Until as recently as the 20th century, women were discouraged from pursuing careers in the arts. As a result, when we consider artists through history, we tend to think of great men like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Claude Monet. However, as in many other fields, women fought for equality in the art world for centuries, making important contributions to every artistic movement, from the Renaissance to Cubism and beyond. This article explores the lives and works of four of the greatest female artists through history.
1. Sofonisba Anguissola (1532–1625)
Born to a noble family of modest means, Sofonisba Anguissola grew up to become a trailblazer of the Italian Renaissance. Anguissola’s father was determined that she and her sisters receive a comprehensive education. They not only were taught about fine art, a rarity for girls at the time, but also completed apprenticeships with respected local painters, establishing a trend for female artists to come. Sofonisba Anguissola’s talent came to the attention of Michelangelo, who supported the young artist through an informal mentorship, exchanging drawings with her.
As a female artist, Anguissola was not allowed to use live models or study anatomy. Nevertheless, she still managed to carve out a highly successful career. Her work caught the eye of King Philip II of Spain, and Anguissola was commissioned to paint his portrait, raising her profile still further.
Today, Sofonisba Anguissola is famous for her intimate portraits of nobility, her paintings capturing the vibrance and spirit of her sitters. Anguissola’s most celebrated works include Portrait of Archduchess Johanna of Austria, which fetched more than $391,000 when sold at auction in Vienna in 2011, Portrait of Giuliano II, and Portrait of Francesco I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.
2. Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (1755–1842)
Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun was completely self-taught. She was admitted to the French Academy, thanks to the intervention of none other than Marie Antoinette. Vigee Le Brun gained acclaim for her sympathetic portraits of aristocratic ladies, which were deemed more natural than those of her contemporaries.
Living in 18th-century Paris, Vigee Le Brun witnessed the beginnings of one of the most tumultuous eras of European history. She fled the city at the start of the French Revolution, traveling Europe, impressing wealthy patrons along the way, and gaining commissions in Vienna, Florence, Naples, Berlin, and Saint Petersburg. She subsequently returned to her native France after the conflict ended.
Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun’s most famous works include Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat and Portrait of Muhammad Dervish Khan, which fetched $7.18 million when it was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 2018, making history as the most expensive portrait by a pre-Modern-era female artist ever sold at auction.
3. Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899)
French Realist painter Rosa Bonheur is one of the most famous female artists of the 1800s. Like many women artists, she followed in the footsteps of her father, who was also a great painter. Known for her large paintings featuring animals, Bonheur exhibited at a famous Paris salon and went on to find success in both Britain and the United States. The artist spent vast amounts of time sketching animals in motion, enabling her to achieve a remarkably convincing likeness on canvass.
As well as making waves in the art world, Rosa Bonheur challenged gender stereotypes in wider society, donning men’s attire from the mid-1850s onward, and even obtaining police authorization for the privilege. Bonheur was often criticized for wearing pants and loose blouses, but continued to do so for the rest of her life, highlighting their practicality when working with animals.
Rosa Bonheur cohabited with her partner Nathalie Micas for more than 40 years before forging a relationship with Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, an American painter, following Micas’ death. Living openly as a lesbian in an era when it was disparaged by the French government, Bonheur was a trailblazer in both her professional and personal life.
4. Mary Cassatt (1844–1926)
Described by Gustave Geffroy as one of the three ladies of Impressionism, Mary Cassatt was born in Pennsylvania on May 22, 1844. After her artistic training, Cassatt spent the rest of her career painting in France.
Impressionism was the movement of the day when Cassatt arrived in Paris, dominating the French art world. This influential movement focuses on capturing a scene’s temporary effect rather than depicting it accurately. Mary Cassatt became the first American artist to exhibit with the Impressionist movement in Paris, bringing her works to the attention of Edgar Degas, one of the most famous artists of the time, with whom Cassatt later collaborated.
Cassatt’s best-known works include The Boating Party, The Child’s Bath, and Little Girl in a Blue Armchair. Her oil on canvas Mother and Two Children raised more than $4.27 million when it was auctioned by Christie’s, New York, establishing a new record for a Mary Cassatt painting.