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- Jasmijn Groot -

During my time in university, I took it upon myself to enter a couple of art history courses, in order to strengthen my knowledge of the meaning behind different kinds of depictions of women in ancient Greek art. I quickly realised that, although women were regularly the subject of art, not a single female artist was ever mentioned. British art historian Katy Hessel noticed the same when she was attending an art fair in 2015. Out of the thousands of art works before her, not a single one had been made by a woman. Hessel was by no means the first one who took to heart the lack of representation of female artists. Linda Nochlin had already published the groundbreaking essay Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? in 1971, in which she had launched a debate about the lack of recognition for female artists. But obvious to Hessel, nothing much had changed since then. She decided to launch her instagram account @thegreatwomanartists, followed by a podcast of the same name in 2019, and last September, her book The Story of Art Without Men was published.

Exclusive Female Canon 

The title makes no secret of the intent to exclude men completely, and Hessel certainly sticks to her word in this new guide on art history: she does not include a single male artist in her narrative. Before reading, I personally had my reservations about this choice. Surely we want women to be incorporated in the same history books as men? To have them stand side by side instead of being treated as two separate entities? What is the value of a book then, if there is to be no cross comparison between male and female artists? But rather quickly, it became clear why Hessel has chosen for an exclusive female canon.

If she had put the women alongside the men, there would have still been the possibility of them coming across as second rate artists next to the male artists most of us know and love already. By finally giving these women artists their centre stage, us readers get to appreciate them fully for who they were – and still are. This is achieved not in the least by Hessel’s passionately worded biographies, as well as her eloquent attributions of the talents and qualities of each and every female artist in this book. She will make it impossible for you to put it down without feeling affection for Artemisa Gentileschi (1593-1653/6), Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) or Alice Neel (1990-1984), to name but a few.

The Experience of the Woman Artist 

Sure, the rules that men invented to keep women out of the arts, need to be mentioned on several occasions. Only to highlight how much women obliterated them and managed to become professional artists anyway. So, this history of art that Hessel has penned down, is not just about the women artists that you should know about. It is even more about their experiences as women artists. It is about how painters like Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) were not allowed to attend life classes. Or how a French court painter like Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) felt an increased misogynist atmosphere after the French Revolution. And also, it is about certain streams of art, like Bauhaus and the Surrealist movement, claiming to be progressive, while still perceiving women as lesser artists than men, effectively obstructing opportunities for them.

By posing critical questions, Hessel puts foward, not just the women we should not have forgotten about, but also the media that they worked with, the schools of art that they were associated with, and the subject matter that they portrayed. These matters make it clear that there are many pieces of art that have not been considered as such, simply due to their association with the feminine. She hails quilting and pottery for example (long considered just to be a ‘craft’ and not an art form) of which Harriet Powers (1837-1910) and Nampeyo (1859-1942) respectively were masters. She gives attention to Spiritualism, a school of art that is gaining more and more respect, in part due to the renewed interest in one its most prominent artists, Hilda af Klint (1862-1944). And she discusses in detail several beautiful pieces, in which the artists purposely explored their identity as women. Some of the most touching examples are Nameless and Friendless (1857) by Emily Mary Osborn (1828-1925), At the Mirror (1930) by Lotte Laserstein (1898-1993) and Birthday (1942) by Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012).

A New Janson’s 

In The Story of Art Without Men, Katy Hessel gives an incredibly nuanced account of woman artists who were inspired by the world around them and the times they lived in, how they were held back by society, how they found their signature styles anyway, and how they even managed to inspire other (male) artists – without getting credit for it most of the time. Back when I enrolled in those art history courses, all those years ago, all students were required to buy Janson’s History of Art, a staple for any art history student anywhere in the Western world. I wish we would have had The Story of Art Without Men as addition to Janson. As Hessel states in the introduction, her book is by no means a definitive account of women’s art history. But surely, in its own right, Hessel has at the very least created the first edition of Janson’s equivalent for this subject.


Image: Tom Etherington (2022) Book cover The Story of Art Without Men by Katy Hessel.


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