Frida Kahlo: Surrealism


Born: July 6, 1907 in Mexico City, Mexico; Died July 13 1954 in Mexico City, Mexico

I think it’s only fitting to finish this series with one of the most famous (and flamboyant) female artists to date– Frida Kahlo. Largely a household name, Kahlo’s paintings are easily recognizable. I’m sure many of you, in fact, noticed that the icon of this website is one of her self portraits. But why has this artist become so renowned?

A great amount of her prestige is certainly due to her incredibly unusual, beautiful artwork. But, I think a lot of the fascination with Frida comes from her dramatic life and unorthodox character. From her unstable relationship with fellow artist Diego Rivera, to her numerous affairs with both men and women, Kahlo clearly lived her life according to her own principles.

Kahlo’s father was a German photographer who met her mother while in Mexico. They lived in what is referred to as the “Blue House,” or the”Casa Azul,” in Spanish. It was there that they raised their four daughters, including the young Frida, who suffered from polio. The disease left her foot badly injured, causing her father to urge her to take up sports like wrestling to recover. These actives were, of course, unusual for a girl of that time, but Frida was very fond of her brazen father.


In 1922, at the age of 15, Kahlo was admitted to  the National Preparatory School in Mexico. While there, she came across the famed muralist Diego Rivera, whom she immediately felt a connection to, despite him being 20 years her senior. She admired his work from afar, but the two had yet to truly start their infamous relationship. Instead, Kahlo spent her time with friends, immersing herself in the Communist ideas she found so fascinating.

Kahlo experienced a life-changing event in 1925– she was impaled after getting in a streetcar accident, and was (obviously) severely injured. During her recovery, she began to really gravitate toward painting, making some of her first self portraits. She gave her friend, Gómez Arias, who was also involved in the accident.


Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress, 1926

Soon after the accident, Kahlo became closer with the artist she so venerated, Diego Rivera. The two began a romantic relationship that was rife with dysfunction from the onset, though they were very similar in their beliefs and support of Communism. Nonetheless, the it seems as though the artists truly loved each other, and got married in 1929. They moved to America where they traveled for years, displaying their work in different major cities.

tumblr_ng4zeo3IeF1u59p3po4_r1_500            Flower Festival Feast of Santa Anita by Diego Rivera OSA117

         Frida and Diego, 1931                    Feast of Santa Anita, 1931

The image on the left is one of Frida’s pieces, while the one on the right is a mural painted by Rivera. I think Frida’s piece, though a bit elementary because it’s from the earlier stages of her career, is really fascinating to observe. She actually captures both her and Diego’s faces very, very well, and paints him holding a palate and a set of brushes, yet she is without any artistic materials. Whether or not this was intentional, I’m not sure, but I think it represents just how much she almost idolized Rivera and his work. Feast of Santa Anita, which Rivera painted in San Francisco, is beautiful, rich, and obviously representative of his Mexican heritage.

As I alluded to before, Frida and Diego’s marriage was not a simple one. He often cheated on her with other women, including her own sister, which deeply hurt the artist. She isn’t exempt from this behavior, though, as she also had numerous affairs with many people, both men and women (perhaps even with the last artist on my blog, Georgia O’Keeffe!) Kahlo also experienced heartbreak with her several miscarriages, which inspired some of her works.


Henry Ford Hospital, 1932

Though deeply unsettling, this piece shows just how personal and illustrative Kahlo’s paintings were. She was unafraid to depict even the most private elements of herself on canvas.

In 1939, Kahlo moved to Paris alone, where she exhibited many pieces. She also struck up a friendship with artist Pablo Picasso, who admired her pieces. In fact, while Picasso was enjoying one of her works while in the presence of Rivera, the muralist “actually welled up with tears of pride” for his wife. The two divorced in 1939, but remarried only a year later.

Regarding her own work, Frida never really categorized her style, besides noting that her paintings were the “frankest expression of myself”. Famed surrealist Andre Brenton, who admired her work, tried to convince her she was, in fact, a surrealist, while her husband firmly believed she was a realist. Though they did not always see eye to eye, Frida and Diego felt immense work for each other, especially in an artistic sense– with “each regard[ing] the other as Mexico’s greatest painter.” In this sense, the two were a very logical fit for each other in their love of life, art, social revolution, and their native land of Mexico.


Self portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940

Though this painting appears rather placid and simple at first glance, it has a much heavier significance as one notices the still (likely dead) hummingbird tied around her neck and the thorns piercing her skin. Like many of her other works, Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace symbolizes, mainly, the immense suffering and pain Frida felt throughout her life, whether physically, as with her injuries and miscarriages, or emotionally, stemming greatly from her relationship with Diego, who she once referred to as a “great accident”. Frida’s pieces capture a glimpse into a highly creative mind with a thirst for adventure, that also sadly harbored a great deal of unhappiness.

