Who are the Best Women Painters?

“Why have there been no great women artists?”

Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay by that title was a thumb to the eye of the art world. A criticism of art criticism. An incrimination of art history. Of course there have been great women artists. Countless. The best women painters are as great as the best male painters.

What Nochlin was calling attention to was how, by only reading art history textbooks and visiting museums – both overwhelmingly and inequitably stuffed with almost exclusively art by men – the average person might come away thinking there have been no great women artists.

The patriarchy strikes again.

“In the field of art history, the white Western male viewpoint, unconsciously accepted as the viewpoint of the art historian, may—and does—prove to be inadequate,” Nochlin wrote.

Totally.

The absence of great women artists in art history was exclusively the result of bias, misogyny and gatekeeping by men – scholars, curators, collectors, museum directors, critics – and had nothing to do with any lack of talent on behalf of women artists. The best women painters, sculptors and photographers proved their work at least equal to men upon every opportunity when given the chance.

Want proof? I’ll give you proof.

I want to share with you who I consider to be the best women painters, the best female abstract painters, the best contemporary female painters, the best modern female painters…. determine for yourself if they stack up to the boys.

Some of these names you will know. Some you won’t. I consider them all essentials. I’ll link out to my writing on individual artists to prevent this article from being 20,000 words long if you’re interested in more information.

As with any accounting of best, popular or greatest anything, I have my inherent biases. This list will be heavily skewed toward Western/European and particularly American artists, predominantly from the modern and contemporary period. I am not well educated on Asian or African art. Also bear in mind that I’m writing exclusively about painters until the very end.

Popular Female Artists: Painters

For many years, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., the first museum to exclusively present the work of female artists, asked as a social media campaign “can you name #5womenartists?”

Most people can’t.

Think about that.

The two names everyone can come up with, Georgia O’Keeffe (American; 1887-1986) and Frida Khalo (Mexican; 1987-1954), are far and away the two most popular female artists painters. No one else comes close. Among the best women painters, they are the only two household names – in America, anyway.

O’Keeffe is famed for her southwestern landscapes and up-close paintings of flowers, Kahlo, for her searingly intimate self-portraits.

Are they the best women painters? They’re on the list, but the list has 100 other names on it.

Are they the most popular female artists who are painters based on books and articles and museum exhibitions and postcards and tote bags and calendars sharing their work? Without question.

An honorable mention should also go to folk artist Grandma Moses (American; 1860-1961) whose old-timey, nostalgic New England scenes have sold tens of millions of reproductions since her passing.

Top 10 Female Painters of All Time

Nickolas Muray (American, b. Hungary, 1892–1965). Frida Kahlo Painting ‘The Two Fridas’, 1939. Platinum print. Photo by Nickolas Muray.
Nickolas Muray (American, b. Hungary, 1892–1965). Frida Kahlo Painting ‘The Two Fridas’, 1939. Platinum print. Photo by Nickolas Muray. Courtesy Throckmorton Fine Arts. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives.

Who are the Top 10 female painters of all time?

What’s your criteria?

Name recognition? Auction records? Museum exhibitions?

How do you factor in skill or influence?

Any attempt to definitively name the Top 10 female painters of all time proves to be a fool’s errand. Unlike sports rankings where you can fall back on statistics and championships, or music rankings where you can look to record sales and chart success, ranking art comes down entirely to personal preference.

Trying to name the Top 10 female singers of all time would be no less impossible to impartially determine.

Here’s what I’ll do for you. If you’re new to art and trying to figure out where to start the best women painters, I’ll give you my list of the Top 10 Female Painters of All Time based solely on name recognition. Consider these the most famous female painters of all time.

