How many female artists in modern art can you enumerate ? Even though they participated in art history on the same level as their opposite sex counterparts, female artists have not always been acknowledged as much as they deserved to be. For a long time excluded from art schools and probably even more galleries and museums, they practically had no platform to exhibit their work before the rise of feminism in the 70s. Yet, great ladies have contributed to all the art movements preceding that time of female emancipation : from Impressionism in the second half of the 19th century to Abstract Expressionism through Surrealism. These women who acted in the shadow of their male contemporaries remain little or not well known to this day… Meet 6 of them here !
Berthe Morisot is a French painter that is part of the founding members of Impressionism. Leading figure of the movement, she exhibited at all of the Impressionist Salons that took place between 1874 and 1885 except for one for medical reasons. At fist a private student of Corot with her sister, Edma, it is thanks to him that she began to paint outside. She met Edouard Manet in 1868 – this marked the start of a long-lasting friendship, and the two painters influenced each other considerably in their respective styles. Her artworks were characterized by a great visual lightness but also a fine mastery of artistic techniques concerning color that brought Edgar Degas to recognize her as a true artist. The only woman to be exhibited amongst the selection of 29 artists shown at the first exhibition of the Impressionist group, Berthe Morisot was exemplary in her full devotion to the movement…
Despite her parents’ reluctance to let her pursue a career in painting, the American artist Mary Cassatt started to study painting at the age of 15 at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the oldest art school in the United States. Disappointed by the how slow the course was and the condescending attitude of her male peers and professors, Cassatt decided to go to France where she attended private art classes. After a difficult return and short time in the United States where her father still refused to accept the path his daughter has chosen, she went back to France. It is when for the first time in 7 years that none of her pieces were exhibited at the official Salon that Mary Cassatt met the Impressionists. She was fascinated by Degas’ work and he had a great influence on her. Committed to the members of the movement, she prepared works for the 1879 exhibition which turned out to be the most successful of all. Starting at the end of the 80s, she broke away from the French Avant-garde and reclaimed a much more conservative style. What did remain her whole life through was her will to live independently as an “artist” rather that a “female artist”.
Max Ernst’s muse with whom she spent 34 years of her life, Dorothea Tanning was gifted with a great artistic talent that was far too often hidden by her spouse… She never had any real artistic training and yet developed a remarkable style, which turned her into an essential figure of surrealism. Her first works, like Birthday, were figurative representations of situations straight from the land of dreams that likened her to the surrealist movement whose members she often saw. In fact, it is that very autoportrait, where Tanning appears with bare breasts, a long skirt that seems to be made out of tree roots and a small strange beast, that made Max Ernst fall in love with her. This did not keep Tanning from embarking on other creative quests and thus she progressively veered towards abstraction. Her pieces became less and less suggestive even though they still dealt with the female form, a recurrent them in her work. An artist of many talents, she also did sculpture and wrote poetry.
Like most female artists of her time, the Argentine Italian Leonor Fini was self-taught. She exhibited for the first time at age 17 in the city she grew up in, Trieste. 4 years later, having left Italy to go to Paris, she did her first solo show. In the French capital, Fini becomes friends with several members of the surrealist group, but she refused to affiliate herself to any movement or manifesto. Indeed, she described her work in a very simple way : “I paint what does not exist and what I would like to see”. In dedicating herself to drawing, she nevertheless preferred prints to paintings, in which she explored mystical and erotic themes. A big fan of literature, she also liked to illustrate the works of many writers’ texts : Paul Eluard, Giorgio de Chirico and other contemporaries. Leonor Fini’s talent even extended to the creation of sets and costumes for theater and opera. A unique artist and free spirit, Leonor Fini was able to surpass the role of the “exotic muse” which the founding members of surrealism usually associated to women.
Kay Sage was a surrealist painter and poet of American descent. Married to Yves Tanguy, one of the stars of surrealism, she was also a “victim” of her husband’s talent, as she somewhat worked in his shadow. Kay Sage was raised by her mother, a divorced socialite, in Europe, and predominantly in Italy. Her unconventional upbringing for the time probably contributed to her will to become an accomplished and independent artist. In any case, she succeeded in creating her very own visual language, that clearly set her style apart from that of other surrealist painters, characterized by curved shapes and lively colors. In fact, her paintings transport us into architectural landscapes filled with futurism and abstraction, where straight lines and muted colors are prevalent. Like her fellow surrealists, she was preoccupied by the juxtaposition of irrational objects. The strength of the most notable of her 200 paintings and drawings – produced in about twenty years – resides in the worrisome if not alienating aspect of her blurry horizons. The absence of human figures amplifies the feeling of despair that transpires in Sage’s works. She has the same quite pessimist vision in her written works.
A determined artist, Perle Fine dedicated 50 years of her life to abstraction. She started exhibiting her works in the 40s and quickly found herself at the epicenter of the Abstract Expressionism movement. The daughter of Russian immigrants, she grew up in Boston where she began to follow art classes before the end of her secondary studies. She left Boston for New York at the age of 24. There, she met many artists including Lee Krasner, who stayed a very dear friend her whole life. Encouraged by her sister and a regular visitor of the Met and the Modern Art Museum, she practiced copying masterpieces in order to understand what makes a painting an artwork rather than “a lot of colors”. Then, sponsored by Willem de Kooning, it is not before 1949 that she entered The stable gallery which was the headquarters of Abstract Expressionism in New York. One of the few women to be part of the Club, she would go on to teach and carry out numerous solo and group shows until her death in 1988.