Art History: Where are all the women artists?

Sadie Chandler, The weight of images 2017 (detail). Courtesy the artist and Charles Nodrum Gallery, Melbourne. Photograph: Andrew Curtis

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Key Idea

Flicking through the tomes of Western art history you could be forgiven for thinking that there have not been any ‘great’ women artists. Artworks by male artists – from Titian, Michelangelo and Rubens to da Vinci, Caravaggio and Rembrandt – tend to dominate art history books. While there are plenty of women depicted in historical artworks, artworks by women are largely absent. The lack of documented contributions by women artists (and by extension, women art historian and critics) to the canon of art history raises the question… where are all the women?

“History is written by the victors.”

The provenance of the above utterance remains widely debated but is often attributed to Winston Churchill, a British army officer, writer and wartime UK Prime Minister.[1] It is generally assumed that the past is authored by those members of society that have the most power – the so called ‘winners’. Correspondingly, art history, can be thought of as a record of events that have been shaped by specific groups of people. Throughout art history men have held the balance of power and, in order to maintain their status and position, have presented a past that has moulded assumptions about how the art world works – that art is a male dominated field of culture.

“Those who have privileges invariably hold on to them, and hold tight, no matter how marginal the advantage involved, until compelled to bow to superior power of one sort or another.” – Linda Nochlin

In 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin outlined some of the social and economic factors preventing talented women from achieving the same status in the arts as their male counterparts in her important essay, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?.[2] Nochlin noted that while, of course, there have always been women artists, the oppression experienced by women assured their omission from the Western history of art.[3] In other words, the unequal relationships already embedded in society, are also reflected in Western art history.[4]

Thankfully, things are continuing to change. Feminist movements and waves have helped tip the balance – shifting the emphasis away from long standing positions of power – and have given voice to women, people of colour, trans and genderqueer people.

Australian women contemporary artists exhibit their work in many large scale exhibitions, both in Australia and overseas, but historically, this hasn’t always been the case.

The Venice Biennale or ‘La Biennale’, staged every two years and spread across the Italian city of Venice, was first held in 1895 and is widely is regarded as one of the most important art exhibitions in the world. La Biennale remains a highly anticipated exhibition event in which new artworks sit alongside more historical artworks, for consideration in contemporary social and political contexts.[5] Many countries have their own National Pavilion, a specially designed architectural space, in the Venice Giardini – a large area of parkland in the historic city.

Australia first participated in La Biennale in 1954 but it would take another 28 years until a woman, artist Rosalie Gascoigne, was selected to represent Australia (in 1982, alongside another artist, Peter Booth), and a further 11 years until a major solo exhibition by a woman artist was presented at the Australian Pavilion (Jenny Watson, 1993).[6] Significantly, the three most recent exhibitions at the Australian Pavilion in Venice have been by artists who are women; Simryn Gill (2013), Fiona Hall (2015) and Tracey Moffatt (2017).   

Key Definitions

Canon of Art History: The conventional timeline of artists who are sometimes considered as ‘Old Masters’ or ‘Great Artists’. Today’s art history attempts to question these rules of ‘greatness’, considering issues of gender, race, class and geography amongst others.[7]

Historical Touchpoints

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes 1614
Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party 1974-79 © Judy Chicago. Photograph: Donald Woodman


  • Drawing from your memory, make a list of all of the artists that you can think of. Are there many women on your list of artists? Think about your answer, and note down why you think this may be.
  • Research a woman artist from art history. Find out when they were making artwork, who/what they were influenced by and where there artworks may be now. Prepare a short presentation on your chosen artist – you can talk about their life and their artwork.
  • Counting gender representation is a fundamental tool of feminist research methodology today. Research the CoUNTess Report compiled by artist Elvis Richardson in 2014. How might galleries and museums work to ensure that there is equity in gender representation within their exhibitions or collections?


[1] ‘Is history always written by the victors?’, Stack Exchange History beta.

[2] ‘Feminist Art’, Tate.

[3] Extract from Linda Nochlin’s essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?:

[4] ‘“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”: A Case Study’, How To Talk About Art History.

[5] ‘Biennale Arte History’, La Biennale de Venezia.

[6] ‘Australian Representation at the Venice Biennale Since 1954’, Australia Council for the Arts.

[7] ‘The Canon of Art History’, The National Gallery.

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