  1. Frida Kahlo
  2. Georgia O’Keeffe
  3. Artemesia Gentileschi
  4. Grandma Moses
  5. Joan Mitchell
  6. Berthe Morisot
  7. Elaine de Kooning
  8. Mary Cassatt
  9. Hilma af Klint
  10. Amy Sherald

Best Female Abstract Painters

Joan Mitchell, American, 1925–1992; “Two Sunflowers,” 1980; oil on canvas; diptych: 110 1/16 x 142 inches;
Joan Mitchell, American,1925–1992; “Two Sunflowers,” 1980; oil on canvas; diptych: 110 1/16 x 142 inches; Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris 2023.108a,b; © Estate of Joan Mitchell

Attempting to determine who was the first abstract painter has long been an art historical obsession. Credit has generally been given to Wassily Kandinsky – a white, European, male – SHOCKING, isn’t it!

That long-held thinking was dropped on its head thanks to a blockbuster exhibition of the work of Hilma af Klint (Swedish; 1862-1944) at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2018 and 2019. Klint went from unknown to supernova in a matter of weeks, the museum’s curators and her artworks demonstrating how she was working in abstraction long before Kandinsky, but kept her paintings secret for personal reasons.

When thinking about the best female abstract painters, I start with Klint and then move on to the Abstract Expressionists. The AbEx painters, especially the women, are among my favorite grouping of artists.

Working in New York in the 1940s and 50s, AbEx painters of both genders explored the personally tumultuous ramifications of a world rendered totally out of order by cataclysmic world war, nuclear weapons, and an advance of technology and urbanization in rapid succession the likes of which the world had never seen. Known images could not accurately reflect what these artists – what society – was thinking and feeling. A different “language” had to be developed.

A greater scale. Different ways of applying paint. More personality, emotion, psychology. How do you paint feelings, internal turmoil, personal trauma? The Abstract Expressionists tried – and succeeded.

The women of Abstract Expressionism, Joan Mitchell (American; 1925-1992), Elaine de Kooning (American; 1918-1989), Lee Krasner (American; 1908-1984); Helen Frankenthaler (American; 1928-2011) and Grace Hartigan (American; 1922-2008) primary among them, are on any list of the best women painters, best painters of all time, or any other “best” of artists list.

Joan Mitchell is my personal favorite.

Their collective story is brilliantly told in Mary Gabriel’s brilliant “Ninth Street Women” book from 2018.

Alma Thomas (American; 1891-1978), best known for “Alma’s Stripes,” earns a spot on the best female abstract painters list, as does Mildred Thompson (American; 1936-2003), who also created sculpture, and Agnes Martin (Canadian; 1912-2004), iconic for her meditative grid paintings.

One of Mildred Thompson’s Magnetic Fields paintings serves as my avatar across @SeeGreatArt’s social media accounts.

Best Modern Female Painters

Agnes Pelton, Awakening (Memory of Father), 1943
Agnes Pelton, Awakening (Memory of Father), 1943

The period known as “Modern art” is generally considered to have lasted between roughly 1850 and 1960. From Impressionism to Pop Art, using a Western/European context.

The best modern female painters will occupy this period. Obviously, a great deal of crossover exists and most of the best women painters I’ll reference in this article could occupy more than one category.

Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and Mary Cassatt (American; 1844-1926) were the most well-known female Impressionists. Both worked and exhibited with Manet, Monet and Degas. Equals.

Eva Gonzalés (French; 1849-1883) was a contemporary who tragically died in childbirth before she could fully realize her potential. She was the only artist Manet ever tutored.

Rosa Bonheur (French; 1822-1899) predated them by a generation.

Surrealism also featured the best modern female painters. Leonora Carrington (British; 1917-2011) are Dorothea Tanning (American; 1910-2012) are the best known.

No one – NO ONE – ever painted the agony of human loss and despair better than Käthe Kollwitz (German; 1867-1945). German Expressionist Paula Modersohn-Becker (German; 1876-1907), like Gonzalés, died from complications of childbirth having barely mined the artistic talent she possessed. Agnes Pelton’s (German; 1881-1961) cosmic, ethereal landscapes defined the Transcendental Painting Group.  Gwendolyn Knight (American; 1913-2005) was important to opening eyes closed to the artistic abilities of African American artists in the 20th century. Nikki de Saint Phalle’s (French/American; 1930-2002) art practice proved groundbreaking and breathtaking at every turn.

