“Why have there been no great women artists?” Art historian Linda Nochlin posed the question in 1971 in an essay whose point was just the opposite: Art history is full of great women artists you’ve likely never heard of. In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s meet some of them.
Whether you’re familiar with these four artworks and their creators, they’re just a few examples of the art women have been creating for centuries. Some of them toiled in semi-obscurity, while others enjoyed fame in their time but since have been overlooked. And one is a mystery, because who doesn’t love a good mystery?
1. The Death of Cleopatra, Edmonia Lewis
Weighing in at 3,015 pounds and measuring more than 5 feet tall, The Death of Cleopatra wowed thousands in its debut at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The sensational meditation on death bounced around for decades—it was displayed in a saloon for a while, and spent time as the grave marker for a dead horse—before finding its current home at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Born in 1844 to a black father and a Native American mother, Edmonia Lewis lived quite a life. Orphaned at a young age and raised by her mother’s tribe, then driven from Oberlin College by unfounded claims that she had poisoned her roommates, she apprenticed in sculpting in Boston. She made enough money off her work to sail to Italy, where she joined a thriving community of female expat American artists in Rome. Lewis was the first professional African-American sculptor and enjoyed international acclaim, but her star faded as Neoclassicism fell out of style.
2. Judith Slaying Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi
Let’s move from Rome to Florence for this incredibly savage rendition of a classic: Judith beheading invading general Holofernes to save her village. The gruesome nature of the scene is thought to have been the artist’s painted “revenge” for her having been raped by her mentor several years earlier.
The artist was Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the most famous painters of the Baroque era and one of the first successful female artists of the 17th century. From her teen years, Gentileschi was among the best of the best—she was so good, in fact, that in the centuries after her death, her works were attributed to men. Even in the 20th century, scholars had trouble believing a woman could have painted so well.
3. The Bayeux Tapestry, unknown artists
Considered “one of the crowning achievements of the Norman Romanesque,” the Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of the Norman conquest of England. What makes this work so special is that it features some 50 scenes embroidered on an incredible 230 feet of fabric—oh, and it’s survived intact for more than 900 years.
And no one knows who made it. French legend attributes its design to Queen Matilda, the wife of William the Conqueror, while others credit Edith of Wessex, a queen of England. Of particular note, though, is that no matter who designed the thing, its physical construction is always attributed to women…because weaving and embroidering are “women’s work.” Rude.
4. Three Black Cats, Maud Lewis
In 2017, the bright, bold Three Black Cats sold for $36,800 at auction—five times the expected amount. The price reflected Canada’s love for an arthritic old woman in a tiny cabin.
Despite painting for decades and becoming one of Canada’s most famous folk artists, Maud Lewis lived in poverty, born in 1903, married to a fish peddler, and painting in a one-bedroom cabin in Nova Scotia until her death in 1970. She was never taught to paint, and she likely never even set foot in a museum. (“My favorite painting?” she once said. “I’ve never seen many paintings from other artists, you know, so I wouldn’t know.”) But her vibrant colors and disarming depictions of rural Canadian life captured Canada’s imagination. Her cabin became a popular tourist destination, and even Richard Nixon had to have her work—two paintings, hung in the White House. A 2017 film about her life was a hit with critics, but “Maudie” will always be something of a uniquely Canadian national treasure.