An Introduction to the Obscurity of Women in Art

Whenever I think about what elementary school taught me, I always come back to art class. My teacher would always give us presentations on famous artists. Though these presentations were rudimentary, what they made me question was weighty. Why did I see virtually no female artists? Although, as a nine-year-old, I couldn’t yet articulate my frustrations, I realized that this issue was not a coincidence. It was rooted in the history of gender injustice.

Non-male artists have faced unique challenges for centuries. Unlike traditionally masculine fields such as science, the art discipline did not exclude women from practicing—in fact, it was desirable for a woman to be competent in the arts. This acceptance, however, did not translate to respect. Women’s accomplishments were largely ignored. Sometimes, historians would even attribute lesser-known women’s works to men. Women consequently faded into obscurity over time.

Numbers show that this sex imbalance has continued into modern times. In the MET’s modern art section in 1989, activists reported that less than five percent of its artists were female. A new group revisited this study recently and found that the statistics had hardly changed. Sadly, this instance isn’t anomalous: according to a New York Times article written in 2019 by Julia Jones, twenty-six top museums in the United States acquired more than 260,000 works over the past decade. Among those, less than 30,000 were done by women. Moreover, in the global auction house, females represented only two percent of the market share.

This gap is hard to bridge. Entrepreneurship, a task necessary for a successful art career, has traditionally been considered beyond the female gender role. Conversely, self-advancement has always been socially acceptable in men. Photographer Catherine Opie states, “[Men] rule the roost in relationship to capitalism. They are still the default go-to for collecting by museums and the market.”

You might be skeptical, wondering, “Why haven’t I heard of this before? Also, what happened to Frida Kahlo or Georgia O’Keeffe?” The truth is that while some female artists have been extremely successful, their careers don’t mirror those of the majority. The patriarchal art system leaves people like Opie virtually powerless. To make substantial change in the art sphere requires more than their unheard fight. Change ultimately requires the commitment of powerful arts institutions to gender equity. And to have that, the public must make it clear that progress is desired. This is where you get involved. Retweet a tweet about a female painter’s exhibition. Attend events that spotlight artists of marginalized genders. Consider commissioning those artists, or donating to arts organizations that support them. No matter how small, your actions can create an environment where all artists, not just the male ones, are respected.

Works Cited

Burns, C., & Halperin, J. (2019, September 19). Female artists represent just 2 percent of the market. here’s why-and how that can change – art agency, partners. Retrieved April 05, 2021, from https://www.artagencypartners.com/women-study-market/ 

Dr. Deanna MacDonald, “Female artists in the renaissance,” in Smarthistory, June 1, 2020, accessed April 5, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/female-artists-renaissance/.  

Jacobs, J. (2019, September 19). Female artists made little progress in museums since 2008, survey finds. Retrieved April 05, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/19/arts/design/female-art-agency-partners-sothebys-artists-auction.html

Leffler, S. (2017, May 25). The gender imbalance of art with nudity has these female artists taking a stand for change. Retrieved April 5, 2021, from https://medium.com/@aplusapp/the-gender-imbalance-of-art-with-nudity-has-these-female-artists-taking-a-stand-for-change-e3b7445f91c5

Manchester, E. (2005, February). ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. MUSEUM?’, Guerrilla GIRLS, 1989. Retrieved April 05, 2021, from https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/guerrilla-girls-do-women-have-to-be-naked-to-get-into-the-met-museum-p78793 

Miller, D. (2016, February 03). Gender and the artist archetype: Understanding gender inequality in artistic careers. Retrieved April 05, 2021, from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/soc4.12350 

Tate, “Unlock Art: Where are the Women?,” in Smarthistory, January 22, 2016, accessed April 5, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/unlock-art-where-are-the-women/.

Featured image credits: all credits to owner. Courtesy of MET Public Domain Policy. “The Interior of an Atelier of a Woman Painter,” Marie Victoire Lemoine (1789). Accessed here.

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