The Changing Role of Women in Art History

Essay, 2020

7 Pages, Grade: N/A



A closer look at the involvement of women in art collection history reveals a significant engagement of females throughout the centuries in different countries. Their engagement appeared in many forms, including women that were innovative in new ways of artistic expression, women as patrons, women as collectors, women as sources of inspiration, or others that became well-known contributors in the form of art historians and critics1. Since time immemorial, women have significantly contributed to and may continue to contribute to the institution of art. However, most women still meet opposition similar to the traditional narrative setting of art in spite of their daily interaction with various forms of art. To be more precise, women face various challenges owing to gender biasing. These difficulties include a lack of training facilities, troubles in retailing their pieces, and refusal to show recognition for their artworks. One may, therefore, wonder how women have managed to declare themselves as such loud voices within art and in art history.2

A woman called Dibutades did the first drawing, which later became famous among artists. She traced the outline of her lover on a wall at the time. The mythology of the West revealed that the first artist was a woman; however, very little was told of her female successors before the end of the 20th century.3 There was a small number of women who managed to acquire significance among the male greatest artists of all time in history.4 While referring to that group of seemingly amazing artists, the society considered the female artists to be ‘the diamonds in the ruff; they were perceived as extremely talented individuals who conquered the limitations of their gender and made it in a male chauvinistic society.

Women in Art Collection Before the 21 ST Century

Whenever a woman became famous in the art sector and her works were sold in the market well, her success was credited to the men around her as it was the case with Mary Beale, an affluent portraitist in late 1600. Beale’s immense success was attributed to her husband’s activities, who was a studio manager. Art critics claimed that the husband displayed her pieces of art as part of his ongoing experiments to investigate his developed painting methods.5 Similarly, Gwen John’s self-portrait, which appeared secluded and scrutinizing, fought for acknowledgment in a male-dominated field. In fact, her brother, Augustus, failed to recognize her for the great artist that she was.6 The last few centuries, nonetheless, saw a systematic exclusion of the role of women in art history records. Various reasons contributed to the refusal to recognize female artists. Forms of art including textiles and ‘ornamental arts’ were downplayed as craft, and they were not regarded as part of ‘fine-art.’ Furthermore, women were not allowed to participate in any form of learning and training in art. Lastly, influential male patrons within the art world usually viewed women as inferior artists, thus refusing to give them opportunities to develop their skills. A good example of such a case is illustrated by Hans Hoffmann’s (an artist and instructor) accolade on Lee Krasner in which he expressed his surprise in the quality of the work of art7. As an abstract expressionist painter, Lee had a big influence on the art world in the mid-20th century, which brought her a wide recognition first in her country and then in rest of the world.

In the early 1960s, feminist movements, which were fighting for equal rights in all spheres in society, resulted in a significant rise in the number of female art students and teachers in schools around the world. Such locations were treated as the primary spots for feminists’ activities since they promoted the representation of women in galleries and museums.8 Moreover, the ‘women in arts movement’ initiated multiple theories and various artistic practices that led to the redefinition of what could be achieved in the studio and beyond, thus paving the way for a majority of the women artists in practice today. During the gilded age, men had initiatives in place that promoted the formation of art galleries using privately collected art.9

The society urged women to stay back and guard the privacy of their homes instead of opening their talents to the public. In contrast, men were responsible for donating whole collections to art galleries.10 It was unfortunate to deny women the chance of setting up collections in their names since they were considered to be inferior to men, and their successes usually credited to males in their immediate surroundings. All evidence points to the collection of art as being a traditionally dominated male activity in American society, referred to J.P Morgan, Henry Huntington, Charles Lang Freer, and John G. Johnson, who donated their collections to different public museums.

Isabella Stewart Gardner was the first female patron who challenged the prohibitions against women seriously and systematically.11 In her opinion, which she expressed in the essay, The Steel Engraving Lady and the Gibson Girl, women did not require a permission of men to compete with them. She believed men placed prohibitions on women to reduce the competition. The essay was about two women, one that rebelled against males in art world (Steel Lady) and another one that accepted her position in society without any question (Gibson Girl). Gardner managed to tear down notions that prevented women from collecting art since they were considered as the ones who privately displayed the collected pieces of art that belonged to their husbands.12 She built the Fenway Court, now the Isabel Stewart Gardner Museum, and supplied it with collections that attracted a vast public. While pursuing her vision of the ‘new woman’, Gardner navigated her actions towards the male group as it was more likely to help her. She avoided female networks and separatists’ initiatives. Also, she forged a network of symbiotic returns that saw her realize her vision and become a recognized name in the art world. The modern woman and her role in art collection is quite similar to what Gardner became after successfully challenging the prohibitions placed against the female gender.

Current Position of Women in Art Collection

Until recently, art collection has been a male-dominated activity. It is done through different financial deals including art loans, complex estate planning, or during deal negotiations at auctions surrounding male collections. Currently, the following four routes of wealth drive the US art world: hedge-funds, private-equity, real-estate, and independent entrepreneurs. An investigation into the art loans in the US between 1980s-1990s revealed how a whopping 95 percent was made to men13.

Current wealth distribution and the introduction of fresh opportunities for women has resulted in a shift in the domination of art collection. Women have gained more financial control today than ever in the history of the US. A report on the current stakeholders in art collection reveals that women are currently the main or an equal breadwinner in 4 out of 10 households.14 Moreover, 50 percent of women start relationships with more assets that their partners; therefore, women are becoming more independent in capital allocation and begin collecting various pieces of art, thus creating a respective collection. In the past couple of years, the number of art loans to women have increased up to 15 percent of the loans with a trend to rise even higher.15


1 Camille Gajewski, "A Brief History of Women in Art", Beautypark, 2019,

2 Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany (New York: Routledge, 2018), 21.

3 Angela Schuster, "When It Comes to Art Collecting, Women Are on the Rise", Robb Report, 2018,

4 Ibid.

5 Camille Gajewski, "A Brief History."

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, Feminism and Art History, 26.

9 Angela Schuster, "When It Comes to Art Collecting,"

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Malcom Harris. "Women in Art: 7 Top Female Collectors,"Huffpost, January 19, 2014,

14 Ibid.

15 Kathleen D. McCarthy, Women's Culture: American Philanthropy and Art, 1830-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 64.

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The Changing Role of Women in Art History
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Oliver Tumbo (Author), 2020, The Changing Role of Women in Art History, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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