In her recently released book, A Little History of Art, Charlotte Mullins presents an updated overview of art history that challenges the limitations of established narratives. Doing justice to a subject as vast as the history of art in a relatively slim volume demands careful framing – which stories does one pluck from 100,000 years of art history? How does one begin to address fundamental questions like ‘why does art matter?’
Among the books that have attempted such a task, seminal works like Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art have loomed large for decades. While overviews by the likes of Gombrich are still regarded as important and authoritative, they nonetheless emerge from an outmoded perspective. It’s 72 years since The Story of Art was first published and Mullins, quite reasonably, wants to broaden the picture. “Retrospectively, we can see these are myopic in their prioritisation of male Western art at the expense of non-Western art and work by women artists,” she recently said to The Art Newspaper.
In keeping with Mullins’ interest in presenting new perspectives in Western art, we’ve picked out 3 female artists who feature in A Little History of Art and who played important roles in art history, despite emerging in the midst of an overwhelmingly male cultural milieu.
1. Edmonia Lewis
Edmonia Lewis was an extraordinary figure, a sculptor of great talent and visionary power. She was also the orphaned child of a black father and a Native-American mother and grew up in a time and place – mid-19th-century America – when such mixed-race heritage was considered shameful by some.
As a result, Edmonia experienced considerable hardship in her early life. She was shunned by her white classmates at the all-girls’ school she attended in Ohio, and later she was raped by one of her teachers. Edmonia’s response to these brutal experiences was not to bow down or give up, but instead to find her own voice, and to use her art to express the pain and injustice she had witnessed.
Lewis is known for her arresting portraits and her powerful depictions of scenes from classical mythology and American history. Her work was strongly influenced by the Neoclassical style, but it also contains elements of Romanticism and Realism. These latter two styles can be seen in her celebrated sculpture The Death of Cleopatra, which depicts the Egyptian queen in a moment of tragic triumph as she prepares to take her own life.
Lewis’ art is marked by its technical virtuosity, its emotional intensity and its commitment to telling stories that resonate with contemporary viewers. In recent years, her work has been reappraised by a new generation of scholars and critics who have praised her for her singular vision and her brave exploration of controversial subjects.
2. Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt was one of the most important American painters of the 19th century. A member of the French Impressionist movement, she was also an outspoken advocate for women’s rights. Her frank and intimate paintings challenged traditional notions of feminine propriety and helped pave the way for future generations of female artists.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1844, Cassatt was raised in a wealthy and progressive family who encouraged her talent for art. She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before moving to Europe, where she enrolled at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. However, she quickly became disillusioned with the male-dominated art world and instead started to frequent the studios of other female artists. It was through these connections that she met Edgar Degas, who invited her to exhibit with the Impressionists.
During this period, Cassatt began to experiment with Impressionist techniques, using loose brushstrokes and light-filled colours to capture fleeting moments of modern life. Throughout her career, Cassatt remained committed to depicting the realities of women’s lives, from quiet domestic scenes to bold images of mothers and children.
Her work presented female figures in a multitude of roles – as mothers and caretakers, as independent and confident workers, as sources of beauty and sensual desire. She celebrated the strength and resilience of women at a time when their voices were often ignored or suppressed.
3. Lee Krasner
Lee Krasner was a talented and visionary painter who rose to prominence in the 1950s as an Abstract Expressionist, becoming known for her vibrant works that drew on both expressive spontaneity and technical innovation. Yet despite her many achievements in the art world, Krasner was often overshadowed by her husband, Jackson Pollock.
Krasner met Pollock in the spring of 1941 at an exhibition of Surrealist paintings in New York. Within months they were living and working together in the Long Island farmhouse that Krasner had inherited from her father. Pollock turned one of the barns into his studio; Krasner worked first in a small room off the kitchen, and later in a larger studio at the back of the house.
It was a happy and productive partnership: “We made love,” Krasner later recalled, “and then we made paintings.” From the start, she played an important role in shaping Pollock’s public image, acting as his dealer, PR agent and chief interpreter. In many ways, she was responsible for turning him into the most famous artist in America.
Pollock is often hailed as the most iconic figure of the Abstract Expressionist movement, but Lee Krasner’s contributions to that same group should not be overlooked. Her passionate advocacy for modernism and bold painting style were instrumental in establishing abstract art as a vital form of expression. Through her tireless efforts and impressive body of work, Lee Krasner remains an important figure in the history of American art. She certainly deserves to be remembered as more than just “Jackson Pollock’s wife.”
Our April Book of the Month
A Little History of Art by Charlotte Mullins is History Hit’s Book of the Month in April 2022. Published by Yale University Press, it explores several millennia of art history, from prehistoric cave paintings to the modern art of the 21st century.
Mullins is a broadcaster, writer and art critic for Country Life. Her books include Painting People, Picturing People and A Little Feminist History of Art, co-written with Rachel Whiteread.