Lives Painted Over


Edited by Susan Dubrofsky

Has the work of artists who are women been attributed incorrectly more frequently than that of artists who are men? Has there been some kind of blatant disregard, or disinterest, or prejudice against the study of art that has been done by women?

Sofonisba Anguissola (1535 – 1625)

            Sofonisba was educated by an enlightened father, praised by her contemporaries, well-paid, widely-traveled and twice married to supportive husbands.

            She painted her family in ordinary scenes because in the rigid patriarchal society, women were expected to be devoted to family, motherhood and beauty and chastity and passivity were admired. Female deportment did not include four-to-ten year apprenticeships in painting. Talented women not woman-like at all.                         

            Sofonisba did more self- portraits than other comparable artists – thirteen still exist.

Self portrait 1554

Lavinia Fontana (1552 – 1614)

            Lavinia Fontana was the daughter of the painter Prospero Fontana, of the School of Bologna, who was her teacher. She painted in many genres but she was most famous for painting upper-class Bolognans, male and female nudes and large religious paintings.

            Fontana married Paolo Zappi in 1577 and had 11 children.  She painted to support her family. Zappi took care of the household and served as painting assistant.

            Her self-portrait was perhaps her masterpiece.

Self-Portrait Lavinia Fontana

Artemisia Gentileschi  (1593 – 1652)

            Artemisia was praised and disdained by contemporary critics, seen as genius and yet monstrous because she was a woman exercising a male talent.

            Gentileschi was the daughter of a painter who introduced her to artists of Rome, including Caravaggio, whose chiaroscuro style influenced her.

            Artemisia accused the Florentine artist Agostino Tassi of raping her.  He was convicted and spent a year in prison, only to be invited later into the Gentileschi household by Orazio.

            Artemisia was the first female artist to paint large-scale history and religious pictures, subjects considered off-limits to women. Her stories of rape and vengeance – from a woman’s viewpoint – marked a breakthrough in art.

Beheading Holofernes Naples

Elizabetta Sirani  (1638 – 1665)

         She was an Italian painter whose father was the painter Giovanni Andrea Sirani of the School of Bologna.

            By 17 she was a full-fledged engraver and painter and had over ninety works. By the time she died at 27, she had eighty more. Elisabetta ran her family’s workshop. When her father became incapacitated, she supported her parents and her siblings through her art. The stress with such heavy responsibilities may have caused her early death. She produced some 200 paintings, drawings and etchings. She painted themes such as the Virgin and Child and self portraits, and used dramatic light and great movement of the Baroque style.

Self-portrait 1660

Judith Leyster (1609 – 1660)

            Leyster and her work were largely forgotten after her death for over two centuries until 1893, when a painting acquired by the Louvre was found to have Leyster’s distinctive monogram. A 1993 retrospective exhibition of Leyster’s paintings helped restore her place in art history.

            In 1633 she was a member of the Haarlem Guild of Saint Luke, the first woman admitted. In 1636 she married Jan Miense Molenaer and they moved to Amsterdam until 1648. She bore five children and the demands of marriage and motherhood replaced her opportunity for painting.

            Her paintings have a moral and humorous quality.  Along with tavern scenes and domestic pieces, she liked musical subjects.

Self Portrait

 Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717)

            At thirteen Merian was interested in the insect and plant world. She created the first European drawings and water-color paintings of them, despite that interest in insects was unusual. At 28, she published her first book “Neues Blumenbuch” and later her caterpillar book.

            With eight years preparation and financial assistance from the city of Amsterdam, Merian and her daughter traveled three months by ship to Suriname. For two years Merian documented tropical butterflies and insects for her major work, “Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium” in 1705. It contains figures of tropical plants and animals, which were still completely unknown in Europe.

            The register of death lists her as a pauper.

Painting by Maria Sibylla Merian

Mary Beale (1633 – 1699)

            Beale, the first professional female English painter of the 1600’s, became a semi-professional portrait painter by 1650.  

            Her father and husband were amateur painters and she knew the artists Nathaniel Thach, Matthew Snelling and Peter Lely.

