Guest post by Carol M. Cram, Founder, Art in Fiction
Women have painted for centuries, so why don’t we know more about history’s female artists? Fortunately, several major exhibitions in recent years have featured the work of many remarkable women artists. In addition, novelists have played a significant role in bringing more attention to these artists.
Current Exhibitions Featuring Women Artists
If you’re lucky enough to be in Madrid this winter, you won’t want to miss the exhibition of the work of Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana at the Museo National del Prado in Madrid. The exhibition runs until February 2, 2020. Called A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana, this marvelous exhibition brings together key works by two of the most notable women painters of the second half of the sixteenth century. Sofonisba Anguissola is the subject of two of the novels in this post: Sofonisba: Portraits of the Soul, by Chiara Montani, and Lady in Ermine, by Donna DiGiuseppe.
At the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, the current exhibition (on until January 5, 2020) celebrates Women Artists of the Dutch Golden Age. One of the featured artists is Judith Leyster, the subject of Carrie Callaghan’s A Light of Her Own, another of the featured novels in this post.
Novels About Women Artists
In this post, I feature ten novels about eight remarkable women artists, many of whom are finally becoming household names.
I confess that I had not heard of Sofonisba Anguissola until quite recently, when I listed two novels written about her on Art In Fiction. Shortly thereafter, I saw posts on social media about the major exhibition in Madrid. I definitely want to see more of Sofonisba’s work.
Sofonisba Anguissola was born in Cremona, Italy in 1530 and died in Genoa in 1626. Sofonisba was particularly skilled at portraiture. In her many self-portraits, Sofonisba depicts herself engaged in various everyday activities common for noblewomen—reading, painting, playing musical instruments. Read more about Sofonisba at this Art Herstory artist page.
This novel follows the adventurous life of Sofonisba Anguissola, the first female artist to challenge the conventions of the time and achieve international fame in a struggle to assert her role and her identity.
Sofonisba’s travels take her from the town where she was born, Cremona, in Lombardy, at that time dominated by the Spaniards, to the oppressive atmosphere of the court in Madrid under Felipe II, and then to Sicily under the viceroys. The journey involves a fascinating mix of artists’ colours with a backdrop of history, drama, intrigue, adventure and romance.
Will she be able to tackle the challenges that life continually throws at her and finally summon the courage to be the master of her own destiny?
History, art, beauty and emotion run through the pages of this historical novel which traces the unforgettable figure of a fascinating heroine who, like Artemisia Gentileschi, was destined to occupy a place of honor among the great women in art history.
As a girl in Lombardy, Sofonisba Anguissola trains to paint with mannerist masters, and although society frowns upon women having such ambition, Sofonisba’s father unwaveringly encourages her. A royal tour by Prince Philip of Spain inspires her lifelong dream: to perfect the king’s portrait and show his truth on canvas, the highest calling for a Renaissance portraitist.
Her drive to vindicate her loving father, a bastard of nobility, propels her. Politics of the Spanish empire brings Sofonisba to the heart of the royal court in Madrid. She aspires to achieve her goal while others at court work to undermine her as a female artist. Tragedy unfolds in the royal household, but in the process, Sofonisba finds her opportunity to paint the King of Spain, honoring her family name with her success. In life after court, Sofonisba navigates two marriages, royal appointments, love, hardship, and bankruptcy, while leaving a legacy of hundreds of paintings and influencing generations of artists from Anthony van Dyck to Peter Paul Rubens.
Artemisia Gentileschi is probably the most famous pre-modern woman artist. Most art lovers, if asked to name a female artist who worked prior to the 19th century, would likely say Artemisia. Her story has been dramatized in movies and her work the subject of several exhibitions in recent years.
I was fortunate to see a wonderful retrospective of Artemisia’s work at the Musée Maillol in Paris a few years ago. The place was packed! I was in awe, particularly of her most famous piece, Judith Slaying Holofernes. Just look at those muscular arms holding down Holofernes! Artemesia didn’t shirk the violence of the act.
Read more about Artemisia Gentileschi at this Art Herstory artist page.
Her mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father’s paint.
She chose paint.
By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome’s most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape, Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the cost.
Joy McCullough’s bold novel-in-verse is a portrait of an artist as a young woman, filled with the soaring highs of creative inspiration and the devastating setbacks of a system built to break her. McCullough weaves Artemisia’s heartbreaking story with the stories of the ancient heroines, Susanna and Judith, who become not only the subjects of two of Artemisia’s most famous paintings, but also sources of strength as she battles to paint a woman’s timeless truth in the face of unspeakable and all-too-familiar violence.
Artemisia, by Alex Connor
“I will show you what a woman can do.” So says Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the world’s most famous female painters.
In this captivating art thriller by Alex Connor, a woman in twenty-first-century London acquires three seventeenth-century notebooks that tell Artemisia’s story. The art world is thrown into a frenzy by the discover with collectors willing to do anything to get their hands on the notebooks.
