Art historian Linda Nochlin's 1971 exploratory essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" weighed in on the ways in which institutions throughout history have prevented women from being artists as well as the nature of artistic genius itself. Nochlin's essay prompted historians to search for exceptional female artists throughout history who've offered significant contributions to their fields.
While there were many to choose from, here are six women from around the world who challenged the status quo through their groundbreaking work.
Georgia O'Keeffe, American Painter
The 20th-century world of art would not be the same without Georgia O'Keeffe, who became synonymous with the American Modernist Movement and helped tip the gender scales in the male-dominated genre.
Her large-scale flower paintings and New Mexico landscapes were some of her signature creations, which challenged conventional styles of painting and made her the most famous American female painter of her time.
In 1977 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and after her death, she was honored with her own museum, which opened in 1997 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Frida Kahlo, Mexican Painter
Like O'Keeffe, 20th-century art would be redefined by the trailblazing work of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.
Before Kahlo became a world-famous painter, she wanted to pursue a career in medicine. But that all changed when in 1925 she was involved in a catastrophic bus accident, which left her maimed and in debilitating pain for the rest of her life.
While convalescing in the hospital from her accident, Kahlo began to paint and thus, her new life's purpose was born. Most famous for her surrealist self-portraits, which often depicted symbolic physical and psychological scars — like that of The Two Fridas (1939) — Kahlo emerged as one of the greatest modern painters of all time.
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Tazuko Sakane, Japanese Filmmaker
Born into a wealthy family, Tazuko Sakane cultivated her love of film, thanks to her father, who often took her to the cinema. With his help, she met famed director Kenji Mizoguchi, who offered her a job as a script reviewer. Seeing her potential, Mizoguchi promoted her to editor and then assistant director.
Despite these promotions, Sakane still had to deal with severe sexual discrimination and ended up cutting her hair and dressing like her male colleagues to stave off harassment. She became Japan's first female director in 1936 with Hatsu Sugata, her first and only full-length feature. She also became a pioneering documentarian, traveling to the Chinese region of Manchuria to film the consequences of its war with Japan. Once the war ended, her country enforced a new policy that directors had to possess a university degree, which gave her no choice but to be demoted as a scriptwriter and/or editor. She continued working in these roles until she retired at the age of 46.
Luisa Roldán, Spanish Sculptor
Known as "La Roldana," Luisa Roldán is the first documented female sculptor in Spain. Taught by her father, who was a celebrated Baroque sculptor himself, Roldán also married a sculptor, but her work was considered superior to theirs.
Famous for her religious-themed colorful wooden statues, which were described as having "clearly delineated profiles, thick locks of hair, billowing draperies, and mystical faces with delicate eyes, knitting brows, rosy cheeks, and slightly parted lips," Roldán produced celebrated sculptures such as Virgen de la Soledad, Mary Magdalen, Jesus and Saint John the Baptist. She served on the royal courts of Charles II, Philip V and the Duke of Infantado.
Despite her high connections, however, Roldán died in poverty, which was quite common for artists of her era.
Virginia Oldoini, Italian Photographic Artist
Although she didn't take the photos herself, Italian aristocrat Virginia Oldoini (aka La Castiglione) had an important role in photography's origins. Besides being known as Napoleon III's mistress, Oldoini was also famous for being one of the first pioneers of the "selfie."
Directing photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, who ended up capturing 700 images of her, Oldoini documented her most dramatic moments — from dressing in fanciful costumes (like her "Queen of Hearts" gown) to exposing her bare limbs, which was a risqué gesture at the time.
It's important to note Oldoini was not a passive subject. She was ever-meticulous and specific in her direction to Pierson, choosing the content, angle and scale of each portrait. What resulted are some of the most fascinating and strange portraits ever documented in the genre's history.
Jessie Willcox Smith, American Illustrator
Although she could capture the mood and expressions of children in extraordinary fashion, illustrator Jessie Willcox Smith was never a wife or mother herself. Smith rose to fame during the Golden Age of American illustration and famously became part of the Red Rose Girls, a small group of distinguished female illustrators in Philadelphia.
Smith went on to work for premiere magazines like McClure's, Harper's Bazaar and Scribners and illustrated over 60 books in her career, including Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses and Charles Dickens' David Copperfield.
Between 1918 and 1932, she drew exclusively for Good Housekeeping, which included the celebrated Mother Goose series, and also worked on an advertising project for Ivory soap. Like her colleagues Norman Rockwell and J. C. Leyendecker, Smith became a media celebrity and was one of the highest-earning illustrators of her day.