Women Throughout Art History

Throughout human history there have been many great women artists. Their talents exceeded and competed with the skilled male artists of their time periods, but written history fails to recognize most of them. Many women were stuck in societal roles that didn’t allow them to pursue a career in art, leaving their work under-appreciated and lacking the recognition it deserved. Over time, this has begun changing; in the art world of today, there is a strong, dominating force of women artists and a better balance of equal rights.

While we understand the limitations that women have faced in the past, the Artsie team would like to take part in giving women artists the recognition they deserve by sharing their stories and their work. Sofonisba Anguissola, a Renaissance painter, Julia Margaret Cameron, a British photographer, and Joan Mitchell, an abstract expressionist, were all influential artists of their time periods and overcame societal limitations.


Sofonisba Anguissola, (1532-1625)

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Known as one of the few women artists of her time, Sofonisba Anguissola’s success in pursuing a career in art is something to be admired. One advantage that she seemed to have over other women artists was familial support; Anguissola’s father actively encouraged her career pursuit. That kind of support was rarely seen towards women with career goals, especially artistic ones.

As a young student, Anguissola was able to land apprenticeships, studying under other talented male artists of the time. This was normally something only boys were allowed to do, and Anguissola’s success as an apprentice became an example for others that women should be accepted into future apprenticeships.

Sofonisba’s work was mainly portraiture, a popular style of art at the time. She made it her own, however, by painting faces with candid expressions on them. Rather than stick to stoic, plain faces that showed how people wanted to be seen, Anguissola painted people as they were, a revolutionary technique for the time.

The height of her career success came when Anguissola moved to Spain to tutor Queen Elizabeth of Valois. Later, Anguissola was given the title of court painter for Spain’s King Philip II.

In a time period most people associate with Michelangelo, Sofonisba Anguissola was also making a name for herself in the world of art. While our typical history books may have left her out, respectable scholars of the time recognized her impact and preserved her story. Anguissola was able to break through the gender roles and showed society what a woman was capable of. For that, we remember her and the rare and beautiful art she created.


Julia Margaret Cameron, (1815-1879)

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She may have began her career at the age of 48, but by the time of her death, Julia Margaret Cameron was known as “one of the most significant photographers of the 19th century.” After receiving a camera as a gift from her daughter, Cameron immediately began using photography as an art form. Since the camera was still a fairly new piece of technology, photography was not yet widely recognized as artistic.

Cameron’s photography became her obsession as she played with lighting use, focal techniques, exposure and different ways of processing photographs. This often led to the subjects of her photos being stuck sitting and waiting for her to just take their picture, since the process was so arduous and relied heavily on perfect timing. While family and friends came to find this obsession of hers as annoying, the world later thanked her for her dedication. Because of Cameron’s work, photos that we have today of people from her time are often the only ones that still exist.

We are able to preserve and recognize the work of Julia Margaret Cameron because of her business-like intuition. Perhaps knowing how valuable her photographs were, she took the time to register them at a copyright office and would keep detailed records of all the work she did.

Cameron’s photographs showed the world the artistic potentials of photography. Her style and techniques were not often seen in the 19th century and it wasn’t until the 20th century that her work became well-known and appreciated by the arts community.


Joan Mitchell, 1925-1992

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The life of Joan Mitchell shows us the long-awaited acceptance of women in a male-dominated field. Mitchell studied art at Smith College, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Columbia University. She even traveled to Europe and studied under an art fellowship in Paris. In the area of abstract expressionism, Joan Mitchell was a principal figure among her peers and only one of a few women.

Joan Mitchell’s abstract art was all about conveying emotions; from the use of different brush strokes, to the varying color use, to the excess paint splashed onto the canvas, each work of art symbolized the way Mitchell was feeling when she began each painting.

During her lifetime, Joan was able to reach commercial success and fame. Her status as a woman in a world of male artists never slowed her down; she was a force to be reckoned with and her art was accepted by an audience of admirers. Though her legacy lives on through her art, Mitchell is also remembered for her non-profit organization, the Joan Mitchell Foundation. The foundation “advances the work of today’s artists and amplifies their essential contributions to communities around the world.”


At Artsie, we support the women artists of the past, present and future, and will always strive to show that support in any way we can. That is why it’s so important to remember the artistic and societal achievements of Sofonisba Anguissola, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Joan Mitchell.

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