Frida’s poor health caught up to her, and by the late 1940s, she was in very bad shape. The artist suffered from illnesses like gangrene, but still persisted with her career, once arriving to a gallery showing in an ambulance. She wasn’t able to paint as easily as she once could, but overcame these obstacles with her strong love for art. In 1954, at the age of 47, Kahlo died in the same house she was raised. Her cause of death is not entirely agreed upon; some think she killed herself, while most believe that it was a pulmonary embolism.

Throughout her life, the people of Mexico cherished Kahlo for her depiction of Mexican life and love of her culture. She is seen as la heroína del dolor, ‘the heroine of pain’” in the country, where the symbolism of her work is entirely appreciated. There was a rebirth of interest in Kahlo in the 1970s, when she became an icon for feminists and independent women.

I think that Frida’s feelings behind every piece are evident to some degree to every viewer. There is clear pain and sorrow in many of her pieces, but the whimsy, the colors, the richness…. All of this shows a true love of life and appreciation for existing. I feel like Kahlo didn’t squander one moment of her life, living fully and without constraint, despite the controversy it may arouse. I don’t agree with everything she did in life, and I don’t want to romanticize her as just another tortured artist, but I think the fact that she created something so beautiful and enduring out of her pain is a testament to humankind’s immense potential.




Georgia O’Keeffe: Modernism

Born: November 15, 1887 in Wisconsin, died: March 6, 1986 in New Mexico440px-O'Keeffe-(hands)

Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918, taken by her husband Alfred Stieglitz

Georgia O’Keeffe was truly a revolutionary artistic force, as she “remained independent from shifting art trends” to create a modern style unique to herself. She’s well-known for her zoomed in depictions of flowers, but was also drawn to landscapes and the bones and skulls that littered the desert environment of New Mexico. No matter her subject, her dynamic compositions and precise work has served to cement her as one of the first, and most influential, American Modern artists.

Born into a large family in Wisconsin, O’Keeffe became enamored with art as a child, later attending the Art Institute of Chicago at age 18. She was trained at several other schools before becoming an art teacher, traveling around the United States to teach art to pupils in primary and secondary schools and crafting her own pieces along the way. She sent photographs of her work to a friend in New York, who passed the images along to a prominent gallery owner and photographer, Alfred Stieglitz.

Stieglitz saw the potential in her work and insisted she move to New York. The two bonded quickly after she arrived, and he began showing and promoting many of O’Keeffe’s paintings. Her pieces caught the eyes of New Yorkers and beyond, notably because they were so original for the time. Meanwhile, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz married in 1924, marking the beginning of a complicated, but very prominent, relationship.


Red Canna, 1924

This is one of O’Keeffe’s earlier paintings from her time in New York. It depicts a close-up, intimate view of a calla lily. She captures its hue beautifully, along with doing would become her signature– showing the “abstract forms in nature.”

Throughout her marriage, O’Keeffe would frequently travel alone to make art in one of her favorite places– New Mexico. After the death of her husband, she moved to the western state permanently, enamored by its unusual and beautiful scenery. She frequently painted “rocks, cliffs, and mountains in dramatic close-up”, continuing the trend of making organic objects seem almost unnatural by intensifying certain aspects.


Black Place, Grey and Pink, 1949

This is one of many paintings O’Keeffe made centered on what she called “The Black Place,” a hilly, isolated area in New Mexico she said looked like “a mile of elephants.”  I think this is a great example of her unusual ability to really blow up a scene from everyday life, and turn it into something strange and unrecognizable. I’m assuming she took some liberties with the pink in the mountains, but the effect is stunning .

Though she was stationed in New Mexico for the rest of her life, O’Keeffe enjoyed traveling to other countries in her old age. She created her final two series based on the aerial images she saw while flying in a plane. She made large, over 20 foot long paintings, which astonished the public due to the fact she was almost 80 years old. After that, the artist was unfortunately afflicted by health problems, involving failing vision, that left her unable to work for the last 15 or so years of her life.


Sky Above Clouds IV, 1965

Despite her weakening health, O’Keeffe published an autobiography in 1976, which became a best-seller. She received both the Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford and the Medal of Arts from Ronald Reagan. Clearly, the artist had captured the attention and interest of the American public in her pieces, evident in the fact that even today her pieces are so recognizable. Her work was simple with its clean lines, and relatively two-dimensional depictions. But the way she captured such imposing images– looming mountains, a sea of clouds– so intimately and abstractly shows her real genius.


Ram’s Head, White Hollycock-Hills, 1935

This is my absolute favorite Georgia O’Keeffe piece, and I’m sure it’s one many of you recognize. Everything about it is so beautiful and elegant, from the curvatures in the skull to the rolling hills. I love the contrast between her rich, flowing colors and the precision of her lines. The subject is also fascinating, and it really demonstrates her merging her two interests of landscapes and desert bones.



