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The most famous women artists of all time

From Frida Kahlo to Yayoi Kusuma, we pick history’s most famous female artists working in painting, sculpture and more

Written by
Howard Halle
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For centuries, women artist were invisible in the annals of art history. Oh, they existed, but they worked in the shadow of male artists who made up the canon of most famous artists of all time. In the 20th-century that began to change slowly as the work of women artists were added to museum collections around the world, including those of NYC institutions such as The Met, MoMA and the Guggenheim. With the rise of feminism in the 1970s, however, the process of participation started to accelerate, at least for contemporary female artists, who began to have shows at galleries and museums in ever-greater numbers (granted, not nearly as many as they should have, given that women form the majority of the population). Still, the imbalance is being redressed, not only in contemporary art, but also in the revival of forgotten female artists from the past, as our list of the most famous women artists of all time reveals.

Most famous women artists of all time

1. Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1656)

The Italian Baroque painter was born in Rome, the daughter of Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi from whom she learned her trade. Gentileschi, was a follower of Caravaggio, infusing his dramatic lighting and dynamic approach to figuration with a sensibility that we’d call feminist today. Indeed, she experienced her own MeToo moment in 1611, when the artist Agostino Tassi raped her. After Tassi reneged on a promise to restore Artemisia’s honor through marriage, the elder Gentileschi took him to court, with Artemisia as star witness. Gentileschi’s feelings on the matter may have found expression in her exceptionally violent rendering of the Biblical story of Judith beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes (pictured).

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614–20)
Photograph: Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

2. Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842)

Le Brun earned a reputation Ancien Régime France as the portrait painter to Marie Antoinette, limning some 30 likenesses of the Queen and her family in all. Her father was a painter, as was her husband, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun (who was also a noted art dealer). Since her career was tied to the monarchy, Le Brun was forced to flee France during the French Revolution, but she was allowed to return to Paris in 1802. She was largely forgotten after her death, until her career was revived in a 1982 retrospective at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Self-portrait in a Straw Hat, ca. 1782
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Wikimedia Commons/Thyra

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3. Mary Cassatt (1844–1926)

Born into an upper-middle-class family, Cassatt is the best known of the female painters associated with Impressionism. She initially studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia before moving to Paris in 1866. A friend and admirer of Degas, Cassatt became known for intimate domestic scenes with women and girls as the main focus. Later in her career, her work was shaped by the period fashion in France for Japanese art and design. By 1914, she was almost blind, and stopped making art. She would live for another dozen years before dying at Château de Beaufresne, outside Paris.

Mary Cassatt, The Boating Party, 1893–1894
Photograph: National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

4. Hannah Höch (1889–1978)

Höch was a leading figure of the Berlin Dada movement during Germany’s Weimar era, following World War I, a period of political and economic turmoil, but also a moment of immense artistic license. Höch and her contemproaries, (George Grosz, Kurt Schwitters and Max Ernst) to respond to the times with biting social satires couched in radically confrontational styles. Höch focused on the shifting roles of women and the blurring of gender boundaries that was a feature of Berlin’s nightclub scene. During the Third Reich, she was condemned as a “degenerate artist” though she stayed in Berlin through the war, remaining there until her death.

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919
Photograph: Staatliche Museen, Berlin

 

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5. Frida Kahlo (1907–1954)

An art-historical icon, Frida Kahlo made herself and her life the subject of her work. At age 18, she suffered broken bones and a shattered spine in a bus accident. Her uterus was also injured, making it impossible for her to have children. Her husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, was a frequent philanderer, and she had affairs of her own, with both men and women. Her canvases, which blended Surrealism with Mexican painting tradition, alluded to her tumultuous life, which remained dramatic until the end: Suffering from a illness which kept her confined in her final years, she attended the opening of her first solo show in Mexico by having herself carried to the gallery in her bed.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Small Monkey, 1945
Gianni Dagli Orti/REX/Shutterstock

6. Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010)

Louise Bourgeois was born into a family that sold and restored antique tapestries, so perhaps it’s no surprise that she became an artist. But it was the emotional dynamics between her parents that would prove to have the most lasting impact on her art. Bourgeois père was a tyrant who strayed from his marriage frequently, even as her mother ignored his philandering. The pall of co-dependency hanging over Bourgeois’s childhood would find its way into her work, especially in her famous spider sculptures, which immortalized her mother as a web-spinning arachnid. Over her long her career, she became personally acquainted with prominent Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists, and while her work assimilated aspects of theirs, her style was sui generis.

Louise Bourgeois, Maman (Ama), 1999–2001
Photograph: Courtesy FMGBGuggenheim Bilbao Museoa 2010/Erika Barahona-Ede

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7. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986)

O’Keeffe is known, in the minds of many, for a widespread misconception that her paintings were thinly veiled renderings of vaginas. O’Keeffe rightly detested this idea as her intention was to bridge the gap between abstraction and representation rather than create symbols of female empowerment. For one thing, she was plenty empowered in her own right, though her marriage to photography pioneer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) was a torrid, if ultimately unhappy, relationship, due to his extramarital affairs. Nonetheless, her artistic career came to overshadow his. Though she painted scenes in various locations around the U.S., O’Keeffe’s work is most often associated with New Mexico, where she lived between 1934 and her death in 1986.

Photograph: Anonymous/AP/REX/Shutterstock 

8. Yayoi Kusama (born 1929)

Best known for her mirrored “Infinity Rooms,” Yayoi Kusama’s efforts stretch back over six decades, a career that included a stint in NYC between 1957 and 1972, where she gained notoriety for outdoor happenings that involved public nudity. From childhood, the Japanese artist has suffered from hallucinations that manifest as flashes of light, fields of dots and flowers that talk to her—experiences that underscore not only the aforementioned rooms, but also paintings, sculptures and installations that employ vivid, phantasmagorical patterns of polka dots and other motifs. Her psychological afflictions, though, have continued to plague her, and in 1977, she committed herself to mental hospital in Japan where she’s lived ever since.

Yayoi Kusama, Longing for Eternity, 2017
Photograph: Jocelyn Noveck/AP/REX/Shutterstock

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9. Cindy Sherman (born 1954)

Cindy Sherman first achieved famed with her “Untitled Film Stills,” a series of photos that recalled old movie lobby cards. In them, she portrayed various waifs, bombshells, film noir dames and other female denizens of the cinematic imagination. She was part of a cohort of Baby-Boomer artists known as the“Pictures Generation.” Appropriation of existing images was the stock-in-trade of most of its members, but that was never really Sherman’s approach. Instead, she worked both in front and behind the camera. In time, Sherman moved away from Hollywood to inhabit the various roles projected onto women by society, art history and age.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #474, 2008
Photograph: Billy Farrell/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

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What makes an artist great? It takes talent, of course, and a genius for innovation. Also, having some sort of vision helps. But a truly great artist is distinguished by a unique ability to take his or her moment in time and distill its essence so that resulting work becomes timeless. Limited to dress and hairstyle, for example, the Mona Lisa is just a woman from the Renaissance. But her expression—subtle, ambiguous—has given her a mystique that will survive the ages. And so it goes, not only for her creator, Leonardo Da Vinci, but also for the other artists (many of them included in New York museums such as The Met, MoMA and the Guggenheim) on our list of the most famous artists of all time.

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