Editor's note: The following essay was published in Resource Library on January 13, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the New Britain Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


History of Women Artists in the United States: 19th Century to the 1960s

by Nancy Noble


"My time dear Mother to enable me to succeed in my painting is so entirely engrossed by it, that I am not at all able to give my attention to anything else . . . and you know dear Mother as you have told me many a time that if we wish to become great in any thing we must condense our powers to one point."

- Lilly Martin Spencer to her mother, October 11, 1850 [1]


"[MyMu son Angelo] had broken his tooth . . . and his system generally was sick. We had to watch, in turns, that night and the next and then the next again. At last, by dint of good nursing (Ben had to hold him constantly in his arm) and I had to keep constantly at my portrait, for beside their being very impatient to get it, I had reason to hope that I would get several more portraits if I pleased them in that one, so I spared no pains to make it a splendid painting. In the meantime poor little Angelo gradually got better."

- Lilly Martin Spencer to her mother, March 6, 1852 [2]


Lilly Martin Spencer's assertion that artistic triumph requires time and single-minded focus seems unremarkable today, yet hers was a radical statement for a woman in 1850. In nineteenth-century America, the number of practicing women artists increased dramatically, educational and exhibition opportunities available to them widened considerably, and notable female artists were awarded public commissions and prizes. But, as Spencer's words imply, success for the female artist often came at significant personal cost: reconciling woman's traditional and expected role of wife and mother with the demands of being a professional artist.

One of the conditions of success for many of America's earliest women artists was birth into an artistic family. Sarah Miriam Peale and Margaretta Angelica Peale grew to maturity surrounded by successful artists; rather than attending a girls' school that would have trained them to be wives and at best amateur painters, their father James's studio was their classroom and workshop.[3] Sarah furthered her training with her cousin Rembrandt and her renowned uncle Charles Willson Peale. Each developed a unique style while working in genres that were integral to family tradition. Margaretta's highly detailed still-life paintings are known for conveying a sense of quiet domesticity. Sarah, also an accomplished still-life painter, gained national recognition as a portraitist like her father, uncle, and cousins. Single and thus able to pursue her individual goals, she left her native Philadelphia to become the leading portrait painter of Baltimore and Saint Louis at mid-century, noted for her expressive use of color, brilliant representation of surface textures, and ability to convey the personality of her sitters. Later in the century, Mary Nimmo Moran was introduced to the technique that would become her critically praised specialty-etching-by her husband, the painter Thomas Moran. Energizing natural forms with free, dynamic lines and creating compelling light and dark contrasts in her evocative depictions of the American landscape, Moran became one of the leaders of the American etching movement of the 1880s and was hailed as one of the most successful etchers of her day. [4]

Being born into an artistic family was, however, no guarantee of either support or success: Jane Stuart, a painter and a daughter of the famed Federal era portraitist Gilbert Stuart, wrote that when she was a young girl, he kept her busy grinding his paints and filling in his backgrounds rather than instructing her in drawing or painting. [5]

Lilly Martin Spencer, the nation's most successful antebellum woman artist, was not born to an artistic family, but she did have the advantage of utopian and socialist parents who were strong advocates of women's rights and supported her desire to become a professional painter. Leaving Ohio with her husband for the nation's art center, New York, she supported her seven children by creating popular genre paintings that celebrate middle-class domestic life. Injected with playful humor, many of her works were reproduced as prints and disseminated throughout the nation for a primarily female audience. This Little Pig Went to Market (1857) (fig. 7) at once acknowledges the mid-century's cultural ideal of the "angel of the household," self-sacrificing women raising children and supporting husbands within the domestic sphere, while commemorating women's real labor and worth in assuming this role. Her life and career were clear statements for women's rights of self-determination, in or outside the home.

Mostly self-taught, Spencer declined a patron's offer to pay for formal academic training. Early in the century, art academies were established in the nation's most cosmopolitan cities and women were gradually accepted as students: at New York's National Academy of Design by 1831 and at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia by 1844.[6] Although women artists were consistently in the minority, the number who attended art academies throughout the nation grew steadily during the century. After the Civil War, numerous women artists joined their male counterparts studying in Europe with the belief that the best training was to be had in the Old World.[7] Many felt they would find in Europe a freedom and ability to test themselves at the highest level, which they could not experience in the United States. As the expatriate Impressionist Mary Cassatt declared, "After all give me France -- women do not have to fight for recognition here, if they do serious work."[8] Paradoxically, women were denied access to France's foremost art academy, the École des Beaux-Arts. Cassatt and other American artists such as Elizabeth Nourse studied at private ateliers, attending segregated classes that in theory were equal in quality to men's.[9] As studying abroad challenged dominant cultural beliefs of women as domestic beings, so did extensive foreign travel.[10] Cassatt studied the Old Masters in Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Holland; Nourse traveled throughout Europe as well as North Africa, the latter location serving as inspiration for highly original works such as Moorish Prince (1897) (fig. 8), her bold portrait of a confident young Algerian.

