International Women’s Day, France, 1981. Image: Getty.
Throughout the centuries, successful women artists have been very active in contributing to the art scene. Whether as artists, models, historians, and critics, they engaged in the movements of art as empowerment, and have fought to see its transformative roles in society. Indeed, their work has significantly contributed to the advancement of our artistic society.
ART AS EMPOWERMENT
Yet, the art world is no exception when it comes to gender biases. Even with the presence of successful women artists, the men were still the ones most exposed to the limelight. Their works get noticed at a much higher rate; as compared to that of their successful women contemporaries. Women had difficulty being treated as equals in all aspects – from training in art schools, to selling their work, to gaining an audience.
Successful women who used their art as empowerment have inspired us in various ways. There were activists like Rosa Parks, and singers like Nina Simone who contributed in the fight for equality.
Trivia: Do you know why Rosa Parks was arrested on a Montgomery city bus in 1955? We explained it and talked about other successful women in our MLK article here!
From inspiring thousands of women to be entrepreneurs, to revolutionizing the traditional educational system, let us take a look back at some of the most notable successful women heroes who used both traditional and contemporary art as empowerment, changing our society in their own ways.
Successful Women Who Made History
MARY CASSATT (1844-1926)
Mary Stevenson Cassatt was the first woman Impressionist. She was an American painter and printmaker, born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania. Mary Cassatt was not like any other American girl in her time. She was not in search of fashion, fame nor fortune — but rather she chased after a life of professional artistry. She went to Paris to study, observe, and paint; and later on to Italy to gain further studies in art.
Portrait of Mary Cassatt, 1914, Unidentified Photographer
Friendship with Edgar Degas
In Paris, France – Mary met the father of Impressionism, Edgar Degas. Admiring each other’s work from a distance for years, Degas paid Mary a visit in the year 1877.
Before Degas left, he invited her to exhibit with the Independents, his parting words being “Most women paint as though they are trimming hats. Not you.” This shows how Degas was clearly impressed by how Mary used her art as empowerment.
Mary Cassatt accepted the offer, exhibited her work, and this brought her into the fold of the Parisian avant-garde. Throughout the course of their careers, Cassatt and Degas had a lot of collaborative work. They regarded one another with high respect, and admired each other’s ingenuity. Mary would often turn to him for critique, and in an interview, she described Degas as “the only man I know whose judgment would be a help to me.”
Degas introduced Mary to pastel and engraving, both of which she quickly mastered. Mary, on the other hand, helped Degas sell his paintings by promoting his reputation in America.
One of their most famous collaborations is the painting of a girl in a blue armchair.
Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, National Gallery of Art
Mary Cassatt lived in an age when women tended to marriage, motherhood, and other domestic matters. Successful women who worked were not common, and given her social class, the stigma would have been to study fashion in Paris and return to America. Mary, however, created her own path and eventually became one of the most famous and progressive Impressionists of her time. She used her art as empowerment, and embodied the “New Woman” that took the 20th century by wave.
She worked with topics in the social construct, using women as her main models. Her artistic portrayal of women was consistently done with the suggestion of a deeper, meaningful inner life they were living. She did not want to fit in the stereotype of women artists, and supported the fight for women’s suffrage.
Mother and Child Theme
Mary Cassatt, Breakfast in Bed, 1897
Mary’s works emphasized the strongest human bond that only exists between a mother and her child. She also emphasized a woman’s right to vote. Cassatt was one of the first American women to exhibit at the acclaimed Paris Salon in 1872, and she remains one of the most well-known figures of successful women in Art History today.
FRIDA KAHLO (1907-1954)
“Feet, what do I want them for if I have wings to fly?” – Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo, born as Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón in Coyoacán, Mexico City, Mexico – is one of the most famous successful women artists in history. Known for her unique taste, she has become an image and an icon for art as empowerment in women. As a child, Frida was always into the arts. However, she developed polio in her younger years that deformed her right leg, and affected her life.
Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait
When she was eighteen, Frida met a tragic accident that caused her more serious medical problems, on top of her polio. This prevented her from doing almost anything, and confined her to her home for the majority of her adult life. They also suspected that she had spina bifida, a special condition of the spine. All these cases prevented her from carrying on a normal life. Later on, she even had to have her leg amputated because gangrene had set in.
These very defining moments in her life served as an inspiration for the artist that was soon to become. In a way, her predicaments propelled her to using her art as empowerment. In her lifetime, she was also married to fellow artist Diego Rivera, whom she asked for advice about her art when she was younger. Although they divorced in 1939, the two stayed together in love until Kahlo’s death in 1954.
Frida’s Art: colors and fantasy (a short description)
Frida Kahlo’s paintings caught worldwide attention and have proven itself timeless. Her personal style and form of art as empowerment stands out because it is unique, mesmerizing, and enigmatic to everyone who views it. Not only does she employ an excellent use of colours, but her artworks also carry a sense of fantasy in them. Frida Kahlo has been described by many as a surrealist, or a magical realist.
Frida Kahlo, Broken Colum, 1944
Kahlo’s use of “jolielaide” (French term, translates to “beautiful ugly”) directly challenges the constant pairing of female power with physical beauty. She was unapologetically feminist. Even in her art, it showed. Her subjects’ unsympathetic expressions challenge the commonality of the passive woman, and have no interest in appeasing the male gaze. Instead of a litany of muses, she described her use of herself as her subject, “I am my own muse, I am the subject I know the best.”
An Icon of Strength, and Art as Empowerment
In the 1990s, Frida served as an icon of successful women for the Chicanos, the feminist movement, and the LGBTQ movement. Kahlo’s work has is continually celebrated for its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form.
Her fashion statement was also very notable; she had a love for all things eccentric. Her signature is her long flowy skirts (which we later on discovered was a way of hiding her legs) and a flower crown in her head. This way one way of using art as empowerment for herself, too.
Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas, 1939
In most of her paintings, Kahlo appears with a shadow of a mustache on her upper lip. But she also appears with lipstick, jewellery, and headdresses. By mixing these traditional male and female characteristics, Kahlo merges the categories that separate the sexes” (Misemer). She allowed her eyebrows to grow together, thick and dark, and retained the hair on her upper lip that most women removed as a cultural norm. This was not because Kahlo was an unkempt woman, but because she purposefully diverged her femininity from traditional femininity. Frida – with her art as empowerment, unapologetic style, and the way she lived her life taught us primarily to not shy away from our bodies. Her fierceness of mind, body, and spirit is something that we can all aspire to embody. Especially today when body-shaming is still present, mainly because of the existence of social media.
BEATRIX POTTER (1866-1943)
Helen Beatrix Potter is the author of the classic children’s storybook: The Tales of Peter Rabbit. She was a writer, illustrator, scientist, and conservationist who lived through a very challenging time for women. In her lifetime, she wrote and illustrated 28 books that translated into more than 35 languages and sold over 100 million copies.
Beatrix never went to school, but she was always encouraged to draw as a child. This revealed an early fascination for the natural world that would continue throughout her life. She had a younger brother – Bertram, who shared her love and fascination for nature. Together as children, they spent hours wandering in nature and making drawings of anything they laid eyes on like rabbits, frogs, and mice.
Life in Nature
Potter’s artistic and literary interests were deeply influenced by fairies, fairy tales and fantasy. She read and studied illustrations in the books of Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.
Most often, her illustrations were fantasies featuring her own pets: mice, rabbits, kittens, and guinea pigs. Two of Beatrix’s earliest artist models were her pet rabbits. Whenever Potter went on holiday, she sent letters to young friends, illustrating them with quick sketches. With Potter’s fascination with nature, she recorded the world around her through her everyday drawings. This served as another outlet for her, in which she used a miniaturised secret code to record daily thoughts and observations (a habit that continued until she was 30). See here about the importance of having a visual diary, and how to start your own!
