Whether the brush stroke is wet-into-wet, feathering – or the art incorporates polka dots and mosaic elements; women painters have long been creating masterpieces. Some of the best female painters may not have been recognized initially because people didn’t see value in their work or simply couldn’t stand the competition, however, their vision, talent, and voice couldn’t remain in the shadows forever. The best female painters in the world have made their mark and this list will highlight 10 of the finest that you should know about!
- Frida Kahlo
- Georgia O’Keeffe
- Mary Stevenson Cassatt
- Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun
- Yayoi Kusama
- Hilma af Klint
- Louise Bourgeois
- Artemisi Gentileschi
- Helen Frankenthaler
- Laura Wheeler Waring
- Frida Kahlo
Beauty and pain never looked so divine and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo harmonized the two so beautifully. She primarily used oil on copper to create deliberate and striking self-portraits and still lifes.
Frida Kahlo knew physical pain and emotional turmoil, which she used to fuel her artistic fire. Born July 6, 1907, in Coyoacán, Mexico. Frida produced roughly 200 small paintings that merge elements of fantasy, folklore, realism, symbolism, and surrealism to depict not only hauntingly sensual originals but relate fierce personal narratives as well.
“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone because I am the person I know best,” she once said.
Frida’s muralist husband Diego Rivera was instrumental in helping her hone the techniques she used in her paintings, which featured vibrant colors- reds and yellows- rooted in her rich Mexican tradition.
She died in July 1954, after which her reputation soared. In 2000, her 1929 self-portrait, Portrait of a Lady in White, was sold at auction for over $5 million, further cementing her status as one of the best women painters in the world,
2. Georgia O’Keeffe
Among the greatest female painters is the mother of American modernism and the queen of abstract art Georgia O’Keeffe. Born in November of 1887, O’Keeffe made significant contributions to modern art.
Throughout her career she experimented with abstract art, focusing on composition colors, brush strokes, and shapes.
However, she remained true to her love for nature, painting desert landscapes and flowers to exude the feeling it evoked in her.
Over time and through the influential ideas of American painter Arthur Wesley Dow, who advocated simplifying forms, Georgia O’Keeffe developed her style, fusing abstraction with realism. She continued painting up until her death at 98 years old.
3. Mary Stevenson Cassatt
Mary is one of the best female painters of all time and is considered the only American impressionist painter to have exhibited her work with the impressionists in Paris.
Her depictions of family life, particularly the bonds between mothers and children set her apart from other painters.
Formal training didn’t appeal to Mary and she primarily educated herself and was influenced by the works of influential painters Edouard Manet and Gustave Courbet, and Diego Velázquez.
She also had a close working relationship with Edgar Degas who became her mentor and whose pastel work she admired. After coming across some of Degas’ pastels in a shop window, it made an impression on her.
“It changed my life! I saw art then as I wanted to see it.”
Mary showcased her first Impressionist work in the U.S, the 1878 painting, In the Loge, a depiction of her modern woman.
In the Metropolitan Museum is the Havemeyer Collection; to which Mary was an invaluable contributor. She died in 1926.
4. Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun
Eighteenth-century turbulence in Paris, France, and obstacles to women’s advancement did not deter the self-taught, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun from pursuing her art, which has landed her in the top 10 women painters category.
Her painting, Peace Restoring Abundance helped contribute to her recognition. She was the queen’s official artist and painted more than two dozen portraits of her. Élisabeth is known for her sympathetic portraits of the aristocracy.
Élisabeth fled during the French Revolution, but commissions from European nobility and royalty for portraits kept coming. Of the war and its impact on her art, she said, “But I could now paint no longer; my broken spirit, bruised with so many horrors, shut itself entirely to my art.”
It’s believed that Elizabeth produced some 600+ paintings throughout her lifetime. She died in Paris in 1842.
5. Yayoi Kusama
One cannot talk about the greatest female artists without mentioning the Japanese painter, Yayoi Kusama, who is affectionately called ‘the princess of polka dots.
Yayoi recalls how as a little girl she experienced a hallucination that was freakish and frightening. Pictures this: talking polka dot flowers that were everywhere. This hallucination left her feeling what she described as ‘self-obliterating’. These dots became a prominent feature in her paintings.
Yayoi recalls how as a little girl she experienced a hallucination that was freakish and frightening- of talking polka dot flowers that were everywhere. The hallucination left her feeling what she described as ‘self-obliterating’.
‘Polka dots are a way to infinity. When we obliterate nature and our bodies with polka dots, we become part of the unity of our environment.”
Although her mom destroyed her canvas in an attempt to discourage her, she continued with her art and eventually left Japan and made it to New York, where in 1959, her art was on display in various exhibits. Yayoi voluntarily checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo in 1977, where she is a resident to this day.
