An essay written by Kate Holthouser for Heather Day's Journal.
In 1971, an art historian named Linda Nochlin wrote a landmark essay titled “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” that launched an attack against limitations of women throughout history and spurred on the Feminist Art Movement of the ‘70s.
Almost forty years after publication, this essay fell into my hands at the end of an art history 101 course at a university in Birmingham, Alabama. After spending an entire semester discussing the works of well-documented artists like Toulouse Lautrec, John Singer Sargent, and Picasso, the professor dedicated the last two classes to women artists, starting with primitive textiles and ending with the feminist movement of the 1960s and ‘70s and Linda Nochlin’s essay.
Only two days to review the highlights of women’s contributions to art in history. All history. Two days.
Surely, I thought, there was a mistake. There had to be more material, more stories. But in those two days we raced through the entirety of womankind’s history, leaving suspiciously large chunks of time blank. And then, on the last day, our female professor, as casual as a June bug, handed out Linda Nochlin’s essay—Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Upon reading, my first reaction was “Whoa, there have been great women artists. What about Frida Kahlo or Georgia O’Keefe?” But Linda Nochlin, who anticipated this reaction, forces the battle-ax from your hand and asks again. Where are the women artists that we study with fervor, like we do Michelangelo? Where are the women artists that we feel insanely inspired by, like we do Rembrandt? Where are the women artists that captivate us by sheer magnetic pull, like Da Vinci does?
Where are they? Nochlin, in this brilliant essay, offers the answer to the question with refreshingly stern frankness. She argues institutions—from the system of patronage to art academies to the very foundations of society—held women back from education, training, and opportunities within artistic disciplines. She also discredits the idea of irrepressible creative genius—where the talent inside a true “great” can never be kept secret, (some critics say there never were great women artists because none came forward.)
After reading this essay, I thought about the number of women throughout history turned down for opportunities; the sheer volume of women creating, but not being celebrated for it; and the overwhelming frustration and disappointment and bitterness many must have felt. I became a feminist that day.
Several years later, I met Heather through Instagram. She’d been looking for a writer with whom to collaborate, and as an admirer of her work, I contacted her immediately. One of our first conversations was about being a woman artist in today’s societal climate. We discussed navigating museum relationships, balancing fine art with corporate partnerships, and how the expectations of male versus female artists differ. And I remember thinking, “Yes! Women are making it happen!” Artists all over the world are making their mark, just like Heather—regardless of the challenges that still exist today.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s this: there are great women artists. There are so, so many—women from our past and women from today. Those that came before us made huge strides; some were very successful regardless of unequal opportunity. But women of today have a firmer grasp of our futures. Our education, our opportunities, our goals, we can take ownership over our lives and practices. And all people can be great—no matter your gender.
As both a writer and an artist, I’d like to use this opportunity to share three examples of women who often go unremembered.
Italian Baroque-period painter Artemisia Gentileschi was the daughter of the famed Renaissance painter, Orazio Gentileschi. Under his tutelage, Artemisia was afforded an education and opportunities to meet highly regarded male painters. Unfortunately, like all female artists of the time, Artemisia Gentileschi was forbidden to use male models—although commissions for paintings from the Church and nobility often required painting to-scale male Biblical figures. This meant that most female artists were forced into less lucrative still life or portraiture painting. However, in defiance of the restraint placed upon women, Artemisia painted powerful and heroic women figures, such as Bathsheba, Cleopatra, Judith, and Esther—and earned recognition in a primarily male field.
The Gee's Bend Quilters
After the Civil War, the African-American town of Gee's Bend, Alabama was left in isolation for almost a hundred years. Using patterns from their grandmothers, the women of Gee’s Bend preserved a style of quilting that passed into the 20th century—and later became renown nation-wide. Their quilts gained attention for the distinctive style of improvisations, color use, and geometric abstraction. In 2002, Michael Kimmelman's review in The New York Times called the quilts 'some of the most miraculous works of modern art American has produced' and described them as ‘a version of Matisse and Klee arising in the rural South.’
Wallada bint al-Mustakfi
The poet, Wallada bint al-Mustakfi, was the daughter of Muhammad III of Córdoba, Spain—a royal caliph who came to power in 1024. When her father died, Wallada inherited his properties and used them to open a literary palace where she offered instruction in poetry and verse to all women, regardless of social class.
She was also a controversial figure—as she wore transparent tunics with embroidered verses of her poetry on the trim of her clothing (see below) and was known for her independence and open sexuality. As a poet, Wallada gained recognition for her skill in what was almost an entirely male-dominated discipline.
Embroidered the right side of a tunic:
“I am fit for high positions by God
And am going my way armed with pride.”
And on the left:
“I allow my lover to touch my cheek
And bestow my kiss on him who craves it.”
If anything, through learning and celebrating women of old, we can better support and cherish the women of today and tomorrow. That’s what makes us great.
Written by Kate Holthouser for Heather Day's Journal