Portrait of Kara Walker by Lisa Congdon

‘Broad Strokes’ Beautifully Illuminates Often Overlooked Women Artists

Art historian Bridget Quinn is an engaging writer with a knack for choosing the telling anecdote. The result is a fun book full of beautiful art.

Americans love to believe that life is a meritocracy because it simplifies things: If you’re a winner in the game of life, it’s because you deserve to be, and the same holds if you’re a loser. This applies not only to individuals, but also to creative works: The canon consists of the best works, and if something isn’t in the canon, it’s because it is not among the best.

So, if you walk through an art museum and don’t see a single work created by a woman, that must be due to the fact that no female-created art is worthy of inclusion. Of course, this line of reasoning quickly falls apart once you start to consider the conditions under which art is created, exhibited, and evaluated, but those facts haven’t kept this attitude from becoming common.

The Guerrilla Girls began challenging the art world’s lack of inclusiveness in the ’80s with provocative posters and protests (members wore gorilla masks), highlighting the whiteness and maleness of the establishment art world. Their protests were serious but also fun. Bridget Quinn, an art history scholar, offers something in a similar spirit in book form with Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (In That Order).

Quinn begins with the Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, whose father, Orazio Gentileschi, was also a painter. That’s a background she shared with most women painters before the 20th century because while boys could learn their craft through apprenticeship or enrollment in an art school, a girl who hoped to develop her artistic talent needed to be literally born to the trade. If a girl’s father was an artist and was willing to teach her and nurture her talents (rather than, say, demanding that she be doing the housework or marrying her off at a young age) she had a chance to acquire the kind of skills required to be a professional artist.

Gentileschi may have won the female artist lottery by being born to a painter father, but she was the loser in a different scenario all too common among women. At age 17, she was raped by a colleague of her father, Agostino Tassi, after which she was married off to a minor Florentine painter named Pierantonio Stiattesi. She continued to paint, however, and in 1616 became the first woman elected to membership in the Accademia del Disegno. Her best-known work, Judith Slaying Holofernes, is a violent, bloody interpretation of the Biblical event, which some scholars trace back to her experience as a rape victim.

Judith Slaying Holofernes (1620)

Gentileschi didn’t discuss her artistic choices, so we’ll never know, but it is worth noting that in her rendering of this scene, Judith and her servant Abra both have their clothes on, while Holofernes is naked, the opposite of what one often sees in paintings by her male contemporaries. (As one Guerilla Girls poster pointed out, most nudes in the Metropolitan Museum of Art portray females, the chief exception being depictions of the Baby Jesus).

The life and work of Kara Walker, a contemporary African-American artist, are about as different from those of Gentileschi as they could be. Walker studied at the Atlanta College of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design and is currently a professor at Rutgers University. She works in a variety of media, but is best known for her silhouettes, which use an art form popular in the 18th and 19th centuries to comment on America’s racial history, gender violence, and other weighty topics. Her silhouettes perform a kind of sneak attack on the viewer, as their style suggests the Victorian sentimentality associated with the art form, and it takes a moment to notice that they portray scenes of rape, lynching, and other violence.

Kara Walker, “Untitled” (Scene #18 from Emancipation Approximation portfolio), 1999–2000

The other 13 artists included span several centuries and work in a variety of styles and media. Judith Leyster painted during the 17th century Dutch Golden Age, and you can judge the quality of her work by the fact that all her paintings were once attributed to men, either to her husband, Jan Miense Molenaer, or to the well-known artist Frans Hals.

Self-Portrait by Judith Leyster, c. 1630.

Adelaide Labille-Guiard was a portraitist and miniaturist working in 18th century France, who became a court painter to Louis VI before the French Revolution, and after it painted portraits of members of the National Assembly, including Maximilien Robespierre. Marie Denise Villers also worked as a portrait painter in France; her most famous work, Portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes was long attributed to Jacques-Louis David. The other artists included are Rosa Bonheur, Edmonia Lewis, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Vanessa Bell, Alice Neel, Lee Krasner, Louise Bourgeois, Ruth Asawa, Ana Mendieta, and Susan O’Malley.

Marie Denise Villers’ Portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes (1801)

Quinn follows a similar pattern for each artist covered, mixing biographical details with analysis of their work, and including her own connections with the artist’s works when relevant. Each artist is represented by at least one large and several smaller color reproductions of her work, and each chapter includes a portrait of the artist, by contemporary artist Lisa Congdon.

Broad Strokes is written for a general audience (Quinn’s commentary style reminds me a bit of Sister Wendy), although scholars of art history and feminism might learn a few things from it as well. Quinn is an engaging writer with a knack for choosing the telling anecdote, and the result is a fun book, full of beautiful illustrations, that will appeal even to people who haven’t thought much about art before, but should.

RATING 7 / 10