Celebration of Women Artists on London Art Week Digital

Just as Covid-19 has accelerated the pre-contemporary art world to embrace the digital sphere, so the #MeToo movement has exerted influence on museums, and collectors, to give women artists of the past more recognition.

Names such as Gentileschi, Morisot, Cassatt, Kauffman and Kahlo are now well-known, but there are still many talented women artists that have not achieved the recognition they deserve. London Art Week has used its move to digital as an opportunity to celebrate the work of women artists in a special viewing room, which also features a number of influential muses who inspired male artists.

A forthcoming exhibition at The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh, 'Women Modern Masters', opening at the end of July, is addressing how "women have been integral to the institution of art but, despite this, many women artists have found opposition in the narrative of art history, facing difficulty in gaining recognition." Karen Taylor Fine Art has brought together for London Art Week the exhibition "British Women Artists (1780-1890) - A Selection of Works on Paper".

Karen explains: "The work of women artists provides us with an important counterbalance in art history and its gradual emergence into the mainstream is to be

Margaret Lilias 'Maggie' Sumner,
A sketchbook of pencil drawings of the Lake District

celebrated. Often working outside the academic sphere, female artists drew and painted but much of their work has not received the attention bestowed upon their male counterparts." Women were usually restricted to showing their artistic talent in the private sphere; as a result their names have not become well known, and it is only now that we are starting to reassess the works of these women especially from the 18th and 19th centuries. During those 200 years there was great historical change: women, and women artists, were an integral part of this period and their achievements deserve greater recognition.

We have asked some of our participants to share their insight in to the field of female artists and how the attitude to their work has developed in recent years, while also highlighting some of their favourite artists and recent discoveries.

Rachel Elwes of Ben Elwes Fine Art says that "whilst some institutions and collectors were aware of key women artists, the market has shifted significantly in the last two years, when we have seen an increased demand with museum audiences and buyers keenly engaged by womens' narratives. The fact that this area has been drastically underrepresented in the art historical canon for so long contributes to the interest by museums and, to a certain extent, private collectors."

Karen Taylor, who has been absorbed by the subject for most of her working life, concurs: "There is currently a considerable appetite for the work of women artists, in recognition of the fact that they are significantly under-represented in museums around the world."

Henriëtte Ronner-Knip
An odd-eyed cat
Courtesy of Agnews

Anthony Crichton-Stuart of Agnews agrees. "Good and great art is timeless, but it is not sexless, and we should celebrate the work made by female and male artists for what it is, not for what gender produced it. As the world changes and addresses these issues on so many different levels, so have museums in particular. Many collectors have also expanded their own horizons. There is a great deal of interest in work by women artists, as there quite rightly should be. Whilst some may say that this is something of a fad, I do not believe this to be the case. It is more of a gradual redressing of the fact that there are many great women artists whose work is quite simply not as well-known as it should be. This turning point, or realization of a lack of equality, is happening right now."

The shift in both museum and dealer exhibitions of prominent women who have become mainstream is evident and they have become more popular in the last decade. Rachel Elwes recalls: "Ten years ago, Princeton University Art Museum acquired from us one of Angelica Kauffman's finest portraits, depicting the great Handel diva Sarah Harrop (Mrs Bates) as a Muse from 1780-81. Kauffman was arguably the most famous pre-20th century British female artist and the sitter was a towering, self-made singer." It all changed though when the #MeToo movement put the spotlight on female artists, making museums re-examine their collections. It was suddenly and glaringly obvious how few women artists were represented in major museums. Rachel explains: "I could not have been the only person surprised to learn that the National Gallery in London owned only twenty paintings by women at the time of their purchase of Artemisia Gentileschi's Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria in 2018. In that same year, the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska purchased through us a splendid 17th-century still life by the Netherlandish artist Maria van Oosterwyck (1630-1693) to add to their collection".

