In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Feminism and 19th-century Art History

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Monographs
  • Bibliographies
  • Art Education
  • Professionalism
  • Representations of the “New Woman”
  • Women and Public Space
  • Women and Domestic/Private Space
  • The Female Nude and Issues of the Gaze
  • Prostitution
  • Homoeroticism
  • Motherhood and Breastfeeding
  • Feminist Activism
  • Race
  • Colonialism and Orientalism
  • Craft and Material Culture
  • Feminist Perspectives on Writing about Art
  • Exhibiting Women’s Art (Group Exhibitions)
  • Women Collectors and Museums
  • Rewriting Women Artists into Art History
  • Reinterpreting Male Artists’ Work

Art History Feminism and 19th-century Art History
Ruth E. Iskin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0176


Feminist perspectives in art history of the nineteenth century were stimulated by second-wave feminism and introduced new critical approaches, issues, artists, methods, and interpretations. I will refer to this scholarship as feminist art history of the nineteenth century. Overall, its initial focus was to study art created by women who had previously been excluded or marginalized, and to analyze the constraints and obstacles that hindered women in obtaining art education and pursuing professional careers. Looking at gender biases in art history of the nineteenth century, feminist art historians critiqued the impeding influence of ideologies of domesticity and femininity on women artists and the devaluing categorization of their art as “feminine.” They also stimulated reinterpretations of the art of canonical male artists, critiqued the notion of the male artist as “genius,” and investigated the authority of the heteronormative masculine gaze. Over the years, feminist art history developed a body of scholarship on women artists, focusing on their accomplishments and their ways of negotiating gender constraints rather than merely accommodating limitations. As a result of these acts of recuperating, reevaluating, and reinterpreting the work of women artists, these artists were written into the art history of the nineteenth century. The new scholarship also led to the study of forms of creative production previously denigrated as crafts (like quilts) or ignored (like the political visual culture created by the suffragists). All of this scholarly literature resulted in the realization that what had appeared to be a lack of professional women artists was in fact the result of their exclusion from art history, art collections, and display in museums. Increasingly focusing on female agency, feminist art historians also turned their attention to multiple kinds of gazes, analyzing women artists’ gazes as depicted or performed in their art. As both feminism and art history evolved, feminist art history of the nineteenth century widened its analyses of power to explore the intersections of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, and other components of identity, both in representations in art and visual culture and in the identities of artists and models. Like the field of art history as a whole, feminist art history of the nineteenth century broadened geographically and culturally beyond its initial focus on Europe and the United States to include non-Western artists, art, and visual and material culture. As feminist art history progressed over time, it also expanded the primary focus on women artists and women’s art works and visual representations to include the study of women in relation to exhibitions, museums, collecting (e.g., how women artists are represented or excluded in museums), and also recuperating the contributions of women collectors who made bequests to established museums, participated in founding major museums, and founded their own museums. The texts chosen for this contribution to Oxford Bibliographies in Art History range from early foundational texts of feminist art history of the nineteenth century to recent scholarship, and will give students an overview of the evolution of this dynamic field.

General Overviews

The texts in this section include those that initiated the new field of feminist art history during the early 1970s, by focusing on the constraints women artists faced in obtaining an education and having professional opportunities in Europe and America, due to the systematic exclusion of women and the ideology of femininity. Marking the beginning of the field, Nochlin 1973 (first published 1971) presents the first methodological approach for feminist art history: analyzing and critiquing the patriarchal discursive, social, and institutional structures that underpin artistic production, the art world, and art history, all of which lead to the exclusion of women artists. This now canonical essay is an essential reading for those wishing to gain a basic understanding of early developments of the field. Berger 1972 introduces another important aspect, focusing on representations of the female nude in Western art by male artists and their gaze. Berger’s conceptualization of the male gaze as a main component of women’s sexual objectification and a form of male domination might be particularly useful for undergraduates. Pollock 1980 is another important early contribution by, revealing art history’s patriarchal assumptions as determining the representation of male artists in art history and popular media as typically glorifying the art and personality of male artists, attributing exclusively to them individuality, genius, and originality. Broude and Garrard 1982 is the first of three groundbreaking volumes of anthologies of feminist art history. It provides an excellent introduction for undergraduates to core issues of early feminist art history, including the systematic exclusion of women artists from Western art history and the devaluation of femininity, decorative art, and women’s craft. Chadwick and Frigeri 1990 challenges the provocative question raised by Nochlin—“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”—by arguing that women artists were not an exception, but rather have been marginalized or excluded by art historians. Chadwick’s comprehensive history of women artists from the Middle Ages to the present day is a key text for students.

  • Berger, John. Ways of Seeing, London: Penguin Books, 1972.

    John Berger’s influential BBC series and text provide a historical examination of the representation of female nudes in Western art from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century. Conceptualizing the male gaze upon the objectified female nude body, Berger argues it serves male desires, enacting them on the symbolic terrain of a woman’s body, assigning an active stance to men and a passive one to women.

  • Broude, Norma, and Mary D. Garrard, eds. Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.

    A groundbreaking early anthology of feminist art history. While only one essay is about 19th-century art, this volume tackles fundamental issues in the early phase of feminist art history, including the systematic exclusion of women artists, the construction of femininity, and the devaluation of femininity, decorative art, and women’s craft.

  • Chadwick, Whitney, and Flavia Frigeri. Women, Art, and Society. London: Thames & Hudson, 1990.

    Chadwick’s acclaimed study provides a critical analysis of gender, and related issues of class, ethnicity, and sexuality, in a comprehensive history of women artists from the Middle Ages to the present day. Several chapters discuss the nineteenth century. An essential textbook for students. Challenges the assumption that great women artists were an exception, bringing to light many women who produced works of art and visual culture professionally, but have been neglected or marginalized by art historians. Published as ebook in 2020.

  • Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” In Art and Sexual Politics: Women’s Liberation, Women Artists, and Art History. Edited by Thomas B. Hess and Elizabeth C. Baker, 1–44. New York: Collier, 1973.

    Originally published in 1971, Nochlin’s groundbreaking essay signaled the beginning of the new field of feminist art history. It challenged the gender assumptions that dominated art history up to that point, offering a historical examination that highlighted the institutional and social barriers as preventing most women from gaining art training and recognition in the nineteenth-century European art world.

  • Pollock, Griselda. “Artists, Mythologies and Media—Genius, Madness and Art History.” Screen 21.3 (1980): 57–96.

    DOI: 10.1093/screen/21.3.57

    Focusing on the representation of Vincent Van Gogh, Pollock’s essay deconstructs the representation of male artists in Western art history and popular media. It critiques the psycho-biographical approach, in which the male artist’s life and personality are glorified as representing the male “genius.” Instead of Van Gogh’s “madness,” Pollock highlights gender and other sociopolitical conditions.

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