Did you know that the German nature painter Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717), who was an insect fanatic, laid the foundations of modern zoology with fantastic illustrations of more than 200 insect species? Have you heard of the English paper collagist Mary Delany (1700–1788), postwar Japanese photographer Ishiuchi Miyako (b. 1947), and Venezuelan Minimalist Gego (Gertrud Goldschmidt, 1912–1994)?
After reading Katy Hessel’s The Story of Art Without Men (W. W. Norton & Company, 2023, US edition), several educators may aspire to redesign their art history surveys and syllabi — and perhaps trade some Picassos or Pollocks for Merians and Gegos.
The book is a well-researched, readable, and accessible study that presents hard truths. I flinched when I read that the highly sought-after Swiss Neoclassical painter Angelica Kauffman was denied access to training and opportunities in 18th-century London. Moreover, rather than being painted as a figure, her presence was reduced to a mere painted sculptural bust, displayed in a corner, in the official portrait of painters of the Royal Academy of Arts.
Bearing in mind that male artists in the West have been painting nude women since antiquity and sculpting them since prehistory, Hessel provides other damning facts. For instance, it took the Academy a century to admit another female painter after Kauffmann. And another 30 years passed before women were granted the right to paint nude figures from live models. This reflects a few of the biases against women artists based on sex by then-prominent art institutions.
In her introduction, Hessel notes, among her motivations to pursue this line of research, the limited number of women artists in both leading art historical literature and contemporary exhibitions. The book introduces the practices of many lesser-known yet prolific artists active between 1500 and 2020 with whom readers may be unfamiliar, including Indian sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee (1924–2015), American artist Judith Scott (1943–2005), and the African-American, community-based Gee’s Bend Quilters. The global roster of artists ranges in geography from Brazil to Japan and beyond, and in genre from painting and sculpture to performance to traditional craft mediums such as textiles, fiber, and ceramics.
Hessel also touches on issues of representation explored by contemporary artists via painted portraits and photography. For instance, multiple complex notions of identity that encompass race and sexuality are channeled in the works of South African nonbinary artist Zanele Muholi (b. 1972). Addressing the current discussions around these themes Hessel writes, “Overlooked artists are not a trend. Women artists are not a trend. Queer artists are not a trend. Artists of coulor are not a trend.” Thus, readers are encouraged to be wary of social media-fueled fads that oversimplify artworks by these artists, reducing their importance in art historical literature.
The Story of Art Without Men is a measured, even study, albeit one that occasionally presents the artist as “heroic,” while lacking in in-depth analysis (this could offer an opportunity for future research). It may be best to consider the volume as an introductory survey of several women artists who have not yet been appreciably researched or entered the art canon.
We can revise the ways in which art history is recorded, but does this forge a path for ubiquitous representation? Global institutions continue to exhibit and collect far fewer works by female artists than by their male counterparts. The art market puts less monetary value on works created by women. However, revised literature that becomes the core of updated educational programs or social media debates is not enough. A cultural, social, and economic shift in the way we value art by women must be our goal. Katy Hessel has aimed to achieve this by updating readers’ impressions of women artists, positively. Perhaps, the next book will hint at this one’s success by simply being a story of art.