The Story of Women’s Art Down the Ages

How many pre-20th century female artists can you name?

Judith beheading Holmes

Artemisia Gentileschi

The BBC’s program “The Story of Women and Art”  addresses this with an interesting journey over the often unheralded contributions women have made, down the centuries, to art, craft and fashion.

Why women in art?

I’d always been interested in the topic since having been introduced, during the 1980s at art college, to the turn of the century painter, Gwen John. I also went on to research an article three years ago detailing the women artists of the Renaissance. So the three part series was a great chance to expand my knowledge.

The few

The Last Supper

Sister Plautilla Nelli


The expected artists, Artimisia Gentileschi and Sofonisba Anguisola were present, the French Impressionist, Berthe Morisot and American Georgia O’Keefe. But what was interesting were the determined women I’d not heard of and equally those women I’d discovered and loved, who, for some reason, didn’t make the cut.

One of the greatest challenges was undertaken by Sister Plautilla Nelli who in 1550 painted an epic, 21 foot canvas of “The Last Supper”. Of her many hurdles with this piece, the main one, was that she couldn’t use male models. Her painting therefore has a charming femaninity to Christ and the apostels with their gentle, bearded looks.

Adventureous female painters

Elizabeth Thompson Lady Butler

Elizabeth Thompson Lady Butler

While I adore the story and beautiful images of Victorian botanical painter Marianne North, 150 years earlier Maria Sibylla Merian really went all out to record the natural plants and insects of Sirunam in the Caribbean.  Her images are like a Gothic horror show from the natural world and all this in 1699.

Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler also made a strong impression with her war art. Not the expected topic for a titled lady in the 1870s but her rendering of the battles of the empire are striking.  They touchingly concentrate on the ordinary and the moments just before battle commences, rather than the blood and guts of actual combat.

The innovators

Hannah Hoch

Hannah Hoch

The artists that I thought strange not to mention include Rosalba Carriera who pioneered the use of pastel sketching during the Roccoco period and whose work was popular with young men on the Grand Tour.  Innovative Dadaist, Hannah Hoch with her ground breaking use of printed magazine photos and multimedia paintings.

Another great designer missing was Clara Driscol, who was responsible for many of the iconic lamp designs made by Tiffany. A feat for which she is only now being recognised. 

The legacy of women artists

The Cradle

Berthe Morisot

What the program emphasised is the sheer prejudice female artists had to negotiate just to put brush to canvas. There was a lack of opportunity for art education, rules against studying the human form and sneering by the establishment at the finished results. Often even those who broke through suffered instant anonymity after their deaths.

Recent investigations and discoveries have enriched the art world as a whole and given these talented women the place in art history they justly deserve.  

If this gives you an interest in watching the programs, follow the links below for all three episodes of “The story of women and art”

Part one

Part two

Part three

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