Meet 10 women artists whose talents and pioneering spirits continue to inspire and influence today.
We invited 10 award-winning women artists to nominate a female artist from history whom they’ve admired and from whom they’ve drawn inspiration directly or indirectly. While some of the names have become as familiar as many of their male contemporaries, others are less known and illuminate the struggle for recognition that many talented women artists experienced in the past — a reality that is slowly being rectified today.
American: 1855–1942, nominated by Mary Sauer
The realist portrait painter Cecilia Beaux split her time between Paris and Pennsylvania. The artist considered herself a “new woman” and declared she’d never marry, choosing instead to devote her time to painting, which she did with great success.
Before encountering Beaux’s work, artist Mary Sauer had always pointed to John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) as her favorite painter, and Beaux’s exquisite brushwork could easily be mistaken for that of the prolific portrait painter. “I love Beaux’s loose style and the drama in her portraits,” Sauer says. “When I learned about her in college, I couldn’t believe she hadn’t received more credit for her work, compared to Sargent. When I first saw her Portrait of a Young Girl, in Philadelphia, where it was part of a traveling exhibit, I felt a huge rush. I knew this was the direction my art was supposed to be taking, and I was excited.”
American: 1844–1926, nominated by Mary Whyte
Mary Cassatt — along with her peers, Edgar Degas and Berthe Morisot — created some of the best-loved paintings from the Impressionist movement. Although born in Pennsylvania, Cassatt is often considered to be a French artist, having spent most of her adult life in Paris. Her genteel upper-middleclass life is reflected in her work, which focused on intimate scenes of families in wallpapered sitting rooms and sunny gardens. Watercolor artist Mary Whyte reflects on her long attachment to the artist: “Throughout my career, I’ve admired the work of Cassatt largely because of her expressive and tenderly observed renderings of women and children. Many of her models were relatives or close friends, adding a particular freshness and honesty to her paintings.”
Finnish: 1862–1946, nominated by Carolyn Anderson
At the age of 4, Finnish-born artist Helene Schjerfbeck, suffered a serious hip injury that impacted the direction of her life and her career as an artist. Her creative talent was recognized at the tender age of 11 when she was enrolled at the Finnish Art Society Drawing School. Her artwork, including portraits, still lifes and landscapes, has been compared to the work of American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) and the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863–1944).
Carolyn Anderson has found inspiration in the trajectory of Schjerfbeck’s career. “She was, without a doubt, a skillful and technically proficient painter,” says Anderson, “but it was her single-minded focus on finding her own vision that became her greatest asset and produced her strongest work.”
Welsh: 1876–1939, nominated by Ellen Eagle
Gwen John’s artistic life was overshadowed by her brother, the Post- Impressionist painter Augustus John (1878–1961), and the renowned French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), with whom she had a love affair. She studied at the Slade School of Art, in London, developing a limited palette and stylistic approach uniquely her own. “Modesty” aptly describes her 158 works that survive today, none of which is larger than 24 inches on the longest side. Figural artist Ellen Eagle is captivated by the “quiet demeanor and muted tonalities” in John’s work. “The spare compositions. The directness of her presentation. The ordinariness of her gestures. With what looks like minimal modeling, she created fully realized faces,” says Eagle, who only recently—long after she’d found her own artistic voice—became aware of John. “Still, I strongly, and warmly, relate to her aesthetic,” she says.
German: 1867–1945, nominated by Sharon Sprung
Käthe Kollwitz is usually identified as a German Expressionist, known more for her printmaking than painting and sculpture, although she created in all three media. She was the first woman to achieve honorary professor status at the Prussian Academy of Arts. Having lived through the trauma of two world wars, Kollwitz stated that she was “attracted to the representation of proletarian life,” because she found it “beautiful.” Figurative artist Sharon Sprung expressed appreciation for Kollwitz’s life as well as her art: “Kollwitz’s work came from a place of deep emotion, reflecting her inner life as well as the conflicts of the world she occupied. Her work is very personal, yet she brilliantly addresses universal issues—sexuality, motherhood, class differences and death. Her journey to become an artist and maintain her life as an artist is unique to being female and struggling to maintain autonomy.”