Best Female Painters in History

Artemesia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes.
Artemesia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes. Napoli, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte

My specialty is not “Old Master” – pre-1850 – female painters, but it is for Erika Gaffney at ArtHerstory.net who put together this list of six noteworthy female painters in history, from history.

Lavinia Fontana (Italian; 1552–1614) is credited with being the first professional female artist. She was the primary breadwinner for herself, her husband (also an artist), and their eleven children. Her work was known and sought after by princes and popes.

Like her painter father Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia Gentileschi (Italian; 1593–1653) was a follower of Caravaggio. She attracted an international clientele, including members of the Medici house, and Charles I of England. She specialized in painting women as allegory, and pictures of strong and suffering women from myths and the Bible.

Giovanna Garzoni (Italian; 1600–1670) Today, Garzoni is best known for her delicate watercolor paintings of plants, vegetables, and animals. But she also painted religious, mythological, and allegorical subjects, as well as portraits; and she also worked in cloth, stone and other media. The biographer Lione Pascoli, in his Vite (1730–1736), stated that she could command for her art “any price that she asked.”

Also called Josefa de Ayala and Josefa de Ayala Figueira, Josefa de Óbidos (Portugese (1630–1684) painted a diversity of religious and secular subjects in a variety of formats, from portraits to still lifes; and she practiced engraving, as well. She attained professional independence as a single woman. Josefa de Óbidos became one of the best known and most celebrated artists of the Portuguese Baroque.

Maria van Oosterwyck (Dutch; 1630–1693), also spelled Oosterwijck, was one of the most successful professional painters of her time. Her still-life studies included a range of objects such as glassware, coins, musical instruments, and flowers.  She had royal patrons across Europe, including Louis XIV of France, the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, Augustus II the Strong, William III of England, and the King of Poland.

Like Lavinia Fontana before her, Rachel Ruysch (Dutch; 1664–1750) married an artist and had many (ten or eleven) children; she, too, continued to paint professionally after her marriage. Though today her name is less well known than Rembrandt’s, during their lifetimes she enjoyed greater commercial success than he did!

Best Contemporary Female Painters

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith artwork at Alfond Inn.
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith artwork at Alfond Inn, Winter Park, FL. Photo by Chadd Scott.

The art world – collectors, galleries, museums, critics, scholars – have, for the most part, finally caught up in recognizing that the best female painters are at least as good as the best male painters and deserve equal billing. Among contemporary artists – since 1960 – and especially among living artists, women share the marque.

An accounting of the best contemporary female painters could be 100 names long. I’ll focus, again, on who I consider to be the essential figures to recognize. Those with the most paintings in museums, the most frequently included in major exhibitions, who I consider having the most impact and influence.

Let’s start with three Native American artists since I haven’t mentioned any yet.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes; b. 1940) is the most important Native American artist of the last 40 years in almost any way you can define “important.” Not far behind her are Kay WalkingStick (member of Cherokee Nation; b. 1935) and Julie Buffalohead (member of Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma; b. 1972), both of whom have also transcended “Native” art to firmly establish themselves in the broader, general contemporary art genre.

Mickalene Thomas (American; b. 1971) has paintings in the best art museums around the world. So do Cecily Brown (British; b. 1969) and Amy Sherald (American; b. 1973), who painted both Michelle Obama’s official First Lady portrait and the iconic Breonna Taylor portrait for the cover of “Vanity Fair” magazine following her murder by police in Louisville. Julie Mehretu (Ethiopian; b. 1970) and Jordan Casteel (American; b. 1989) do too.

Among the best female contemporary painters who have passed on, Alice Neel (American; 1900-1984), Emma Amos (American; 1937-2020) Hung Liu (Chinese/American; 1948-2021) and Pacita Abad (Pilipino; 1946-2004) are more recent “discoveries” by the art cognoscenti. Their being canonized as I write this..