Once in 1987, she wrote a paper proposing her own theory on how fungi spores reproduced. Despite being one of the successful women scientists, she was not allowed inside the meeting room. This was because she was a woman, so the paper was presented on her behalf by the Asst. Director of Kew Gardens.
Businesswoman and Pioneer
As a way to earn money in the 1890s, Beatrix and her brother began to print cards for Christmas and special occasions. They sold these and it allowed them to earn on the side.
In 1901, her storybook ideas got rejected by six publishers. Due to this, Beatrix defiantly used her art as empowerment, and published her own edition of the rabbit story. A publisher saw it and decided to publish her. Within a year, they had to produce six editions to meet customer demand!
Fun fact: Did you know that Beatrix Potter was the first person who had her characters merchandised? She created toys, models, and gifts – all inspired by her tales. Today, The Tale of Peter Rabbit is now a well-known model used by Disney.
After she has successfully published her books, Beatrix focused on farming and agriculture. She had acquired lands and farms, and in 1943, Beatrix was laid to rest – leaving fifteen farms and over four thousand acres of land to the National Trust.
To this day, more than two million Beatrix Potter books are sold all over the world every year. Her legacy – her art, storytelling, and love for nature have stayed with the world.
** Her art will once again be shown at the V&A Museum in London with the exhibition “Beatrix Potter’s Art: Drawn With Design”. The exhibit will run from 18 February to 17 November, 2019.
MARIA MONTESSORI (1870-1952)
“If we try to think back to the dim and distant past… what is it that helps us reconstruct those times, and to picture the lives of those who lived in them? It is their art… It is thanks to the hand, the companion of the mind, that civilization has arisen.”
—Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
Maria Tecla Artemisia Montessori bears a name recall due to her biggest legacy: the educational method that she pioneered. She was an Italian physician and educator, and one of the most successful women truly ahead of their time. At an early age, Montessori enrolled in Engineering classes at an all-boys technical school; breaking the gender norms. She later on pursued medical school, eventually gaining license as a practicing doctor.
During her training years, Maria was sent to visit asylums in Rome and observe children with mental disabilities. This led her to see, research, and study systems for children with mental problems.
Casa dei Bambini
As the name suggests, Casa dei Bambini was a school for children. In 1906, Maria Montessori accepted an offer to oversee the care and education for children of low-income families. The school was situated in a new apartment building located in San Lorenzo, Rome. Beginning by enrolling 50 children, she was interested in applying her system of discoveries for children who were perfectly normal.
Working with these children, Maria Montessori began to develop her own pedagogy. She allowed the children to act freely in the environment, but making sure the school was prepared to meet their needs.
London, 2nd November 1946: Maria Montessori n a classroom in Acton with a group of children.
Dr. Maria Montessori first began by replacing the furniture with children-sized ones. She provided more natural light, and changed the schedule of the children. Dr Montessori incorporated a style which allowed them to discover things on their own, while working on matters that they enjoyed. This developed the innate desire to learn. Maria realized that the teachers were merely guides to the wonderful discoveries the children made.
The Montessori Way
The Montessori style of education the legacy that Maria left to the world. Up to this day, schools from all over the world abide by this system.
Maria saw that freedom of choice was a core value to teach children. She did not limit them to the boundaries of lesson plans and schedules, but rather gave them the freedom to choose the tasks on their own. Dr. Montessori concluded that children had a natural curiosity to learning, and the real role of the educator was to remove obstacles to the development of this learning.
She also stressed the importance of art as empowerment in the Montessori way. Art, like language or music, is a means of expression. Opportunities for art should always be a part of the classroom environment and not a special event. When children are able to choose art materials freely, they feel respected and satisfied with their abilities.
The adult can help children prepare for art indirectly—through the varied activities of Practical Life and the exploration of the senses—and directly—by presenting materials and techniques carefully, and by encouraging without judgment.
