“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

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“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

by Allison Slaby, Curator | @LearnReynolda

“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”  In 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin posed that provocative question in a radical article that transformed the field of art history.  She wrote, “No amount of manipulating the historical or critical evidence will alter the situation; nor will accusations of male-chauvinist distortion of history.  The fact, dear sisters, is that there are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt ….”  Nochlin went on to offer a reevaluation of the field of art history—a cogent assessment of the structures that have been in place for centuries that denied women access to education, training, and patronage.  Women, for example, were denied entrance to artistic academies.  Even if they had the opportunity to study formally, permission was never given to perfect their understanding of anatomy by studying the nude.  The most successful women artists often had artist fathers or husbands and relied on them for instruction and access to patrons.

In the nineteenth century, women began to emerge into the public world of art in greater numbers, and Nochlin offered Rosa Bonheur, Berthe Morisot, and Mary Cassatt as examples of women who achieved notable levels of success.  But even in these cases, society placed restrictions on their movements that affected their work as artists.  As a single woman, for example, Cassatt could not frequent the nightclubs that were so popular with her fellow Impressionists and which they used frequently in their paintings.  She turned, thus, to the lives of her women friends and their children, played out in well-decorated interior spaces, for her subjects.

IMAGE CREDIT: Mary Cassatt, 1844 - 1926. Madame Gaillard and Her Daughter Marie-Thérèse,1897. Pastel on Paper, Gift of Barbara B. Millhouse.

Nochlin’s article included a call-to-arms for feminist art historians:  “Women must conceive of themselves as potentially, if not actually, equal subjects and must be willing to look the facts of their situation full in the face, without self-pity, or cop-outs;  at the same time they must view their situation with that high degree of emotional and intellectual commitment necessary to create a world in which equal achievement will be not only made possible but actively encouraged by social institutions.”

Nochlin’s article may sound out-of-date today, but some of the conditions she describes persist.  For example, even though women today have equal access to artistic education and systems of patronage, white, male artists and gallery and museum directors continue to dominate the art world.  And so, in the spirit of Nochlin’s call-to-arms, we offer this gallery of the groundbreaking women artists of Reynolda’s collection—all of whom may rightly be called great.

Visit the Women Artists online gallery on view in the Museum's Digital Wing.

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