Edmonia Lewis, “Hiawatha” (1868), marble, 13 3/4 × 7 3/4 × 5 1/2 inches (public domain image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Women artists have long been systematically excluded, ignored, or erased in the history of art.  Unfair?  Yes.  Biased?  Yes.  Historically inaccurate?  Indisputably.

The Short Story of Women Artists: A Pocket Guide to Movements, Works, Breakthroughs & Themes by art historian Susie Hodge is a concise, pithy, accessible book that introduces readers to history’s oft-overlooked women artists. Specifically, the text pursues three themes: 1) the breakthroughs that women made — both historically and more contemporarily — in pushing for parity with male artists; 2) significant contributions made to otherwise male dominated artistic movements; 3) the forgotten and obscured artists who are now being rediscovered and reassessed.

Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, “Self-Portrait with Two Pupils, Marie Gabrielle Capet and Marie Marguerite Carreaux de Rosemond” (1785), oil on canvas, 83 x 59 1/2 inches (public domain image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Hodge begins her history with women artists of the Renaissance — highlighting works by artists like Catharina de’ Vigri and Lavinia Fontana — and systematically works her way through six hundred years of various art movements offering both tidbits and contexts for readers.  For example, Lavinia Fontana was the most sought-after and highly paid painter in Renaissance Bologna; her 17th-century biographer Carlo Cesare Malvasia wrote that “all the ladies in the city would compete in wishing to have her close to them…the greatest thing they desired would be to have her paint their portraits.”

This is, as the title suggests, a “short history” of women artists — as such, it is inevitably incomplete.  The historical examples tend to skew toward cis-white European women as Hodge successfully situates these artists in their male-dominated historical contexts.  However, readers find examples of non-white artists through profiles of painter Amrita Sher-Gil (highlighting the 1935 painting “Three Girls”); sculptor and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett (featuring her work “Sharecropper”); and the sculptor Edmonia Lewis (with an in-depth, contextualized treatment of her sculpture “Hiawatha.”)  Additionally, works by contemporary artists like Lin Jingjing, Yayoi Kusama, Mona Hatoum, and Julie Mehretu highlight urgent topics like “environment,” “race,” and “empathy.”

The book’s simple, elegant layout belies its organizational complexity.  Every page is cross tabulated by historical movement, references other relevant work, and specifies non-traditional topics that each work touches on (“Rejecting ‘Woman as Object”; “Breadwinner”; “A Female Viewpoint”) and other works that share that theme.  There is a plethora of ways the book can be read, all of them enlightening.

Mary Cassatt, “Mother and Child” (c. 1905), oil on canvas (image courtesy the Chester Dale Collection)

The Short Story of Women Artists: A Pocket Guide to Movements, Works, Breakthroughs & Themes by Susie Hodge (Laurence King, 2020) is available on Bookshop starting September 21. 

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