According to her, art is as important as the other areas of the traditional classroom. It gives children a solid foundation of personal growth. They are encouraged to explore, create, express, and develop themselves.
Through time, the Montessori way proved itself effective and gained popularity in the international scheme of education. During her later years, Maria Montessori has given up her medical practice and focused on developing the Montessori system furthermore. She spent the rest of her remaining years developing her methods and training teachers.
MARINA ABRAMOVIC (1946-Present)
One of the most famous contemporary artists of today, a woman who was also ahead of her time, is Marina Abramovic. Hailing from Serbia, she is a performance artist, writer, art film director and producer. Dubbed as the “grandmother of performance art”, she began her career in the early 1970s and has been active as an artist for over four decades.
Marina’s performance works are themed mostly around the body and the self. She is infamous for using her body both as a subject and vehicle, incorporating it with all her performances. Her works explore the relationship between the performer and audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind.
Collaborations with Ulay
Marina and Ulay met in the year 1975 at Amsterdam, and automatically gained a fondness for each other’s unique artistry. After some time, they mutually decided to be together as a couple. From this union, a wide array of historical collaborative works was borne.
Marina and Ulay’s collaborations were one of a kind, but this also set them apart from other artist couples. As young performance artists, they understood each other and used their collaborative art as empowerment. Together, they lived and worked in for years, with the topic of possible conflict of relation taken to an extreme, as their most common theme.
Most of Marina and Ulay’s works were very thought-provoking and quite unsettling. Together, they built an institution for their name. They were seemingly unbreakable. However, after 12 years together, the two had to break apart from each other.
With the last performance together, The Lovers, in 1988, they walked for three months straight to meet in the middle of the Great Wall of China. They both started from opposite ends, and their union in the middle served as their symbol of parting ways.
In 2010, Ulay unexpectedly showed up at Marina’s The Artist Is Present performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. This reunion left both the artists and the audience in tears.
Marina’s Art as Empowerment
Marina Abramovic’s works broke free from the old style of painting on canvas, and object-based materials. Her works carry courage and audacity, executed in a time performance art was not yet widely accepted.
Her use of her body as a vehicle allowed the world to explore the possibilities of the human mind. Up to this day, Marina remains as one of the few successful women performance artists to continue performing late in their career. She has inspired thousands of young women – artists and non-artists alike to explore their femininity, humanity, and the possibilities of their mind.
It wasn’t easy being a woman, especially in the trying times of the past. Yet, their innate strength and empowerment have helped shape the world we live in. Today, successful women artists are surging again, and they are using their art as empowerment – now, more than ever. They have gained a louder voice, and are continually fighting to protect their seat at the table. Let these successful women who have paved the way for art as empowerment inspire us and motivate us to be better every single day! Happy International Women’s Day!
Which one of these successful women is your favorite icon? Let us know in the comments below!
— MEET THE AUTHORS —
Ardak Kassenova is mother, artist and ZenART Supplies co-founder. “My heart and soul were always with Art, and since my childhood as long as I remember myself, I was dreaming to be an artist. I was painting after work, when I had time, and teaching myself through the books, videos, visiting art galleries and museums. I’ve been very curious about different techniques and styles, and therefore accumulated knowledge and experience on a variety of mediums”.
After 20 years of successful corporate career and with becoming a mother to two wonderful girls, she decided that it’s time to make drastic changes and link her life with Art. She started to paint again and decided to create her own art supplies brand that would help artists to fulfil their creative dreams and achieve their best results since the beginning using high-quality art materials without wasting their precious time and money. Say hello to @ardak_zenart on Instagram!
Regina R. is the head content writer for ZenART Supplies. She is a full-time artist, art and literature advocate, and a mother of three cats. On her free days – she likes to cook, knit, and tinkle around with her typewriter while drinking a glass or two of good red wine. Oh, and she loves 60’s music too!