A revolution that has taken centuries to arrive is underway in the art market and is sending prices for the work of women artists rocketing.
Since ancient times women have been the muses of many a great artist but few have been acknowledged as artists themselves. In the last few years, all of that has changed.
Picasso, Monet, van Gogh, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Dürer and Dalí – one might think that art is a totally male domain and as artists, women remained marginalised until the early 19th century. But thanks to the opening of art schools, the assertion of egalitarianism and the emergence of an art market, women artists are finally beginning to achieve the recognition they deserve.
The sale of Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting Jimson Weed / White Flower No. 1 for $44.4 million at Sotheby’s in 2014, set a new world record for a work by a female artist and sent a clear message to the world that female art had arrived – really big money was finally being paid for work by a women artists.
The O’Keefe result doubled the previous highest record for a work by a woman artist. Her record has stood since then, making O’Keeffe the unchallenged number one on the list of the most expensive female artists at auction. O’Keeffe is primarily known for her paintings of flowers and plants. She first attracted international attention in 1928, when six of her flower paintings sold for $25,000.
When Christie’s held an auction of post-war art and contemporary art in the spring of 2013, they sold an untitled work by Joan Mitchell for over $11.9 million. Mitchell was one of the few successful women in Expressionism and her works were often abstract landscapes.
Another female artist in the Million Dollar Club is Berthe Morisot who was active in the second half of the 1800s, a contemporary of artists such as Edouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Edgar Degas and she was married to Edouard Manet’s brother, the artist Eugène Manet.
When Berthe Morisot’s portrait of a doe-eyed woman, ‘After Lunch’ sold for $10.9 million, it helped power a wave of interest among collectors and dealers looking to identify undervalued female artists. A woman’s signature in the bottom corner of painting had long spelt a bargain. Male artists in the same artistic school or period can fetch more than ten times the price of a woman’s best work.
Pontus Silfverstolpe, the co-founder of Barnebys, says that currently the most searched for women artists on the 1,600 art and auction websites affiliated to Barneby’s – everything from Sotheby’s. Christie’s and Phillips down to small regional auction houses across the world – are Louise Bourgeois (best known for her monumental sculptures) and Cindy Sherman (photographer and film director, best known for her conceptual portraits).
While the debate continues over whether talent, sexism or lack of promotion has held women, artists, back, it’s a fact that prices and recognition for female artists have always lagged behind those of their male counterparts. That is now changing and the following woman artists have had a role in this sea-change.
Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun
Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun is still considered one of the best portrait painters of her time. As women were just starting to join the Academy (the institution in charge of regulating and teaching painting and sculpture in France during the Ancien Régime), Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun was already the favourite painter of Queen Marie-Antoinette and her Court in Versailles. Vigée-Lebrun was famous the world over and her mansion was the place to be for fashionable Parisians. In 1783, she presented ‘La reine en gaule’ at the Paris Salon. The painting showed Marie Antoinette in muslin cotton, generally used for underwear. Under pressure, Vigee-Lebrun withdrew the painting and replaced it with a portrait of the Queen in a more traditional dress.
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)
Mary Cassatt was an American painter and printmaker and an important figure of the Impressionist movement. More a portraitist than a landscape painter, she joined Degas, Pissarro, and Morisot in her taste for outdoor painting, her sense of colour and her search for realism. In 1882, the death of her sister marked a turning point in her career. Children and mothers then become her favourite subject. In 1890, after visiting an exhibition of Japanese prints, she became fascinated by this style of art. Her mastery of the technique of aquatint (a type of etching) was admired by her colleagues.
In 1904, she received the Walter Lippincott Prize for her painting Caresse but she refused it. That same year she was awarded the Legion d’ honneur.
Camille Claudel (1864-1943)
Sculptress Camille Claudell had a turbulent life. For ten years, she had a passionate love affair with sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Partners in art, they created several sculptures together, including Le Baiser (1886). Despite their breakup, she inspired Rodin all his life. Rodin never doubted her artistic genius. Claudel’s works were innovative, she captures the intensity of movement as few else can. After an illegal abortion in 1892 she gradually suffered a mental breakdown and died in an asylum in Montfavet (Vaucluse, France). She is now considered one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th century.
Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
Gertrude Stein was an American writer better known for her art collection than for her writing talents. In love with France, Gertrude lived in Paris and was an ambassador for modern art, including Picasso and the Cubists. In a relationship with Alice B. Toklas for nearly forty years, Gertrude Stein became one of the greatest collectors of her time. Her talent for spotting young painters was outstanding. Matisse, Picasso, Picabia, Balthus… all had paintings hanging in Gertrude’s apartment, 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris.
Coco Chanel (1883-1971)
Coco Chanel is a symbol of French elegance. She revolutionised fashion with her monochrome creations. She began her career in fashion as an atelier in Paris, Deauville and Biarritz. She then went on to create her own clothes that she would wear on public occasions, which quickly had her being noticed for her talents as her designs were different from the traditional dresses women were wearing during that period. Playing with feminine and masculine codes, Chanel created comfortable, stylish and practical clothes. She would adorn her simple elegant creations with stunning accessories, and today, of course, the design house is known the world over for their classic designs, experimental jewellery and handbags.
Suzanne Belperron (1900-1983)
Suzanne Belperron was a jewellery designer who many argue is one of the, most important figures in the history of French jewellery. As a designer for Boivin, she created very feminine and sensual pieces. She was particularly fond of gemstones (citrine, peridot, amethyst) and multicoloured jewels. Boivin jewels are rarely signed as she said: “My style is my signature.” Inspired by nature and foreign cultures, Belperron played with these influences and styles. Her jewellery quickly became the luxurious item that embellished the outfits of the most famous and fashionable couturiers.
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
A victim of poliomyelitis at the age of six, Frida suffered from a bus accident that kept her in bed for months. And so she began to paint a series of self-portraits using a mirror placed over her bed.
Living in Mexico, part of a patriarchal society, her surrealist paintings reflected her desire for freedom and travel, but also her frustration of not being able to have children due to the numerous surgeries she underwent. Frida Kahlo externalised all her sufferings through her paintings, in a fight against the life she was given.
Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)
Louise Bourgeois was a French visual artist, recognised for her monumental sculptures. Although not affiliated with a specific movement, she addressed women’s issues based on her personal experience. She especially dealt with the concept of the mother-daughter relationship, the role of the father and motherhood.
In an almost therapeutic way, Louise Bourgeois reflects her childhood in her works. The phallus represents the father and the spider represents the mother. Her mother died young and her relationship with her father was difficult. for Louise Bourgeois’ creation was vital to survival. “Art keeps us sane,” she said.
Diane Arbus (1923-1971)
Diane Arbus discovered photography and created her own style to immortalise those on the margins of society at the time. People who were Transgender, disabled twins, dwarves … anyone out of the ordinary was of interest to her. Thanks to Arbus, people discovered the huge diversity of the American population. Both praised and criticized in her lifetime, Diane Arbus left a legacy through her vision of humanity.
Marina Abramovic (1946-)
Marina Abramovic is like no other artist. Through performance art, she pushes the boundaries of physicality, using her body as an artistic creation and performance tool, and tests her body to the limits. In 2012 at MoMA, she sat for seven hours in a chair for six days a week, staring at each person in the seat opposite to her. This artistic performance which lasted more than 700 hours is one of the longest ever conducted. Marina Abramovic perceives performance as a means of expression with the outside world.
All of these women have all contributed and shaped art history, as did many others. And now they are emerging into the spotlight where at last their work is being acknowledged as is their role in changing the art world.
Julian Roup on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01892 669200 or 07970563958.
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