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Girls Just Want to Have Equality: Sexism in the Art World

By: Rachel Stephens

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Victoria Ellis, [Illustration of famous women subjects as artists], 2022. Axios. Source.

When walking through an art gallery or museum, you have probably wondered who created the art you are looking at. More often than not, the answer is a man. As a woman entering the museum field, I have to ask…what the heck is going on?


Where are all the women?


In her essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, art historian Linda Nochlin (2015) explains that it was nearly impossible for women to be successful artists because they were denied the same opportunities as men. However, this did not mean women were any less talented or capable. 


To prove this point, let me introduce you to Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842).


Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun: Self Portrait in a Straw Hat


Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, after 1782. The National Gallery. Source. 

Hanging in room 33 of the National Gallery is Vigée Le Brun’s Self Portrait in a Straw Hat (after 1782). Vigée Le Brun uses this painting as an opportunity to prove that she is just as good as a man (National Gallery, 2019). 


The National Gallery. Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun: Painting royalty, fleeing revolution | National Gallery, 2019. Source.

If you look closely, you can see the detail Vigée Le Brun added to her hat (National Gallery, 2019). She purposefully did this after she saw the poorly painted straw hat in Peter Paul Rubens’ Le Chapeau de Paille (National Gallery, 2019). To prove herself as a capable artist, Vigée Le Brun improved the art master’s painting and made the hat look like straw (National Gallery, 2019).  


Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Susanna Lunden (?) (Le Chapeau de paille), probably 1622-25. The National Gallery. Source. 


Vigée Le Brun also deliberately paints herself in a feminine outfit while holding paint brushes and a palette (Montfort, 2005). By depicting herself in this way she is telling the viewer that yes, she is a woman, but she is also a talented artist (Montfort, 2005).


The Challenges of Being a Woman


Despite her talent, Vigée Le Brun was not granted the same opportunities as men. Like most women, she was first denied education at the French Royal Academy (Karvouni, 2014). She was eventually accepted, but only after Marie Antoinette, who Vigée Le Brun painted several portraits of, intervened and demanded she was enrolled (Karvouni, 2014).


That is Soooo Eighteenth-Century  

 

Of course, that was the eighteenth century. What about the twenty-first century? Unfortunately, recent data shows that women are still facing inequalities in the art world, especially in museums. 


A research team in the United States found that out of the 10,000 artists in major US museums, only 12.6% are women (Topaz et al., 2019).


Rachel Stephens. Data from: (Topaz et al., 2019).

You can’t argue with numbers. The industry is still refusing women artists the same opportunities as men. 


Why You Should Care


Guerrilla Girls, You’re seeing less than half the picture, 1989. Source.

By solely exhibiting art created by white men, we understand history and culture through their perspective, and no one else’s (Tate, 2018). This makes it impossible for us to fully understand our history and culture (Tate, 2018).


Tate. Guerrilla Girls – 'You Have to Question What You See' | Artist Interview | TateShots, 2018. Source.

Girls Just Want Representation


From the Academy not admitting Vigée Le Brun to lack of women’s art in museums, female artists have always struggled to receive the same opportunities as men. This must change. For our culture and history to be fully represented, women need to be present in museums and galleries not just as models and viewers, but also as artists.


Therefore, I’m asking my readers to support women artists by:


  1. Continuing to educate yourself about women artists

  2. Showing up at exhibits that feature women artists

  3. Calling museums out on their lack of diversity  


Women’s art deserves to be celebrated. Let’s make that happen.   


Further Reading


Karvouni, E. (2014). Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun: a historical survey of a woman artist in the eighteenth century. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 15(2), 249–266.


Montfort, C. R. (2005). Self-Portraits, Portraits of Self: Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and Elisabeth

Vigée Lebrun, Women Artists of the Eighteenth Century. Pacific Coast Philology, 40(1),


Topaz, C. M., Klingenberg, B., Turek, D., Heggeseth, B., Harris, P. E., Blackwood, J. C., Chavoya,

C. O., Nelson, S., & Murphy, K. M. (2019). Diversity of artists in major U.S. museums. PloS


References


Ellis, V. (2022). [Illustration of famous women in paintings being artists] [Illustration]. Axios.


Guerrilla Girls. (1989). You’re only seeing less than half the picture [Poster]. Tate Modern,


Nochlin, L. (2015). From 1971: Why have there been no great women artists? ARTnews.


Rubens, P. P. (1622-1625). Portrait of Susanna Lunden (?) (Le Chapeau de paille) [Painting].

The National Gallery, London, United Kingdom.


Tate. (2018, October 5). Guerrilla Girls – 'You Have to Question What You See' | Artist

Interview | TateShots [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8uKg7hb2yoo.


The National Gallery. (2019, March 8). Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun: Painting royalty, fleeing

revolution | National Gallery [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?


Vigée Le Brun, E. L. V. (1782). Self-portrait in a straw hat [Painting]. The National Gallery,


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