            Moving Hampshire in 1665 due to financial difficulties and the Great Plague of London, she returned to London in 1670 to establish a studio, with her husband mixing paints and keeping accounts. She became reacquainted with Peter Lely and her later work is influenced by Lely, being mainly small portraits or copies of his work. Her work became unfashionable after his death in 1680.

Aphra Behn

Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (1755 – 1842)

            A stylish portrait painter on the eve of the French Revolution, Elizabeth was a star of the Salon, specialising in portraits of courtiers, their children, and her friend the Queen. Like Marie-Antoinette, Elizabeth attracted gossip that she slept with the men she painted. There was a new cult of masculinity in art, exemplified by Jacques Louis David’s paintings of Roman heroes where the most noble thing a woman can do is kill herself.

From her diary:

At the first sitting the imposing air of the Queen at first frightened me greatly, but Her Majesty spoke to me so graciously that my fear was soon dissipated. It was on that occasion that I began the picture….

Marie Antoinette

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard (1749 – 1803)

            First trained under a miniaturist, she gained Académie Royale membership on the same day in 1783 as her rival, Vigée-Le Brun.

            Adélaïde’s portraits were unpretentious, perceptive and displayed a subtle sense of color. Her Self-portrait with two women pupils at the Salon of 1785, has been interpreted as propaganda, arguing for the place of women in the Academy.

            When she supported the French Revolution, she lost her clientele.  The revolutionaries made her destroy the unfinished painting of a monarchy-related subject on which she had labored for over two years. With the painting’s destruction came the end of her hopes that this painting would win for her the Academy’s highest rank of history painter.

Self portrait 1785

Marie Bracquemond (1841 – 1913)

            Marie was described as one of the “le trois grandes dames” of Impressionism. Her omission from books on women artists indicate the success of her husband, Félix Bracquemond, to thwart her as an artist. His objection to her art was not on gender but on the style she adopted, Impressionism.

            Overshadowed by her famous husband, Marie’s work is considered to have been closer to the ideals of Impressionism. In 1890, Marie, worn out by marital friction and discouraged by lack of interest in her work, abandoned painting except for a few private works.

            She died in Paris in 1916.

Marie Bracquemond in Sèvres

Rosa Bonheur (1822 – 1899)

            As a child, Bonheur sketched animals in the wild. In 1853, she achieved international acclaim with The Horse Fair.

            Recent scholarship claim Bonheur expressed her frustrations with social convention by painting animals free of such constraints, subject to only the laws of nature.

            She dissected animal parts, sketched from life and attended horse fairs, not an event attended by women. To avoid taunts if she were seen at a horse fair, Bonheur applied for permission from the police to dress in men’s clothing and received it. Bonheur wore her hair short, rode astride, smoked cigarettes in public.

            Near the end of her life she speculated that “her critics could forgive her everything but being a woman.”

Horse Fair 1835

Evelyn De Morgan  (1855 – 1919)

            Evelyn was an English Pre-Raphaelite painter of upper middle class and homeschooled, starting drawing lessons at 15. In 1873 she enrolled at the Slade School of Art. Her uncle, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, was a great influence to her works. Evelyn often visited him in Florence where he lived. This also enabled her to study the great artists of the Renaissance, particularly Botticelli, which influenced her to make her own style.     

            In 1887, she married the ceramicist William De Morgan. They lived together in London until he died in 1917. She died two years later on 2 May 1919.

The Gilded Cage

Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862)

            Elizabeth was a dressmaker’s assistant where she was discovered by Walter Deverell and introduced to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a model. For Millais’ Ophelia Siddal lay for hours fully clothed in a tub full of water.  She fell ill afterwards. From 1852 she studied with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose model and mistress she became.

            Her exhibition debut was at the Pre-Raphaelite salon in 1857.

            In 1860, she married Rossetti in London where she worked on romantic-medieval watercolours, helped decorate William Morris’s Red House and planned to collaborate with Georgiana Burne-Jones. A stillborn daughter in 1861 was followed by post-natal depression.

            Siddal died from an overdose of laudanum in 1862 within two years of marriage.


Marie-Guillemine Benoista (1768 – 1826)

            Marie -Guillemine was a French neoclassical, historical and genre painter.