Suzanne Valadon

Born: September 23, 1865 in Bessenes France, died: April 19, 1938 in Paris


A photograph of the artist

Much like the last artist I discussed, Edmonia Lewis, Suzanne Valadon was not born into ideal circumstances. Her mother was a laundress and raised her single-handedly with minimal wages, prompting Valadon to begin working at a young age. Throughout her childhood and adolescence she held many jobs in Montmartre, “the bohemian quarter of Paris“; she was a waitress, vegetable seller, nanny, and perhaps most notably an acrobat. The independent teenager found herself working at a circus as a trapeze artist, a job that she loved dearly. Sadly, she injured her back when performing a routine and had to seek employment elsewhere in order to get by.

A young Valadon quickly found success in a field that wasn’t seen as the most respectable– she modeled for artists, who, as writer June Rose contends, “assumed the right to make love to their girls.” Valadon didn’t oppose this, and often maintained affairs with the painters, most notably Henri de Toulouse-Lautre. Her life consisted of more than posing and making love to famous men, as she began to foster her own interest in art at this time. She studied her employers, and with some encouragement from artist Edward Degas (who, as with Mary Cassatt, seems to be quite inspirational), she began to make art of her own in the early 1890s, exerting an impressive level of autonomy.

During this period, the burgeoning artist went through other major life changes. As an unmarried 18 year old, she gave birth to a baby boy. She was not entirely sure who was the father to the child, but Miguel Utrilo, an old lover, was convinced it was his. The responsibility of raising her infant son Maurice fell entirely on the shoulders of Valadon, who passed on the effort to her mother in order to focus on her career. Several years later she married a stockbroker, whose wealth provided her with the opportunity to spend all her efforts on painting.


Self Portrait, 1883

This is one of the earliest paintings by Valadon. It’s style is minimal and the subject matter tame– two characteristics that were found much less frequently in her later pieces

Consistent to the turbulent nature of Valadon’s romantic affairs, she was divorced in 1909. Around this time, she began focusing on what would become the trademarks of her style, painting nude figures and portraits in distinct marks and colors. Her pieces conveyed “an intensity of feeling and depth in her subjects with bold, heavy strokes,” which did not go unnoticed by the public. In 1911 she held her first solo exhibition, sparking her movement toward international fame.

Valadon’s home life was largely tumultuous. Her son began exhibiting signs of mental problems and alcoholism as a teenager, so she devoted much of her time caring for him. She greatly encouraged him to try painting, which apparently was effective, as he soon became a successful artist in his own right. Around the time of her divorce, Valadon also began a relationship with Andre Utter, an artist over twenty years her junior.


Adam & Eve, 1909

This painting depicts Valadon and Utter in the Biblical account of the first man and woman. It’s interesting to note that Valadon chose to depict Eve at the moment she picked the sinful fruit from the tree, perhaps alluding to the forbidden nature of her affair with Utter. This painting was also the first piece to be exhibited by a woman featuring a naked male and female, and is fascinating in its use of color and emotion in the couple’s forms.

When World War I broke out in Europe, Utter, now Valadon’s husband, enlisted to fight. When he returned from war, he lived with his wife and her artist son, Maurice, as the trio attempted to sell their pieces. Despite Valadon’s critical acclaim for her work, Maurice’s work caught the eye of the public, and he was able to profit nicely from his work. Valadon continued and exhibiting throughout this period and found success even though her son proved too be more lucrative.

    Maurice_Utrillo,_par_Suzanne_Valadon              suburban-street-scene.jpg!Blog

   Maurice Utrillo, 1921 by Valadon    Suburban Street Scene, Utrilo

Clearly the focus and style of the paintings differ greatly, as Suzanne’s work was more novel while her son opted to create classic, subdued cityscapes.

Sadly, Valadon and her husband began to drift apart as he began having affairs with various women. Valadon’s health began declining in 1920, and it seems that around this point she began painting fewer nudes and focused instead on still-lives. She continued to work persistently, even up to the day of her death in 1938, when she suffered a stroke.

Nonetheless, Valadon was a fascinating woman, whose pieces simply can’t go unappreciated, even though for a period of time her son’s work garnered more attention. I feel as though she lived during a period when the notion of the nonconformist, whimsical artist really came into fruition. They became almost the rock stars of early 20th century Europe and America, and she certainly fed into that stereotype, with her numerous affairs and disregard for what was considered appropriate in a painting. She transformed from a model, a mere pretty object for an artist to depict, to a creator in her own right, and I find that immensely empowering.


Reclining nude, 1928



Edmonia Lewis: Neoclassical Sculpture

Born: 1844 in New York or Ohio, died: 1907 in London, England

Picture 215

Edmonia Lewis represents several firsts in my series of artists. She is the first sculptor I have covered, and the first African American/ Native American woman to have graced the pages of this blog. Though not much is known about her early or later life, she certainly was a groundbreaking and remarkable force in the art world.

