Female artists have historically been overlooked and ignored. However, the art world is making significant change, by shining the spotlight on women artists in group and solo shows. This year, major museums around the U.K. have celebrated Dora Maar, the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, Kara Walker, Bridget Riley and Paula Rego. Publishers are also dedicating more books to women artists, re-writing the canon of art history. Here are 16 of the best books about famous female artists and their work. I’ve also included books on women artists who really should be famous, and are only just rising through the art world ranks now!
Time to get reading…
This is one of the most extensive, fully illustrated books about famous female artists and their work. It features more than 400 artists from more than 50 countries and spans 500 years of creativity. Each artist is represented here by a key artwork and short text. It includes historic women who were hugely successful artists in their own lifetimes, but who were then excluded from written accounts in the centuries that followed, such as Angelica Kauffman, Judith Leyster and Artemisia Gentileschi.
‘Forgotten Women’ is a new series of books that uncover the lost herstories of influential women. ‘The Artists’ brings together the stories of 48 brilliant woman artists who made huge yet unacknowledged contributions to the history of art, including Camille Claudel, the extraordinarily talented sculptor who was always unfairly overshadowed by her lover, Rodin; Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who has been claimed as the true originator of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain; and Ana Mendieta, the Cuban refugee who approached violence against women through her performance art before her own untimely death.
Artemisia Gentileschi, widely regarded as the most important woman artist before the modern period, was a major Italian Baroque painter of the seventeenth century and the only female follower of Caravaggio. This first full-length study of her life and work shows that her powerfully original treatments of mythic-heroic female subjects depart radically from traditional interpretations of the same themes.
Think of the images created by the Pre-Raphaelite painters and it is pale-faced young women with lustrous, tumbling locks that spring to mind. Who were these women? What is known of their lives and their roles in a movement that, in successive phases, spanned over half a century? Some were models, others artists themselves, with aspirations to match those of the men. Some were skilled in the arts of interior decoration, dressmaking, embroidery, jewellery-making and crafts. All were engaged in creating Pre-Raphaelite art.
Published here in its entirety for the first time, Frida Kahlo’s amazing illustrated journal documents the last 10 years of her turbulent life. Tormented by physical and mental pain, Frida Kahlo poured her anguish into an extraordinary set of illustrated diaries. These passionate, often surprising, intimate records, were kept under lock and key for some 40 years in Mexico. The 170-page journal contains the poems, automatic writing, dreams and thoughts on the stormy relationship with her husband, artist Diego Rivera. It includes 70 beautiful watercolour illustrations. It is an intimate portal into the life of the art world’s feminist icon, Frida Kahlo.
I absolutely love this book. It presents 50 international women artists working in the field of collage today. It shows the wide variety of perspectives that are shaping the panorama of collage today, bringing to light a parallel effervescence of female artistic initiatives around the world. From emerging names to more well-known and established ones, the artists featured here are pushing back the boundaries of art.
This book re-writes the traditional narratives of art history. It accompanied an exhibition at the University of Leeds but also stands alone as an excellent introduction to 50 artworks by known and lesser-known women. They are all outstanding works that speak out, from portraits and self-portraits, landscapes and cityscapes to industrial scenes and images of war. Fifty commentaries by fifty different writers bring out each artwork’s unique story – sometimes from an objective art historical perspective and sometimes from an entirely personal point of view – thereby creating a rich and colourful diorama.
This is my go-to book on the female Surrealist artists. ‘Angels of Anarchy’ reconsiders the art-historical tradition of women Surrealists, often overshadowed by their male counterparts. It draws on an international range of artists, including Frida Kahlo, Lee Miller, Dora Maar, Meret Oppenheim, Leonora Carrington, Francesca Woodman and Emmy Bridgwater, to investigate how their practices responded to, developed, enriched, and even subverted the conventions and traditions of art history. It’s a beautiful book. There are 100 colour images by 30 artists. These are accompanied by essays that illuminate fascinating aspects of the female Surrealist artists’ approach.