Discoveries always mean excitement for the dealer and the buyer. Karen Taylor Fine Art has in her London Art Week Digital exhibition "a recent discovery which has provided many hours of fascinating research - sketchbook by Maggie Sumner (1859-1919), a talented draughtswoman, who turns out to have been a correspondence pupil of John Ruskin, a neighbour of the family at nearby Brantwood. A group of unpublished letters (now in the Cumbria Archive Centre) reveal his fulsome encouragement of her talent. Included in my current catalogue, her delicate drawings of the Lake District around her home on Grasmere are surrounded by intricate drawings of flowers and plants which she must have collected on walks in the area. She worked for Aubrey Beardsley and contributed to his Yellow Books, but as yet nothing is known of her work after the 1890s. The sketchbook has been in the collection of the artist's family and I am delighted to publish her work for the first time."

Ben Elwes Fine Art's most recent discovery was the c. 1866-69 marble relief portrait of Jenny Lind (1820-1887), the singer known as the 'Swedish Nightingale', by the American sculptor Margaret Foley (c. 1827-1877) who also worked in Italy. Ben spotted the sculpture in an online auction and recognised its quality, despite the fact that it was covered in slimy green moss. The conservator Colin Bowles cleaned it up beautifully to reveal its original surface, and Ben and Rachel were delighted when it was acquired by the Milwaukee Art Museum in Wisconsin.

When Anthony was last in Stockholm he went to the Moderna Museet (Museum of Modern Art) for the first time: "They have two to three rooms dedicated to 20th Century Swedish women artists, the majority of whom I had never heard of. It's a joy to discover new artists, learn about them, and acquaint myself with their work. The same was true of German women artists of the early 20th Century that I discovered in the Städel, Frankfurt where I went to see the Lotte Laserstein exhibition. Agnews's discovery of Laserstein's work in 1987 and then the exhibition of her work that we held at our gallery in 2017 were key moments for me in this process of enlightenment."

Anna Boberg

This summer, for London Art Week, Ben and Rachel Elwes' gallery in Maddox Street is exhibiting a haunting Symbolist work by the Swedish artist Anna Boberg (1864-1935). Rachel explains that Boberg was not only an ambitious artist and designer, she was also a pioneer traveller, often living alone in the remote Lofoten Islands near the Arctic Circle where she observed the local fishing communities and painted en plein air, dressed in sealskin! "Boberg was lauded in her day and Putting Out to Sea, c. 1912 was included to great acclaim in an exhibition of Scandinavian art which toured to four prominent American museums in 1912 and 1913. Her paintings from Lofoten were also exhibited in the Swedish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1907. Today, we are shining a light on Anna Boberg again," shares Rachel enthusiastically.

While it was all too common that most women artists weren't recognised for their talent and skill during their lifetime, it is a situation that presents dealers, collectors and curators with opportunities to make some exciting discoveries and engage in valuable research today.

Lady Emily Dundas
The Ladies of Llangollen at Plas Newydd
Courtesy of Karen Taylor Fine Art

One of the highlights in Karen Taylor's exhibition has significant place in LGBT history: the sitters are well-known in 19th-century literary circles. "A fascinating drawing in my catalogue of British women artists is a miniature of the Ladies of Llangollen by Lady Emily Dundas. A discovery from an album I bought, it is a new and rare portrait of these notorious ladies, who disliked being painted or drawn. They made a dramatic elopement from Ireland, and spent their life in 'retirement' together at Plas Newydd in Wales."

Agnews is including half a dozen works by women, but one of Anthony's favourites is "our Laura Knight drawing, executed when she was still in her teens, which reveals her precocious talent for drawing."  Another is a drawing by Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) which also happens to be one of Karen's favourite women artists: "She has long been a particular favourite of mine, her delicate draughtsmanship is a joy and her oil paintings are very fine. In my view her work stood out in the recent exhibition 'The Pre-Raphaelite Sisters' at the National Portrait Gallery last autumn. The De Morgan Foundation has a fantastic collection of her work, based at the Watts Gallery in Surrey.  Her powerful masterpiece Night and Sleep is heavily influenced by Botticelli https://www.demorgan.org.uk/collection/night-and-sleep/ and I am pleased to have a detailed example of her pencil work in my current catalogue."