The lives of two women separated by three centuries mesh. Artemisia in the seventeenth century writes of sex, triumph and death, as she fights with her patrons and protects her family. At the same time, Cornelia Stein in the twenty-first century faces unexpected danger when she defies the male bastions of the art world to ensure Artemisia’s legacy.
In the time of #MeToo and Women’s Rights, Artemisia Gentileschi’s extraordinary story will resonate with every woman.
Frida Kahlo’s work has achieved international attention in recent years. The Brooklyn Museum held a major exhibition of her work from February 9 to May 12, 2019. Called Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, the exhibition was the largest US exhibition in ten years devoted to the work of Frida Kahlo. The exhibition also included a collection of her clothing and other personal possessions.
The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo, by F. G. Haghenbeck
Over sixty years after her death, Frida Kahlo continues to inspire a devoted following. Her paintings command more money than those of any other female artist, and her work was the first by a Mexican artist purchased by the Louvre. Her fascinating life is the basis for a brilliant novel in The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo.
Acclaimed Mexican novelist F. G. Haghenbeck was inspired to write this book after a series of notebooks and sketchbooks were discovered among Frida’s belongings in Casa Azul, her home in Coyoacán, Mexico City. Although Kahlo’s family never confirmed their authenticity, Haghenbeck imagines that one of the notebooks was a gift from Frida’s lover Tina Modotti after Frida nearly died. Frida called the notebook “El Libro de Hierba Santa” (“The Sacred Herbs Book”) and filled it with memories, ideas, and recipes for The Day of the Dead, the Mexican holiday that commemorates deceased friends and family through the cooking of a delicious feast of exotic dishes.
In a rich, luscious style bordering on magical realism, Haghenbeck takes readers on an intriguing ride through Frida’s life, including her long and tumultuous relationship with her lover Diego Rivera, the development of her artistic vision, her complex personality, her lust for life, and her existential feminism. The book also includes stories about the remarkable people who were a part of her life, including Georgia O’Keeffe (with whom she had an affair), Trotsky, Nelson Rockefeller, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Henry Miller, and Dalí.
Judith Leyster was an artist from seventeenth-century Holland, who after her death was forgotten for two centuries. Born in Haarlem in 1609, she made a name for herself as an artist when she was young, being mentioned as an active artist in Samuel Ampzing’s description of Haarlem published in 1628 when she was only nineteen.
With its free brushstrokes and energetic subjects, Leyster’s work bears a striking resemblance to the work of Frans Hals. Read more about Judith Leyster’s life and work at this Art Herstory artist page.
In 1633 Holland, a woman’s ambition has no place. Judith is a painter, dodging the law and whispers of murder to become the first woman admitted to the Haarlem painters’ guild. Maria is a Catholic in a country where the faith is banned, hoping to absolve her sins by recovering a lost saint’s relic. Their ambitions will shape both women’s destinies, running counter to the city’s most powerful men whose own plans spell disaster.
A vivid portrait of a remarkable artist, A Light of Her Own is a richly woven story of grit against the backdrop of Rembrandt and an uncompromising religion.
Story behind the story . . . The trail of Judith Leyster’s career was so faint that only years after her death in 1660 did collectors attribute her few surviving paintings to other artists. She signed her work with only a beautiful, stylized monogram. Credit went to Frans Hals, Jan Miense Molenaer, and others. She would remain lost to history until 1893.
Lee Miller is the only woman artist included in this post who is a photographer, not a painter. Her remarkable life is the subject of several novels listed on Art In Fiction including the most recent, The Age of Light, by Whitney Scharer.
The Age of Light, by Whitney Scharer
The Age of Light tells the true story of Vogue model turned renowned photographer Lee Miller, and her search to forge a new identity as an artist after a life spent as a muse. “I’d rather take a photograph than be one,” she declares after she arrives in Paris in 1929, where she soon catches the eye of the famous Surrealist Man Ray. Though he wants to use her only as a model, Lee convinces him to take her on as his assistant and teach her everything he knows. As they work together in the darkroom, their personal and professional lives become intimately entwined, changing the course of Lee’s life forever.
Lee’s journey of self-discovery takes her from the cabarets of bohemian Paris to the battlefields of war-torn Europe during WWII, from inventing radical new photography techniques to documenting the liberation of the concentration camps as one of the first female war correspondents. Through it all, Lee must grapple with the question of whether it’s possible to stay true to herself while also fulfilling her artistic ambition—and what she will have to sacrifice to do so.
Told in alternating timelines of 1930s Paris and the battlefields of WWII, this sensuous, richly researched and imagined debut novel brings to light the life of a fearless, original artist—a woman whose name and art should be known by everyone.