Born to an African American father and a Chippewa Indian mother in the year 1844, Lewis was orphaned at a young age. It is believed that she and her brother traveled with their mother’s tribe in New York state throughout their childhoods, being given the names Wildfire and Sunrise, respectively. Her brother Sunrise then traveled to California during the Gold Rush, obtaining a considerable amount of wealth. He enrolled Wildfire into Oberlin College and it was there that she adopted the name Edmonia Lewis. She excelled in her studies, pursuing art and gaining in interest in the abolitionist movement. Tragedy struck, however, when two white students accused Lewis of poisoning them. The young artist was acquitted of all charges but was violently harassed by upset locals. She left the college and fled to Boston with the help of her older brother.

In Boston, Lewis became further involved in the abolitionist movement, befriending the famed anti-slavery advocate William Lloyd Garrison, who introduced her to a sculptor, Edward Brackett. She became his protégé, and began to earn recognition for some of her early pieces, especially a bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the leader of a black troop in the Civil War. This sculpture spurred her career in the art world, allowing Lewis to earn enough money to travel abroad to Rome.


Colonel Robert Gould Shaw

This piece shows the beginnings of Lewis’s neoclassical style, with its “lofty idealism and Greco-Roman resources.” She portrays the subject both elegantly and realistically.

Lewis found her calling in Rome, where she converted to Roman Catholicism and joined a group of other female, neoclassical sculptors. The different elements of her identity are evident in her work, as she often focused on African, Native American, and Biblical themes. Lewis also felt compelled to work entirely alone, despite the fact that many marble sculptors in Italy at the time received assistance with making their pieces. She didn’t want to be subjected to “racist assumptions that she wasn’t really responsible for her work.” This decision, along with her experiences at Oberlin College, demonstrate that Edmonia’s life was not at all an easy one. She had to work even harder than her white contemporaries to not only thrive in the sphere of art, but also just to survive.       321beede4262280c65a4597f3d862d5e

                         Hagar, 1875                           Forever Free, 1867


Hiawatha’s Marriage, 1868

These sculptures help to display the extent of Lewis’s artistic and personal interests. Hagar is based upon the Biblical story of Abraham’s second wife Hagar, a handmaid who was to bear him a son. Forever Free and Hiawatha’s Marriage reflect Lewis’s own African American and Native American ethnic background. Forever Free was a tribute to the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing black American slaves, while Hiawatha is a reference to a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The end of the sculptor’s life isn’t clearly documented. She stopped making new pieces around 1880, but remained in Europe. Reports state that she was alive as late as 1911, but it’s now known she died in London in 1907. Many of her sculptures were lost after her death and have recently been rediscovered, however many still remain unseen.

Edmonia Lewis really breaks the mold of the artists I’ve been studying– she wasn’t white and born into a wealthy family; her life, largely, was not easy. I think this represents a growing trend as we move into the twentieth century. Art became a more accessible pursuit for people, so we’ll start to see more female artists and artists from different backgrounds in my next few posts. I’m really excited to move in this direction and can’t wait to see what brilliant artists lie ahead. Stay tuned!




Mary Cassatt: Impressionism

Born May 22 1844 in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania; Died June 14 1926 near Paris, France


Self Portrait, 1878

Though Mary Cassatt is the first artist from America I will be covering, I don’t really feel as though she can be classified as an “American artist,” as she spent much of her time abroad. Cassatt was born into a well-to-do family in Pennsylvania, but quickly discovered her love of art. Her father, a conventional man, greatly discouraged this, and was reluctant to allow her to enroll in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts at the age of 16. Cassatt did so anyway, but found the largely male environment to be constricting and disrespectful. She set her gaze towards Europe to study art, which only served to upset her father more. He claimed he would prefer to see her “dead than living abroad as a “‘bohemian.'” In 1865, however, a young Cassatt left for Paris.

The painter spent her days traveling across Europe, studying the works of the old masters and slowly developing a style of her own. She became close to other French painters, such as Charles Joshua Chaplin, who painted many beautiful, delicate portraits of women. In 1868, Cassatt’s painting The Mandolin Player was entered into the famed Paris Salon, earning her some recognition. Soon after, the Franco-Prussian war broke out, forcing the disappointed artist to return to her family in Pennsylvania.


The Mandolin Player, Mary Cassat

This painting’s simple content is contrasted by its rich colors. The piece certainly seems to be from the earlier period of Cassatt’s career, before she embraced looser strokes and bright colors, elements of the impressionist movement.

Despite opposition from her father, Cassatt returned to Europe in 1871 at the request of the Catholic Church. She was commissioned to paint copies of old works by an archbishop, and then traveled to Spain and eventually Paris. It was there she met the renown impressionist Edward Degas in 1879, who is especially well-known for his paintings of dancers. He recognized potential in Cassatt, and invited her to join the growing impressionist movement. She was the only American in the group, but was interested in their use of color and light. Her subject matter also shifted, as she moved towards the intimate, everyday scenes of family that we associate her with today.


Ballet Rehearsal, 1873 Edgar Degas

This is a very famous example of Degas’ work– it features streaming light, dynamic movements, and bright, pastel colors. It’s easy to see why Cassatt was attracted to the movement.


