Many forms of media have been slow to accept women into the fold. That goes for the entirety of the entertainment industry.
Even now, after multiple pushes to include female artists more and more in mainstream media, it is still difficult for many women to find their place in industries that have long been dominated by men.
The art world, however, has been a bit more accepting, especially as of the mid- to late-20th century.
Many female artists and painters have led the charge in their respective movements, pushing the envelope, again and again, to allow for new forms and new kinds of imagery that male artists have failed to create.
To follow up our list of famous contemporary artists, we’re proud to present our list of famous female painters of the 20th century, many of whom worked in many other mediums in addition to painting.
You’re likely to have already heard of a few of them, but we also hope our list will include some artists and work you’re not familiar with.
We encourage you to look further into the lives and work of each of these artists, as well as the dozens of artists they have in turn inspired and influenced through the years.
Frida Kahlo is one of those artists who didn’t attract much attention from art critics and the general public while alive. Instead, it was after her death in 1954 that the upper crusts of society started to take notice of her deeply personal work.
Kahlo’s self-portraits, in particular, had a blatant element of self-criticism. She often emphasized her unibrow and other features not typically associated with conventional beauty.
She even liked to paint herself as a wounded animal (specifically in The Wounded Deer, symbolism which doesn’t take much expertise to analyze.
To this day, Kahlo stands as one of the most significant figures in the art world of the 20th century as well as one of the most prominent figures in 20th-century Mexican history as a whole.
Chances are you’ve already seen some of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work by now. The surface-level accessibility of her work has made her a common lesson among grade school art classes, especially here in the United States.
Her most famous work shows flowers seen from up-close. It was only many years after the release of these paintings that they were seen as being symbolic representations of femininity, specifically symbolic representations of female genitalia.
This imagery has made her one of the most famous American painters of the 20th century, in addition to being called the Mother of American Modernism.
Unlike Kahlo, O’Keeffe found fame relatively early on in her career, and she was accepted into the art world despite being a woman.
Her piece Black Iris is a bold painting that demands the viewer’s attention in no uncertain terms.
Born in Paris in 1911, Louise Bourgeois defied artistic classification for pretty much the entirety of her career.
She worked mainly in sculpture and installation pieces, many of which focused on some of the largest themes possible, including death, sex, family, and the subconscious.
Her work reflects the weight of these themes immediately. Some of her work even evokes fear in some viewers, at least at first.
A great example of the power of her work would be her sculpture, Maman. It was created very late in her career, only going on exhibition for the first time in 2000.
The imagery of this piece is simply undeniable. It’s an enormous, initially terrifying spider that stands 30 feet tall.
Interacting with this piece in the real world is intimidating, despite Bourgeois mentioning on many occasions that Maman is meant to be a tribute to her mother, who was a weaver.
Few works of art can draw such a wide range of reactions from audiences.
Aside from her sculpture work, Bourgeois was also a prolific printmaker. Many of her printed works make use of abstract and surrealist imagery to distort common objects and images.
Yoko Ono’s personal life may, in fact, be much more well-known than any of her actual artistic work, which spans paintings, installation art, and performance art.
We all know that Ono was the romantic partner of former Beatle John Lennon, during the last years of his life, prior to his assassination.
Ono’s involvement in his life had a major effect on Lennon’s work as well as his general outlook on life and the world itself.
Her painting, Painting to Be Stepped On, is one of her most famous works. It harkens back to the days of the Deconstructionists of Europe in the early 20th century.
It invites an elevated level of audience participation, one that few (if any) viewers ever actually obeyed.
Josephine Taylor is the youngest of the female artists in our list. Her work spans multiple mediums and can range from photorealist sketches to surreal paintings that show human beings in strange contorted forms.
She tends to focus on themes of human interaction, including sex, romantic relationships, familial relationships, and passing interactions with people the subjects will never truly meet.
Bomb Landscape 5 is a beautiful example of a piece that plays on family silhouettes of the 19th century, which were often made of children, to be treasured as a keepsake of childhood and youth.
Best of all, much of her work is still on exhibition.
While some have argued that fine art doesn’t have a serious impact on contemporary politics, Barbara Kruger disagrees, on the strongest possible terms.
Her life’s work has been a combination of traditional materials like painting as well as elements of photography and collage.
And her work has had a real-world impact, in many different ways.
For example, the Supreme logo is more or less a direct ripoff of a Kruger piece from 1990 entitled I shop therefore I am.
Her 1989 piece, Untitled (Your body is a battleground) is a striking feminist piece that has remained relevant for nearly 20 years.
Female artists are finally starting to receive the recognition they deserve. And young female artists are starting to be more accepted by the art world as a whole.
But it’s important to never forget the women we’ve featured in this article, and how they paved the way for increased inclusivity and diversity in the visual arts.
If you’re looking to learn more about art history, check out our article on some of the most famous abstract paintings of all time.