According to American art historian Linda Nochlin, institutional obstacles prevented women in the west from becoming successful artists. Among the earliest prominent female painters is Artemisia Gentileschi and her best known work is Judith Slaying Holofernes. Late 18th and 19th century first saw the emergence of several leading women artists in the west. The best known paintings created by them include Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat by Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun; and The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur. Some of the most renowned and influential artists of the 20th century were females; and painters like Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo were instrumental in altering the gender balance in the art world. Kahlo’s self-portraits and the paintings of flowers created by O’Keeffe are among the most famous artworks of the 20th century. Know more about the contribution of females to the art world through the 10 most famous paintings by women artists.
#10 Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue
Artist: Georgia O’Keeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe was the leading figure in American Modernism. She challenged the boundaries of artistic style with her paintings, which combined abstraction and representation. At the time this famous painting was created, many American artists in various fields were creating works based on American subjects and carving for them a unique American identity. Instead of representing the prevalent ideas of America at the time, O’Keeffe depicts a cow skull at the center of the painting with the three colors of the American flag behind it. The picture has since become a quintessential icon of the American West.
#9 The Broken Column
Artist: Frida Kahlo
On 17th September 1925, Frida Kahlo and her friend Alex were riding in a bus when it crashed into a street trolley car. Due to the grave injuries she suffered in the accident, Frida had to undergo 35 operations in her life, bear with relapses of extreme pain and could not have children. Kahlo’s works often depict the trauma she had to go through in her life and this work is the most conspicuous portrayal of her suffering. In this masterpiece Kahlo’s body is opened up and a crumbling stone column replaces the spine of Kahlo, symbolizing the consequences of the accident. Nails are stuck into her face and body; and tears can be seen on her face but she looks straight at the viewer. The Broken Column is the most straightforward and ruthless depiction of the agony she faced through her life.
#8 Movement in Squares
Artist: Bridget Riley
Op art, short form for optical art, is a genre in abstract art in which the artist creates an optical illusion through precise manipulation of patterns, shapes and colors. Bridget Riley, one of Britain’s leading artists since the 1960s, is perhaps the most famous Op artist after Victor Vasarely. In this painting she portrays a checkerboard which distorts and accelerates as it approaches the middle creating an illusion of depth and providing a sense of movement. Movement in Squares is the most renowned work of Bridget Riley and perhaps the most famous painting in Op art.
#7 Mountains and Sea
Artist: Helen Frankenthaler
Lyrical abstraction was a term coined to define art which signaled a return to personal expression as opposed to Geometric abstraction and Minimalism. Helen Frankenthaler is one of the most famous female abstract artists and a foremost exponent of lyrical abstraction. Mountains and Sea, her first professionally exhibited work, is also her most renowned painting and a prime example of lyrical abstraction. It was the first work she created using her celebrated soak-stain technique in which she poured turpentine-thinned paint onto canvas, producing luminous color washes that appear to merge with the canvas.
#6 The Horse Fair
Artist: Rosa Bonheur
Rosa Bonheur, often called the most acclaimed female painter of the 19th century, is most known for her paintings of animals. Her most renowned work, The Horse Fair, depicts the horse market held at Boulevard de l’Hopital in Paris. Bonheur attended the market dressed as a man for a year and a half making sketches from which she created this masterpiece. After being displayed at the Paris Salon in 1853, The Horse Fair was shown throughout Europe and the U.S.; and it brought international fame and recognition for Bonheur. Even Queen Victoria had high praise for the painting. The Horse Fair has been described by the Metropolitan Museum as one of its best known works of art.
#5 Judith Slaying Holofernes
Artist: Artemisia Gentileschi
Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque artist who is today regarded as one of the most accomplished painters of her time as well as one of the greatest female artists of all time. Judith Slaying Holofernes is her most famous work. It is based on a story in the Old Testament. In the story, Holofernes is an Assyrian general who was about to destroy Bethulia, the home city of Judith. Judith, taking advantage of the Assyrian general’s desire for her, is able to enter his tent. After drinking excessively Holofernes passes out and Judith is able to decapitate him thus saving her city. One of the most famous depictions of the story, Gentileschi’s painting shows the moment when Judith, helped by her maidservant, beheads the general after he has fallen asleep drunk.
#4 Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat
Artist: Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun
Perhaps the greatest female painter of the 18th Century, Madame Lebrun painted many portraits of the royals, especially of the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. She pioneered a new style of portraying women in a fashionable, stylish and charming manner; and this self-portrait bears a testimony to that. Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat, which shows Le Brun in a natural style with a rustic straw hat, no powder and unkempt hair, is the most famous work of the artist and one of the best known self-portraits ever created. Vigee Le Brun was inspired to create this self-portrait by Portrait of Susanna Lunden, a work by the famous Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens. The two works have several similarities including Le Brun emulating the light effects used by Rubens. Both paintings can now be viewed at the National Gallery in London.
#3 Black Iris III
Artist: Georgia O’Keeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe is most famous for her dramatically large, sensual close-up of flowers which essentially made them into abstract works. O’Keeffe’s flower paintings, which depict flowers as if they are being seen through a magnifying lens, allowed the viewers to appreciate the flower’s beauty with all its details like never before. Some of these paintings were controversial as they were considered veiled representation of the female flesh. Her iconic depictions of irises are among them. However, O’Keeffe denied these allegations and said that she was just painting what she saw. Black Iris III is the most controversial as well as the best known painting of a flower by Georgia O’Keeffe.
#2 Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird
Artist: Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo is known for symbolically portraying her physical and psychological wounds through her self-portraits and this painting is a prime example of that. In it Kahlo is wearing a thorn necklace and blood can be seen tricking from the wounds made on her neck by the thorns. A black monkey and a black cat are present on left and right side of her; and a hummingbird is hanging lifelessly from the thorn necklace. Kahlo identified herself with indigenous Mexican culture and this is apparent in the portrait. The black panther is symbolic of bad luck and death; the monkey is a symbol of evil; and the hummingbird, which is dead, is a symbol of freedom and love. The painting may be seen as placing Kahlo amid symbols of colonial and male repression. Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird is among Kahlo’s most celebrated masterpieces.
#1 The Two Fridas
Artist: Frida Kahlo
Frida Kahlo is the most famous Mexican artist and one of the greatest artists in self-portraiture of all time. She had a tumultuous relationship with another famous Mexican painter Diego Rivera during which they married, divorced and re-married. The Two Fridas was created around the time of Kahlo’s divorce to Diego Rivera and it is believed it portrays her loss. It is a double self-portrait. Frida on the left is wearing a white European style dress with her heart torn and bleeding while Frida on the right is wearing a traditional Mexican dress with her heart still whole. Kahlo remarried Rivera a year later and although their second marriage was as troubled as the first, it lasted till her death. Las dos Fridas is the largest work of Kahlo and it is perhaps the most famous painting by a female artist.