Mary Cassatt triumphed professionally as no other American woman artist of the century. Born to an upper-middle-class family in Pennsylvania, she studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before moving to Paris alone, first to study and then permanently in 1873. A frequent exhibitor at the Paris Salons of the 1870s, she was invited to exhibit with the Impressionists by Edgar Degas in 1877. The avant-garde Impressionists focused on capturing effects of light and atmosphere and, above all, depictions of contemporary bourgeois life. Cassatt's social class and sex denied her access to many of the places her male Impressionist peers could easily depict: dance halls, café-concerts, and bars. Cassatt embraced the challenge of depicting modern life on her own terms: through images of domesticity and the contemporary life of upper-class women, as in A Caress (1891) ( fig. 9) and In the Omnibus (1890­91).[11] She was best known for her works depicting mother and child relationships, though she herself rejected marriage for career, and her paintings and prints were lauded for their visual power and daring, as unsentimental portrayals. American criticism of her work, however, reveals the challenge of being a woman artist even late in the century: in an 1895 review, one American critic noted her work was "masculine, vigorous and full of a powerful personality" -- in other words, she earned praise as an artist because her work seemed to deny her gender. [12]

Women and women artists in the twentieth century were an integral part of the sweeping changes in the nation's cultural and artistic life. The United States was transformed from a small-town, agrarian country to an industrial and technological power, an urban nation of mass culture entertainments. With the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, women gained the right to vote. The "cult of true womanhood" of the Victorian age faded away as the "New Woman" arrived on the scene: confident, economically and socially independent, physically active, and enjoying more sexual freedom than ever before in American history. These developments energized and excited many citizens yet left others fearful of change and clinging to a nostalgic view of America and its past.

In the American art world, women artists were a presence more than ever before (as practicing professionals, students, and teachers), yet reaching the pinnacle of success remained the province of strong women who confronted beliefs that women could not possibly create great, or even good, art; as one the notable Abstract Expressionists asserted, "My name is Helen Frankenthaler -- and goddam it, I know how to paint just as well as the boys."[13] Indeed, the cultural prejudice against women as creative beings reemerged with the rise of the idea of the expressive modern artist as a heroic, individualistic (male) creator, a backlash against 1890s associations of aesthetics and cultural refinement as feminine; women were thought to have a unique ability to appreciate and consume art but not to produce it.[14] Exhibition venues for contemporary art increased with the founding of museums and private galleries, but most focused on European art and art created by men.[15] Nevertheless, the artistic production of women artists of the period was richly complex: figurative traditions coexisted with abstraction; modernists challenged the status quo with innovations of style and subject matter while traditionalists upheld existing conventions.

Wanda Gág was one of hundreds of women artists taught by Robert Henri, among the most influential artists and art teachers of the early twentieth century. Although firmly committed to the success of his female students, he reveals in his writings reveal an underlying assumption that true artistic genius was male, that modern art was innately masculine, noting that the best art of a nation expresses its "virile ideas" and that an artist must "be a man first, be an artist later."[16] Nevertheless, Gág, who studied with Henri at the Art Students League in New York in the 1910s, became one of the period's most prominent graphic artists, developing a modernist style uniquely her own, marked by strong tonal contrasts and energetic line. Grandma's Kitchen (1931) (fig. 10) reveals her belief that "there is . . . a seeming intelligence of inanimate things, a unique grace and power," and her lasting commitment to realism.[17]

In contrast, Georgia O'Keeffe was one of the first American artists -- male or female -- to turn to abstraction. In aher groundbreaking 1915 -17 series of charcoal drawings, and watercolor series TITLE, she used color, line, tone, and shape to create a completely original mode of expression. Since, as a woman, she had so few freedoms in other areas of life, she vehemently resolved to "paint as I wanted to and say what I wanted to when I painted."[18] In subsequent years, she created a modernist pictorial strategy with a return to representation, as in East River from the 30th Thirtieth Story of Shelton Hotel (1928), in which she represented the urban landscape on her own terms, employing hard-edged forms, clear light, and minimal brushwork.