Children on the Beach, 1884 Mary Cassatt

This intimate portrait is one from Cassatt’s impressionist period, and is evident in her use of light and her brushstrokes. However, her tendency to paint families, specifically mothers and children, set her apart from the movement.

Around the mid 1880s, Cassatt stopped associating herself with impressionism. She studied different techniques and mediums throughout the rest of her life, often using pastels and prints. Cassatt also started to support emerging artists from America, buying many of their works. In 1900, her eyesight began to fail, causing her to work less frequently. She passed away in 1926, completely blind due to her diabetes, in her home in Mesnil-Theribus, France.


The Fitting, 1890

This is a print from the later period of Cassatt’s career. She was actually inspired by Japanese printmaking, which seems evident in the simple style and muted, warm colors of this piece. Despite the shift in style, Cassatt still focuses on a scene from the home, for which she is so recognized.

Mary Cassatt was clearly an exceptionally talented woman, and based on her disagreements with her family, it appears that she also was independent and strong-willed. She did not feel bound to any particular movement or style, or even any specific place– she was, after all, a bit of a “bohemian.” The artist was fiercely proud of her line of work, as well; one of my sources states that she only felt like she was amongst her “intellectual equals” when she was with other artists. After constantly being discouraged from pursuing art, though, I can see why she developed such an attachment to it. I’m certainly glad she did, because her pieces are a lovely glimpse into domestic life of the time.

Next week I will be introducing a truly amazing artist, and the first sculptor in my series. Stay tuned!



Rosa Bonheur: Realism

Born: March 16, 1822 in Bodeaux, France, died: May 25, 1899 Fontainebleau


Rosa Bonheur, 1898 by Anna Klumpke

Though the subject matter of her paintings might seem commonplace to modern eyes, Bonheur lived an unprecedented and rather unorthodox life. She was born to a fairly wealthy French father, and, as we have seen before, was taught to paint by her father, who studied landscapes. He also doubled as a professional art teacher and was the only local painter who would teach a young Bonheur. The family, which included several other children, was very socially liberal, and probably encouraged Bonheur’s later desire to become such a nonconformist.

The Bonheurs moved to Paris in 1829, where Rosa’s love of art flourished. As a teenager, she started to sketch animals she observed at farms, slaughterhouses, and auctions in order to study their motion and anatomy. She fell in love with these subjects and they became the main focus of her work, which rapidly increased in popularity. But her methods of intensely studying animals proved to be problematic, as places like slaughterhouses tended to be meant for working men. To get around this, Bonheur began dressing like a man to draw less attention to herself. Wearing overalls and pants, which she had to get a special license for (seriously), actually caused Bonheur to become more well-known. Her taste for men’s clothing, which lasted throughout her life, along with her penchant for smoking in public, furthered her eccentric reputation.


Study of a Cow

This piece shows Bonheur’s interests in their simplest form– a lone bull painted in stunning anatomical detail, standing amidst a wide open field

Bonheur first displayed her pieces at a salon in Paris at age 19, where she would enter her works for the next ten years. At a salon in 1847 the artist “was given the ultimate praise, ‘She paints like a man.'” As sad as this sounds, it wasn’t entirely wrong– at that point in time, realism and paintings of nature had been a man’s game. Unsurprisingly, the resilient Bonheur was undisturbed by remarks like these.

The groundbreaking artist’s popularity in France sadly declined near the center of her life, and she received criticism amongst her people for how favored her paintings were in England and America. Her most famous painting, The Horse Fair, was displayed in England in 1855 and “greatly admired”  by Queen Victoria. In 1887, Cornelius Vanderbilt bought the painting for an unparalleled price and gave it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it still hangs today.


The Horse Fair, 1852-1855. This magnificent painting is seen as her masterpiece. With it’s rich colors, dynamic composition, and immense size (it’s about 8 by 12 feet!!), I can certainly see why.

In 1865, Rosa Bonheur was the first female to receive the Grand Cross Legion of Honour, an extremely high regard in France. After this, Bonheur’s spent a lot of her life privately, and she shifted from depicting life on the plains to painting pictures of lions at the end of her life. During this time she also live secluded in her chateau with her companion Anna Klumpke, a fellow artist. It isn’t explicitly stated in any of my sources, but it seems like it’s generally assumed that they were romantic partners.

Though she was quite a figure during her time for her habits unusual for a woman, Bonheur really helped to reinvent what it means to be a woman and an artist. She lived her life according to no one but herself in so many ways– in her art, her dress, and her mannerisms. Her disregard for societal norms frequently made people uncomfortable, but allowed her to really transcend the realm of artists. Rosa Bonheur truly left her distinctive mark in both art and feminist history.


