Over the past decades, a shift has occurred in classrooms, museums, and scholarship to focus more on women’s history in art. This has brought to light many female artists whose fame and talent were proportionate to their male counterparts, but because of sexism, found themselves forgotten. The following are five such female artists who accomplished artistic renown during their lives but were shunted to the side in favor of male artists.
Properzia de’Rossi (1490-1530)
Properzia de’Rossi was the first known woman to seek commissions as a professional artist in sculptural work. During this time, sculptural work was dominated and socially restricted to men so de’Rossi’s mere existence and following success were unprecedented and rare. Some of her male counterparts grew jealous of her, and in an attempt to halt her career, they spoke ill of her to those who might be seeking her work. Despite this, de’Rossi achieved financial parity with these same men. She was commissioned to sculpt parts of the façade of the Basilica of San Petronio and was the only female artist to receive a biography in Vasari’s first edition of Lives of the Artists (what is often considered the first art history book).
Plautilla Nelli (1524-1588)
Plautilla Nelli’s works were sought and owned by many noblemen, likely because her art was favored by women. She was praised for her artistic style and often compared to the great artists that had come before her. During her life, there was a revival of ancient Greek learning and styles that focused on prominent masculine figures. While male artists focused on the virility and heroic depictions of these male figures, Nelli rejected this. Her works focused on the emotion and presence of women in the stories she depicted. Nelli’s works catered to women and because of this and her artistic prowess, she gained popularity and success. Her life is an early example of women supporting women.
Marietta Robusti (1554-1590)
Marking one of the earliest examples of a growing tradition in Italy, Marietta Robusti was taught to paint by her father. Robusti spent her whole life working in her father’s workshop, but she gained renown outside of this space and was sought after by many nobles as a portrait painter. Portraiture was viewed as a better artistic pursuit for women who were not thought to have the creativity for original compositions. Robusti rejected this notion though, and is known to have painted many original works. These artworks have often been left out of her earlier biographies, likely because this showed skill past what men expected due to her gender. Her popularity and skill in portraiture caught the attention of the Spanish court who extended her an invitation to paint for them. It was rare for a female artist to receive such an offer, but her father turned down the invitation.
Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614)
Considered the first professional female painter in Western Europe, Lavinia Fontana was an accomplished portraiture artist. She was the first woman to be primarily recognized for her artistic skill, as up to this point, women were distanced from the title of artist and expected to focus on their feminine virtue first, and artistic talents second. Women earning their own income was frowned upon, but Fontana was the primary provider for her husband, eleven children, and her parents. She didn’t limit herself to just portraiture work, however, and was also known to paint mythological scenes. It is in one of these scenes that the first female nude painted by a female occurs. Fontana ran her own workshop for a time training other noble girls and also received a papal commission and summons to continue her career in Rome. She was a prestigious artist whose work paved the way for Artemisia Gentileschi to gain the fame she currently has.
Sofonisba Anguissola (1535-1652)
Sofonisba Anguissola was highly praised for her skill in portraiture and genre painting. She had a distinctive style and a creative approach to portraiture. Anguissola defied expectations for female portraiture by depicting women not as just objects of beauty and virtue, but as women with intellect and talent in their professions. Regarded as an equal to the works of Titan, her figures were described as having the appearance of breathing and being alive. Her most famous painting, The Chess Game, drew attention for the informal and animated way that she portrayed her sisters—something that had not been done by her contemporaries. She was commissioned by Pope Pius IV to paint a portrait of Queen Isabel, and her success even persuaded some male Italian artists to take female pupils under their tutelage.
These women often pushed boundaries that not only led them to their success but paved the way for future female artists to thrive. Their artistic styles rival those of their male counterparts, and as such, deserve the same recognition.
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