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  • Lily Li

Where are the women in art history?

Anyone who is familiar with art history may notice a global trend: one must search to find the faint glow of female artists amid the great avenues of art history. Linda Nicholin, professor of art history at Vassar College posed this intriguing question in her recently published academic journal: why have there been no great women artists historically?

Nochlin contends that there are numerous factors to consider as to why there haven't been many outstanding female artists. To begin with, art history misrepresented art education and favored the profession of art creation as a privilege of white men. Renowned artists are frequently depicted as self-taught or innate prodigies, independent of education in prestigious academies. In the narrative of the success of great male artists, social influences, historical concepts, and institutional frameworks are ignored.

This leads to a lot of confusion and undermines women's decision to become professional artists in the first place. Women bought into the idea of “innate artistry” with hopes that their artistic brilliance would manifest itself.

A commitment to professional art production is also impossible given the demands and expectations placed on women to devote their lives to social and familial obligations. While women often undertook domestic duties and family obligations, men could dedicate themselves fully into cultivation of art.

Another crucial challenge for female artists is to combat inadequate educational opportunities. The institutions of art education are especially discriminative and discouraging to women. While female nude models were extensively used in a private academy, female students were rarely admitted to life drawing at the fine art academies in France as late as 1893. Unless supported by a powerful sponsor, it is extremely difficult to ascend amongst male artists given gendered expectations throughout Europe and America at the time . The social norms regulate women to be the gazed, objectified models in passivity in art-related professions like sculpture and fine art instead of the creator.

To be deprived of this advanced formal academic program meant to be deprived of the possibility of creating impactful art, and to be confined to the minor and less prestigious fields of portraits, genre, terrain, or still life. Similarly, the apprenticeship system, a major artistic competition that provided young winners with opportunities to work in the French Academy, was formally unavailable for women until the end of the nineteenth century. In professional systems where women are deprived of encouragement, educational facilities, and rewards, it is more than challenging to be accepted as professional painters.

Dr. Amy Jacobs, the AP art history teacher at Stevenson School, believed that despite the sets of challenges faced by female artists, there are still many of them who possessed outstanding artistic skills but were underrepresented in art history because of their gender identity.

Jacobs remarks,

“I don’t think there’s enough female representation historically, but there’s lots of great female artists; there’s just not enough focus on female artists in systematic art history courses like the college board curriculum.”

She stresses that especially a lot of introductory pre-college-level art history courses lack an equilibrium on addressing male and female artists. An analysis of more than 40,000 works of art detailed in 18 major U.S. museums' online catalogs found that 85 percent of artists featured are men.

“One of my favorite artists from the baroque era who’s a woman is Artemisia Gentileschi, but she is just underrepresented,” Jacobs explains, “art has not historically been a profession open to women, not in the ways as we think about fine art or high art like painting, architecture, and sculpture. Historically, women have been relegated to the craftworld, men have been elevated to the high art world”. Jacobs maintains that a comprehensive overview of the art history reflects the gendered norms and women being seen as the Other sex in this profession.

Even material wise, women have been working with softer materials like textiles for quilting and knitting, which have not been recognised as fitting within the really narrow parameters of what is considered high art. The etiquette books, social constructs, and art academies from the nineteenth century together established a principle of female artists to remain at amateur level for simple crocheting or needlework, which are acceptable accomplishments for the well-bred young woman.

The Family Monitor and Domestic Guide published in 1844 points out ,“[w]omen were cautioned against the trap of trying too hard to excel in any one thing”. The patriarchal society does not want women to achieve successful accomplishments in protection of men's privileges. Meanwhile, women who work as professionals in the arts are viewed as unattractive competition or an untouchable token of the feminine mystique. As seen through the lens of gender study, being deeply involved in art instead of social and familial obligations is a departure from a woman's primary role and is therefore viewed as unfeminine. By diminishing the value of women’s success in their careers, men would be free of additional competition in the professional field and assured of a well-rounded caretaker on the home front.

The modern art world has undoubtedly become more inclusive of female artists. For millennia, patriarchal societies around the world excluded women from traditional leadership roles. But nowadays, women as artists, patrons, and curators of the arts have been able to exert power in creative ways that are reshaping the course of art history. Understanding male subjectivity of art history is an important step for more female artists and feminist critique to cut through the previous ideological barriers, eliminate discipline's biases and shortcomings, and to redefine the name of “artist”.


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