In the face of the economic and political uncertainty of the 1930s, the Russian immigrant Esphyr Slobodkina proclaimed her belief in the power of abstract art to create a more harmonious world. A founding member in 1936 of the American Abstract Artists, she and the small but fiercely committed group worked to explain abstraction to a nation then highly resistant to it; some believing it too European inspired and thus "un-American." Slobodkina created geometric and ultimately stable compositions such as Abstraction with Red Circle (1938) as alternatives to a chaotic world. [19]

Kay Sage and Beatrice Cuming created vanguard work intertwined with European modernist movements. Cuming, always her own woman, was active in Connecticut from the 1930s to the 1970s, specializing in scenes of industry and the New London waterfront, much to the initial consternation of male workers.[20] Welders at Electric Boat Company (ca. 1944) at once clearly represents modern industrial labor while demonstrating Cuming's keen awareness of Cubism's flat forms and underlying grid structure, certainly gained through years of study in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Sage, trained in America and Italy, began to experiment in a Surrealist mode after seeing Surrealist art in Paris in the late 1930s. Eventually returning to the United States and settling in Connecticut with Yves Tanguy, himself a leading Surrealist painter, Sage at her best depicted uninhabited, otherworldly landscapes of the mind dominated by mysterious scaffolding and sharp metal forms, as in Unusual Thursday (1951) (fig. 11).

Throughout the early and mid-twentieth century, figurative art retained its dominant position in the American art world; realism flourished but in the widest range of possibilities imaginable. Constance Richardson's finely detailed and controlled panoramic view City of Detroit (1943) and Polly Ethel Thayer's bold and dramatic female nude Circles (ca. 1928) are based in academic art traditions, but each woman adapted conventions to create an original expression. Martha Walter's Immigrant from Checho Slovacia (ca. 1921­22) is a masterful application of the Impressionist style to a decidedly twentieth-century subject. In Fifth Avenue and Washington Square (fig. 12) Jane Peterson reveals a sensitive understanding of Impressionist and post-Impressionist painting styles without resorting to mimicry.

The American Scene painter Isabel Bishop's realist style was unique among twentieth-century painters: in her images of female office workers or nudes, subjects are glimpsed through the rich horizontally banded surfaces of her canvases. This technique, together with her narrow tonal range and shallow space, gives Nude in Interior (1947) a monumentality as well as potential for movement and change.[21] Yvonne Pene du Bois shared a studio with her father, Guy Pene du Bois, until his death in 1958, when she was forty-five. She wrote that she saw and painted as he did until she suddenly realized that she needed to see and paint what he ignored or avoided, which resulted in works such as 3rd Third Avenue Elevated (1945) (fig. 13), with their distinctive focus on the environment, architecture, and perspective rather than on people as individuals. [22]

The sculptors Harriet Frishmuth, Malvina Hoffman, Marian Kinsella, and Marianna Pineda worked in a figurative mode, using the human body as a potent vehicle for artistic expression. Frishmuth's playful Peter Pan (1936) reveals her lifelong interest in the human figure's innate gracefulness and beauty. Malvina Hoffman's best-known work is her powerful Races of Mankind series created for Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. In another artist's hands, the documentary series could have descended into stereotypes and denigration of people of color. Rather, Hoffman's Samoan Warrior (1932) (fig. 14) portrays a closely observed, powerful individual with interiority and dignity. Marian Kinsella's arresting portrait bust of the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham is informed by her admiration of the power and grace of the human form. In contrast to these traditionalists, Marianna Pineda, in Prelude (1957), worked in a modernist idiom of generalized human forms to represent universal human experiences and emotions. [23]

Anna Mary Robertson "Grandma" Moses's All Out for Sport (1949) and Doris Lee's Louisiana Picnic (ca. 1938) (fig. 15) celebrate a nostalgic myth of agrarian life; each features "primitive," almost caricature-like figures in simple landscapes. These works appealed greatly to mid-century Americans, who embraced small-town values as the essence of the American experience. Yet Moses and Lee followed dramatically different paths in becoming artists. Lee trained professionally in both America and Europe in the late 1920s and 1930s, consciously rejecting modernism and abstraction for painting from nature. Close examination of her work reveals a sophisticated and complex use of color, modeling, and rhythmically patterned composition, all evidence of an extensively trained artist. The self-taught Grandma Moses turned to easel painting in upstate New York after more than seven decades of creating the traditional women's crafts of needlework and wallpapering. She took America by storm after her discovery by a New York City art collector in 1938, selling more than 1,500 paintings and entering the public's consciousness through commercial reproductions of her work as no other artist-of either gender-did. Yet even today she is highly invisible in standard histories of twentieth- century American art. Fine-art criticism of the day privileged painting that was challenging rather than comforting. Moses's paintings in the "folk" tradition were rejected because of a perceived lack of originality and because of her mass appeal. [24]

