Women in Art: 20th Century Modernism


This module opens with a perusal of Modernist representation of the female body. We then examine gender, race, and Modernism thoughout the 20th century. Our studies of women artists focus on painters and photographers living and working during these tumultuous years.


  • women’s contributions to modernism--styles
  • portraiture
  • representations of the female body
  • gender and race
  • other important painters, sculptors, photographers: Suzanne Valadon, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablita Velarde, Lee Krasner, Louise Nevelson, Helen Frankenthaler, Niki de Saint Phalle, Betye Saar, and Faith Ringgold


By end of this week, you should able to

  • list the women painters, photographers, sculptors, collage and textile artists of these eras
  • recognize the styles of the era
  • describe 20th century changes and trends
  • recognize and describe the movement against stereotypes
  • discuss the artists, techniques, and concepts of abstract expressionism

Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938)

Valadon worked as an artist's model for Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and others who taught her to draw. Her work, which recalls the color of Henri Matisse's Fauvism and the geometric forms of  Paul Cezanne's Post-Impressionism, was popular throughout the early 20th century, 


Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012)

Tanning was an American artist who was the partner of Max Ernst.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas, 1939

Frida Kahlo was married to Diego Rivera (Mexican Muralist). She is often discussed as a surrealist artist as she explores herself in her many autobiographical images filled with symbolic meaning. Her life was filled with health problems and stormy relationships. She also was deeply committed to her Mexican heritage as seen in her clothing.

American Art before World War II

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986)

During the 1920’s Georgia O'Keeffe lived in New York and married Alfred Stieglitz. Her work falls under the category of early American Modernism, although her work expresses her own personal view. She always believed, "You have to live in today." She had a fascination with the fast pace of city life and many of her works move toward formal abstraction.

Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, Night, 1929

New York, Night depicts soaring skyscrapers and moving lights. Reminiscent of the Percisionist movement and the aesthetics of Whistler, the painting demonstrates her strong desire toward design on a two dimensional plane.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Place II, 1944

Later moving away from the city in search of more contemplative space, she moved to the Southwestern United States and began focusing on a more formal abstraction based on floral motifs and other still-life objects. She reduced subjects in their purist forms focusing on color, shape, texture and rhythm for a gracefully poetic vision.

Abstract Expressionism

Lee Krasner (1908-1984)

Krasner was married to Jackson Pollock and his work and career eclipsed hers although scholars are now recognizing her contributions to Abstract Expressionism.

Louise Nevelson (1889-1988)

Nevelson was a sculptor who created assemblages from found pieces of metal, plexiglass, wood, and other materials.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011)

Race and Gender

Faith Ringgold (1930-Present)

Betye Saar (1926-Present)

Saar is best known for assemblages, which often make use of racist imagery. She is still creating work at 93.

Pablita Velarde (1918-2006)

Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998)

Hung Liu (1948-Present)

Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002)




Elizabeth Murray (1940-2007)

Murray-Can_You_Hear_Me-1984.jpg Murray-Her_Story-1984.jpg Murray-Keyhole-1982.jpg
Elizabeth Murray Can You Hear MeHer Story, and Keyhole, 1982-84

Murray's work was much in line with the New Imageist painting and Neo-Expressionism. In Her Story, a blue figure is abstracted into simple angular forms sits on a red chair with a pink book in her left hand and a coffee cup in her right. Under the book is a low table and behind her is the spines of the chair back. Domestic subjects dominate the iconography. Her Paintings later become as dimensional as fully rounded sculpture. The structures were commonly created through sketches and helped to be put together by assistants, but often times she would change the structure during the painting as she was applying paint to the forms.




Topics for the Week: Twentieth century: portraiture, representations of the female body, 20th Century Modernism, culture, etc. 

Several video/image resources of women artists from the 20th century are posted. You may find a few that spill into the 21st century, but have influences from the past. 

View the videos then choose 1 video and write about one area: 

1. Portraiture and self-portraiture

2. Images of the female body 

3. Modernism 

4. Culture 

• Consider gender, race, early influences. 

• Include at least one image. 

• Cite and Reference using MLA style.

Questions may be asked by the Professor for you to answer. Responses back to at least 2 other students is required, as usual. 


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