Next in line are Tshabalala Self (American; b. 1990), Lauren Quin (American; b. 1992) and Harmonia Rosales (American; 1984).

Best Female Painters Ever

Dusti Bongé, September Storm, 1955, Oil on Masonite, 36” x 48”, Paul Bongé Collection
Dusti Bongé, September Storm, 1955, Oil on Masonite, 36” x 48”, Paul Bongé Collection

As with the Top 10 Female Painters of All Time, naming the best female painters ever comes down entirely to personal preference.

Was Sofonisba Anguissola “better” than Joan Mitchell? Stupid. Who cares. Doesn’t matter. Was Madonna better than Aretha Franklin? Stupid. Who cares. Doesn’t matter.

Instead of pursuing this specific nonsense, I’m going to name eight lesser-known female artists who are my favorites. Consider these deep tracks. I’d be stunned if you knew any of them, but you’ll be better off once you do.

Top Contemporary Female Artists

Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Woman and Daughter with Children) from The Kitchen Table Series, 1990. Gelatin silver print, 27 ¼ x 27 1/4. ©Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Woman and Daughter with Children) from The Kitchen Table Series, 1990. Gelatin silver print, 27 ¼ x 27 1/4. ©Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

What about the top contemporary female artists who aren’t painters, or who aren’t primarily painters? Again, another list that could feature 100 names. I’d happily argue the work of top contemporary female artists superior, en masse, to that of the men. The women have more to say.

Native Americans in particular.

Sculptor/potter Rose B. Simpson (Santa Clara Pueblo; b. 1983) makes deep, profound and challenging statements with every project. Her mother, Roxane Swentzell (Santa Clara Pueblo; b. 1962), showed the way. Cara Romero’s (Chemehuevi Indian Tribe; b. 1977) photography is becoming a staple of American museums. So are Kathleen Wall’s (Jemez Pueblo; b. 1973) clay figures. Good. Wendy Red Star’s (Apsáalooke; b. 1981) photos already are. Marie Watt’s (Seneca Nation; b. 1967) multidisciplinary practice reinforces the contemporaneity of Indigenous people, as does the work of all these brilliant Native women.

Betye Saar (American; b. 1926), Faith Ringgold (American; b. 1930) and Judy Chicago (American; b. 1939) are the grand dames of this category. Living legends.

The Guerilla Girls are the OG’s of in-your-face feminist art.

Maya Lin (American; b. 1959) for the Vietnam Memorial Wall, Yoko Ono (Japanese; b. 1933) and Yayoi Kusama (Japanese; b. 1929) for her polka dots, balls and Infinity Mirror Rooms are the most famous top contemporary female artists.

Carrie Mae Weems’ (American; b. 1953) photographs, Deborah Roberts’ (American; b. 1962) collages, Tracy Emin’s (British; b. 1963) neon, Bisa Butler’s (American; b. 1973) quilts, Kara Walker’s drawing and metal cutouts (American; b. 1969), Nina Chanel Abney’s (American; b. 1982) murals, and Simone Leigh (American; b. 1967), Wangechi Mutu (Kenyan; b. 1972) and Allison Saar’s (American; b. 1956) sculptures have changed the game.

They follow in the titanic footsteps of Elizabeth Catlett (American; 1915-2012), a genius, and a rebel, and an activist.

Deborah Butterfield’s (American; b. 1949) horse sculptures are one of the most prominent artistic signatures across America. Nellie Mae Rowe’s (American; 1900-1982) drawings, paintings, home and life are a testament to the power of creativity.

Shahzia Sikander (Pakistani/American; b. 1969) has revolutionized miniature painting traditional to Central and South Asia and is now moving on to other mediums. Like Gio Swaby (Bahamian; b. 1991) did for portraiture and thread.

All right. I’ve got to stop. You get the point.

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