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By Framd | 04 April 2019

Women in the art world

Although you may not immediately think that it’s so, women have been in the art world, making and inspiring art, for many centuries. It may be their male counterparts whose names more often come to mind, but once you begin to delve deeper, you will find a rich and diverse heritage of female artists who have helped to shape the artistic world into what it is today.


Underrepresentation in History

There is a story, told by Pliny the Elder who was a Roman writer from the first century BC, that says it was a woman who created the first ever cave drawing, tracing around the shadow of her lover onto a wall.


Yet despite this (and whether it is true or not, the telling of it at such an early time is important), until the 20th century – and the latter part, if we are brutally honest – women were severely underrepresented in the art world. If a woman was mentioned, then rather than simply enjoying her art as with a male artist’s work, it was more often suggested that the woman have ‘abnormal talents’, and it was this in general rather than the work that was produced that was critiqued.


An example of this is Mary Beale. Beale was a portrait artists working in the late 17th century. She was a highly sought after artists, in fact, with people visiting her studio from across the country and beyond in order to be painted by her. Yet it was her husband who received the real praise; it was his studio set up and painting methods that she used to create the work, so she was merely a tool, and it was he who should be commended. There are countless stories like this.



Mary Beale Self Portrait
Mary beale self portrait
Charles Beale By Mary Beale
The painter Charles Beale the Elder, by Mary Beale


Decorative arts

Some of the reason behind women artists’ seeming inability to rise much above (or even close to) their male peers has been attributed to the kinds of art they were producing. It was seen as ‘decorative art’ and included textiles and printing, whereas men were seen as creating ‘fine art’ by drawing, painting, sculpting, and the like.


This, of course, is a sweeping generalization, but one that seemed to seep into society’s subconscious, and offer female artists a label that didn’t really suit them.


No training opportunities

Until very recently (in relative terms), women were not able to choose to take up further education, and as for arts training… impossible. Men, however, could take these opportunities and make the most of them. So again, there will have been many women who might have made incredible artists had they had the chance to learn the techniques that would have boosted their profile.

The 1960s

The feminism movement which had been gaining pace exploded in the 1960s along with equal rights. Finally, women were able to study what they wanted and how they wanted, and enrollment in art colleges boomed.


Within these colleges women’s art was not only allowed and admired, but actively encouraged, and museums and galleries were beginning to take up the mantle and exhibit previously unknown and unseen artists from across the world.





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