Women Artists Through Time


Women played an important role in art since prehistory. No records prove this claim directly, however, most anthropologists believe that women in prehistoric times made pottery, wall art, jewellery, wallpaper and textiles as well as create cave paintings which do not only include male hand-prints but female too.

The earliest Western written records mention a few women artists. The ancient authors speak about women’s influence in making textiles, music, poetry and other forms of art although they do not reveal prominent individuals. Among the first women artists mentioned by name are Helena of Egypt, Eirene, Iaia and Timarete.

The Middle Ages was marked by dramatic changes including decline of women’s role in the society. However, they were not excluded from art production. Just like men, they worked on manuscript illuminations, textiles, embroideries and carving. No names of individual women artists have been recorded but on the other hand, only a few medieval male artists are known by their names. Women artists in the Middle Ages are believed to be women originating from wealthy aristocratic families and nuns.

Renaissance was marked by a major cultural shift which allowed women artists to gain a more prominent role in art. The period also saw the rise internationally reputed artists, while identity of the artists became more important. As a result, unknown artists slowly disappeared from history after the spread of Renaissance in Europe. However, most women artists still came from higher social classes and artistic families. They gained access to art training except for studying male nude models but most of them gave up their artistic career after marriage to take care of household and raise children.


Until the 18th century, most female artists still originated from artistic families. The 18th century was marked by the rise of Academies which did not only determine the style but also took care of training artists. However, most women artists had little benefit from these Academies because the majority of them did not accept women. Most female artists therefore established themselves in alternative genres such as portrait painting and knitted goods. However, three women (two of which were among the founding members) gained access to the Royal Academy of Arts in the second half of the 18th century but they never gained an equal position to male artists due to emphasize on male nude model training which remained a major obstacle to female art students until the 20th century. Thus no women became a full member of the royal Academy until the 1930s, while the Royal Academy Schools started admitting women only after mid-19th century. Women were not able to study naked or nearly naked male models until the late 19th century when most art schools in Western Europe and the United States became more liberal.

The 20th century saw the rise of many prominent and internationally respected women artists. However, it was not until 1993 when the first woman artist, Rachel Whiteread won the annual Turner Prize that is awarded by the Tate gallery. Nevertheless, most of contemporary women artists are just as influential as their male colleagues, while many play an important role on the international art scene.