Artist and Historian, Joanne Robinson picks her ‘Big 5’

When I was at primary school I told my teacher that I wanted to be an artist. I remember one of the boys piping up ‘only men can be artists’ so the teacher asked us to think of a woman artist. No one could. It was back in the early 80s, when Thatcher was ascendent and Kate Bush was topping the charts the first time round. Could I name a famous female artist then? No, unfortunately not. Oh, but to pop back in time and be able to reel off: Artemisia Gentileschi, Berthe Morisot, Rachel Ruysch, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Éisabeth Vigée Lebrun, Gabrielle Münter, Mary Cassatt, Angelica Kauffman and more, and more and more.

For a long time the work of female artists has been tucked away, gathering dust in galleries and collections. Why? Because the collectors and curators were men and they collected and curated work by men. There were, there have always been, female artists. In their day they were respected, lauded and collected, but once they died they often began to slip into obscurity; forgotten whilst their male counterparts achieved greater glory after death than before it. For artists like Judith Leyster in the 17th century, their work was seen as being so good it couldn’t possibly be painted by a woman and was instead attributed to a male contemporary. Times they are a changing though, and galleries around the world are pulling out their paintings by these incredible women. About time too.

I’ve managed to restrict myself to my five favourites here, and it’s been tough. These are the five I wish my seven year old self had known about:

Laura Knight

I’m starting with Dame Laura Knight because, quite frankly, she is my personal art hero. During her 93 years she created an incredible body of work covering many, many different subjects, from dramatic landscapes to circus performers, ballerinas, boxers and then onto her valued war work; giving us a picture of the women who helped Britain to victory in the second world war. She was a trailblazer; accepted and revered in her lifetime. She came from obscurity and poverty to becoming a Dame and a fellow of the Royal Academy; all through sheer determination and graft. She said of herself “I am just a hard working woman, who longs to pierce the mystery of form and colour; and with full heart to add a mite to the treasure of the world.” This is her self portrait, painted in 1913. If I’m in London, even if I only have a spare 5 minutes, I pop into the National Portrait Gallery to sit and stare at this and to say hello to one of my very favourite artists of all time. If she’s a new name to you, take a look at her work, from ‘The Beach’ drenched in Cornish sunlight to ‘Ruby Loftus Screwing the Beech Ring’ in 1943. It might just turn you into a fan too.

Élisabeth Vigée Lebrun

For anyone who might ever ask you for a female artist who was revered during her lifetime, Vigée Lebrun is your name to respond with. She was accepted by her contemporaries as being one of the greatest artists of the 18th century. In 1777, at the age of 22, she was invited to paint a full length portrait of the Queen of France, Marie Antionette. Over the next six years she produced 30 portraits of the French Queen, portraits which now grace many of the world’s most famous galleries. Lebrun’s time at the French Court came to an abrupt halt when the violence of the French Revolution and her close association to the hated Queen led to a dramatic escape from Paris. She lived and worked in courts across Europe for 12 years, being feted as a great artist wherever she went. During 6 years working at the court of Catherine the Great in Russia, her work commanded astronomical prices. She died in 1842 at the age of 86, having returned to France. Despite her fame and importance during her lifetime, her talent was largely dismissed in the decades following her death. Since the 1980s efforts have been made to reintroduce her into her proper place in art history; as one of the leading portrait painters in Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Frida Kahlo

The monobrowed Mexican artist is an international icon and possibly one of the best known female artists around the world. Her story of triumph over infirmity and a battle through pain to continue to paint is inspirational. A serious accident at the age of 18 left her bed bound for three months and she turned to painting to distract herself from pain. Over three decades she told her story and the story of her beloved Mexico in paintings of almost brutal honesty. Animal lover, fierce Mexican patriot and LGBT icon, Frida Kahlo’s work was valued in her lifetime and ‘Fridamania’ continues to grow.

Annie Swynnerton

I was at Tate Britain last year, popping in to see my favourite Pre-Raphaelites, when I literally stopped in my tracks, caught by the sight of a pair of piercing blue eyes in a portrait of such exquisite luminosity that I turned and went into the room. It was the first time I’d heard of Annie Swynnerton and the first time I’d seen her work. Since then I’ve been a little obsessed and took a trip to the Walker Gallery in Liverpool to see the painting below, ‘The Sense of Sight’. If she’s new to you, look her up. My next trip is going to be to the Manchester Art Gallery to see some more work of this incredible artist. Swynnerton was the first female artist to be accepted to the Royal Academy in over 200 years. During her lifetime she was well known and respected across the world, it was only after her death that she slipped into obscurity. In the words of Laura Knight, artist and suffragette Annie Swynnerton “broke down the barriers of prejudice” And she created some magnificent paintings whilst she did that.

Tamara de Lempicka

“The steely-eyed goddess of the automobile age” Lempicka’s paintings are the embodiment of the art deco period. Instantly recognisable, her work sells at auction now for millions of dollars and she is the most highly valued Polish artist. But her influence and style go far beyond the sale price of there paintings. Lempicka remains as much of a cultural icon today as she was during her heyday in the 1920s. Her work captures a moment in time, it sweeps us away to the glamour and decadence of the inter-war years. From Poland to pre-revolution Russia, her story is as incredible as her artwork. At the age of 20, as the Revolution in Russia took hold, Lempicka rescued her husband from prison and they both escaped to Paris. There she sold the family jewels in order to survive, studied art and won a major prize, which opened the door to decades of fame and fortune.  She said of her work “Among a hundred canvases, mine were always recognisable. The galleries tended to show my pictures in the best rooms because they attracted people. My work was clear and finished…I worked quickly with a delicate brush. I was in search of technique, craft, simplicity and good taste.” Gloriously independent, hard working and determined; Tamara de Lempicka is one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.

I want to write about Rosa Bonheur, Sofonisba Anguissola, Georgia O’Keeffe and so many more. But I’ll stop, save them for another post, another day.

I was 7 when that first question, ‘name a female artist’ was asked so can be forgiven my ignorance. However, more than almost 40 years later I stood in front of a class of our students at the Little Art School and was asked a similar question. I was talking about the American artist Hopper, who was our ‘Artist of the Term’ when one of my students asked “Joanne, why are none of our ‘Artists of the Term’ women?” I was silenced. All talk of New England lighthouses stopped. I had fallen back into that trap of 7 year me; covering Monet and Degas but neglecting Berthe Moriset. I had left out the women. It was an unforgettable moment of feeling like an absolute hypocrite. I changed our Artist of the Term syllabus that day. We cover three artists a year in our children’s studio classes and our Online Course for adults. At least one of those three is always a woman. I’m grateful I was challenged.

The last few years have seen several galleries start to slowly bring out work by female artists. However, we are right at the beginning of this story. At present works by women make up just 7% of art in the UK’s top galleries. However dire that is, we’re ahead of leading galleries on the continent. On a recent trip to Vienna I searched the Kunsthistorisches Museum for examples of work by women and found one. Apparently there are actually 10 in the gallery; out of 660 artists. There’s a long way to go. But for me, that day at the Tate, my personal, magical discovery of Swynnerton gives me hope. Look out for the exhibitions, they will be coming, I’m sure of it.

Joanne Robinson is a Founding Partner at the Little Art School. She studied History at Oxford University and has a Masters in Museum and Gallery Studies. The work of past artists has inspired the  design of the highly structured Little Art School Online Drawing Course. You can find out more about learning to draw and paint HERE.