            Her work, reflecting the influence of Jacques-Louis David, tended toward history painting by 1795. In 1800, she exhibited Portrait d’une négresse in the Salon. Six years previously, slavery had been abolished, and this image became a symbol for women’s emancipation and black people’s rights.

Portrait d'une negresse

Edmonia Lewis (1840 – 1909?)

            A minority female with limited training and experience, in a male-dominated field, she became a skilled and imaginative sculptor. She remains mysterious, little known about her early and late life, with a scarcity of surviving sculpture.

            With a black father and a part-Ojibwa mother, she was orphaned in childhood.

            Lewis’ early Italian work, Forever Free (1867), portrays a black man who has broken the manacles of slavery and a black woman celebrating the news of emancipation.

            Lewis’ works depicted Native Americans as proud, dignified people, unlike the stereotype of the Indian as an untamed savage. 

            Edmonia lived in Rome until 1909 but her later years are shrouded in mystery, including where and when she died.


Berthe Morisot (1841 – 1895)

            Morisot was a painter and a member of the circle of painters in Paris who became known as the Impressionists. Undervalued for over a century, possibly because she was a woman, she is now considered among the first league of Impressionist painters.

Le berceau (The Cradle) 1872

Mary Cassatt (1844 – 1926)

            Mary Cassatt, member of the Impressionist circle in Paris, was a master printmaker. With the recent discovery of more than 200 “lost” prints and drawings from the artist’s studio, we comprehend Cassatt’s contribution. A master colorist, she continually experimented with printed inks.

            Cassatt was welcomed into the French avant-garde. She was the only American (and of three women) to exhibit with the Impressionists in Paris.

            Cassatt is best-known for her paintings of mothers and children. With a progressive attitude toward women and children, she displayed it in her art and her private comments. Cassatt never tired of representing the moral strength that women and children derived from their essential and elemental bond.

The Letter

Marie Bashkirtseff (1858 – 1884)

            She was a Ukrainian-born Russian diarist, painter and sculptor.      

            Born to a wealthy, noble family and educated privately, she studied painting in France at the Académie Julian, one of the few establishments that accepted female students.

            Dying of tuberculosis at the age of 25, Bashkirtseff lived just long enough to become an intellectual powerhouse in Paris in the 1880s. A feminist, in 1881, using the nom de plume “Pauline Orrel,” she wrote several articles for Hubertine Auclert’s feminist newspaper, La Citoyenne. One of her famous quotes is: Let us love dogs, let us love only dogs! Men and cats are unworthy creatures.

Marie Bashkirtseff In the Studio

Camille Claudel (1864 – 1943)

            Claudel was rediscovered in 1982 with a major exhibition in Paris and Poitiers. Claudel’s legend began and, with it, the misunderstandings.

            Camille was beautiful, talented and independent; connected to artists and writers and a romance with August Rodin. Her statues at twenty showed her skill and Rodin employed her after seeing them.

            Claudel broke with Rodin, around 1893, to escape his influence and to concentrate on her art.  Her love for the human form resulted in sculptures that the state and press censored as overly sensual and inappropriate for public display.

            After her relationship with Rodin ended, Camille showed signs of paranoia and became introverted. She created sculptures in a state of euphoria and destroyed them when depressed.  Camille was 45 when her mother and brother committed her to a lunatic asylum. Camille’s mother and sister never visited her there. Camille remained confined for 30 years, until her death in 1943. She was not allowed to practice her art.

Camille Claudel

Cecilia Beaux (1855 – 1942)

            She was an American society portraitist, in the nature of John Singer Sargent. She was a near contemporary of better-known American artist Mary Cassatt and also received her training in Philadelphia and France. Her sympathetic renderings of American ruling class made her one of the most successful portrait painters of her era.

Dorothea and Francesca 1898

Bloomsbury Artists

Dora Carrington (1893 – 1932) 

            In 1910 Dora entered the Slade School of Art in London. The painter Mark Gertler introduced her to the Bloomsbury group. Strachey Lytton met Dora at the home of Virginia Woolf, attracted to her androgynous appearance. Lytton was a confirmed homosexual and said they had found a love that suited them.

