These Women Were Missing from Your Art History Books
The first edition of H.W. Janson’s History of Art—the 572-page textbook long referenced in many art history survey courses—includes no women artists. No Mary Cassatt, no Frida Kahlo. Zilch. It was published in 1962, and women artists wouldn’t appear on the pages of later editions until 1987.
By the time writer Bridget Quinn got her hands on the tome, during her undergrad art history studies, she counted only 16 female artists. She was angry. “In more than 800 pages, this was all ‘official’ art history could offer,” she writes in her new book, Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order).
Quinn’s first experience with Janson’s male-dominated instructional inspired a career devoted to uncovering female artists who’d largely been left out of the canon. The women she encountered became not only the focus of her work, but also her personal heroes. “They helped me weather life’s storms: career frustrations, money troubles, pregnancy,” she tells me from her home in San Francisco. “Their lives and work were a lighthouse, an anchor for me.”
Quinn brings together 15 of these artists in Broad Strokes, published this March. Their lives and output span centuries and mediums—from Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi to Japanese-American post-war sculptor Ruth Asawa. What ties them together is their boundary-pushing skill and defiant commitment to their work, despite the unrelenting sexism they encountered in the art world.
While today, many scholars now study these artists and alternatives to Janson’s book have been published, Broad Strokes reminds us that there is still work to be done. Louise Bourgeois may be a household name amongst today’s art aficionados, for instance, but she remains nowhere to be found in the most recent 8th edition of Janson’s History of Art.
Below, we highlight seven artists from Quinn’s spirited pages, which make strides towards exposing the practices of women creatives to a wider audience.
Gentileschi was a Baroque painter known for her depictions of female goddesses and biblical figures in their most powerful moments. She wielded paint deftly, and became a master of techniques, like chiaroscuro, which were used by her peers and her teacher, Caravaggio.
Her magnum opus, the powerful Judith and Holofernes (ca. 1620), has been regarded not only as a masterpiece of Baroque art, but also as a celebration of female autonomy and strength. It shows the biblical character Judith and her servant Abra ferociously beheading their hulking nemesis Holofernes. Quinn points out that Gentileschi was no stranger to sexism—she painted the work not long after the trial for her rape, by one of her instructors, ended.
“The fact is, in the way of males, I only like the bulls I paint,” 19th-century French painter Bonheur once quipped. Her canvases depicting the majesty and power of animals were acclaimed by Delacroix and France’s leaders Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie alike. By her early thirties, Bonheur had painted The Horse Fair (1852–55), a monumental work which brought the young artist international acclaim; it now hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In the center of the piece, a figure atop a horse stares boldly at the viewer. Scholars like James M. Saslow assert that the “man” is in fact a self-portrait of Bonheur. This resolute, free-spirited central figure certainly captures Bonheur’s personal strength and elan. Throughout her life, she dressed androgynously, painted dauntlessly, loved women, and befriended other audacious characters like Buffalo Bill.
Born out of wedlock to a Native American mother and African-American father, Lewis was orphaned by age nine. But despite the prejudice she encountered as an orphan and a minority (she was accused of poisoning friends and stealing art supplies while a student at Oberlin College in the early 1860s) she persevered, studying sculpture and making enough money to book a boat to Rome. There, she’d forge the majority of her career’s masterpieces: delicately carved, expertly rendered figures of both heroes and everyday people.
Most of them weren’t white men, like Egyptian female ruler Cleopatra or Native American chief Hiawatha. She also carved into stone the memory of slavery and the triumph of abolition. A bust of abolitionist John Brown and a full-scale marble depiction of two unchained former slaves, titled Forever Free (1867), are amongst her most powerful political works.
As Quinn notes, Lewis was likely written out of art history after her death for numerous reasons: She had no descendants to safeguard her legacy, the classical style in which she worked fell out of favor, and she was a woman. In recent years, luckily, her skilled body of work and powerful story have begun to be resurrected.
1912 was a breakout year for British painter Bell. She created one of her most captivating, unique canvases the same year: it depicted her sister, the famed writer Virginia Woolf, relaxing in a chair. Bell didn’t portray Woolf’s facial features, instead choosing to render the spirit and genius that was contained in her mind rather than on her face.
Bell and Woolf acted as each other’s respective muses. And while they shared voracious artistic ambition, they led starkly different lives. Unlike Woolf, who was somewhat reclusive, childless, and took her own life, Bell was socially active, bore three children, balanced an open marriage and countless affairs, and painted until the day she died, at the age of 81.
By all accounts, Bell was an intrepid artist—her 1911 Studland Beach was “one of the most radical works of the time in England,” according to art historian Richard Shone—and a life-loving extrovert. No one believed this more than her sister. While Woolf’s legacy overshadowed Bell’s, she wrote admiringly of her painter sibling: “Indeed, I am amazed, a little alarmed (for as you have the children, the fame by rights belongs to me) by your combination of pure artistic vision and brilliance of imagination.”
The child of a Japanese immigrant, Asawa was sent with her family to the Santa Anita Racetrack internment camp in California in 1942. There, she befriended fellow prisoners including the former director of the Art Students League of Los Angeles and three animators from Walt Disney Studios. They’d serve as her inspiration to pursue art, which brought her across the country to school in Milwaukee, down to Mexico, and finally to the famed Black Mountain College, where she studied with Josef and Anni Albers, John Cage, and Buckminster Fuller.
It was at Black Mountain College that she began to forge her career-defining work. These intricate sculptures, woven from wire, resemble towering molecular structures or exotic plants you might find on distant planet. They simultaneously host aesthetic simplicity and pulsing organic energy. Asawa would make sculptures for the rest of her life, pushing through reductive criticism of her work that compared her only to other Japanese artists, raising six children, and advocating for free arts education in San Francisco, where she lived for most of her adult life.
A previous version of this article credited Bridget Finn as the author of Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (in That Order). The author’s name is actually Bridget Quinn.