March is Women’s History Month. This presents a special opportunity to talk about some of the ways that women have shaped the world for the better. Art is one platform which allowed women to make powerful statements and publicly influence change, long before that was something that was accepted by society. Today, we’re talking about 5 female artists who shook things up and shattered glass ceilings with their visionary insights and compelling contributions to the art world.
1. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842)
Long name. Total rockstar.
This French portrait artist was renowned for her amazing technical talent, but also for her ability to create a name for herself as a highly successful, sought-after professional artist in an era when women just didn’t have careers (especially not married women, like Elisabeth). While women in Elisabeth’s time were encouraged to be accomplished and perhaps even cultivate a certain level artistic ability, she was too talented and passionate to keep her work at a hobbyist level. She professionally painted around 600 beautiful portraits and became one of the most sought-after portrait artists in Europe. She was even supported in her career by another famous lady you may have heard of (Marie Antoinette).
2. Mary Cassatt (1844- 1926)
If you’re at all familiar with the art movement of Impressionism, you’ve probably seen some of this American artist’s paintings. Like the other major artists working in Impressionism at the time (like Edgar Degas and Claude Monet) Cassatt told stories in her paintings by using light and shadows to evoke a mood. However, as one of the few female professional artists in her time and place, she broke new ground in this art movement by capturing the lifestyles of women and children from a uniquely female perspective. In the painting below, she’s perfectly captured the image of a wiggly child who is obviously tired of her portrait being painted. The unique, down-to-earth insights that Cassatt provided into the feminine lifestyle are a big part of her legacy and something that viewers still connect with today.
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878) by Mary Cassatt: Oil Painting on Canvas
3. Anna Mary Robertson AKA “Grandma Moses” (1840 – 1926)
Grandma Moses is a well-known American folk artist who is most remembered for her ability to capture imagery of rural American life. One of the most amazing things about this artist is that she didn’t really fit into any boxes. She did it all: she ran a farm, raised a family (she had 10 children), and became a successful self-taught artist…at the age of 78, no less! This artist is a powerful reminder that you don’t have to limit your aspirations based on your status, your societal role, or even your age.
Checkered House Series (1943) by Anna Mary Robertson: Primitive Art.
4. Augusta Savage (1892- 1962)
Because of her sex, race, and the time and place in which she was born, Augusta Savage knew all about societal roadblocks. Despite the fact that she often faced challenging circumstances, this black female sculpture was a profoundly influential artist and art teacher. She was a major figure in the the Harlem Renaissance art movement, and was the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center. She was also commissioned to sculpt a piece for the New York World’s Fair (1939) which symbolized the musical contributions of African Americans. Despite her own significant contributions to the art world, this award-winning artist considered her role as an art teacher to be her greatest legacy. She was an inspiring person who reminds us to also continue to learn and to support others’ learning as well.
Photograph of Augusta Savage working on The Harp, her piece for the The 1939 New York World’s Fair.
5. Yayoi Kusama (1929 – Present)
Who said art has to be something you just look at? Why can’t it be something you become part of ? Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama, brings viewers into her art – literally and metaphorically – with her immersive infinity mirror room masterpieces. While Kusama has worked in a variety of artistic mediums throughout her life, her most famous pieces are her unique, experiential mirror rooms, which she has been creating since 1965. “The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away,” (pictured below) is a more recent work of this 90 year old artist. Viewers enter this mirror room and are challenged to reflect upon their role within infinite time and space. One thing is for sure: this visionary female artist has given us infinite new ways to think about how we connect with art.
The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away (2013) by Yayoi Kusama, wood, metal, mirrors, plastic, acrylic, rubber, and LED lighting system.
These are just 5 of many visionary female artists who have shattered glass ceilings. Now that you’re done with this list, maybe you’ll want to go learn about some of the other inspirational women who positively impacted the art world (and in the world at large). Happy Women’s History Month!