In 1920 the American heiress Peggy Guggenheim headed for Paris to embark on a lifelong love affair with modern art. It would make her famous and eventually have a catalytic effect on the reception of new art by an establishment that continued to resist it. In New York in 1929 Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, together with Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan, founded the Museum of Modern Art.
There had of course been powerful female patrons before, but it is really only in the last hundred years, and especially in the past six decades, that the energy, ambition, talent, vision and sometimes genius of female artists, innovators, dealers and critics have come to the fore.
On 8 March, Christie’s Education presents Ladies at their Mirror, academic Aliki Braine will introduce the lives — through self-portraits — of celebrated artists in the Western European tradition, and in doing so trace a path from the Classical period to the Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment and turn of the 20th century.
Until the advent of modernity, women were expected to be wives, mothers or nuns, not artists or writers. Public art schools for women didn’t exist until the late-19th century, and most were forbidden to work from life models. That is why so many female artists found their way to the self-portrait — their own bodies were not off-limits, and in this most introspective of genres, they could choose to portray themselves as they wished.
Among the greatest practitioners of the self-portrait was Artemisia Gentileschi. Her father might have been court painter to Charles I of England, but her struggle to challenge convention and become a leading history painter of the Baroque is an extraordinary story. Now Gentileschi's oeuvre is being reassessed, attracting considerable attention at auction, and a major survey of her work was recently exhibited at the National Gallery in London. Another is Berthe Morisot, who along with Mary Cassatt and Marie Bracquemond was a central figure in the Impressionist movement. Yet Morisot’s name is marginal on the roll call of her peers — some of the best-known artists of all time.
These are just a few of the countless stories of women struggling to be accepted as serious artists — and posthumously, for their names to find a rightful place alongside the greats. When the Young British Artists became a sensation in the 1990s, it was perhaps the first time in art history that the women in the group — among them Tracey Emin and Jenny Saville — were as important as the men. Today, in the age of Instagram, the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama has become one of the most famous artists on the planet. She is 91 years old.
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