Ploughing in the Nivernais, 1849


Royale à la maison

These two paintings represent different periods and interests in the artist’s life. In Ploughing in the Nivernais, the young Bonheur was in the midst of her prolific period of painting realistic farm scenes, while Royale à la maison was painted towards the end of her successful career. Personally, I find the first painting much more compelling. She used much richer and darker colors in her earlier works, and the painting has this intensity that I feel the second work very much lacks.


~Next week I will finally be crossing the pond and introducing you to an American artist, who I’m sure some of you are familiar with. Stay tuned!~


Rosalba Carriera: Rococo

Born January 12, 1673 in Venice; Died April 15, 1757 in Venice


Self portrait as Winter, 1731

As annoying as I find this, I’m forgoing the chronological order for this post and taking a step back in time to the Rococo period, which was before Neoclassicism. This style is just too pivotal in artistic history to gloss over. Sorry!

Rosalba Carriera was a central figure in the art world of the 18th century, but not much is known about her early life. Born into a simple family in Venice, she was perhaps trained in lace-making by her mother, but switched hobbies after the trade became less popular. The young woman began painting the lids of snuffboxes, or small, very ornamented boxes that held tobacco meant to be sniffed. Interestingly, this was an actual career for artists at the time, as the prevalence of using snuff and giving the boxes as gifts became a huge fad in Europe and beyond.


An example of an 18th century snuffbox (not of Carriera’s)

Carriera enjoyed this decorative style of painting, and moved on to paint many more miniatures on ivory, instead of vellum (parchment), that was so popular of the time. She became a major proponent of the Rococo art movement, which began in France and is notable for its “rich and delicate brushwork, a relatively light tonal key, and sensuous colouring.


The Love Lesson, by Jean-Antoine Watteau

Watteau popularized the Rococo style, and its elements- the light brushstroke, almost airy, ethereal backgrounds, and subdued pastel colors- are evident in his pieces

Carriera greatly admired his work, and even had the opportunity to paint him twice.

Like the other artists mentioned, Carriera also received fame at a relatively young age. She was inducted into Italy’s prestigious Academy of Saint Luke when she was only 25. The quality of her artwork wasn’t the only thing making waves across Europe– she also was one of the first people to use pastels instead of paint in her finished portraits. Until then, pastels were seen as a means for creating sketches, but Carriera found that they were perfect for executing the light, blended style of the Rococo movement she loved so much.


Young Lady of the Le Blond Family, 1730

This is a pastel portrait made by Carriera. It’s amazing how much detail she was able to convey using pastels, and how finished the product looks.

The clever artist’s innovation with pastels only served to further her fame, and she was soon encouraged to move to Paris to promote her talents more. Carriera did so, arriving in 1720 and soon being commission by many notable people. Among some of the more famous patrons was a young King Louis XV. She continued to beguile nobility, and painted Holy Roam Emperor Charles VI multiple times. Tragically, the end of the artist’s life was riddled with hardships– her beloved sister died in 1737, and Carriera lost her eyesight about 10 years later, making her unable to paint.


Louis XV of France, 1720

It’s interesting to compare Carierra’s self-portraits to those that she made of others. She makes her subjects look soft and attractive, portraying them in flattering ways (probably because they all paid her a ton of money, so she had to make them look good.) With herself, however, she is “brutally honest in representing herself”, as she was not particularly stunning… Or at least that’s how she felt about herself. Her pictures of others are absolutely beuatiful, but I think it’s way more fascinating to analyze how how she portrayed herself. Unlike Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, she doesn’t seem to have any ego about her, even though she was just as deserving of one. She managed to pave the way for both a new style of art and a new medium (Rococo and pastels, respectively), along with inspiring future artists to come, including Le Brun.

220px-Rosalba_Carriera_Self-portrait                parrot

Self Portrait, 1715                   Young Lady with a Parrot, 1730

There is such a large contrasts between Carriera’s self portrait- her demure expression, unrefined features, and conservative clothes- and the way she made her clients look. The young lady on the right is adorned with flowers, jewelry, makeup, and revealing clothes (and also, inexplicably, a parrot.) Nonetheless, Carriera’s talent is clear despite her subject.



Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun: Neoclassical

Born April 16, 1755 in Paris, France; Died March 30, 1842 in Paris


Self Portrait, 1790

Marie-Louise-Élisabeth Vigée-LeBrun had a career as lengthy and rich as her complicated name suggests. Born to an artist father (which is a common trend I’m noticing amongst the women I research), Vigée-LeBrun was introduced to painting at a young age. Her early pieces, mainly portraiture, received praise from notable artists of the time, and by age 15 she had already amassed a large following and fair amount of wealth.