Alternatively, several women artists were recognized as key individuals in advances in early twentieth-century photography. Gertrude Käsebier, who trained as a painter and photographer after her children were in high school, was a leading advocate of Pictorialist photography, in which painterly effects are achieved on the photographic plate or negative through darkroom manipulations among other techniques. Pictorialist photographs such as Louise Grace (ca. 1919), with their subtle tonalities, blurred details, and poetic resonances, further the recognition of photography as a legitimate art form. At the other end of the spectrum of photographic strategies, Dorothea Lange emerged in the 1930s as a leading documentary photographer. Working for several New Deal government entities throughout the decade, Lange used clear lighting and seemingly snapshotlike casual cropping to expose the plight of displaced and migrant farm workers.

Ironically, the Great Depression brought about some semblance of parity between male and female artists: government projects that paid artists to work did not discriminate between the sexes. Forty-one percent of the Works Progress Administration artists were women.[25] Those gains, however, were in many ways lost with the rise of Abstract Expressionism during the postwar period. It made the United States an international art leader for the first time, but in a repeat of early twentieth-century prejudices, it and other modernist art of the mid-century came to be associated with a heroic self-expression that was implicitly masculine. Nonetheless, Lee Krasner, Hedda Sterne, Dorothy Dehner, and Helen Frankenthaler all accepted the conditions of the art world and created some of the most innovative abstract and nonobjective art of the time.[26] Lee Krasner, whose work was largely ignored during her marriage to Jackson Pollock, created Nude Study (1939) while a student of the avant-garde painter Hans Hofmann. It is a powerful image of the nude seen through a Cubist-inspired lens, a foretelling of her future growth as an artist after Pollock's death in 1956. Hedda Sterne, though criticized in the 1950s for not creating a signature heroic style (and thus being implicitly feminine), nevertheless continued her lifelong experimentations with abstraction and figuration, achieving recognition in subsequent decades.[27] Dorothy Dehner's intimate, complex, and ultimately mysterious Totem Destroyed (1958) (fig. 16) was created with the complete artistic freedom she experienced copy missing; it was only after the end of her troubled marriage to sculptor David Smith in 1952 that she felt able to develop her art with complete freedom.[28] The second-generation Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler met with greater immediate success: in a 1970 exhibition of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she was the only woman among the forty-three artists represented.[29] Ambitious and fiercely focused, Frankenthaler said, "True artistic creation of any kind is a very lonely process, a totally selfish act, and a totally necessary one that can become a gift to others . . . when the painting finds its audience."[30] Lilly Martin Spencer would agree.


1. Lilly Martin Spencer to Angelique Martin, October 11, 1850, quoted in Sarah Burns and John Davis, eds, American Art to 1900: A Documentary History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), p. 324.

2. Lilly Martin Spencer to Angelique Martin, March 6, 1852, in ibid., p. 325.

3. Anne Sue Hirshorn, "Anna Claypoole, Margaretta, and Sarah Miriam Peale: Modes of Accomplishment and Fortune," in Lillian B. Miller, ed., The Peale Family: Creation of a Legacy, 1770-­1870 (New York: Abbeville Press in association with The Trust for Museum Exhibitions and the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1996), pp. 221, 223, 228.

4. Charlotte Streifer Rubenstein, American Women Artists from Early Indian Times to the Present (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982), pp. 70-71; Nancy G. Heller, Women Artists: Works from the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 2000), p. 98; and Nancy Friese, "Mary Nimmo Moran: A Biography," in Prints of Nature: Poetic Etchings of Mary Nimmo Moran (Tulsa: University of Tulsa, 1984), p. 4.

5. Karen Peterson and J. J. Wilson, Women Artists: Recognition and Reappraisal from the Early Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 66.

6. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was founded in 1805; the National Academy of Design was founded in 1925; see Ronald J. Onorato, "Exciting the Efforts of the Artists": Art Instruction at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts," in Mark Hain et al., Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1805­2005: 200 Years of Excellence (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2005), p. 56; and Annette Blaugrund, "Introduction and Acknowledgments," in David Dearinger and Isabelle Dervaux, Challenging Tradition: Women of the Academy, 1826­2003 (New York: National Academy of Design, 2003), pp. 9­10.

7. A number of American women sculptors worked in Italy before and after the Civil War, believing, like their male counterparts, that the best marble could be found in Carrara and that the best examples of great sculpture of the past were to be seen in Rome and Florence, as were the best teachers, workmen, and stonecutters. Notable women sculptors in Italy included Harriet Hosmer, Anne Whitney, Emma Stebbins, and Edmonia Lewis.

