Pioneering Female Painters

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.” – Georgia O’KeeffeDark grey horizontal line

To honor female artists during Women’s History Month, I want to highlight two  artists, born centuries apart. Both were femmes de force in the art world and each made huge contributions to their field. Different in their generation and artistic style, both were pioneers. Both studied living plants, yet one depicted them with extraordinary accuracy and the other sought to capture the plant’s essence, not its exact appearance. One raised ten children while the other chose to remain childless for the sake of her art. In a historically male dominated industry these two ladies achieved remarkable success and left future generations with a treasure trove of artwork to consider.

Rachel Ruysch, Still Life with Flowers and Cricket, painted in the year 1700

Born in 1664 to a wealthy and learned family in The Hague in the Netherlands, Rachel Ruysch became one of the most successful flower painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Her career spanned over six decades, and during her lifetime she achieved international recognition for her work.  In a time when women were expected to pursue the art forms traditionally held by women, including sewing and spinning, Ruysch was a painter. She was the first female offered membership to the Confrerie Pictura, and from 1708 to 1716 was the court painter to the Elector Palatine of Bavaria. Although today her name is not as recognizable as Rembrandt’s, during her lifetime she experienced more commercial success than Rembrandt.

In 1693 she married portrait painter Juriaen Pool, with whom she had 10 children. How she found the time to paint 250 works with an extraordinary amount of detail and scientifically exact flora and fauna (thanks to a botanist father) is hard to fathom. Known as “the Amsterdam Pallas,” and “Holland’s Art Prodigy,” Ruysch did more than any other to elevate the credibility of what was, in her time, considered "lesser" genres such as landscape and still lifes. Today art historians laud her as one of the most important still life painters - male or female - in the history of the genre.

Fast forward over two centuries, and Georgia O’Keeffe is on the scene. Born in 1887, O’Keeffe grew up on a farm near Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Art Students League in New York. O’Keeffe pushed the bounds of her traditional art education as she studied the revolutionary ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow taught that rather than copying nature, or taking a realistic approach to painting subjects, the artist can impart an abstracted view of what they are seeing and use art as more self-expression than capturing exact details of their subject (as Rachel Ruysch did so remarkably well). O’Keeffe experimented with abstraction, and through a series of abstract charcoal drawings, she developed a signature style.

By the mid-1920’s, O’Keeffe had achieved notoriety for her paintings of New York skyscrapers as well as her stylized flower paintings. In 1929, O’Keeffe traveled to northern New Mexico. The land and Native American culture had a profound impact on O’Keeffe. She famously remarked about the austere and beautiful desert landscape, “No one told me it was like this!" O’Keeffe would spend most summers painting in her studio in northern New Mexico and would make it her permanent home in 1949.

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932 by Georgia O'Keeffe. The artwork sold for $44.4 million at a Sotheby's auction, makes Georgia O'Keeffe the highest-selling woman in art.

O’Keeffe’s work, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932, sold for $44.4 million at Sotheby’s in 2014, making it the highest auction sale for work by a woman artist. O’Keeffe’s work frequently lands in the top sales price fetched for a woman artist. Although she began losing her sight and would paint her last unassisted painting in 1972, she said, “I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” She died in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the age of 98. If you are ever in Santa Fe you must visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and tour her home and studio an hour north of Santa Fe in Abiquiú, NM. 

Regardless of background, style, or motivation, women, by model, muse, or maker, have always been as integral to making art as men have. A woman’s perspective in the artworld, like in so many other “culture worlds,” has traditionally been overlooked. Recognizing the contribution of so many equally, if not more capable, women artists should inspire us to investigate the female perspective as much as the male’s. Perhaps even more so. 

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(Cover image. Georgia O'Keeffe. Red Poppy. 1928. Fig 1. Rachel Ruysch. Still Life with Flowers and a Cricket. 1700. Fig 2. Georgia O'Keeffe. Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1. 1932.

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