6. Hilma af Klint
The Swedish painter Hilma af Klint is a part of an elite group of females who are the best women painters in the world. The abstract painter began producing radical abstract paintings in 1906, that were vibrant, colorful, and out of this world.
Born in Stockholm in 1862, Hilma was a medium that was involved in spiritualism and Theosophy (any of a number of philosophies maintaining that a knowledge of God may be achieved through spiritual ecstasy, direct intuition, or special individual relations, especially the movement founded in 1875 as the Theosophical Society by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907).
Her abstract paintings can be described as occult-inspired and magical-looking.
She was called a crazy witch and between 1906-1915, she produced 193 paintings known as the Paintings for the Temple. Hilma explained that the pieces were painted “through” her with divine “force” saying,
“I had no idea what they were supposed to depict… I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”– Hilma af Klint
“I had no idea what they were supposed to depict… I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke.”
Before her death in 1944, she instructed her heir to keep her abstract paintings from public viewing until 20 years after her passing.
Her work was first seen in public in the 1986 Los Angeles show The Spiritual in Art. Hilma only received widespread recognition as a pioneering abstract painter when the Guggenheim Museum hosted a major survey of her work from October 2018 to April 2019 titled “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future.”
7. Artemisia Gentileschi
Artemisia Gentileschi is in this top 10 women painters category because she is a pioneering Italian painter whose paintings reflect historical-art innovation.
Some speculate that her traumatic past -surviving rape– perhaps fueled her inspiring works of art and have characterized her paintings as autobiographical. Her paintings are also dramatic with a level of sensitivity in how color is handled and the female form is depicted.
She’s arguably the best female painter of the 17th century, with paintings that reflect the stories of women, including ambition, motherhood, and passion.
She paints herself as a woman completely in charge.
Artemisa is the first to portray sexual predation in “Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art.”
She was a champion of the oppressed woman and her dramatic Baroque paintings reflected that position. Artemisia admired Caravaggio and her art was heavily influenced by him and she became recognized for her realism and use of chiaroscuro. The exact date of her death remains a mystery.
8. Louise Bourgeois
Born in Paris in 1911, Louise Bourgeois was not formally linked to a particular artistic movement, but exhibited her work with the abstract expressionists of her time, like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock.
The themes in her paintings were dramatic and sensitive, such as anger, jealousy, abandonment loneliness, sexuality, and unconsciousness. This modern contemporary figure is one of the greatest female artists whose work often reflected her own experiences or was inspired by her memories and was emotionally charged.
“My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama.”– Louise Bourgeois
Louise has stated, “My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama.” She had her first solo exhibition of paintings in New York in 1945 at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery. Louise was more than just a painter and also became known for her large-scale sculptures. She died at the age of 98 in 2010.
9. Helen Frankenthaler
Helen Frankenthaler has long been recognized as one of the best women painters in the world and a great American painter of the twentieth century. This American abstract painter is widely credited for being instrumental in the transition from Abstract Expressionism to Color Field painting.
She developed the soak-stain technique (thin washes of pigment that soak into the fibers of the untreated canvas), which expanded how abstract painting could be presented.
“There are no rules… that is how art is born, that is how breakthroughs happen. Go against the rules or ignore the rules, that is what invention is about.”
Born in 1928, Helen’s professional exhibition career kicked off in 1950 with her painting, Beach (1950) in the exhibition titled Fifteen Unknowns: Selected by Artists of the Kootz Gallery. A year later, she had her first solo exhibition in New York’s Tibor de Nagy Gallery.
Helen’s true inspiration came not only from her contemporaries but from the “old masters” as well. She died in December 2011 at age 83 after an illustrious career, cementing herself as one of the best female painters of all time.
10. Laura Wheeler Waring
Among the best female painters is Connecticut-born African American artist Laura Wheeler Waring. Born in May of 1887, she was displayed in the USA’s first exhibition of African American Art in 1927.
Laura Wheeler Waring is renowned for her portraits of prominent African Americans made during the Harlem Renaissance and her beautiful landscape paintings.
She studied the works of master painters like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Édouard Manet, and Claude Monet, which influenced her style achieved through vibrant and realistic techniques, with an emphasis on light, vivid colors, and atmosphere.
While she studied romanticism and impressionism, she leaned towards realism. Some of the portraiture subjects included Mary White Ovington, W.E.B. DuBois, and James Weldon Johnson. She was also an art educator for over 30 years. She died in 1948.
These 10 greatest female artists have left their mark on the art world and should be celebrated for their achievements.
This is just a small number of female painters, which hopefully piques your interest to explore more women painters and artists in general. Happy discovery!