Throughout history, women have been underrepresented and underappreciated in art. To this day they still are. Well we say no longer! Here at artistand we believe that everyone should be equally represented - so here are 10 women in paintings you should really know about.
The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, (c. 1484–1486)
Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun (1782)
Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci (1506)
Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer (c. 1665)
La Grande Odalisque, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1814)
Susanna at Her Bath, Francesco Hayez (1850)
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Edouard Manet (1882)
The Lady of Shalott, John William Waterhouse (1888)
Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, Frida Kahlo (1940)
Dorothy, Mitch Griffiths (2017)
The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, (c. 1484–1486)
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Painted by Botticelli during the Italian Renaissance, The Birth of Venus depicts the Roman goddess Venus on the shores of the beach after her birth. She is accompanied by a nymph and Zephir, the west wind, to the left, who is said to have blown her to shore. And to the right, the Hora of Spring, ready to dress her in a cloak of flowers.
According to myth, she was not only the goddess of love, but of sex, eroticisim and firtility. Venus had the power to make any individual fall in love, mortal and deity alike. She is said to have had many lovers herself, and can be seen to represent female empowerment; she is after all a powerful independent woman.
2. Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun (1782)
National Gallery, London
Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun was a portrait painter who lived during the 18th century. Back then women had few rights, typically expected to be good mothers and wives to their husbands. Here she paints herself not as a mother or wife but as a confident successful painter. It is said that this painting was inspired by a painting named ‘The Straw Hat’ by artist Peter Paul Rubens. That painting depicts a woman not as an artist but as a vulnerable object, with a coy expression and cleavage showing. Vigée-Le Brun’s painting by contrast shows that confidence can be more attractive than vulnerability.
3. Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci (1506)
It would be surprising if you hadn't come across the Mona Lisa, one of the world's most famous paintings. But, what wouldn't be surprising is if you didn't know about the girl in the painting.
There has been much speculation over who the Mona Lisa is actually depicting, with the most commonly suggested to be Lisa Gherardini. Gherardini was said to have been just 15 when she was forced into marriage with a wealthy merchant and slave trader Francesco del Giocondo. He regularly transported young girls from Africa converting them to christianity and then forcing them to work as slaves. What a horrible person!
Another speculation is that the Mona Lisa is actually a depiction of Da Vinci’s mother, with the smile reflecting hers. But the most out there theory is that the mona Lisa is actually a self portrait of Da Vinci himself, reflecting his femininity through portraiture.
Well, whoever she is, you can't help but wonder what she’s thinking! My guess - how to topple the patriarchy!
4. Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer (c. 1665)
Mauritshuis, The Hague
Another of the world's most well known paintings, Girl with a Pearl Earring, was painted by Johannes Vermeer around 1665.
Portraying an imaginary figure, the painting depicts a young woman in exotic dress and wearing - of course - a pearl earring. The painting is not supposed to depict any one woman, but a character. It is assumed that this is why so many people connect with the girl in the painting. The black background makes the portrait stand out, that along with her expression and piercing eyes. You have to admit, there is some sort of familiarity about her. Maybe that’s why people can't get enough?
5. La Grande Odalisque, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1814)
La Grande Odalisque, painted by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, depicts a naked woman with an unusually disproportionate anatomy. An odalisque is a word used to denote a female slave or concubine, especially that of extreme beauty. On first examination the woman in the image does appear to be beautiful, but on closer look her back is shown to be elongated and her right arm longer than her left. It is not completely known why Ingres decided to paint the woman in this way but some speculate it is to present an erotic fantasy that could only come from his imagination.
6. Susanna at Her Bath, Francesco Hayez (1850)
National Gallery, London
Francesco Hayez’ painting, Susanna at Her Bath tells a story of bravery, perseverance and faith.
The painting depicts a story taken from the old testament. In the story, a woman, Susanna, was seen bathing in her garden when she was come across by two cruel elders. These men wanted Susanna for themselves and so threatened to accuse her of being an adulterer if she did not give in to them. Being of strong will, Susanna refused. When the trial came, Susanna prayed to God to prove her innocence and so he did. The elders were found guilty of lying and sentenced to death with Susanna free to return home.
7. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Edouard Manet (1882)
The Courtauld Gallery, London
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère depicts a barmaid working in the popular cabaret music hall. Traditionally those presented in the centre of a painting in this way were people of significance. To have a mere barmaid as the central figure was somewhat unseen. That along with her expression that appears unimpressed or even bored, confused spectators when it was first revealed. On top of that, it is speculated that the woman in the painting was also a prostitute, as many of the women at the cabaret were. Therefore this painting has often been one of intense discussion. Why was she painted and what was she thinking? Well we’d really like to know.
8. The Lady of Shalott, John William Waterhouse (1888)
Tate Britain, London
The Lady of Shalott depicts the tragic story told in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem of the same name.
The story tells of a woman who, after being cursed, is only allowed to view the world through a mirror. Living in an isolated tower, she spends her days weaving tapestries as she watches the outside world through the mirror's reflection. One day however she sees the reflection of Arthur, the Prince of Camelot. Unable to resist, she turns away from the mirror and looks directly at the prince. Upon doing so the mirror cracks. As depicted in the painting, knowing what this meant, she gets on a boat drifting towards Camelot. Before reaching it however she lies down and dies. Morbid, I know.
9. Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, Frida Kahlo (1940)
Harry Ransom Centre, Austin, Texas
Mexican and feminist icon, Frida Kahlo, began painting after enduring a bus accident that left her severely injured. During her recovery and after, Kahlo used art to express her ongoing experiences with pain and turmoil throughout her life. The majority of Kahlo’s paintings are self portraits. It is recorded that she once said ‘I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best’.
Within the painting ‘Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird’ it is assumed that the bird and thorns tied to Kahlo’s neck represent the lack of freedom after her accident - but her expression is one of determination and strength. Despite her struggles Kahlo spent time as a political figure in the Mexican communist party, actively defied gender stereotypes and was openly bisexual despite traditional beliefs about gender and sexuality at the time. Khalo was not afraid to be herself. I think that’s a message we can all get behind.
10. Dorothy, Mitch Griffiths (2017)
A lesser known painting, Dorothy depicts a modern version of the Wizard of Oz. Although not much has been said on this painting we believe it should be on this list. Mitch Griffith’s work ‘apprehends the viewer through a dissection of twenty-first century existence’ and aims to ‘haunt with an unnerving familiarity’ through the exploration of issues such as identity.
Dorothy to us is a reflection on society, and the ever growing impacts of environmental disasters. Poverty, homlessness, destruction, leaves many people vulnerable and lost. Dorothy, although stricken with bad fortune, still shows strength and determination as she clings on to what she has.
We can all take a leaf out of her book and keep fighting, keep pushing, no matter what.
So that's it! 10 women in paintings you should know about. You may notice that there is little to no diversity in this section, and please note that is not by choice. History has not allowed people of colour the opportunity and freedom to express themselves and so it is with regret that these women are all white. Equality was not at it’s finest in the past few hundred years and though it is on it’s way up - it still has a long way to go!
This is of course just a small selection of works that include and are created by women. On initial viewing you might not fully understand the importance of these paintings. But when you start to dive in and understand the stories behind them and the people they represent, it is clear just how important they truly are. Not only do they depict and represent stories of defiance, independence, bravery and power. They show us that women, no matter their background or upheavals, they are capable of great things.
Written By Leanne Fitz