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Famous and Influential Women Artists throughout History

by Ellie Jakeman March 15, 2023

Famous and Influential Women Artists throughout History

Famous and Influential Women Artists throughout History

As we celebrate International Women's day, Mothers Day, and Women's History month we wanted to acknowledge some exceptional and extraordinary women artists through their revolutionary work. Cultural, social and even political commentators, supporters for equal rights, humanitarians; their influence and inspiration still guides today’s female artists and will allow for more female artists to find their voice in the future. Many of these women fought for the right to be seen and heard in a patriarchal society and all have successfully influenced the development of Art throughout history. 

Female Artists who changed the Art World

Yayoi Kusama is a Japanese, contemporary Artist, Born 22nd March 1929.

1965: Infinity Mirror Rooms, Phallis Field, installation view in the exhibition floor show, Richard Castellane Gallery, New York © YAYOI KUSAMA

1965:Infinity Mirror Rooms, Phallis Field, installation view in the exhibition floor show, Richard Castellane Gallery, New York © YAYOI KUSAMA

‘Our earth is only one polka dot among a million stars in the cosmos. 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’. 

Kusama is mostly associated with her later work and is sometimes referred to as ‘the princess of the polka dot!’

As a conceptual artist, she has created paintings, sculptures, choreographed performances, organised demonstrations,  ‘happenings’, video art, poetry, and installations over the course of her career which spans from 1947 to the present day. The one theme they all have in common are Dots!

From a very early age growing up on her parents' seed nursery and surrounded by mountains and nature, Kusama knew she wanted to become an artist. Around the age of ten, Kusama began to use the polka dot motif in her work followed by images of nets. Inspired by the colours and shapes around her, as a child she painted bold colourful images, using watercolours, pastels and oils. She later attributes this to a series of hallucinations she had as a child and as the results of a volatile family environment. 

As a practising International artist her later works include the use of music, mirrors, flashing lights and multiple soft sculptures. These later installations provide an immersive experience. Kusama calls these rooms her ‘Infinity Rooms’. 

Initially her parents were against Kusama becoming an artist but she was very determined and moved to New York in the late 1950s aged 27. She enrolled in the Art Students League of New York in order to obtain a student visa. 

Whilst in America, Kusama thrived, successfully exhibiting throughout the 60’s with artists such as Mark Rothko, Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Peiro Manzoni and Gunther Uechker. She made lasting friendships with Donald Judd, Joseph Cornell, Eva Hesse and Georgia O'Keeffe. 

Kusama’s work was labelled pioneering and she inspired her female and male counterparts such as Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp and Roy Lichtenstein. Taking her art and visual language to the streets with numerous ‘happenings’ in New York from body painting festivals and fashion shows to more politically charged anti-war demonstrations. 

More of Kusama’s work in the shape of multimedia installations became a commentary on the social, political and cultural landscape of the time. 

Kusama moved back to Japan in 1975 and is hospitalised at Seiwa Hospital in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. By 1977 Kusama became a permanent resident but works daily in her nearby studio. Diagnosed with obsessional neurosis, explains her  use of  repetitive pattern making and obsessional working habits, which she describes as therapeutic.

Kusama continues to work and has her work in many permanent collections around the world and has launched a literary career by publishing several novels, a poetry collection and an autobiography. 

 "I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day, and the only method I have found that relieved my illness is to keep creating art," she told an interviewer in 2012. "I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live."

Kusama notes, "You attempt to flee from psychic obsession by choosing to paint the very vision of fear, from which one would ordinarily avert one¹s eyes. I paint them in quantity; in doing so, I try to escape."

 Kusama in her studio, Tokyo, Japan, December 2010 / Image courtesy: Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo / © Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio inc.

Kusama in her studio, Tokyo, Japan, December 2010 / Image courtesy: Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo / © Yayoi Kusama, Yayoi Kusama Studio inc.


Dame Paula Rego Portuguese Artist 1935 - 2022

Paula Rego in her studio, image courtesy of the National Gallery

Paula Rego in her studio, image courtesy of the National Gallery 

Born in Lisbon in 1935 Paula Rego became one of the most recognised names in Modern Art. Rego moved to the UK to study in 1952 and became a student at the renowned Slade School of Art. She later became an Associate Artist between 1989-91 at the National Gallery of Art in London. Rego divided her time between Lisbon and London throughout her life. 