One of the most captivating artists from the Impressionist period was Berthe Morisot who is finally attracting the attention she deserves. I saw a wonderful retrospective of her work at the Musée Marmottan in Paris a few years ago. Her brushwork struck me as incredibly modern—and more Impressionist than many of the most well-known works by her more famous Impressionist colleagues. I was hooked!
Read more about Berthe Morisot in this story published in The New Yorker in 2018.
Paula Butterfield dramatizes the artistic and personal journeys of Berthe Morisot in La Luministe.
Above all, Berthe Morisot yearns to be a professional artist. Despite the skepticism of her parents and the male-dominated conservatism of the Parisian art world, Berthe pursues her artistic passion. Chafing under the tutelage of traditional masters, Berthe is mesmerized by Paris’s most revolutionary artist, the debonair Édouard Manet, whose radical paintings reflect a brash modern style.
Berthe consents to model for Édouard and in the process falls deeply in love, an affair that both must keep hidden from the world, for Édouard is married. As the city of Paris is convulsed by the Franco-Prussian War, and dark family secrets are revealed, the lovers are driven apart. Berthe, after enduring the horrors of a city under siege and suffering from recurring depression, marries Édouard’s brother, the mercurial Eugène Manet.
Berthe – along with her infamous contemporaries Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, and Claude Monet – develops the radical painting style that challenges the stifling traditionalism of the Salon: Impressionism. Collectively, they deem Berthe’s light-infused paintings the most avant-garde works of them all.
Despite her thwarted hopes for love and the physical rigors of war, Berthe Morisot emerges as one of art’s most remarkable women.
Georgia O’Keeffe is perhaps the most famous artist listed in this post but even she has not always received the recognition she deserves. In 2016, I attended a solo exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe at the Tate Modern in London. The exhibition featured over 100 paintings along with information about her life. I was surprised to learn there were no works by O’Keeffe in UK public collections at the time.
You can learn more about Georgia O’Keeffe on the website for the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Georgia, by Dawn Tripp
In 1916, Georgia O’Keeffe is a young, unknown art teacher when she travels to New York to meet Stieglitz, the famed photographer and art dealer who has discovered O’Keeffe’s work and exhibits it in his gallery. Their connection is instantaneous. O’Keeffe is quickly drawn into Stieglitz’s sophisticated world, becoming his mistress, protégé, and muse, as their attraction deepens into an intense and tempestuous relationship, and his photographs of her, both clothed and nude, create a sensation.
Yet as her own creative force develops, Georgia pushes back against what critics and others are saying about her and her art. And soon she must make difficult choices to live a life she believes in.
A breathtaking work of the imagination, Georgia is the story of a passionate young woman, her search for love and artistic freedom, the sacrifices she will face, and the bold vision that will make her a legend.
Charlotte Salomon’s story is as heartbreaking as her work is compelling. The world lost a great talent far too soon. In 2018 the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam marked the 100th anniversary of her birth with a special exhibition (Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theatre?) dedicated to her artistic legacy.
Charlotte, by David Foenkinos
Obsessed with art, and with living, Charlotte attended school in Germany until it was too dangerous to remain, fled to France, and was interned in a bleak work camp from which she narrowly escaped. Newly free, she spent two years in almost total solitude, creating a series of autobiographical art—images, words, even musical scores—that together tell her life story.
A pregnant Charlotte was killed in Auschwitz at the age of 26, but not before she entrusted her life’s work to a friend who kept it safe until peacetime. In Charlotte, David Foenkinos—with passion, life, humor, and intelligent observation—has written his own utterly original tribute to Charlotte Salomon’s tragic life and transcendent art. His gorgeous, haunting, and ultimately redemptive novel is the result of a long-cherished desire to honor this young artist.
The future looks bright for authors who turn to the lives of women artists for inspiration. And in addition to novels depicting real artists, you’ll find several novels inspired by fictional women artists listed on Art In Fiction. Check the Visual Arts category, search for “woman artist,” or search for an artist by name. Happy browsing!
Carol M. Cram is the founder of Art In Fiction, a curated database of novels inspired by the arts. Cram is the author of three novels of historical fiction about women in the arts: The Towers of Tuscany, about a fictional woman artist in 14th century Tuscany; A Woman of Note, about a woman composer in 1830s Vienna; and The Muse of Fire, about an actress embroiled in the Old Price theater riots of 1809 at London’s Theatre Royal-Covent Garden. Find Carol online at www.carolcram.com
Other posts on new books about women artists
Ten Intriguing Books About Remarkable Women Artists, guest post by Carol M. Cram
Other Art Herstory blog posts you might enjoy:
The Abstract-Impressionism of Berthe Morisot and Joan Mitchell, by Paula Butterfield
An Interview with Carrie Callaghan, Author of A Light of Her Own (a novel featuring Judith Leyster as protagonist)
An Interview with Joy McCullough, Author of Blood Water Paint (a novel-in-verse featuring Artemisia Gentileschi as protagonist)
New Books about History’s Women Artists | September 2019 (list of new non-fiction books)