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Where Are All the Famous Women Artists?

An Open Letter to Younger Sisters


Dear Young Friends,

It has come to my attention that some of you, engaged in the excellent pursuit of visiting art museums, have posed the question, "Why aren't there more women artists represented on these walls?" This is a good question. This is, in fact, the same question women of my generation - and my mother's - and hers - have asked. Mind you, I'm no expert on gender studies, but I do have a few thoughts gleaned through decades of being an artist and a lifetime of being female.

If you'll permit me my opinion, the reasons there aren't more female artists in art museums are threefold:

  • It's a reputation thing.
  • We're not taken seriously enough.
  • We tend to multitask. A lot. Too much.

About reputation.

    To be fair, "artist" wasn't exactly a respectable profession for anybody (male or female) until the Italian Renaissance made it cool. Even then, most parents would've chosen anything but "artist" as a great job for Junior. (Artists are a puzzlement to people who do not realize that art is hard, noble work.)

    Still, long after "artist" was an acceptable career choice for men, it remained outside the sphere of Nice Girls. I don't know if it was the occasional nudity (as in figure studies) or the occasional partying, but art was considered an unsuitable pursuit for women. The end result was that males got a huge head start on becoming famous artists.

Now, in regards to women artists being taken seriously.

    Forgive me, but there's an axe to be ground here. For too many centuries, women who've endeavored to make art have been seen as "odd" or (that irritating patronizing word) "eccentric."

    Being taken seriously as an artist often meant that whomever-She-was could not be taken seriously as a woman. The sort of woman who did the so-called right thing: managed a pleasant hearth and home for her man and procreated like crazy. It was all right if a gal wanted to keep herself busy doing needlework or even painting some flowers. Those things made the house look better. And it's no accident that some of the first female artists we know by name illustrated children's books. Women + Children = Acceptable.

    But, as far as Serious Art went, that was the exclusive domain of men. Women - and everybody knew this - were not capable of artistic genius. This is both wrong and wickedly unfair, but that's the way it went down.

Then there is multitasking.

    This is the crux of the matter, in my book. Art is fabulous; one of the most rewarding endeavors a human being can pursue. But (and this is huge), you burn with it. Art consumes the artist deliciously, but it is a harsh discipline in terms of time and concentration. To create it spectacularly a person needs to eat, sleep and breathe art - which means a lot of other things must be neglected (temporarily or totally) by default.

    Facts are, Ladies, it's us who bear the live young, and usually us who keep them alive. Raising children, in case you're wondering, takes a phenomenal amount of physical labor and attention. Parenting is important, rewarding work in its own right, but it doesn't leave a ton of free time, let alone free time during which the brain is bursting with creativity.

    Wait! There's more! Women are so good at this nurturing thing, it often extends to our partners. Name me one famous male artist who was successful in his lifetime, and I'm going to point you toward either his wife or some trusted assistant as the person who made it possible for him to concentrate on art.

    Michelangelo had somebody to cook his food. Rubens' wives darned his stockings so he looked good getting all those commissions. Gauguin had females taking care of him in two hemispheres. Rosa Bonheur? No children, no husband, and one companion who ran the house. Mary Cassatt: no children, no husband, and an independent source of income with which to hire servants. Georgia O'Keeffe didn't have children, and her husband actively promoted her career. Lee Krasner's career took off after Jackson Pollock self-destructed.

    See where I'm going with this? It's a matter of choices. A female artist can concentrate on art or take care of other people, but it's nearly impossible to do both at the same time. Please trust me here, and never again wonder why Grandma Moses came so late to art.

So how can we rectify this?

We can't do anything about the past. My advice to you, today, is:

  • Create art.
  • Support women artists. Women who are alive and struggling, not the long-gone ones we hold up as examples.
  • Help each other. Strength in numbers, Ladies.
  • Make the right choices for you. If you burn to create art, it's OK not to raise a family. If you want to raise a family and make art, marry wisely, learn how to be really patient and surround yourselves with like-minded friends who'll co-op with you occasionally.

I'm glad you asked about this, and hope to have helped answer your excellent question. As I tell my own young, talented daughter, I see great things for women artists if your generation scrutinizes this issue with a level-headed gaze. And remember to work together! Together, you can make up a lot of lost ground.

With fond wishes for your futures,

An Elder Sister

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