Rego is known for her uncompromising and sometimes difficult but real themes, such as  power struggles, grief, poverty, rebellion, sexuality, gender, Women’s rights and abortion rights. Taking on large-scale figurative themes and complex narratives, Rego’s images are filled with psychological tensions, emotions and drama. She became one of the most important and influential figurative artists of her generation.

Rego depicts the harsh realities of life from a woman's and personal perspective, a feminist, a mother, a daughter, a political commentator and a fighter of women's rights. Rego worked across many disciplines, including Print, collage, Pastels, paint and sculptural installations. 

Another constant theme in Rego’s work was the reinvention of traditional tales, fairy tales and folktales, nursery rhymes and children's stories; from authors such as Franz Kafka, Hans Christian Andersen and Charlotte Bronte. The reimagining of familiar stories but recreated in unfamiliar landscapes makes us question what we think we know about them and fuels in us, our own curiosity and imagination. 

Rego’s work can be seen in many public collections around the world, including Abbot Hall Art Gallery Kendal, Berardo Collection Museum, Sintra Museum of Modern Art Portugal, British Council, London, Casa das Histórias Paula Rego Cascais Portugal, Frissiras Museum, Athens, Leeds Art Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, National Gallery London, Whitworth Art Gallery Manchester and the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery to name but a few. 

Image taken in 2019,  Casa das Histórias Paula Rego Cascais, Portugal.

Image taken in 2019, Casa das Histórias Paula Rego Cascais, Portugal. 

Bridget Riley; Born 24th april 1931

Further reading -http://bridgetrileyservices.com/news.html 


Detail from ‘Pause’, 1964. Photograph:  © Bridget Riley 2019  

Detail from ‘Pause’, 1964. Photograph: ©Bridget Riley 2019 

‘Focusing isn't just an optical activity, it is also a mental one.’ ... Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley is an English painter, writer and curator, who is best known for her Optical Art paintings of the 60’s.  She attended Cheltenham Ladies’ College (1946-48) and then studied Art at Goldsmiths (1949-52) before studying at The Royal College of Art (1952-55). Riley’s work challenged the work of her contemporaries of the time, she developed her own visual language re-inventing Western perspective and traditional notions of pictorial space.

Riley closely studied the work of Henri Matisse, Pierre Nonnard, Paul Klee and Georges Seurat. Seurat's pointillism style was the turning point for Riley. She even made a version of his paintings to understand his working process and methods.

She concluded: “His work gave me a sense of the viewer’s importance as an active participant. Perception became the medium”

From this revelation Riley’s art became a 2 dimensional composition of implied movement. Lines and shapes became a blurring rhythmic sea which visually disorientates the spectator. An optical paradox occurs when viewing her work, with no fixed centre, your eyes cannot rest on one point, her compositions reach from edge to edge, producing sensations of movement.

Riley used black and white geometric shapes and patterns that disappeared into the canvas then emerged again, to alter our perceptions of space. She introduced colour in 1967 to create a new series of propositions for our gaze to solve.

Riley’s large abstract coloured canvases also provide an immersive experience. The abstract images are executed with precision; harmonious tonal stripes or shapes are repeated, placed next to each other as though conjoined in a collective dance. 

Detail from ‘High sky’  1991. Photograph: © Bridget Riley 2019

Detail from ‘High sky’  1991. Photograph: © Bridget Riley 2019

Frida Kahlo - (6 July 1907 - 13 July 1954) Mexican Artist.

Frida Kahlo, self portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird 1940, copyright Frida Kahlo, Harry Ransom Center Austin Texas, image courtesy of www.FridaKahlo.org

Frida Kahlo, self portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird 1940, copyright Frida Kahlo, Harry Ransom Center Austin Texas, image courtesy ofwww.FridaKahlo.org 

Frida Kahlo is a globally recognised artist, who through her tenacity and strong willed nature became an iconic figure in the Neomexicanismo Art Movement. Her life story, plagued with tragedy and horrific personal events became the inspiration for her artwork. Kahlo created narratives of her real life experiences in graphic detail. 

