild horses. Bonheur herself looks surprisingly modern, wearing pants in the 19th century when it was generally against the law in France for women to “cross-dress.” There is also the Chinese artist Yu Hong’s “Spring Romance,” a 2009 reinterpretation of a 12th-century Song Dynasty silk painting. Yu uses images of her students in high heels and tall boots as a counterpoint to the ancient masterpiece.
Given the power of these works, it is possible to relish the triumphs of these female artists – even if a collection such as this will always feel imperfect and incomplete.
Charlotte Gordon’s most recent book is Romantic Outlaws: The Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley.
By Camille Viéville and Laure Adler
Flammarion. 160 pp. $35