women & art…a post to celebrate my daughter

Several years ago I noticed one of those ubiquitous quizzes on Facebook, this one asking people how many female visual artists they could name.

A number of comments were left by quiz-takers, and their responses were, sadly, predictable. Most people could name only 2 or 3. “I thought of Mary Cassatt. Georgia O’Keefe. And then…blank.” “How is it that I don’t know almost any female artists?” people wondered.


Did you even know that Jackson Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner, was a painter?? Here is her Vernal Yellow.

Today I’m celebrating my daughter’s graduation from college with a studio arts degree!  I love her to the moon and admire so much her profound, humane, distinctive, and arresting artwork.

Claire by Greta Swanson 2

A portrait by my daughter, Greta Swanson.

Through the last four years, I have learned an enormous lot about art from her, about looking and seeing, asking and exploring, even though my understanding is still about a thimbleful. One of the things I have learned a smidgeon about is the uphill battle women have faced in the art world.

Although women have ever participated in the visual arts, many of us might be flummoxed by that Facebook quiz for a number of reasons.

For starters, art forms which have been the particular domain of women, such as textile arts, have often been disregarded or delegitimized.

August Macke (German artist, 1887 - 1914) Woman Embroidering on Balcony, 1910

Woman Embroidering on Balcony by August Macke. Do you have any idea how many paintings have been made of women doing needlecrafts?

Most obviously, though,  women were flat out prohibited or strongly discouraged from studying and practicing other art forms such as painting and sculpture. It simply was a boys only club.

Edmonia Lewis, first woman of both African-American and Native-American descent to become an internationally recognized sculptor. Illustration by Lisa Congdon from the book Broad Stroke

Edmonia Lewis, first woman of both African-American and Native-American descent to become an internationally recognized sculptor. Illustration by Lisa Congdon from the book Broad Strokes.

 Women who overcame such restrictions and produced fine art were often ignored by collectors and art historians and sank into oblivion. Or the work they created was assigned to a male artist.


Detail from Self Portrait by Judith Leyster, a Dutch Golden Age painter whose entire oeuvre was attributed to Frans Hals or to her husband for a couple of hundred years.

Even now, less attention is paid to important women artists in many art history courses and texts.  All of which is to say,  the women artists you are aware of from the past are basically superheroes.

kathe kollwitz, seed corn must not be ground

“Seed Corn Must Not Be Ground” by German artist Kathe Kollwitz, a woman who stuns us with powerful images of the impact of war and poverty on women and children.

They overcame enormous obstacles to learn, produce, showcase or sell their art to the degree that their names and works are known to you.

That’s why, in celebration of my daughter, I’ve collected some biographies of women artists to share with you.  I’m also including links to biographies of women artists I’ve reviewed previously — there are some gems in there you won’t want to miss.

I included one male artist on today’s list: Vik Munoz. Find out why he makes the cut in my review of his autobiography.

Are you still with me? Okay, here we go!

come look with me cover image

Come Look With Me: Discovering Women Artists for Children, by Jennifer Tarr Coyne
published in 2005 by Lickle Publishing Inc.

Twelve women are introduced gently, appealingly, in this book suitable for even preschool age children.

One painting or sculpture for each is reproduced along with a very short introduction to the artist. Four questions then invite us to look and wonder about her piece — perceptive, open-ended, child-centric questions.

come look with me interior by Coyne

I appreciate this book’s inclusion of renowned artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi and Berthe Morisot, who are as yet without a full length children’s biography. Ages 3 and up.

through georgia's eyes cover image

Through Georgia’s Eyes, written by Rachel Rodriguez, illustrated by Julia Paschkis
published in 2006 by Henry Holt and Company

There are many children’s biographies of Georgia O’Keefe but for some reason I’ve never included a single one of them in my blog until now!

through georgia's eyes interior by Rodriguez and Paschkis

To remedy that, I’m recommending this beautiful, plain-spoken account. Its calm cadence and the artwork’s simplified shapes accentuate the monumental longitude of O’Keefe’s unhurried outlook and her beloved Southwest landscapes. Such a lovely introduction, accessible to ages 3 and up.


Bloom: A Story of Fashion Designer Elsa Schiaparelli, written by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Julie Morstad
published in 2018 by HarperCollins Children’s Books

How did a child who was taunted by her own family for being brutish, homely, and unpromising, become a world-famous fashion designer with a flair for brilliance, inventiveness, and shocking pink?!

Bloom interior2 by Maclear and Morstad

This account of Elsa Schiaparelli is graced with clear, impeccable text and Morstad’s swoon-worthy illustration work.

bloom interior by Maclear and Morstad

It’s a gorgeous book flooded with color and hope, including a fascinating note from the author and illustrator. Grab it for ages 4 through adult.

pocket full of colors cover image

Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire, written by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville, illustrated by Brigette Barrager
published in 2017 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

This biography has tremendous child appeal, its pages simply spouting and swimming in vivacious color!

pocket full of colors interior by Guglielmo, Tourville, and Barrager

And what a story — an early Disney artist who was told her colors were too vivid?! Her ideas too fantastical?! Mary Blair packed up her things and effervesced her colors elsewhere for a time, but Walt himself called her back for one special project. You’ll have to read the book to find out what it was! A burst of wonderful for ages 4 and up.

