Journey through time and discover the lives and work of women who defied convention and redefined the boundaries of art.
Just last year, American contemporary artist Simone Leigh was selected to represent the United States and display her commissioned artwork in the United States Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. Leigh’s immersive and monumental installation garnered the artist a Biennale Golden Lion — the highest honor available at the exhibition. Her success on perhaps the grandest stage in the art world underscores the strides that have been made to offer women artists the belated recognition deserved.
Contemporary artists including Shahzia Sikander, Yayoi Kusama, Hilary Pecis, Anila Quayyum Agha, Nan Goldin, Tonia Nneji and many more continue the long and illustrious heritage of women forging new frontiers in art and design. In honor of today’s groundbreaking artists, we’re celebrating the great women of art history — in both the fine and decorative arts — whose contributions paved the way for others wishing to follow in their footsteps.
— Mary Cassatt
Best remembered for her intimate portrayals of women, children and the mother-child relationship, Mary Cassatt was a vital contributor to the Impressionist circle. Though she completed her formal artistic studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and in Paris under Charles Chaplin and Jean-Léon Gérôme, Cassatt abandoned her former academic manner and adopted Impressionism's high-keyed hues and modern subjects. Where her male contemporaries of the movement indulged in sensual or sensational scenes of Parisian women, Cassatt’s unique perspective allowed her to create intimate, true-to-life renderings of her subjects’ condition. She pushed the radical art movement further to capture tender, fleeting moments shared by women as mothers, daughters, sisters and friends.
— Artemisia Gentileschi
The first woman to become a member of the Academia di Arte del Disegno in Florence, Artemisia Gentileschi is considered by many to be among the most skillful artists of the 17th century, producing work that builds the same explosive chiaroscuro pioneered by Caravaggio. A student of light, her artworks exude the intense drama of the Baroque age, building masterful contrast on a grand scale. Italian art critic Roberto Longhi has noted: “There are about fifty-seven works by Artemisia Gentileschi and 94% (forty-nine works) feature women as protagonists or equal to men” — a bold and defiant feat for an artist of the era, particularly one who found commercial success working for distinguished patrons.
Tamara de Lempicka
“I was the first woman to paint cleanly, and that was the basis of my success. From a hundred pictures, mine will always stand out. And so the galleries began to hang my work in their best rooms, always in the middle, because my painting was attractive. It was precise. It was ‘finished.’”
— Tamara de Lempicka
Tamara de Lempicka’s life was marked by constant movement. Born in Poland at the turn of the 20th century, Lempicka was forced to flee to France in 1918 after the beginning of the Russian Revolution. After a deeply inspiring trip to Italy in her youth, Lempicka enrolled in Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris to take up painting, where she studied under famed avant-garde artists Maurice Denis and André Lhote. These mentors introduced her to Cubism, and she began exhibiting at the Parisian salons as early as 1922. Lempicka became a fixture in Parisian high society, spending much of her time hosting wealthy elites in her atelier on Rue Méchain. Alain Blondel, the esteemed French author who compiled the artist’s catalogue raisonné, wrote fondly of her uniqueness: “Tamara de Lempicka will always continue to defy categorization. Her art and her life destiny do not fit into the usual framework for 20th-century artists or 20th century art movements. The idea that art could be a profession was foreign to Lempicka. Her life and her painting were too closely intertwined for that.”
— Berthe Morisot
Berthe Morisot exhibited regularly at the Paris Salon from 1864 to 1873 until, in 1874, she joined the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs — the group that would become known as the Impressionists. They held their first exhibition that same year, and Morisot was the only woman to exhibit at the show. She would go on to exhibit in all but one of the Impressionist exhibitions, firmly cementing her place in one of the most influential art movements of the 19th century. Unlike her male contemporaries, who consistently portrayed bourgeois landscape scenes painted en plein air, Morisot’s career was dominated by the interior and domestic views of the elite Parisian women. By representing the private world of her own social class, Morisot granted viewers access to the intimate and secluded world of the women of her day.
