Project Introduction

by Deanne Beausoleil

In the spring of 2007, artist Jane Lieber Mays asked me to join her as a collaborator in the creation of Our Foremothers, the project we established to document and present history’s little-known women artists. To realize our vision, Jane has painted a series of striking portraits of the female artists not included in her formal art education. When the project is complete, visitors will be able to enter a large room filled with these pioneering women—who will be looking directly back at viewers, challenging them to acknowledge the truth of their obscured existence.

The aim of Our Foremothers is twofold: to make the public aware of these artists; and to remember these talented and formidable women and learn from them. What can they teach us about balancing inspiration, career aspirations, life, and family?

For myself, the artists of Our Foremothers provide great inspiration. As did many of them, I am trying to balance life, career, family, and running a household. Unlike them—due to the work of countless feminists that have come before me—I have choices about what I want to pursue in my life and broad access to education. Still, it does not come easy. Today, as in the past, the complications of work and family lead to circumstances that are often overwhelming.

That is where Our Foremothers come in; their circumstances were far more challenging than mine. Many of them were pursuing goals for which no female precedents existed. Below is a short summary of the odds that the women of Our Foremothers were up against. Conversely, I have also detailed elements in their lives that served as advantages to help them overcome the many obstacles to their success.

Be a Good Girl: Education and Training

The women featured in the first phase of Our Foremothers lived in Western Europe from the 12th through the 18th centuries. The first hurdle these artists had to overcome was the state of education for women in Europe during this time. Young women from families of high social standing were often trained in the fine arts. However, rather than focusing on training to ultimately make an impact on the art world, young ladies were limited to drawing and pastels, or the production of miniatures—mediums that are not too messy or require much vigor. The preferred subject matter was composed of flowers, other still lifes, and portraits. These subjects offered women opportunities to display their skill at representation, but do not directly require, or convey, a sense of worldly knowledge or experience. An arts education for a young woman focused on giving her a skill or hobby that would make her an appealing “trophy wife” or an engaging hostess. The majority of the artists in this catalogue originally received this traditional education.

The situation of female artists differed greatly from that of their male counterparts. The traditional fine arts education for young men consisted of an apprenticeship in a workshop or lessons at an academy. This curriculum would include the study of anatomy through life drawing, the application of math and science to create accurate perspective and spatial relationships in a work, and the use of a variety of mediums including oil painting and sculpture. For many young men, the goal of studying art was to eventually become a master and start one’s own workshop or atelier.

Women were usually prohibited from receiving the most rigorous fine arts education, and the workshop tradition of training through apprenticeship also did not facilitate opportunities for women who were largely excluded due to the circumstances of this type of education. An apprenticeship involved studying under a master craftsman for several years. Training often began around the age of 13 or 14; the student would live and work in the master’s shop learning their trade until the student became a master, started a shop, and took on apprentices. It was not appropriate for a young woman to live in the house of a man who was not her father and several decades her senior. Thus, the intense professional training that the European guild system provided remained off-limits to women.

Size Does Matter: History Painting, The Salon, and Recognition

Some of the women of Our Foremothers aspired to be history painters; a few actually succeeded. History painting comprises the production of images that illustrate Biblical, mythological, or historical subject matter, and it was produced and displayed in many venues, from the workshops of Northern Europe to churches in Spain and Italy that commissioned ecclesiastical décor. The epic size of canvases of this genre makes the paintings awe-inspiring and larger than life. In addition to being monumental in stature, these works generally include many figures, as well as additional elements associated with other genres of painting such as portraiture, still life, and landscapes. Because history painting combines all of these processes, artists who produced history paintings were considered the most skilled and, consequently, the top tier of painters in the hierarchy of the art world.

For most women artists, the practice of history painting was unattainable simply because the education necessary to become proficient was inaccessible. The study of the human form requires time in the studio drawing the male nude. This was considered socially inappropriate for women until the late 20th century. Additionally, to paint a complex historical scene required that the artist have an understanding of a broad range of emotions and actions. For a female artist to reproduce such intensity accurately would imply that she had worldly experience unbecoming of a genteel lady.1 These constraints—being banned from life-drawing classes and having to maintain the appearance of innocence throughout their lives—kept women from the renown of history painting, and the opportunity to be considered a force in the art world.

History painting reigned supreme in the academies of England and France, and was considered the epitome of skill at France’s annual Salon. The Salon, in Paris, was a juried show sponsored by the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Artists who had works accepted by the Salon were practically guaranteed promising careers and those whose works won awards there attained a kind of “rock-star” status. Their works were the most sought-after and they are the artists we remember today, such as Jacques Louis David and Theodore Gericault.