This is an excellent – and beautifully illustrated – survey of American and European women artists from the Renaissance to the present. It acts as an encyclopedia of women artists you need to know. Nancy Heller also writes about the obstacles creative women have faced, and continue to face. It can be used as a text book and as an impressive coffee table tome.
Although this is not a book specifically about women artists, I had to include it. Alongside the male Impressionists – Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Renoir, Degas – Sue Rowe writes about the women painters, Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. It’s a hugely enjoyable read, in which you are taken back to the incredible period in art history, in Paris, when Impressionism was launched. You learn about the painters, their lives, loves, affairs, money problems. And women artists were at the very heart of this group.
Natalia Goncharova is one of the most important women artists of the 20th century. A contemporary of Picasso, Matisse and Kandinsky, Goncharova pioneered modern art in Russia. This book traces the development of her art from its Impressionist origins, through a provocative phase of ‘primitive’ style paintings on peasant themes to highly innovative abstract works that rivalled the most daring experiments of the Cubists and Futurists. As a woman artist she was galvanized by gender issues and addressed these directly in her work. In both her paintings and her behaviour she questioned conventions and scandalised Russian society. She was arrested on the grounds of the ‘pornographic’ content of her paintings. She was accused of heresy against the Orthodox Church because of her religious work. Her art is now in the collections of museums and galleries across the world and is so highly sought that she has achieved the highest sale price ever recorded at auction for a woman artist. A brilliantly researched book, Anthony Parton manages to tells her story in an engaging and absorbing manner. It’s art history at its best. This beautifully illustrated book will also look good on any coffee table.
Lee Miller was a fashion model, a photo-journalist and an artist who captured extraordinary moments of modern life. As model and muse, Miller is too often only considered through the lens of the men she knew and loved. Yet she was an artist who forged her own path and who built a career which overturned expected social stereotypes. A contemporary of the British Surrealists, Miller’s contribution to the group is explored in this introduction to her work, as is her involvement in the development of the photographic technique of solorisation, previously solely attributed to Man Ray. Capturing some of the most enduring images of the early twentieth century, Miller’s work offers a record for our times.
This excellent book comes from Eiderdown Books – a new publisher releasing books about female artists written by female authors.
This is another brilliant book from Eiderdown’s women artists series. You will have heard of Mondrian. But have you heard of Marlow Moss? Her importance to the history of modern art is arguably equal to her contemporary and friend Piet Mondrian, and yet her name has been relegated to obscurity. A pupil of Ferdinand Léger in Paris and one of the few women within the circle of influential artists in Paris in the late 1920s, Moss’s grid-like paintings, geometric sculptures and abstract reliefs sought to create a universal language of colour and form. Today Moss’s work is beginning to be re-examined as a new generation of artists and art historians consider her contribution to modern art.
How do women paint or photograph each other? How do they represent each other in performance or sculpture? As mothers or heroines? With tenderness, aggression or respect? Madam & Eve explores the female gaze as it focuses on other women. The authors – an artist and a curator -investigate the work of over 200 figures, ranging from famous women artists to the lesser known. It’s an amazing parade of artworks and an eloquent examination of the impact that the feminist movement has had on contemporary art.
Historically, major women artists have been excluded from the mainstream art canon. Aligned with the resurgence of feminism in pop culture, Broad Strokes offers an entertaining corrective to that omission. Art historian Bridget Quinn delves into the lives and careers of 15 brilliant female artists in text that’s smart, feisty, educational, and an enjoyable read. Replete with beautiful reproductions of the artists’ works and contemporary portraits of each artist by renowned illustrator Lisa Congdon, this is art history from 1600 to the present day for the modern art lover, reader, and feminist.
Paula Rego is my favourite female artist, known for painting dark and magic worlds in which women’s experience is forefronted. ‘Behind the Scenes’ shows you just how she creates her unsettling stories, through puppets, costumes and tableaux, in her London studio. This book features many unseen and personal photographs of the artist at work and sheds new light on some of her best-known pieces. I bought this volume as an art student and it’s still my best-loved art book.
P.S. Can you recommend any other books about famous female artists and their work? Please let me know!