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Do You Know These 5 Trailblazing Women Artists?

5 Trailblazing Women Artists

Dorothea. Frida. Edmonia. Georgia. Dolores.

Lange. Kahlo. Lewis. O’Keeffe. Purdy.

Do any of these names sound familiar? These are the names, first and last, respectively, of artists of great repute and creative expression. They are also women! These women share or shared their unique lives through artistic expression. Dorothea Lange, through photography. Frida Kahlo, through painting. Edmonia Lewis, through sculpture. Georgia O’Keeffe, also through painting. Dolores Purdy, through colored pencil drawings on antique ledger paper. Each of these women’s art is an ode to their unique intersections of race, gender, class, and culture that connect to create their lived experiences. By looking at their art, whether to honor them especially during Women’s History Month or on any ordinary day, we get a glimpse into the multifaceted experiences of their inner lives, deep emotions, social contexts, and challenges overcome.

As you read through, notice if there are any pieces of art that stand out to you. If one or two catch your eye, why do you think that is? Does their art appeal to your senses? Is it pleasing or provocative? Does the composition or color elicit awe? Do you want to hang it in your home or discuss it with a friend? Alternately, are there any pieces that make you want to look away? Again, why do you think that could be? Is there something personal, poignant, or even disturbing to you? Love it or leave it, take note of even just one of these women artists names: they’ve each got something to say.

#1. Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange is a woman artist to know. Known for documentary style black and white photographs depicting everyday Americans, Lange was a White American photographer. She lived from 1895 to 1965. Her notorious work humanized the consequences of the Great Depression, especially the works she created as a photojournalist for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the 1930s in the United States. Born to second generation German immigrants, Lange grew up in New York. She was living in San Francisco with her then husband and sons when the stock market crashed in 1929. She began documenting the breadlines and striking laborers there when her work caught the attention of an economics professor at University of California, Berkeley, Paul Taylor, who was an advocate for farmworkers. Lange and Taylor later married and collaborated on many projects related to championing help for displaced people.

This piece, Migrant Mother, is one of Lange’s most famous works and indeed one of the most famous photos in the world. It was taken in 1936 and was used to share the realities of widespread crop failures that were hurting the country economically and particularly impacting poor farmers. This specific photo, which now stands to symbolize the hardships faced by farmers across the country during this period, depicts Florence Owens Thompson, a 32-year-old mother of seven children.

Migrant Mother (Destitute pea pickers in California)

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother (Destitute pea pickers in California), 1936. Library of Congress

#2. Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo is a woman artist to know. Known for her artistic style of magical realism and vibrant self-portraits, Kahlo was a Mexican painter. She lived from 1907 to 1954. She was influenced by Mexicanidad, a romantic Mexican nationalist movement: many of her self-portraits were composed in the style of colonial paintings, depicting the head, shoulders, and chest of the subject with a direct gaze, but she would subvert the role of the subject and setting to emphasize the centering of indigenous cultures. Her infamous genre of magical realism is a style of art that depicts a realistic view of the modern world while also adding fantasy elements, emphasizing the strangeness of the real world.

And Kahlo’s life provided plenty of fodder. Throughout her life she experienced: polio which left her with a limp, a bus accident that led to severe injuries in her spine, legs, and pelvis, a difficult marriage to fellow Mexican artist Diego Rivera, the death by suicide of her friend Dorothy Hale, and her own death at just 47 years old. She also drew from her experience as a political activist with the Communist movement.

This piece, Self Portrait with Monkey, is one of her 55 self-portraits. This is an oil painting of herself and her beloved pet spider monkey, Fulang-Chang. Kahlo cared for exotic pets in her home, Casa Azul, in Coyoacán, Mexico City. This painting is representative of her style as it includes the colors green, red, and white, Mexico’s national colors, and evocative symbols from Aztec mythology such as the monkey and objects from nature.

Self Portrait with Monkey

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait with Monkey, 1938. Albright-Knox Art Gallery © 2014 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

#3. Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis is a woman artist to know. Known for white marble sculptures with Native American and African American subjects depicted in a Neoclassical style, Lewis was an African American/Native American sculptor. She lived from 1844 to 1907. Lewis grew up in Ohio, United States and attended Oberlin College in 1860. Her time there, however, was defined by racialized sexism, severe violence, and institutional discrimination. She moved to Boston in 1863 where the abolitionist journalist William Lloyd Garrison introduced her to sculptor Edward Brackett, who became her teacher. She moved to Rome in 1866 and pursued a career as an artist there. She is the first female sculptor of Black and Native heritage to gain professional recognition.

Because she had to market her works to a White audience, Lewis reinterpreted her Native American heritage through the Neoclassical style that her patrons recognized.

Based on the epic poem The Song of Hiawatha, this piece, Hiawatha, features the bust of the main character carved in white marble. Lewis’s artwork highlights the Native American features of Hiawatha with details such as his hairstyle and his dress.

Hiawatha by Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis, Hiawatha, 1868. Metropolitan Museum of Art

 #4. Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe is a woman artist to know. Known for her American Modernist style and large, vibrant depictions of flowers, O’Keeffe was a White American painter. She lived from 1887 to 1986. Born in Wisconsin to parents of Hungarian and Irish descent, she lived in several states throughout her childhood and then spent most of her time in New York and New Mexico. She was particularly inspired by diverse elements of the natural world: animal bones, shells, desert, sky, and most often, flowers. She painted flowers in New York, Texas, New Mexico, Hawai’i, and points in between, capturing the beauty of tulips, calla lilies, poppies, canna, irises, petunias, jimson weed, and others. She was trained formally at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and had a long time personal and professional relationship with art dealer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. After their separation, she lived in New Mexico until her death at age 98.

This piece, White Trumpet Flower, like many of her works featuring an enlarged single flower that dominates the entire pictorial space, explores the beauty of nature and emphasizes formal qualities such as shape, color, and line. 

White Trumpet Flower by Georgia O'Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe, White Trumpet Flower, 1932. San Diego Museum of Art
© 2010 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

#5. Dolores Purdy

Dolores Purdy is a woman artist to know. Known for her colorful colored pencil drawings on antique ledger paper, Purdy is a Native American artist and a member of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma. She also is of Winnebago, German, and Swedish ancestry. She herself says that she uses, “traditional materials” with a “contemporary voice.” Trained in watercolor and passionate about several art forms, she is a contemporary artist and currently resides north of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

This piece, Summer, is an example of ledger art, in which the work is created on a page from a white colonizer’s ledger, accounting, or record book. This tradition refers to 19th century Plains Indian drawings which were often created on pages like these. This was a practice considered a male art form in the past and known as “Warrior Art.” For over twenty years, she has worked in this traditional art form but created a contemporary version from a female perspective. Purdy’s art blends imagery from her Native American lineage and pop culture iconography, speaking from her intersectional identity to her contemporary consumers. “Dolores’ images may represent bison hunters riding past colorful teepees, or bright Cadillacs racing across the page. Tongue-in-cheek humor, bright colors, and vivid imagery is her way to stand out from the other ledger artists as well as honoring her ancestors.”

Summer by Dolores Purdy

Dolores Purdy, Summer, 2017. Private Collection © Dolores Purdy

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