8. Quoted in Kevin Sharp, "How Mary Cassatt Became an American Artist," in Judith A. Barter et al., Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1998), p. 150.

9. Until almost the end of the nineteenth century, women artists in the United States and Europe were excluded from the highest level of traditional academic training -- studying from the nude model. Life drawing classes for women were introduced at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1868 in response to women students' petition for equal training. At the National Academy of Design in New York, life classes for women began in 1871; life classes remained segregated by sex until the 1930s. See Kirsten Swinth, Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern American Art, 1870­1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), pp. 28­29; and David Dearinger, "Women Artists at the National Academy of Design: The First Hundred Years," in Dearinger and Dervaux, Challenging Tradition, pp. 15-16.

10. See Laura R. Prieto, At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), pp. 46-49.

11. Griselda Pollock, "Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity," Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 75-90..

12. Quoted in Sharp, "How Mary Cassatt Became an American Artist," p. 153.

13. Quoted in Ellen G. Landau, "Tough Choices: Becoming a Woman Artist, 1900-1970," in Making Their Mark: Women Artists Move into the Mainstream, 1970­95 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1989), p. 29.

14. See Kathleen A. Pyne, Art and the Higher Life: Painting and Evolutionary Thought in Late Nineteenth-Century America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996); and Swinth, Painting Professionals, ch. 6.

15. Heller, Women Artists, pp. 138-39.

16. Robert Henri, "Progress in Our National Art Must Spring from the Development of Individuality of Ideas and Freedom of Expression: A Suggestion for a New Art School," in Patricia Hills, ed., Modern Art in the USA: Issues and Controversies of the 20th Century (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2001), p. 8; and Swinth, Painting Professionals, p. 170.

17. Quoted in Helen Langa, "American Women Printmakers," in Marian Wardle, ed., American Women Modernists: The Legacy of Robert Henri, 1910-1945 (Salt Lake City: Brigham Young University Museum of Art, 2005), p. 76.

18. Quoted in Anna C. Chave, "O'Keeffe and the Masculine Gaze," in Marianne Doezema and Elizabeth Milroy, eds., Reading American Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 352. Art historians continue to analyze the complex relationship between O'Keeffe, Stieglitz, and his role in the gendered critical reaction to her work; see Anne Middleton Wagner, Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O'Keeffe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); and Kathleen Pyne, Modernism and the Feminine Voice: O'Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

19. Barbara Haskell, The American Century: Art and Culture, 1900-1950 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1999), pp. 284-85.

20. William C. Bendig, "A Reminiscence," in Beatrice Cuming, 1903-1974 (New London, Conn.: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 1990), p. 7.

21. Karl Lunde, Isabel Bishop (New York: Abrams, 1975), p. 28; and Bruce St. John, Isabel Bishop: The Affectionate Eye (Los Angeles: Loyola Marymount University, 1985), p. 73.

22. See Yvonne Pène du Bois: Paintings from the Last Four Decades (New York: Graham Gallery, 1985), p. 7.

23. See Patricia Hills, Marianna Pineda: Sculpture, 1949­1996 (Boston: Alabaster Press, 1996), pp. 2-5.

24. For twenty-first-century reappraisals of her work, see Judith E. Steiner and Jane Kallir in Jane Kallir et al., Grandma Moses in the 21st Century (Alexandria, Va.: Art Services International in association with Yale University Press, 2001); and Karal Ann Marling, The Homemade Art of Grandma Moses (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006).

25. Heller, Women Artists, p. 138.

26. Liz Rideal et al., Mirror, Mirror: Self-Portraits by Women Artists (New York: Watson-Guptill, 2002), p. 28. On women artists' exclusion from the Abstract Expressionist movement, see Ann Eden Gibson, Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

27. Gibson, Abstract Expressionism, p. 95.

28. Ibid., p. 140; and Joan M. Marter, Dorothy Dehner: Sixty Years of Her Art (Katonah: Katonah Museum of Art, 1993), pp. 9-11.

29. Griselda Pollock, "The Missing Future: MoMA and Modern Women," in Cornelia Butler and Alexandra Schwartz, eds., Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2010), p. 29.

30. Helen Frankenthaler with Julia Brown, "A Conversation," After Mountains and Sea: Frankenthaler, 1956­1959 (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1998), p. 47.


About the author

Nancy Noble is Guest Co-Curator for WomenArtists@NewBritainMuseum


Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published in Resource Library on January 13, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art, granted to TFAO on January 7, 2011.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Alexander J. Noelle of the New Britain Museum of American Art for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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