User:Annquin/Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?

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Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? was a groundbreaking essay in feminist art history written by Linda Nochlin and published in the January 1971 issue of ARTnews magazine.[1] It focuses on a question advanced by anti-feminists, male chauvinists, and the curious, who inquire why Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Picasso, Titian, Poussin, and all the other great Old Master artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods were apparently equipped with penises, testicles, or beards. It does not entirely concede the accuracy of the question (that there were no great women artists), but it assumes it's true for the sake of argument.

The question[edit]

Nochlin suggests that the question many people want answered is: "Well, if women really are equal to men, why have there never been any great women artists (or composers, or mathematicians, or philosophers, or so few of the same)?" She suggests that many people assume the answer to be: "There are no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness."[1]

Nochlin's essay[edit]

Nochlin begins by setting her work firmly in the tradition of a nascent feminist art history movement that was looking beyond the traditions of male art. But in contrast to some who would reject interest in greatness or tradition or male art, she claims that the question that forms her title is worth answering and that trying to answer it will reveal important facts about the status of women in history.

She rejects arguments that there were historically women artists the equal of men. She also dismisses the idea that women were equally great but in different ways, on the basis that it seems generous but ends up consigning women to the ghetto of feminine art, and anyway many women - including many of the greatest women artists - actually painted in a similar style to men, and certainly no more (stereotypically) feminine than delicate, refined, twee male artists like Redon or Fragonard. She concedes, "The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists, as far as we know, although there have been many interesting and very good ones who remain insufficiently investigated or appreciated; nor have there been any great Lithuanian jazz pianists, nor Eskimo tennis players, no matter how much we might wish there had been."

Instead, Nochlin argues, the absence of great female artists is connected to the other social injustices which feminists were concerned with. She notes that the idea of the Great Artist is in fact a myth, shrouded in numerous legends and vast amounts of aggrandisation and obfustication. From Vasari's Lives of the Artists onwards, we are told that these great artists were born genius, untutored, fully formed: Giotto was supposedly working as a shepherd when his talent was spotted. In fact, the life of an artist wasn't like that, and it was based on nepotism, patronage, class and race privilege, and many other determining social factors. Many artists came from families of artists, getting immediate admission to the family business. She offers another interesting question, asking why no great artists came from the upper classes, who you might expect to have the leisure time, money, and education to devote to art, but didn't. The answer is that great artists arose from a particular social situation.

She also lists certain practical difficulties faced by female artists. In particular, she considers how nude models and life-drawing classes (essential to history painting, the highest-status genre of western art) were not available to women, with women often prohibited until the late 19th century. Other restrictions existed in the Academies and apprenticeship system, all of which prevented women gaining the technical skills they needed - skills which were obscured by the concept of innate genius, but which are actually necessary for great painting. In contrast, in fields such as literature where the tools, training, and experience were easier to come by (no need to see a naked lady to write about history), women such as Jane Austen or the Brontes made greater achievements.

Another issue is social expectations. Women were allowed to paint in a quiet, decorous way, doing landscapes and such, as a hobby. But she was expected to give this up and become a wife and mother. Those woman artists who did succeed in making a job of it often had the support of fathers, as well as the determination to make many sacrifices (in contrast, e.g. Rubens had 8 children). In the late 19th century women, such as her example Rosa Bonheur, did achieve greater success as more opportunities opened for them, but at the cost of rejecting marriage.

She concludes by stressing that it is institutional not individual factors that offer an explanation. But in contrast to those who would say that promoting women's art means accepting second best, she tells women art historians to proceed "without making excuses or puffing mediocrity", and to "take part in the creation of institutions in which clear thought - and true greatness - are challenges open to anyone, man or woman, courageous enough to take the necessary risk, the leap into the unknown." There may not be any great woman artists yet, but in the future the situation can change.

But there are great women artists![edit]

This is one, cheerful counter to the question. Through the 1970s, certain feminist art historians devoted a lot of time to trying to find neglected female artists, arguing for the greatness of hitherto ignored woman painters and sculptors. Nochlin mentions this in a rather derisory fashion: "to dig up examples of worthy or insufficiently appreciated women artists throughout history; to rehabilitate rather modest, if interesting and productive careers; to 're-discover' forgotten flower-painters or David-followers and make out a case for them; to demonstrate that Berthe Morisot was really less dependent upon Manet than one had been led to think..."

In the 1960s and 70s, such feminist art historians did bring attention to some very talented artists such as the Baroque painter Artemisia GentileschiWikipedia. But despite keen research and enthusiastic boosterism, it became apparent fairly quickly to most people that even the best Renaissance and Baroque female artists weren't quite the equal of the greatest male artists, especially when you consider their oeuvre as a whole. Painters such as Gentileschi were certainly talented, but for whatever reason they did not equal the achievements of the best of their male contemporaries.

Men and women are different[edit]

If you accept there are no great women artists, then the explanation can be either that men and women are intrinsically different, or that external (social, political, economic) forces prevent women achieving the greatness that is innate in them. Or some combination of the two, but such equivocation is less popular because it satisfies neither feminist nor anti-feminist.

On the side of intrinsic difference stands Camille Paglia. TODO...

Extending the question[edit]

Other art historians have extended Nochlin's critique of how social structures affect women artists, whether or not they accept the validity of her question.

The question can also be extended to other fields such as music, where the absence of female composers is perhaps even more striking than that of female painters.

In the 20th century, women have gradually gained access to art education, institutions, and careers on a more equal basis. The 20th century has produced many important woman artists such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Helen Frankenthaler, and Frida Kahlo. However, even in the late 20th century groups such as Guerrilla GirlsWikipedia (founded 1985) have criticised the lack of women artists in galleries and institutions. So is this continuing imbalance due to continuing social forces, or a more fundamental difference between the sexes?

TODO more


One of the problems of Nochlin's argument is that it depends on a historical hypothesis that cannot be directly tested. How can we know why certain people did or did not become great artists?

Actually, as Nochlin mentions, we may not currently have an answer, but in future we would hope to see women and men both achieving equally

TODO more


The essay, and the debate it addresses, are purely concerned with the canons of Western art. In other traditions, women may have a very different role. This rather goes to bolster Nochlin's argument, by showing how artistic greatness is a social construct that differs between cultures.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, Linda Nochlin, ARTnews (2015 republishing)