To be eligible to show works at the Salon artists first had to be accepted by the members of the Royal Academy. The circumstances of acceptance differed greatly for men and women. A man would meet with the academicians and receive an assignment for a painting that he would ultimately submit for their acceptance. In order to achieve this goal he would first attend the academy’s classes and receive a comprehensive education, including life drawing, which would lead to the production of the presentation piece.

In contrast, women were told to bring examples of their artwork to the meeting of academicians who would choose a work as the artist’s presentation piece. Women were often granted membership at this first meeting but this process—although it allowed them to show in the annual Salons—did not include the training offered to men, and women could not sit on the board of the academy. Throughout its history the Salon would periodically offer this type of membership to women artists.2 But in 1783, upon the academy’s acceptance of Elisabeth Vigée–Lebrun and Adélaïde Labille–Guiard, two artists who through determination and cunning had obtained the training to produce history paintings, the number of women members was thereafter limited to four.

Such lack of access and training prevented women from producing works in the history painting format—and kept them out of art history survey texts until recently, as a few have now become “rock stars” in their own right.

More Exceptions

The admittance of Elisabeth Vigée–Lebrun and Adélaïde Labille–Guiard into the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was allowed in part because they were seen as “exceptional”; this is often how female artists who were accomplished, wealthy, or influential were described by the contemporary literature.3

In addition to their talent there certainly existed favorable circumstances among many of the women of Our Foremothers due to special opportunity. All the obstacles to success outlined above could be maneuvered around if an artist had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. Some of these artists were born into artistic or intellectual families which gave young women the opportunity to engage in a thorough education. For example, if a girl’s father was an artist, she could begin training in his workshop at the prescribed age. In the 17th century, Artemisia Gentileschi—who went on to produce numerous paintings and develop her own distinctive style—is one such example of a successful artist who trained with her father. Other artists in our survey came from families where the education of girls was just as important as that of boys. Sofonisba Anguissola, Elisabetta Sirani, and Mary Beale are among the female artists who grew up in households where they were so loved and respected by their parents that gender did not play a role in limiting their education.

Location was another factor that proved advantageous for many of the artists of Our Foremothers. Some regions and cities simply made it easier for women to pursue careers as artists. In the Netherlands the ability to run a profitable business or workshop was highly prized, whether the proprietor wore pants or a skirt. Women who were able to obtain training often went on to have successful and influential careers: Judith Leyster, Rachel Ruysch, and Clara Peeters are examples of Dutch artists who ran successful workshops. Cities that valued education also valued educated women. The Italian city of Bologna, the site of the first university in Europe, took great pride in its women artists, such as Lavinia Fontana, Anna Morandi Manzolini and Elisabetta Sirani.

Some of the artists in Our Foremothers used their social or professional connections to gain opportunities—a practice known as “networking” in today’s world. Levina Teerlinc, Caterina van Hemessen, Anna Dorothea Therbusch–Lisiewska, and others worked for the courts of Europe, which presented favorable environments for advancement.

Essentially, fortunate circumstances in the lives of these and the other female artists of Our Foremothers somewhat leveled the playing field with their male colleagues. It is the hindsight of history which tells us that the inequality existed in education and opportunity, not in talent and ability.


At the start of this essay I stated that these women were missing from Jane’s formal education; they were not missing from mine. I was introduced to history’s women artists at the Savannah College of Art and Design, in an art history class taught by Dr. Cynda Benson. The class was an elective and offered women artists as valid subject matter for historical study. The difference in mine and, earlier, Jane’s college experiences with these artists represents the generation that separates us. Now I include these women in my survey classes, sprinkling them into lectures as powerful examples of the canon we follow in teaching an introduction to Western art history. No discussion of 18th-century French painting is complete without Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun; Rachel Ruysch offers an excellent example of Dutch still-life painting; and Judith Leyster provides a great example of Dutch genre painting.

The point of Our Foremothers is not to unearth the forgotten or unrecognized female Rembrandt or Michelangelo. Due to the historical circumstances outlined above, this would be impossible. However, that woman is still out there today: the artist who produces work of infallible quality and relevant subject matter that will continue to inspire people for centuries. She might be a seasoned artist working in her studio right now. She could be a student in art school or she may still be in grade school. No matter where she is, or where you are, Our Foremothers are here—to look back at us from Jane’s paintings and teach us from their experiences so that we may continue to pursue our impossible goals. Thanks to the lessons learned from Our Foremothers, our dreams move out of the realm of ideas and possibilities into concrete realities.

1 See Mary Garrard, Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Baroque Art (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988). My understanding of the implications of “worldly experience” in history painting and how this affected women artists comes from reading Garrard’s publications about Artemisia Gentileschi.

2 Ann Sutherland Harris, Introduction to Women Artists 1550–1950 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), 36.

3 Mary D. Sheriff, The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 1–6. Sheriff discusses the concept of “exception” at length. The idea of a successful woman being perceived as exceptional is prevalent in much of the literature about women artists.