Rachel Elwes particularly rates the historical female artists who took risks and worked fearlessly in a world dominated by their male counterparts, like Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1654 or later), Clara Peeters (b. 1594), Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), and the 20th-century lions such as Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Lee Krasner (1908-1984) and Leonora Carrington (1917-2011). She expresses it perfectly when she says: "There are so many to enjoy! We are particularly excited about the American artist Belle Cramer (1883-1978), who we are showing as part of our virtual platform. Her ground-breaking Abstract Expressionist paintings from the 1950s were early and hugely bold examples of the genre. She is becoming well known again today as a result of this new female focus in the art world."

At Callisto Fine Arts, Carlo Milano says: "I am lucky enough to have a rare oil on copper by Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614) in my gallery at the moment. It was painted early in her career before she married in 1577. She is a ground breaker: the first woman considered to be a career artist with her own studio; with pupils and unclothed models to study; the first to work for a king, Philip II of Spain and for a Pope; the first to paint an altarpiece, which was considered as a crucial stepping stone for an artist's career."

Anthony Crichton-Stuart confesses that it would be wrong to pick out any one artist as a favourite over so vast a period of time, "... but one could do worse than start with a work by the most celebrated female painter of the 17th century: Artemisia Gentileschi's self-portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, recently acquired by the National Gallery, London."

Rachel also recommends a visit to The Hepworth Wakefield or Yorkshire Sculpture Park or Hepworth's studio in Cornwall to be blown away by the scope and success of this powerful sculptor.

Antonietta Brandeis
Venice: The Island of San Giorgio Maggiore
Courtesy of Charles Beddington Ltd

The London Art Week Digital Viewing Rooms includes a fabulous pre-Raphaelite drawing by Alice Mary Chambers (Karen Taylor Fine Art), a selection of Italian scenes by the Czech artist Antoinetta Brandeis (1848-1926) at Charles Beddington Ltd. and Daxer & Marschall are showing a 1914 work by Helene Schjerfbeck, so recently the subject of an exhibition at the Royal Academy.

One of the earliest works by a woman artist on the website is (with Agnews) the mid-17th century painting The Calling of Saint Matthew by Michaelina Wautier (1617-1689) who painted it with her brother Charles; and two sculptures by Félicie de Fauveau (1799-1886), at Didier Aaron and Stuart Lochhead respectively.

When it comes to muses, the portrait of Iris Beerbohm Tree by Augustus John painted circa 1920, at Philip Mould & Company, is particularly striking as is Lorenzo Bartolini's Ideal Portrait of Beatrice (Portrait of Juliette Récamier as Beatrice) from circa 1823 at Benappi Fine Art.

Félicie de Fauveau,
Portrait of Anne Lindsay (1803-94),
Courtesy of Didier Aaron

Félicie, Iris and Juliette were certainly strong women - Félicie de Faveau was a dedicated Legitimist, who supported the return of the Bourbon king to France and even went to exile for her cause; fighting for the same was famous Paris socialite Juliette, who was exiled by the orders of Napoleon; and Iris was a true eccentric - a poet, actress and artists' model, a true 'Bohemian'.

Further recommendations:

Angelika Kauffman at National Trust Property Nostell Priory: http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/960079

Anthony suggests Anita Rée: "In 2018 I went to an exhibition of her early 20th century work at the Kunsthalle, Hamburg which astounded me." https://www.hamburger-kunsthalle.de/en/exhibitions/anita-ree

Rachel suggests the RSID Museum in Providence: "If you are in Rhode Island, a portrait Ben Elwes Fine Art sold to the museum by Leonora Carrington of the artist Stella Snead and Her Cat from 1941 is worth a visit."

Join London Art Week for a talk, moderated by Alice Strickland, on "Making Women Artists Visible", Wednesday, 8th July at 6 pm. Alice, a curator for the National Trust says: "I'm delighted to convene a discussion on women artists, with fellow enthusiasts as part of London Art Week, and highlight the research being undertaken to reassess the careers of professional women artists and showcase their work. Through publications and exhibitions on women artists, a richer narrative of British art can be told.

REGISTER FOR EVENT