            Carrington met Ralph Partridge who fell in love with her. Accepting her love for Strachey and her life with him, still married her in 1921. In 1924 he and Strachey purchased the lease to Ham Spray House and all three lived out their lives there.

            Theirs is one of the poignant love stories of the last century.

            In 1932, Strachey died. In March, Carrington planned a trip to France and her friends relaxed, but she also borrowed a neighbor’s gun. In March, she shot herself fatally. Found before she died, Ralph and others arrived in time to say good-bye.

Dora Carrington

Vanessa Bell  (1879 – 1969)

            Vanessa Bell had a more fortunate life. Leonard Woolf courted her and her younger sister, Virginia, but Vanessa accepted art critic Clive Bell’s marriage proposal. Vanessa flourished, bearing children, painting pictures, decorating her home. Clive, feeling neglected, turned to Virginia. Though Virginia was more comfortable with affectionate words and petting, their flirtation wounded Vanessa deeply.

            On a trip to Italy consisting of the Bells, Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, Vanessa realized that she and Duncan were alike.  Duncan was a free spirit, a perfect creative partner for the reserved Vanessa. They forged a work and living space together. They had a daughter, Angelica, joining the sons she had had with Clive.

Virginia Woolf

 Lilla Cabot Perry (1848 – 1933)

            Lilla, an American artist, worked in the Impressionist style, rendering portraits and landscapes in the free form manner of her mentor, Claude Monet. Perry’s early work was shaped by the Boston school of artists and her travels in Europe and Japan. She was also influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophies and her friendship with Camille Pissarro. At thirty-six Perry finally received formal training but her work with artists of the Impressionist, Realist, Symbolist, and German Social Realist movements greatly affected her style.

Autumn Afternoon Giverny

Emily Carr (1871 – 1945)

            Born in Victoria, British Columbia, Emily studied art in San Francisco, London, and Paris. Discouraged by lack of public interest, she stopped painting for years while she managed a boarding house, raised dogs, and made pottery. Her work was exhibited by the National Gallery in 1927, when she travelled east and met the Group of Seven, with Lawren Harris, who encouraged her to paint again.

Ill health caused her to turn to writing in later years.  Klee Wyck, published in 1941, won the Governor-General’s Award for non-fiction and was followed by The Book of Small, 1942, and The House of All Sorts, 1944, as well as other works published posthumously.

Strait of Juan de Fuca

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

            In 1925, Frida, on a bus returning to her village, was found, naked, bloodied and and impaled by a heavy rod. The rod entered her at the hip and exited her vagina. Other injuries she incurred included several pelvic fractures, fractures of the spine, a dislocation of her elbow, and complications which included peritonitis and cystitis.

            These injuries impacted her entire life, along with her inability to carry a child to term, which laid the groundwork for the 32 surgeries she was to endure.

            Kahlo’s works speak of loneliness and vulnerability.  Kahlo’s imagery reflects a preoccupation with the exploration of love and its connection to pain. She had many lovers, both male and female, and was married twice – first in 1929 and again in 1940 – to the famous Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

            The apparently naïve drawing, bright colors and dramatic and fantastical images reflect her inspiration in native Mexican art.

Self portrait

Anjolie Ela Menon (b. 1940)

            One of India’s leading contemporary female artists, her paintings are in several major collections. Most recently (2006), a major work “Yatra” was acquired by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, California. Her preferred medium is oil on masonite, though she has worked in other media, including glass and water colour. She is a well-known muralist. She was awarded the Padma Shree in 2000. She lives and works in New Delhi.

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913 – 1941)

            Amrita, the daughter of the wealthy and aristocratic parents, started drawing and painting at 5. In 1929 they moved to Paris where Amrita thrived in the social milieu.

            Women figured in her work, portrayed in their loneliness with their fears and secret longings.

            In India in 1934, she proclaimed, ‘Europe belongs to Picasso, Matisse and many others, India belongs only to me.’

             Her mission ‘was to interpret the life of Indians and particularly the poor Indians, pictorially’.