The Artist’s Brother, 1773

In 1776, Vigée-LeBrun married artist Jean Baptiste LeBrun, who was more notable as an art dealer and collector. He helped Élisabeth Louise to further solidify her reputation as a serious artist. Many aristocrats of the time enjoyed the young artist’s fresh style and vivid colors, and her ability to “[depict] her sitters in a flattering manner, posed gracefully and wearing their most stylish clothing.” In 1779, Vigée-LeBrun received the greatest break of her career when Marie Antoinette, the current queen of France, requested she paint a portrait of her. The artist arrived in Versailles, where she began a lasting friendship with Antoinette (who is so fascinating in her own right), eventually creating upwards of 30 portraits of the Queen. Antoinette also helped Vigée-LeBrun to be inducted into the very prestigious Paris Royal Academy of the arts, where she was one of only four women. Her acceptance into the Academy, unsurprisingly, created controversy amongst the male-dominated membership of the time.

Vigee-LeBrun Marie-antoinette                         marie16

    Marie Antoinette, 1779         Marie Antoinette with Children, 1788

The picture on the left is one of Vigée-LeBrun first portraits of Queen Antoinette, depicting her in a lavish, detailed outfit, holding a small pink rose. This image is one of pure femininity, and I think her position as a female painter made it easier for Vigée-LeBrun to accurately capture the stunning nature of the queen. The portrait on the right features the queen in a striking, but yet more subdued, dress, caring for her young children. I think these two portraits show a slight evolution in Vigée-LeBrun’s style, but more interestingly, the path that Antoinette’s life took over the course of ten years. This painting was also the last portrait she made of her. Those of you who know a bit about the history of the time period know that this was merely years before Antoinette’s execution and the decline of the French monarchy.

Vigée-LeBrun accurately perceived that a revolution was about to take place, and knew her role as an artist and friend of the royal family would not be highly favored. Taking her 9 year old daughter with her, Vigée-LeBrun fled France in 1789, traveling across Europe. She was met with open arms from other royalty and aristocrats in countries like Italy and Switzerland. The displaced artists eventually settled in Russia, where she remained for several years before returning to France permanently in 1805.


The Genius of Alexander 

I included this painting because it shows Vigée-LeBrun’s shift from painting primarily portraits to creating mythological scenes in her later life.

What I find so interesting about Louise Vigée-LeBrun is that she really didn’t let being a woman during this time period impede her success. Although it seems that she largely painted women, and had a large female fanbase (like Marie Antoinette), the accounts I’ve read say that she was appreciated by all– her talent was, after all, very obvious. Vigée-LeBrun was confident in not only her work as an artist, but also herself. She published three volumes of memoirs toward the end of her life, claiming that she painted almost 900 paintings (many of which have since been lost to history.) She lived a fascinating life, during a time period of rapid change. As writer Nancy Heller remarked, her most successful portraits “vividly preserve a way of life that was fading even as she painted it.” Her position as a woman makes her portrayals of the time even more unique.



Artemisia Gentileschi: Baroque


Self Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, 1638

Born: July 8 1593 Rome, Died: 1652/23 Naples

Writing about Artemisia Gentileschi is a pretty daunting task, considering that she is such a prominent, fascinating figure of the Baroque period. The Baroque was a style of art, music, literature, and architecture that swept Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It favored elaborate, and often very dramatic, features— think the palace of Versailles, Bach, and Vivaldi. Gentileschi was alive during this time of excess and beauty, and still managed to create her own distinct artistic techniques.

Born in Italy to an artist father, Artemisia was exposed to painting from a young age. Her father, Orazio, was fairly well known, and was a huge follower of the artist Caravaggio. This inclination was passed to his daughter, as Artemisia often mimicked Caravaggio’s style, namely his use of tenebrism: the use of high contrast between light and dark areas, which are usually more paramount.The_Calling_of_Saint_Matthew-Caravaggo_(1599-1600)

The Calling of Saint Matthew, by Caravaggio, 1600

This piece is a perfect example of tenebrism. Much of the image is shrouded in darkness, but areas that the light touches are very bright and colorful. Gentileschi develops this style later in life, but many of her early pieces are less contrasted.


Despite her eventual success, Gentileschi’s life was not without obstacles. Her mother died when she was twelve, and several years later she was raped by a fellow artist, Agostino Tassi. Her father, outraged, took the case to the courts, leading to a long, cruel, and ultimately unfruitful experience, which involved the budding artist to provide evidence under torture against her assaulter. Tassi was not sentenced, and also did not follow through on his promise to marry Artemisia, which he made right after raping her. Although this seems so horrible to us— Why would you want to spend the rest of your life with someone who did something so horrendous to you? —marriage was seen as appropriate in this situation. Artemisia was now young, single, and no longer a virgin, which despite the aura of progressiveness of the era, was still considered to be a terrible disgrace.

By 1616, Gentileschi was married to an artist and living in Florence. She was the first woman to join the Academy of Design there, and soon became extremely well known. Unlike the few other women in art at the time, who focused on still life and portraiture, Artemisia created many historical and Biblical pieces. Her works were often dynamic and violent, expressing what many feel to be her anger and pain after her experience with Tassi.

