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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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, 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!
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?!
This account of Elsa Schiaparelli is graced with clear, impeccable text and Morstad’s swoon-worthy illustration work.
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: 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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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, 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: 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.
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 + 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.
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.
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
Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Through the Gates and Beyond
Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois
Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe
Frida Kahlo and the Bravest Girl in the World
Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Impressionist Painter
Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines
Maya Lin: Thinking With Her Hands
Stand There! She Shouted: The Invincible Photographer Julia Margaret Cameron
Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian
Wanda Gag: The Girl Who Lived to Draw
The World is Not a Rectangle: A Portrait of Architect Zaha Hadid
Trouble is – now I want to get each appealing book! Jill, you have such a gift – thank you!
Sue, you can find them all at the local libraries 🙂 And feed your artistic soul!
What an inspiring list. Can’t wait to read them all. Good luck to your daughter and her journey to become an artist.
Thanks, Cat! And yes, I was thrilled to find so many quality biographies.
In the 1970’s I took a Women’s Art History class at Cornell. Our professor told us that for centuries every generation had famous women artists who achieved great success in their lifetimes, but that somehow they didn’t make it into the history books. We studied women artists from the 1500’s up to present times, and it changed my life to see that women could be artists not just muses. At that time my big fat Abrams book of art history listed one woman. I hope that more women are entering the rolls of history starting with children’s books and including monographs and text books. Thanks for this post, (and for including Through Georgia’s Eyes and Summer Birds).
I love that line, “artists not just muses.” My daughter chose to do a research project/oral presentation on women artists in the Renaissance because of the short shrift given them in her text and she, and I through her, learned exactly that — many of these incredible women have zero remaining works even; they’ve all been lost and the only way we even know about them is through literature of that time period commenting on their talent. Thanks for your work, Julie!
[…] women & art…a post to celebrate my daughter […]
Wonderful! Reblogging to my sister site “Timeless Wisdoms”
Thanks, Ana! I’m happy you enjoyed it. Your site looks fascinating!
As does yours! And btw your rhyme and meter’s freakin’ flawless! 😘
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[…] couple of years ago I wrote an extensive post on women artists. At the time I did a thorough search of my library’s collection of picture book biographies […]