            In 1938 Amrita left for Hungary to marry her cousin only to flee from Fascist Hungary and the war to Majithia’s property in India. In feudal extravagance but lacking stimulating company and ideas, depression descended in 1940 and she died before 29. Her doctor husband attended her but few believed his diagnosis of dysentery.

Two Elephants 1940

Zaida del Río (b. 1954)

            Zaida is a woman artist, a tireless, fervent exponent of Cuban fine arts, and defender of femininity mostly via her poetry. She gets her inspiration from her most profound desires for an equitable world in balance with Mother Nature. Dancing figures, in which femininity is a principle element, navigate through dissimilar worlds and universes. The skill and grace of her brush take over her shapes, with a combination of spirituality and hedonism, that become melded into one.

Cuadro Cubana

Rocio Garcia (b. 1955)

            Rocío teaches at the San Alejandro School of Art in Havana.  Rejecting images of Cuban women that maintain a sexist or racist stereotype, Rocio uses the geisha – the masked woman – as a mirror to reflect on sexuality in Havana, where pleasure and danger, money and spiritual longing coexist uneasily.     

            Before the 1959 revolution, Havana was a haven for gambling and prostitution.  Around 1990 the revolutionary project had unraveled and Cuba had to enter the global capitalist economy. Tourism returned becoming the government’s main financial source.

            Now Havana is called the Bangkok of the Caribbean. Rocio’s painting, Little Pieces of Me For Sale, shows how prostitution has become a sad metaphor for the rampant merchandising of Cuba. Cuba, once a proud revolutionary warrior, has become a woman who cuts pieces of herself to sell.

Alica Leal Veloz (b. 1957)

            She graduated in 1980 from Havana’s San Alejandro Academy of Fine Arts. She has had one-woman shows in Havana, Matanzas and Sancti Spíritus; Kuala Lumpur; Kingston; Houston and Berlin, and she has taken part in collective exhibitions in numerous countries. Her work forms part of permanent and private collections in many countries internationally. She has illustrated a number of Cuban and foreign books and cultural magazines.

Lois Mailou Jones  (1905 – 1998)

            Jones was a grande dame of American art as a painter, designer and teacher spanning 75 years. With graphic design, fabric art, oil and watercolor, she created cworks from experiences in Europe, Haiti, Africa, and the United States. Queen Mother of African-American art, she was the last woman artist providing a living link with artists of the Harlem Renaissance which, in the 1920s and 1930s, was a flowering of African-American social thought expressed through the visual arts, music, dance, theater and literature.

            In Paris, she created and exhibited unfettered by racial bias.  Her signature work, Les Fetiches, started her stylistic interest in the iconography of African art.

Elizabeth Catlett  (b. 1915)

            Catlett from Washington, DC, the granddaughter of former slaves was refused admission to Carnegie Institute of Technology because of race.  Catlett enrolled at Howard University, studying painting and design with Lois Jones. She created images that championed poor and working people of all colors, both in the United States and Mexico, where she was a professor until  1976.

            Since the 1940s, Elizabeth worked in art education and appreciation for African-Americans. “…I wanted to do art that black people would relate to…I would also like to have them come into art galleries and museums, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do ever since.”

Mother and Child

Faith Ringgold (b. 1930)

            During the 1960s and the 1970s, Faith’s paintings were overtly political – a critical reappraisal of the American dream. She used the story quilt—a craft associated with women’s communal work that has roots in African culture. She collaborated on the quilt motif with her mother, a dressmaker and fashion designer in Harlem. Her great-great-great-grandmother was a Southern slave who made quilts for plantation owners.

            Tar Beach depicts the spirited heroine Cassie Louise Lightfoot, who, on a summer night in Harlem, flies: “only eight years old and in the third grade and I can fly. That means I am free to go wherever I want to for the rest of my life.”

Tar Beach © Faith Ringgold, 1988. Acrylic on Canvas

For more information on Faith Ringgold, please go to

Vithal Rajan, a former Montrealer,was faculty at The School of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, U.K, Chair of World Studies, International School, Geneva; He has founded and managed several NGOs in India in a voluntary capacity. In 2006, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada for high merit and lifetime achievement in the service of humanity.