Her self-portraits became a predominant and recurring theme in her work. ‘Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird’1940, Oil on Canvas, is indicative of her mature style of portraiture; featuring just a head and shoulder composition with a sophisticated use of colour palette. Kahlo includes fine details and delicate brushwork and uses symbolic references to make personal, cultural or religious statements. In this self portrait, she is being choked by tendrils of thorns, all piercing her throat, she is bleeding and the hummingbird lies dead and lifeless; this painting may symbolise Frida’s emotional state, enduring a life being trapped by pain. Kahlo suffered from polio as a child and nearly died in a bus accident as a teenager, which left Kahlo severely injured. In her lifetime she endured over 30 operations.  

She was inspired by traditional Mexican motifs, traditional costumes, nature, by her country’s popular culture, its volatile political landscape and her strong political beliefs.  Gender, class and race became starting points, mixed with autobiographical references. Fantasy elements appeared in her work, which led some critics to class her as a Surrealist. 

Kahlo had strong connections to Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp and was also admired by other artists and designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró  She struck up a close relationship with Georgia O’Keeffe who became a mentor figure.

Kahlo herself said, "They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn't. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."

Kahlo’s work took on a naive folk art style, with bright colours, and a shallow picture plane. Her self-portraits are brutally honest,  portraying raw emotion, physical and psychological wounds from her life. Pain, disability, injury and fragility all play out in her narratives.

During her life, Frida created 143 paintings including 55 self-portraits. 

Kahlo said, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

Kahlo was also known as the wife of the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, an accomplished painter 20 years her senior. They married in 1929 and divorced in 1939; they remarried in 1940. Their marriage was far from idyllic, it was not your typical love story; they both had extramarital affairs, their relationship was tumultuous and plagued with messy fights and fall outs. However they painted each other for 25 years. 

Kahlo has been classed and “one of Mexico’s most important twentieth-century figures” she greatly influenced  modern art, inspiring future female artists to use and communicate  themes of identity, nudity, physical and psychological themes, the pain, trauma and devastation of losing a child. Kahlo has become an icon for several minority groups and political movements such as feminists, the LGBTQ community and Chicano culture.

Frida Kahlo has also had a great influence on contemporary fashion in many ways, through her own individual style and traditional costume, her hair and headdresses and through the appropriation of her self-portraits. Designers such asAlexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld for CHANEL, Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy, Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior or Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons have all made references to her style.

Berthe Morisot; 1841 - 1895 French Impressionist artist.

Upcoming Exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. 

By Berthe Morisot, ‘Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight’, (1875) © Musée Marmottan Monet,   Courtesy Dulwich Picture Gallery.

By Berthe Morisot, ‘Eugène Manet on the Isle of Wight’, (1875) © Musée Marmottan Monet,   Courtesy Dulwich Picture Gallery.  

Born in Bourges in France into a high ranking, affluent family. She had three siblings and  a private governess. They had a very cultured and privileged upbringing before moving to Paris. Berthe and her sisters were enrolled into the most reputable schools. From a very early age Morisot showed artistic potential whilst studying the masters in the Louvre with her art tutors  Geoffroy-Alphonse Chocarne and  Joseph Guichard.  In 1861 she was introduced to the  landscape and figurative artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot; she took up the plein air method of working, in keeping with the Impressionists ethos.

Bethe Morisot was a respected painter and frequently exhibited her work in the highly esteemed Salon De Paris before becoming a famous and influential Impressionist painter. 

She was the first female painter invited to show with the Impressionists. She exhibited her work in 7 of the 8 exhibitions at the Studio of the photographer Nadar. She was friends with Edward Manet and they influenced each other's style and practice. She was married to his brother Eugène Manet whom she painted on several occasions. Between 1874 and 1886, she exhibited her work alongside Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Renoir and Sisley.  

Morisot's work shows strong and confident brush strokes capturing the transient light effects of interior and en plein air themes. She paints domestic and exterior scenes with the same intimate closeness. Morisot worked in watercolours, pastels and oil paints simultaneously, using her preliminary sketches and watercolour paintings to inform her oil paintings. She was inspired by domestic scenes of family life, children, ladies, portraits and flowers which she made the subject of her paintings. She was also interested in landscapes, boating themes, gardens and later in her career nudes. 

