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From Hildegard to Delaunay: 7 women painters you should know

February 24, 2024

Discover the hidden masterpieces of female artists spanning centuries, from Hildegard of Bingen's mystical illustrations to Sonia Delaunay's vibrant abstracts.

A man stands in front of the Helene Funke's painting "In the Theatre Box" in the Thyssen Bornenisza National Museum, Madrid, Spain.
Helene Funke, 'In the Theatre Box,' 1904-1907Image: picture alliance/age fotostock Spain

For several decades, activists have been drawing attention to gender inequality in the art world, highlighting the fact that female artists make up just a fraction of all artists represented in museum collections and galleries.

Museum curators have responded by mounting exhibitions focusing on the contributions of women artists throughout history.

The latest show titled "Maestras. Women Masters 1500-1900," a collaboration between the Arp Museum in Germany and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, gives an overview of significant women artists from the Middle Ages to modernity. The show opens on Sunday and runs until June 16.

Some of those artists are still well known today, while others fell into obscurity and have been rediscovered.

Hildegard of Bingen (ca. 1098-1179)

Born into a noble German family, Hildegard of Bingen became a Benedictine abbess. She was a polymath known as a writer, healer, music composer, theologian, mystic and visionary — and an artist who illustrated her own manuscripts. Her pictures expressed her religious visions, including a self-portrait of her own spiritual awakening. She also created symbolic images of the universe and illustrated cosmic or invisible concepts.

An illumination by Hildegard of Bingels showing concentric circles of angels.
Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias I.6: The Choirs of Angels. From the Rupertsberg manuscript, folio 38r., ca. 1150Image: Erich Lessing/akg-images/picture-alliance

Hildegard of Bingen used all her powers of expression to communicate her ideas at a time when women were generally not allowed to speak out. Her artwork continues to inspire people, from those interested in Christian mysticism to feminist artists like Judy Chicago, who honored the Medieval abbess in her installation "The Dinner Party," with place settings for famous women.

Fede Galizia (1578-1630)

Better known simply as Galizia, the Italian artist started painting as a teenager, encouraged by her father, who painted miniatures. She became best known for her still lifes of fruit, then a new genre.

Fede Galazia's painting "Judith With the Head of Holofernes."
Fede Galizia, 'Judith With the Head of Holofernes,' 1596Image: Palacio Real de La Granje de San Ildefonso/Patrimonio Nacional

But she also painted religious motifs and portraits. One of her most notable works is this depiction of Judith with the head of Holofernes, a popular Biblical theme. Art historians believe Galizia painted herself as Judith.

Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670)

The name of Italian Baroque painter Giovanna Garzoni may not be widely known now, but in her day, her work was so popular that an 18th-century biographer wrote that she could get "any price that she asked" for them.

Around 1650 Giovanna Garzoni's "Still Life with Grapes"
Giovanna Garzoni, 'Still Life with Grapes' ca. 1650Image: Orsi Battaglini/akg-images/picture alliance

One of the first women artists to practice the art of still life painting, Garzoni pursued her career with "intensity," according to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. One of her earliest works, a 1625 calligraphy book, includes capital letters illuminated with fruits, flowers, birds and insects. Those motifs were to become her specialty, painted meticulously in tempera and watercolor. Several members of the Medici family commissioned botanical and zoological works by Garzoni, and she also painted religious, mythological and allegorical motifs.

Garzoni also painted portraits and is credited with creating the first known European portrait miniature of a Black person, the Ethiopian prince Zaga Christ, who may have commissioned the work himself.

Maddalena Corvina (1607-1664)

One of Garzoni's contemporaries was Maddalena Corvina, also an Italian portrait and still-life painter whose patrons included the Medici family. She specialized in miniature portrait paintings and also made engravings.

Maddalena Corvina, self-portrait, middle of the 17th century
Maddalena Corvina, self-portrait, middle of the 17th centuryImage: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via picture alliance

Corvina apprenticed under her uncle, Francesco da Castello. This painting by her from the mid-17th century has variously been identified as a self-portrait or a portrait of her contemporary, fellow painter Artemisia Gentileschi, dressed as Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842)

Also known as Madame Le Brun, Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun was the preferred portraitist of French Queen Marie Antoniette. She created some of the most famous portraits of the French aristocracy. That association meant the painter had to flee the French Revolution.

A detail of the painting 'Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante' by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, showing a young woman holding a tambourine.
Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun, 'Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante,' ca. 1790-1792Image: NATIONAL MUSEUMS LIVERPOOL/Lady Lever Art Galllery

During her exile, Le Brun spent time in Italy, Russia, Germany and England. She continued to work as a portraitist, receiving commissions from members of European nobility, focusing especially on portraits of women and children. 

Her breaking of norms in the genre — for instance, by giving her subjects welcoming gestures or slightly opened mouths — was scandalous at the time but quickly became an established style of their own.

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

The only American among the Impressionists, Mary Cassatt was also one of the few women. Despite that professional honor, she could not enter some of the same spaces as her male peers, so she turned her attention to the world of women and children. 

A painting of a woman wearing a white dress and a brown bonnet with red flowers, against a yellow background.
Mary Cassatt, self-portrait, date unknownImage: picture alliance/Bildagentur-online/UIG

Cassatt's unfettered access there allowed her to depict domestic life with an intimacy and authenticity her male peers did not show, without any trivializing.

She worked in painting, pastels and printmaking and was always eager to experiment with new techniques. From the late 1890s, she was inspired by Japanese engraving and increasingly incorporated it into her work.

Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979)

Sonia Delaunay's colorful abstract compositions were directly inspired by the traditional quilts she saw during her childhood in what is now Ukraine.

The Sonia Delaunay painting "Simultaneous Dresses (Three Women, Forms, Colors)."
Sonia Delaunay, 'Simultaneous Dresses (Three Women, Forms, Colors),' 1925Image: Museo Nacional Thyssen- Bornemisza, Madrid/VG Bild-Kunst Bonn 2024

Delaunay spent most of her working life in Paris, expanding her repertoire to include textile, fashion and set design and establishing a successful business.

Though she was often overshadowed by the work of her husband, fellow Modernist painter Robert Delaunay, in 1964, she became the first living woman to have a solo retrospective at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Edited by: Davis VanOpdorp

John Silk Editor and writer for English news, as well as the Culture and Asia Desks.@JSilk
Tanya Ott Culture reporter, editor, translator, producer and voiceover artist based in Berlin.