— Georgia O’Keeffe
Renowned for being a magnificent user of color and form in her landscapes, flower studies and abstract paintings, Georgia O'Keeffe is regarded among the most significant and provocative artists of the 20th century and a key figure in the American modernist movement. After early successes across the country in abstraction and commercial drawings, O'Keeffe became interested in the aesthetics of photography as a direct result of posing so often for Alfred Stieglitz's camera. She started to isolate certain elements from the photographic process to serve a new purpose of objectivity and utilized cropped images, isolated detail, telephoto, magnified close-up and lens malfunctions to gain new perspectives on her subjects’ condition from angles and vantage points previously unattainable. By the time she passed at 98 years old, O'Keeffe received many accolades, including the American Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Arts.
— Edmonia Lewis
Edmonia Lewis was born in New York in 1844 to a black father and Chippewa (Ojibwa) native mother. Lewis spent much of her childhood with her mother’s tribe after her parents’ untimely deaths, before attending Oberlin College in 1859 to explore the fine arts. She worked as a professional sculptor in both Boston and Rome, and many of her sculptures are an homage to her family’s heritage, exploring notions of race and identity while relaying stories from the Bible and mythology. Lewis is remembered as the first famous sculptor of African American and Native American descent to achieve international acclaim for her work.
Partially remembered as Pablo Picasso’s lover and greatest muse, Dora Maar developed a compelling and unique artistic style of her own. Already deeply embedded within the Surrealist group when she met Picasso in 1935, Maar maintained close relationships with artists Georges Bataille, Man Ray and Paul Eluard. She created Surrealist photography, having trained at the Centrale des Arts Décoratifs and Académie Julian, but always remained passionate about painting. Picasso and Maar began their relationship that would last for the following ten years, and Maar eventually abandoned photography to dedicate her creativity solely to painting. After Maar's death in Paris in 1997, the contents of her homes in Paris and Ménerbes, France, were auctioned off, bringing renewed attention to her life, work and historical significance. In recent years, Maar’s work has been the subject of important retrospectives at the Tate Modern Gallery in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which explored how her work left a lasting impact on a generation of Surrealists.
La Moisson by Blanche Hoschedé-Monet. Circa 1885. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
Blanche Hoschedé-Monet began painting at the young age of 11 years old, quickly becoming Claude Monet’s protegé. As her stepfather and artistic mentor, he advised her against pursuing academic artistic training and instead fostered her growth in painting en plein air in the countryside. Monet’s famed composition In the Woods at Giverny, painted in 1887, captures the young artist in those formative years as she blissfully paints at her easel. Hoschedé-Monet went on to exhibit at the famed Salon des Indépendants in 1905, where the revered gallery Durand-Ruel purchased one of her works. The artist then began to exhibit her paintings again at the Paris Salon, achieving success and acclaim among French collectors.
Hester Bateman inherited the family silversmithing business following her husband’s passing in 1760, positioning her in the middle of an industry almost wholly dominated by men. The combination of her assertive personality, business savvy and gifts as a skilled artisan made her one of the most beloved of all Georgian silversmiths. Climbing to the top of the craft through her talents and sheer grit, Bateman’s creations are timeless in style and expertly crafted.
14 juillet, Montmartre by Yvonne Canu. 20th century. M.S. Rau, New Orleans.
Born in Morocco in 1921, Yvonne Canu traveled to Paris to study at the reputable École des Arts Decoratifs. Following the First World War, she entered the circle of the French-Japanese painter Tsuguharu Foujita and the Impressionist Élisée Maclet, both of which profoundly influenced the development of her style. Experimenting with Cubism and Impressionism early in her career, Canu finally developed her singular Pointillist style of painting for which she is best remembered today.
Interested in learning more about women in art? Explore M.S. Rau’s collections of fine, decorative and rare art to learn more.