History: Women in Art: 20th Century Modernism

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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)

Faith Ringgold (1930-Present)

Betye Saar (1926-Present)

Pablita Velarde (1918-2006)

Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998)

Hung Liu (1948-Present)

Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002)

Elizabeth Murray

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. She paints the encounter of her inner life with the world and renders this dicodemy of internal and external by superimposing several trains of thought over one another in her compositions without for a moment loosing the interdependence or momentum of any of them. Her work becomes an amalgum of Rauschenberg, Stella, Pop Art, and Expressionism. Murray states,

I had an idea of what it ought to feel like to make a painting. It’s a very ‘inner’ experience. When things go well, you stop thinking about what you’re doing. I was in my last year of art school when I finally put it together and discovered how to get my feelings out. It’s not that you learn to paint – anybody can do that – but you learn ho to be expressive with paint (Fineberg 440).

Her work resembles biomorphic abstractions. They consist of cartoon-like outlines and clear intense contrasting color areas. Murray says, "I think cartoon drawing – the simplification, the universality, the diagrammatic quality of the marks, the breakdown of reality, its blatant, symbolic quality – has been an enormous influence on my work (Fineberg 440)." As her career continued, imitations of the figure increase. Murray stats,

The shaped canvases move to composite paintings breaking apart the composition onto several different surfaces working together. Shattering an image and then putting it back together again. This applied to my art and to my life (Fineberg 440).

At this point Murray began constructing more complicated supports that literally overlap one another as they build out toward the viewer.


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.

Murray demonstrates courage in following a train of association wherever it leads whether it be a formal development of surface into three-dimensional space, or subject matter, or expressive handling. She states,

I never finish a painting without hating it first. There is always a point when I want to throw the painting away. But then over time you start to pull it together; you figure out what you’ve been struggling for. It’s thrilling when you feel like you’ve got the painting, when you really get it. And then it’s over. And then all you have… well, maybe this isn’t a good thing to say. But I ‘m glad that my dealer can sell my paintings because I don’t have any use for them (Fineberg 442).


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 

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. 



Information Version
2019-10-24 14:15 SCantor
Updated links to new tabs, added better option for Saar along with recent interview. Cut down text on Murray (too long compared to other artists)
2019-10-24 13:51 SCantor Updated links to new tabs, created links for Krasner and Nevelson 8
2019-10-24 13:35 SCantor Updated links to new tabs, removed Collage link (no context or any background info), added Dorothea Tanning 7
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