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Pioneering Female Artists for International Women's Day 2016

March 8, 2016

International Women's Day is very special. Everyday should celebrate women from every walk of life, past and present but it's great to have a day to stop, think and praise all the strong women of this world!


Many women artists struggled to get the recognition they deserved until relatively recently and in many cases were excluded from art institutes and not allowed to show in galleries. We'd like to raise a glass to some of the influential women in art.



Artemisia Gentileschi
(1593 – 1653)

Self Portait as a Martyr circa. 1615


Artemisia was the eldest child of the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi and Prudentia Montone. Artemisia was introduced to painting in her father's workshop. He trained her from an early age and introduced her to the numerous artists of Rome, including Caravaggio whose use of dramatic chiaroscuro (light and shadow) influenced her painting.


Artemisia suffered much abuse and mistreatment at the hands of male authority figures in the oppressive society she grew up in. But grew stronger and more determined to be successful with  each obstacle she overcame. 


Gentileschi's work was bold and defiant, depicting powerful biblical heroines and expressing their strength and courage. In the world she created, women willingly rebelled against their condition. She continuously returned to the theme so relevant to her own life, of women struggling and eventually triumphing over adversity.


Artemisia Gentileschi continues to be among the most highly regarded of women artists, and she has attained her place among the great artists of the Baroque period. Her unbreakable spirit continues to inspire artists, writers, film makers and all purposeful women to this day.


Edmonia Lewis
(1844 – 1907)

                   'The Death of Cleopatra' 1876, Italian marble.


Lewis was the first woman of African-American and Native American heritage to achieve international fame and recognition as a sculptor.
Her work is known for incorporating themes relating t
o black and American Indian people into Neoclassical style sculpture. She emerged during the crisis-filled days of the Civil War and was the only black woman to be recognised as an artist by mainstream America at the end of the 19th Century. Being an artist was an especially challenging endeavour for a black woman in her time. Three male sculptors refused to instruct her before she was introduced to the moderately successful sculptor Edward A. Brackett who specialised in marble portrait bust. As her success grew, so did the importance of every artistic decision she made. Lewis had to meet the expectations of art world while avoiding being pigeon-holed into the inescapable categories of being just an “artist of colour” or a “lady sculptor”. As the first black sculptor of either sex to achieve international recognition within a western sculptural tradition, Lewis was a symbolic and social anomaly within a dominantly white bourgeois and aristocratic community. A testament to Lewis's renown as an artist came in 1877, when former US President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned her to do his portrait.


When questioned how she became an artist, she replied: "Well, it was a strange selection for a poor girl to make, wasn’t it? I suppose it was in me ... I became almost crazy to make something like the thing which fascinated me.”



Laura Knight

(4 August 1877 – 7 July 1970)

'Self portrait with nude' 1913 


Laura Knight was an English artist who worked in oils, watercolours, etching, engraving and drypoint. During her long career, Knight was among the most successful and popular painters in Britain. She grew up in financially challenging circumstances but used her artistic talents to survive and flourish. She held many prestigious positions including that of President of the Society of Women Artists and in 1929 she was awarded an OBE. In 1936 became the first woman elected to the Royal Academy since its foundation in 1768. 


Knight took inspiration for her work from a broad spectrum of life. Her subjects included celebrated performers like actors and dancers from London society as well as more marginalised people such as gypsies and circus performers. She was also a war artist during the Second World War. Her large retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy, in 1965, was the first exhibition of its kind for a woman. Her success in the male-dominated British art establishment paved the way for greater status and recognition for women artists.


The painting pictured above is entitled Self Portrait with Nude, it shows Knight herself painting a nude model who was also a female artist. Female art students were not permitted to study live nude models at the time. So the painting represented a bold statement of rebellion. After Knight died at the age of 92, the picture, now known simply as Self Portrait (1913) was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery and is now considered both a key work in the story of female self-portraiture and a symbol of wider female emancipation. 

Frida Kahlo

'Self Portrait' 1940, oil on board.


“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy as long as I can paint."

Frida Kahlo's art and life often reflects the ongoing struggle for self-determination in the lives of women. She consciously forged an identity for herself in her paintings in defiance of the norms of her society. Her paintings chronicled her many passions including her husband Diego Rivera and the beloved country of her birth, Mexico. Her art dealt with conception, pregnancy, abortion and gender roles in an unusually frank and open manner.


The story of Frida’s life is a testament to her awe-inspiring will to survive and the restorative power of art. Teaching herself to paint whilst bed-ridden following a traumatic accident, she transcended her physical limitations and the chronic pain that she suffered throughout her life. In the summer of 1954, Frida Kahlo died from pneumonia in the house where she was born. During her lifetime, she did not enjoy the same level of recognition as her husband. Today, however, her explicit, intensely autobiographical work is as critically acclaimed as that of her male peers.



Paula Rego

(B. 1935)

Dancing Ostriches from Disney's 'Fantasia' 1995. Pastel on paper, mounted on aluminium.

Paula Rego is known for her bold paintings, prints and pastel drawings featuring strong characters, particularly dominant women. The narratives depicted in her artwork often contain themes from folklore originating in Portugal, where she was born. She is also influenced by stories from the UK and across Europe. Rego portrays feminist conditions and the struggles of women with unflinching candour.


In the 1950s, Paula Rego rejected the finishing school she was sent to in Kent for Chelsea art school and Slade School of Fine Art. Her English guardian was afraid her parents would disapprove of her mixing with art students but they were in fact, supportive of her ambition.

She was the first artist-in-residence at the National Gallery in London and In 2010, Rego was made a Dame of the British Empire in the Queen's Birthday Honours.


Rego's depiction of women has been described as unfeminine, animalistic and even brutal. Her characters contain a powerful kind of beauty that reflects the physical reality and emotional force of women as human beings in the physical world, rather than the idealised female form in the minds of men. Filling the role of the original fairytales, Rego’s inspiring women are a force to be reckoned with and an antidote to the fairy princesses of modern media.

These inspirational women are only a handful of the incredible female artists whose stories and creations are out there to explore...

Which women artists inspire you?


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Sunshine Coast, Canada.

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