One of her most famous paintings is Judith Beheading Holofernes, depicting the beautiful widow Judith murdering the cruel general Holofernes who was distracted by his lust for her. Caravaggio actually did a painting on the same subject and of the same name, which many critics consider to be less captivating. Both of the images are included below, and I personally side with that opinion. Gentileschi’s depiction is more graphic, more realistic— dark blood is spurting out of the victim, covering the sheets. Caravaggio’s, though it features the same violent scene, is much more tame. The women in Gentileschi’s piece are also much more involved in the act. There is concentration and determination on their faces, and they exude strength as they both clutch the sword. The woman in the second painting, though very beautiful, appears to be merely an observer of the act, holding the (presumably very heavy?) sword daintily in one hand, a look of fear or disbelief in her eyes.

1024px-Artemisia_Gentileschi_-_Giuditta_decapita_Oloferne_-_Google_Art_Project              Judith_Beheading_Holofernes_by_Caravaggio

                Gentileschi, 1621                                  Caravaggio, 1599

The general consensus, unfortunately, is that Artemisia’s later life wasn’t very noteworthy. She continued painting, but she shifted from her highly contrasted paintings depicting dark subject matter to more tame paintings of the court life of royalty in both Spain and England. She lost respect of some members of the artistic community in Italy, who saw her new style (similar to the Spanish way of painting) as unsophisticated. Modern critics, too, think her paintings from this area are largely boring. Some writers contend that this is because Gentileschi’s later works are classically feminine, and therefore seen as less innovative as her prior works. She died in Naples in either 1652 or 53, and not much is known about the end of her life.

Like Sofonisba Anguissola, Gentileschi’s paintings were also attributed to men after her death, but to a much lesser extent. She still received a great amount of recognition in history, but many attributed her very early works to her father, who often worked alongside her. Artemesia carved out an unmistakable niche for herself as an artist, a feat difficult for anyone at the time, much less a woman. She was also unafraid to acknowledge her success and talent, claiming once that her work was desired all across Europe. Her ability to not only overcome tragic events and adversity, but to really thrive is so incredible. It’s no wonder that she is both a key figure of the Baroque period and a major feminist icon.


Susanna and the Elders, 1610

One of Artemisia’s first paintings. It’s kind of understandable that she didn’t get credit for this initially— how many of us could do this at 17??



Sofonisba Anguissola: Late Renaissance


Self Portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel

Born cerca 1532 in Cremona, Italy; died November 1625 in Palermo

Though there were many deserving female artists before Sofonisba Anguissola, I find it most appropriate to begin with a painter from the Italian Renaissance— the “rebirth” of art, culture, and science in Europe. Encapsulating the progressiveness of the time period, Anguissola’s wealthy father sent her and her sister to receive a proper education under the tutelage of Bernardino Campi, an established painter. The young Sofonisba quickly flourished, and with the help of her father, rose to prominence across not only Italy, but the rest of Europe, as well. She even became acquaintances with the famed Michelangelo, who appreciated her work and offered guidance. In 1559 she arrived in Madrid, Spain to work for the royal court of Philip II, where she remained for twenty years painting detailed, formal works of the family. After two marriages (the first left her widowed) and a vast array of paintings to her name, Anguissola died at the age of 93 in her native Italy.

Though she did reach a great level of fame in her time, Anguissola also met difficulties due to her sex. Women were not allowed to learn about anatomy or draw live nude figures, so for much of her life she mainly painted portraits of what was openly observable, such as her family and herself. Nonetheless, her illustrious career, spanning over 70 years, helped to pave the way for future female artists. For a long period after her death, however, her works were frequently falsely attributed to male artists such as Titian and Leonardo da Vinci. It wasn’t until the last century that the art world really began to give Anguissola the credit she so rightfully deserved.

Below is the painting, Diana and Actaeon, by the aforementioned artist Titian.


Personally, I think this piece, and many others of  Titian’s, is vastly different from the works of Anguissola. It’s strange to me that historians were so quick to attribute her paintings, which were of royalty or self-portraits, to an artist whose works tended to be grandiose depictions of myths and religion. This phenomenon is a prime example of history’s tendency to overlook women, sometimes even rewriting events to better suit a male-based narrative.


When looking at Sofonisba Anguissola’s paintings, my favorite is certainly her early portrait entitled, The Chess Game, depicting three of her sisters during a riveting match. Sofonisba was the oldest and had a brother and five younger sisters, three of whom she taught to paint. She clearly served as a sort of mentor for them, and I think this painting demonstrates the sisterly bond they all shared. The youngest sister is giggling and watching the next older sister, who in turn is observing her older sister. This cheery, brightly-colored scene provides a close look into their everyday lives, which I assume to be supportive of the endeavors they each undertook, whether or not they are traditionally “feminine” or not.


Anguissola was one of the first distinguished female artists that we have knowledge of, and really helped to set a precedent for those to follow. She created a great array of works throughout her prolific life though sadly many of her later pieces were lost in a fire. But, her memory persists in her remaining works and the great legacy she created.


One of Sofonisba Anguissola’s final Self-Portraits, 1620s