From Here to Infinity cover iamge

Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity, written by Sarah Suzuki, illustrated by Ellen Weinstein
published in 2017 by The Museum of Modern Art

Another flamboyantly welcoming account, this book introduces the sensational empress of polka dots, Yayoi Kusama.

from here to infinity interior by Suzuki and Weinstein

Kusama is world famous for her profusely dotted paintings, sculptures, and installations. But what was the impetus for this? How does she see the world? Discover one of the most well-known contemporary female artists in this arrestingly-handsome book for ages 5 and up.

A Life of Color cover image

Sonia Delaunay: A Life of Color, written by Cara Manes, illustrated by Fatinha Ramos
published in 2017 by The Museum of Modern Art

Yet another in the blockbuster-color category is this story of a woman for whom colors  sang and danced, a woman whose experimental use of color and form made its way into paintings, textiles, furniture, and even cars!

a life of color interior by Manes and Ramos

Follow along on an imaginative excursion for Delaunay and her young son Charlie as she cajoles him with her ideas about art. If you look up some more of her work online, you’ll be able to see how it has been referenced in the brilliant illustrations. Ages 5 and up.

the quilts of gee's bend cover image

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, by Susan Goldman Rubin
published in 2017 by Abrams Books for Young Readers

Rubin has written many fine pieces of nonfiction. This one tells the fascinating story of generations of quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, of their pragmatism, indomitable spirit, and soaring, artistic inventiveness.


It’s a lengthy account, profusely illustrated with color photographs. You will be stunned by the designs of these women’s quilts which were discovered serendipitously and have found their place in some of the nation’s most prestigious museums. Ages 9 through adult.

meet cindy sherman cover image

Meet Cindy Sherman: Artist, Photographer, Chameleon, written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
published in 2017, a Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press

Cindy Sherman’s conceptual work in photography is introduced here in as accessible an approach as I can imagine. Greenberg and Jordan are terrific biographers. Here they present a number of Sherman’s projects, explaining her process and leaving its interpretation quite open to the reader.

meet cindy sherman interior by Greenberg and Jordan

This is tougher stuff than some of the other art in today’s post. Sherman has been edgy, experimental, audacious in the work she’s produced over the past almost 50 years. There’s a lot of wrestling to be done with the ways she has portrayed women, especially. Many of her images provoke discomfort over the ways women have been objectified, the way society’s expectations about outward appearances oppress us. Can art be ugly, startling, off-putting, for the purpose of social commentary? It’s a good account for those prepared to dig into deeper questions, probably ages 11 and up.

jelly garbage and toys cover image

Jelly, Garbage + Toys: Making Pictures with Vik Muniz, written by Vik Muniz
published in 2017 by Abrams Books for Young Readers

Vik Muniz, the sole male on today’s list(!), is here because he was particularly influential in my daughter’s development as an artist. I was tickled pink to see his recent, playful, autobiography.

toy soldier by Vik Muniz

Toy Soldier by Vik Muniz

This book is put together with such a breezy conversational style and so much clever pizzazz, it rather defies description. You’ll read of Muniz’s impoverished childhood in Brazil, his most improbable means of coming to the U.S., and a number of unconventional, fascinating projects he has executed. He really does make deeply meaningful pieces of art with jelly, garbage, and toys, just as the title suggests. Meanwhile the pages bounce with photographs and graphic styling, and even some strategic flaps to help you better appreciate what he’s done.

from the Wasteland series by Vik Muniz

A portrait from the Wasteland series by Vik Muniz. Why would he create a woman’s portrait out of trash?

Such a compelling guy and inviting book. I really hope it sparks an interest for many of you in watching the award-winning, powerful documentary Wasteland, which presents one of his most profound projects. The book is for ages 8 and up; the documentary is for teens through adults.

And here are more excellent biographies of women artists from the Marmalade archives:

beatrix potter and her paint box cover image

Beatrix Potter and Her Paint Box

christo and jean claude through the gates and beyond cover image

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Through the Gates and Beyond

cloth lullaby cover image

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

fancy party gowns cover image

Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe


Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World

in mary's garden cover image kugler

In Mary’s Garden

mary cassatt extraordinary impressionist painter cover image

Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Impressionist Painter

maya lin cover image

Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines

maya lin thinking with her hands cover image

Maya Lin: Thinking With Her Hands

stand there she shouted cover image

Stand There! She Shouted: The Invincible Photographer Julia Margaret Cameron

summer birds

Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian

vinnie and abraham cover image

Vinnie and Abraham

viva frida cover image yuyi morales

Viva Frida

wanda gag the girl who loved to draw cover

Wanda Gag: The Girl Who Lived to Draw

the world is not a rectangle cover image

The World is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid