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Women in art

In the past and today, the role of women in art has taken many forms. Originally, the history of art was a history of men. In other words, the female sex was either not actively involved in art at all or only in subordinate areas. Women were portrayed as muses and nude models in artists' studios, they served as maids and as a source of inspiration.

Works of art by female artists are much less noticed and bought than those by male artists. A walk through any museum of modern and contemporary art proves this. The fact that women make up half of humanity is not enough for only a few female artists to ever receive awards in museums. The inequality between the sexes is also glaring on the art market. In this sector, works by women are cheaper than those of the much more numerous male art stars. At the upper end of the price scale, women are completely absent.

First woman on the German art scene: Marie Ellenrieder

For many decades, there were women who, contrary to society's ideal, lived exclusively for their profession. One of them was Marie Ellenrieder (1791-1863): in 1813, at the age of 22, she was the first woman to gain a place at the German Academy of Fine Arts in Munich.

For a long time, women were excluded from professional artistic training. In Germany, women have only been allowed to study at state art academies since 1919, when their equality became legally binding with the Weimar Constitution.

The fact that a woman can have an original, genuine talent and be a creative person is often forgotten," wrote Gabriele Münter in her diary in 1926. From New York to Berlin to Basel: around two thirds of all galleries have more men than women. According to a study by the Tate Modern museum, only five per cent of professional dealers in London's art metropolis pay attention to gender balance.

Successful admission of women to art academies in the 18th century

You would also find women working in the arts in the Middle Ages, not to mention the great exceptional female artists of the 16th and 17th centuries in Italy and the Netherlands. In the 18th century, women artists campaigned more or less successfully for the admission of women to academies. The way was paved for the 19th century, the century of upheaval, emancipation and social revolution. The art of the 19th century was characterised by two major trends: On the one hand, there was an adherence, a return to the past; great masters and the style of entire epochs were copied, and the style of historicism also characterised cities such as Vienna. On the other hand, the roots of modernism can be found at the beginning of this century. Austrian women artists such as Tina Blau-Lang (1845-1916), Marie Egner (1850-1940) and Olga Wisinger-Florian (1844-1926) belong to this modernism and are good examples not only of the new art movement of Mood Impressionism, but also of the repositioning of women, who were honoured and whose art was exhibited and traded during their lifetime.

51% of the art scene are women

"Feminism" is the American word of the year 2017, with women around the world joining forces and demonstrating for their rights. The hashtag #MeToo even made it to person of the year 2017. Women's solidarity is currently a top priority. Does this also apply to the art market? According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, the largest art museum in the world that exclusively collects artworks by women, 51 per cent of all artists are currently women. But on the art market, where the big money is at stake, they are still a minority.

"We have a few women, but if you do the maths, it's only a third," says Anke Schmidt, who regularly attends the Art Basel and Art Cologne art fairs with her gallery in the south of Cologne. She represents internationally renowned artists: painters, sculptors, photographers. Most of them are male. A strategic decision? "No, I didn't pay any attention to it," she says when asked, "if you think about the issue, you realise that there's an imbalance, and I've noticed that in my gallery too." Statistics from galleries worldwide show that around 75-80% of artists are men, and it is estimated that only 5% of the major permanent collections around the world are by female artists.

At first, women were not allowed in art guilds and academies. Centuries of exclusion from such institutions had resulted in women being "deprived of the opportunity to create significant works of art" (Harris, 2001). Secondly, history painting was most prominent in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

The most famous woman of the Italian Renaissance: Lucrezia Borgia

Within the elite classes, women were given more opportunities to be more or less equal to men, even if only on an intellectual level. An excellent example of this is Lucrezia Borgia, perhaps the most famous woman of the Italian Renaissance thanks to the contemporary media. At a time of cultural awakening under humanist values, she enjoyed a privileged status as an elite. Even though the Renaissance is considered a time of universal rebirth, the situation of women in the Italian Renaissance did not change too profoundly compared to the Middle Ages.

Surprisingly, the universal rebirth mentioned above does not seem to have had much of an impact on the status of women, as their rights were still low by today's standards. However, some influential wives influenced politics, the economy and culture through their own intervention.

An interesting constant of the Italian Renaissance is that intellect became a weapon of women, who could use it to their advantage in various ways. The livelihood of women in the Italian Renaissance was largely dependent on their social status. As farmers, they cultivated the fields and ran the household together with their husbands. As the wives of middle-class merchants, they ran the business together with their husbands and took care of the household. When they reached a higher status, their lives centred exclusively on the household. They spent their time on domestic activities such as sewing, entertaining and cooking.

Despite their different status, all these women were dependent on a particular household, a theme that runs through the entire Renaissance when it comes to the role of women. In fact, things changed during the Renaissance, especially in Italy: women were able to distinguish themselves as patrons of the arts, writers, orators and generally as women of the mind. However, this only happened if a woman was offered the appropriate circumstances and opportunities. From this perspective, the role of women went beyond that of the household.

Other well-known artists:


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