Lee Lorenz in a comic for the New Yorker (Figure 1) poses an interesting question:
Figure 1. Lorenz, Lee. Does it strike anyone else as weird that none of the great painters have ever been men?. ND. Cartoon. New Yorker Magazine. Art.com. Web. 1/3/2017.
The question that Lorenz poses is a legitimate one. Historians have provided very little evidence for female artists before the Mideval era, but there is evidence of many women who have broken the mold of the male-dominated societies throughout the western world and made their mark in history.
It is difficult to provide evidence for many early female western artists as they often, out of tradition, changed their names through marriage, or worked assisting within workshops or under relatives who often claimed final credit for any work produced. There is representative evidence of women producing visual artistic products found in paintings, pottery, and other artistic forms, as early as ancient Greece and Rome, but these have also remained unattributed. Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer cites several Greek women painters and an Egyptian female artist, but none of their work survives to lend direct evidnece to their contributions (Heller 12).
What is important prior to the current documented evidence of specific female artists and their work is the precedents set by visual culture in the images of women. The earliest visual artifact we have on record is the Venus of Willendorf, a small stone carving representing a nude female figure (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Unknown Artist. Venus of Willendorf. c. 28,000 - 25,000 BCE, Limestone, 4.4" tall. Naturhistoriches Museum, Vienna, Austria.
This image produces what many historians believe to be a visual representation of ideal prehistoric female beauty given the emphsasis on the breasts, curves, and genetalia of the female figure as well as the elaborate hair. Meanwhile other elements such as the arms and legs have been stressed less in this and other similar representations found from this era of human history.
The title "Venus" placed on such an object provides further evidence to how such images have been categorized by visual arts historians throughout the years. Such a title aludes to the goddess of love and beauty from Roman mythos, and the persistence of classical ideals in developing alegorical narratives for western images. Thus, the importance of women in art is not simply in understanding their role in the production of art, but also in how they are represented in art throughout western culture. The study of both the production from and representation of women in art throughout western culture provides a narrative for historians to develop describing the important contribution of women to art and society and the reciprical effect of society and visual culture on defining the role of women in history.
The Tate gallery in London in collaboration with Khanacademy provides a strong introduction to the issues faced by women in art history. As you progress through the pages related to the history of women in art, consider how women are represented and the issues of providing a course that highlights only women in the same manner as a traditional art historical survey. Does the isolation of women artists sideline them as different? Does adding women to the canon of art history reinforce or challenge tradition? Be sure to read the article, "A Brief History of Women in Art."
Jemima Kirke, Where are the Women? Unlock Art, Tate Gallery, London.
Heller, Nancy. Women Artists, An Illustrated History. Fourth Edition. Abberville Press Publishers, New York. 2003. Print.