Berthe Morisot, The Garden at Maurecourt, ca. 1884. Image COURTESY TOLEDO MUSEUM OF ART 

Berthe Morisot, The Garden at Maurecourt, ca. 1884. ImageCOURTESY TOLEDO MUSEUM OF ART

 Mary Cassatt; 1844 - 1926 American Impressionist artist.

Mother and Child By Mary Casatt, 1909-1914, pastel on paper,  High museum of Art

Mother and Child By Mary Casatt, 1909-1914, pastel on paper, 
High museum of Art

“If painting is no longer needed, it seems a pity that some of us are born into the world with such a passion for line and color.”

“I have touched with a sense of art some people – they felt the love and the life. Can you offer me anything to compare to that joy for an artist?”... Mary Cassatt

Born in Pennsylvania in the United States in 1844, Mary Cassatt became known as one of the very few women who joined the Impressionists group, with her broad, and lively brushstrokes, bright palettes and quiet but sensitive scenes of everyday life. 

Cassatt’s paintings capture the movement of light on the figure and in her genre scenes she sensitively reproduces the intimate bonds between  mother and child. Cassatt painted the lives of ordinary women and their daily routines and frequently exhibited these paintings at the Salon in Paris. She was an innovative and modern, feminist supporter and painter, working in a variety of mediums. Her use of pastels was masterful, layers of complementary colours laid down next to each other or over each other to produce an intense richness to the surface; this is especially evident in her piece entitled ‘Mother and Child’ 1914 seen above. 

Cassatt came from a wealthy family that supported a formal arts education. She was well travelled and was tutored by academic mentors such as Jean-Léon Gérôme and Édouard Frère. She studied classical masterpieces by Velázquez, Rubens and Correggio. She  eventually settled in Paris, and became close friends with Degas who invited her to exhibit her work in at least four of the eight Impressionists Exhibitions.

She was the only American woman artist to join the Impressionist group and  she managed to support herself as an artist and printmaker.  



Artemisia Gentileschi17th -Century Baroque painter  (1593 - 1654 or later)

"With me your Illustrious Lordship will not lose and you will find the spirit of Caesar in the soul of a woman"

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Artemisia Gentileschi, image courtesy of The National Gallery

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Artemisia Gentileschi, image courtesy of The National Gallery

A strong and influential female artist, Artemisia is the most celebrated female painter of the 17th century. She was born in Rome, the only daughter and eldest child of Orazio Gentileschi, a father and painter under whom she trained. 

She later worked in Florence, Venice, Naples, Rome and London.Artemisia's career as an artist was very successful in Florence. She was the first woman accepted into the  Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing). She worked for many illustrious families including the Medici family, Grand Duke of Tuscany and Philip IV of Spain. She was influenced by the work of her father and Caravaggio. 

Gentileschi created dramatic narratives with a stark realism and a heavy use of Chiaroscuro techniques, the contrast of light and dark can be seen in her paintings of Judith Slaying Holofernes and various Self-Portraits. Her work featured many women-focused themes, taken from Religious and Mythological narratives.  

Gentileschi depicted female characters with more dynamism than those of her male counterparts, not idolised characters in objective poses, but real women  at work. Classed by some, as ‘the’ first feminist painter devoted to feminist subject matter. Some of her self-portrait paintings echo the tragedies and violent events of her life, a rape victim, and survivor, her paintings are full of rich colour, chiaroscuro and drama.  Gentileschi’s paintings have inspired other women artists such as Judy Chicago, Marina Abramovic, Caroline Walker, Celia Paul, and Barbara Kruger to name but a few.




Ellie Jakeman
Ellie Jakeman

I have had a strong interest in the visual and creative arts since a very early age. After completing an Art and Design Degree and Post graduate studies I have taught Art and Design, Fashion and Textiles, Textile design , Fine Art print and Illustration for over 20 years. Before teaching I was a freelance artist and illustrator and decided 4 years ago I would return to freelance and commissioned work. I have created many domestic and commercial murals for hospitals and hospices. I work part time for ARTdiscount as a content creator and product tester.

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