American: 1913–99, nominated by Susan Lyon
Successful as both a portrait painter and muralist, Bettina Steinke was able to straddle the worlds of fine art and commercial art. Her first major mural commission was for the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) where she worked as a resident artist, creating portraits of celebrities such as comedian Fred Allen, vocalist Kate Smith and singer Rudy Vallée. In 1996, three years before her death, at the age of 86, she was honored with the John Singer Sargent Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Society of Portrait Artists. North Carolina artist Susan Lyon, who was introduced to Steinke in art school, admires the artist for her talent and for the respect she garnered for her abilities, including a large retrospective at the Cowboy Hall of Fame, in Oklahoma City, in the mid-90s, which Lyon was able to see. “Back in the 50s, it was almost impossible for a woman to make it as an illustrator or realistic fine artist,” says Lyon. “She was a woman in a man’s career, and every man around her idolized her,”
American: 1887–1986, nominated by Fran Bull
Not surprisingly, Georgia O’Keeffe, the widely celebrated and perhaps most famous female artist of the 20th century, was mentioned by several of the artists on our nominating panel. Her legendary life, first as a muse for photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and later as a painter of iconic abstract flowers and landscapes of the Southwest, is well documented. Multimedia artist Fran Bull admires O’Keeffe’s work but concedes it’s more her life story that particularly inspires her. “[It’s] the example she sets for a woman artist in her fervent dedication to making art,” Bull says. “I have a sort of mystical relationship with her. . . . When I need counsel, I ‘intuit’ her response to my questions, and she is unfailingly uncompromising and wise.”
Dutch: 1664–1750, nominated by Margret Short
In the Golden Age of Dutch still life painting, Rachel Ruysch was a standout. Her father was a botanist, which afforded her an opportunity as a young artist to study plant and insect forms. This formed the foundation for her impressive skill paint- ing the delicate wings of a butterfly or the soft petals of a peony in full bloom.
Still life painter Margret Short, who has explored authentic primary source pigments, has found much to admire in Ruysch’s life and work. “During my pigment research, I became familiar with Ruysch and her stunning still life paintings,” Short says. “She was a formidable and successful artist who gained fame and financial independence through her art. In her personal life, she managed to have a career along with a family of 10 children. Her paintings show a deft skill in the handling of detail, expert control of chiaroscuro and the ability to create realistic but gracefully formed scenes.”
American: 1924–2014, nominated by Sally Strand
Educated in art at Brooklyn College and Columbia University in the 1940s, Jane Freilicher became part of the New York School, a movement active in the 1950s and ’60s. Initially influenced by the abstraction of Hans Hofmann (1880–1966), it was ultimately the French Impressionist Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) who had the most lasting impact on Freilicher’s handling of color and light. She was an influential figure, often serving as a muse to New York City poets and writers of the 1950s. The artist’s airy atmospheres and “slice-of-life” scenes resonate with California painter Sally Strand. “She found the poetry in representation,” Strand says. “I’m especially interested in her works using still life objects and the balancing of interior with exterior views through windows.” Strand appreciates the sentiment Freilicher expressed when she said, “I’m quite willing to sacrifice fidelity to the subject to the vitality of the image.”
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun
French: 1755–1842, nominated by Soon Y. Warren
A precocious talent from a young age, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun is one of the few female artists in history who was famous in her own time, enjoying the patronage of many aristocrats and serving as Marie Antoinette’s official portrait painter. In her initial encounters with Vigée Le Brun, watercolor artist Soon Y. Warren found the artist’s depictions of culture and society to have an almost otherworldly quality. Not having had much exposure to art education in grade school, Warren recalls pouring over art books at her local library. “I remember a painting so pretty and real that it grabbed my eyes,” says Warren. “Now I know that it was a Vigée Le Brun self-portrait. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It felt like a fantasy world. The painting’s beautiful colors, the elegant folds of the fabric, inspired me.”