Representation of women in art history: Changes in 1800 and onwards

Representation of women in art history:

Changes in 1800 and onwards

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                                   I.            Introduction:

Present day society sees a woman functioning and fulfilling a variety of roles. She can be a mother, a wife, who can also happen to be in a position of influence or power in her community. It is not uncommon for women, especially in western societies, to be free to map out and pursue their own aspirations. Strong, independent and smart, such attributions are now being shown to illustrate the epitome of her very character.

However, the issue of a woman’s appropriate place and the roles she is to keep had not always been this way but rather that of being weak, helpless or a mere object of pleasure. Such long held perception and stereotyping had encased them to a class much lower than their male counterpart. Although much had been achieved, how a woman is perceived is still received with much ambiguity.

It is of no surprise then that these ambiguous views permeate and are expressed in the field of arts. Women had been utilized as subjects in many art works for centuries. Many prominent and highly esteemed works of art had women as subjects. However, much argument lies not upon its utilization but on how they should be portrayed.

                                II.            Manner of Representation Through Various Times

Early treatment of women as subjects varies depending on the social context of its time. For instance, ancient Greek society differs from that of the classical period in that women were regarded as strong and powerful. On the other hand, the image of women in classical Greece became more submissive and vulnerable. No art has been known so far that could have been done by women, but art works continued to have women as subjects (Plate 1 and 2). Double standards were apparent. Those belonging to the upper class usually showed women in their day to day living such as being in the act of grooming or dressing up, weaving or looming. On the other hand, the portrayals of nude women, implying those of courtesans but never on women with good repute, were often illustrated in impending danger (Bonfante, p. 546). Such works reveal the lack of respect accorded to women of this age. These are apparent such as those found on pottery, statues, or ceramic works. In contrast, a male nude body is highly esteemed in classical Greek. He embodies what is desired and sought-after. This could also be highly influenced by the prevalent practice of homosexuality upon this period (Pomeroy, p.142).

 In contrast, during the Renaissance and Baroque periods in Europe, women subject in arts began to shift from being shown in their domesticity to women of power. Artworks began to focus on women who usually were esteemed or held in fear because of their great influence such as goddesses or Amazons or queens. It should also be noted that these period saw the unprecedented rise of women rulers and not surprisingly, in Europe. There had been much controversy already regarding the appropriateness of women taking leadership roles in society, and artists during 1500 to 1650’s picked up on canvass and other art forms concerning women gaining more political power. Although the arts had usually reflected the condition of society, these artists had already recognized the great influence that their artworks can have to the public.

Women artists in the Baroque period saw the opportunity to change the way women are represented in art. They began to show women as strong and possessing the ability to shape its own destiny, instead of being passive subjects.

However, sexual stereotyping of women is still prevalent throughout the period of Gothic to Modern art. In fact, about two-thirds of fine art had portrayed men (O’Kelly, 136–148.).

                            III.            Changes in 18th Century

The world of art had often been dominated by men and as such, the way females were presented came mostly from a male perspective. The previous century had held women mainly as deficient, mediocre and a mere object of possession by men. This is best illustrated by a painting done by Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (Plate 3). On it, three females were on the backdrop of an experiment. One of the female figures was oblivious to the experiment, indicating a lack of interest, which represented society’s expectations of women in the intellectual field.

These long held discriminatory notions began to be challenged by some women. Long before the Suffrage Movement, women were already addressing issues that concerned women, childbirth for instance, upon their artworks to alter what they felt as an unfair and unequal treatment of women by society.

More and more female artists began to enter the field of art and their works revealed women from a woman’s perspective. However, women artists experienced a great deal of discrimination themselves. Instead of their work taking centre-stage, these women artists found themselves to be the focus of attention, leaving their work on the background. The public chose to dismiss the message conveyed in their artwork, and critics were more inclined to bring into scrutiny, the artist and her gender rather than the merit of her work.  In a male-dominated field, some of the early works did not receive much accolade, owing also perhaps to the lack of personal style.

Later contributions however, broke more ground for the advancement of its cause. Eva Gonzales’ Morning Awakening dealt to counter the sexual connotations common among reclining women art subjects. Instead of being nude, hers was fully clothed. She made a unique approach to alter the purpose of depicting reclining women who were often shown in nude posture. Male renditions of women in the nude, unlike their male counterpart, were often done simply to cater to feed men’s private fantasies. Women subject, most throughout the history of art, had women in a passive pose to convey the message that their existence is for male consumption (Sullivan, p.3). They do not posses any personality.

                            IV.            Contributions of Frida Khalo

One of the compelling works to counter these stereotypical approaches was those done by Frida Khalo. Born of a mixture of Jewish, Spanish and Mexican descent, Khalo’s paintings, conveyed deep emotions. The female subject, mostly of herself, was illustrated as a social being and not as mere objects.

Her self-portraits were honest, often revealing her anguish and pain, both of physical and emotional aspect. It has been said that her works were her own autobiography. Indeed one cannot separate Khalo’s paintings from that of her personal life. At a young age, she had been stricken with polio and her education for medical profession was abruptly halted by a vehicular accident that left her convalescing in bed for more than a year and which caused later miscarriages. Forced for confinement, Frida found painting as a venue to express the turmoil within her.

Also, her marriage with the artist Diego Rivera brought additional emotional suffering. She was known to have referred to her marriage with Diego as “The other accident”, next to the bus accident she had earlier in life (“Frida Khalo”). Theirs was a turbulent marriage, and the series of miscarriages brought by her poor physical condition, greatly affected her works. In the Flying Bed, a dead fetus showed her dread that she would never be able to bear children and a dead flower on the floor of a hospital, a pelvic bone, a tear falling from her left eye and the picture as a whole, conveyed all too well the painter’s grief (Plate 4).

Frida’s style was entirely novel at her time. Through her works, she is an influential figure by blatantly expressing truthfulness in her paintings. Due perhaps by the physical pain she experienced, Frida Khalo was well too aware of her own body and used it as a vehicle to understand one’s concept of self and subjective reality.

Khalo’s paintings provoke its viewers to have a different view of what reality is in itself. It would appear that she viewed an individual’s existence a being made up of the sum of its parts. Her numerous portrayal of herself showed images of Frida as a part of her family and Mexican heritage, her marriage to Rivera, and her political perception. Her self-image then is not dependent or defined by one aspect of life (Latimer).

Although she often downplayed her work’s significance, she was the only woman who received accolade and respect of her time (“Expressions of Pain”).


1.      Bonfante, Larissa. Nudity as a Costume in Classical Art. American Journal of

Archeology.vol. 93 (1989)

2.      O’Kelly, C. Gender Role Stereotypes in Fine Art: a content analysis of art history books.

vol. 6 Springer Netherlands1983.

3.      Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical

Antiquity. New York: Schocken Books. 1975

4.      Wright of Derby, Joseph. An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump. 1768. The National

Gallery, London

5.      Sullivan, Mary Ann. Oh What a Difference a Difference Makes: Gender in the Visual

Arts. Depiction of Male and Female Nudes. 2002. Accessed Sept. 13, 2008.

6.      “Frida Kahlo: 1907-1954)”. Accessed Sept. 12, 2008 at

7.      Latimer, Joanna. Unsettling Bodies: Frida Khalo’s Portraits and In/dividuality

8.      “Frieda Khalo-Expressions of Pain”. Downloaded Sept.12, 2008 at

Plate 1                                             Plate 2

Plate 3

Plate 4

Plate 5

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