Why are there so few female artists in the National Gallery?

Many of us at the National Gallery have been concerned for a long time about why you can’t see women visibly in our collection. Now, we can’t change the problems of
history but what we can do is tell that story more widely. We also feel we’ve been responding to a zeitgeist because there have been many
comments on social media about why women artists aren’t represented in the National Gallery’s collection. We want to tell a story that is a deeper one of the representation of women in art even if there are only say twenty one pictures by women artists in our collection. Women are involved in so many parts of our story and we want to celebrate and draw attention to that to empower this generation and I hope the next several as well. There are very few paintings by
women in the National Gallery because there are very few women represented, period, in the story of creative arts. And that’s because for centuries women were basically excluded from history they were excluded from positions of power and they were excluded from doing anything that enabled them to show an independent and creative voice. Female creatives in any sense were considered oddities through most of the period of history that the National Gallery’s collection
looks at. I think art historians and curators are now very aware of the gender gap but that probably wasn’t the case forty or fifty years ago. What I’m really proud about here is that in this institution we’re really trying to redress this balance by telling positive stories about the women who are represented in our collection and about the other women who were involved in the production of artworks. Even though it was very hard for women to make a career in the arts some women did manage and this series of films is celebrating four women who did. Artemisia Gentileschi was a baroque painter. She was an associate of Caravaggio’s and she travelled all over Europe even as far as England. Rachel Ruysch is a really fascinating figure. Her father and mother were both involved in intellectual pursuits. She was somebody who was fascinated in the natural world. and you really get a sense of this in her extraordinarily detailed pictures of flowers. Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was a woman with an extraordinarily turbulent life. She started off her career being the successful portraitist of Queen Marie Antoinette and she was chased out of France after the revolution. And Rosa Bonheur is another fascinating figure. Born in Bordeaux she was the daughter of a painter and she became the most famous painter of animals in the 19th century. She was really a celebrity. The recent acquisition of Artemisia is really significant for the National Gallery. She’s an artist who we’ve always wanted to represent in our collection but we also wanted to acquire this painting because it shows the artist herself and it shows her too as a powerful role model for women. In terms of tackling the gender gap issue at the National Gallery we can’t change the past but we can change how we deal with the art that we have in our collection. Look at women who commissioned great works of art. Look at the famous women who were represented in paintings and also look at those women who collected pictures and gave them to us at the National Gallery, so that everybody can enjoy. It’s really important for me personally to spread awareness about
the gender gap in art history partly because I look back to my childhood, and I loved looking at art and there were so few examples of woman I could look at too. It’s also really powerful for me now, as a mother. Particularly of my daughter. She asks me these questions. why aren’t there more women in art galleries? Why aren’t there more women dramatists? And so, I think it’s really important for all of us to be able to answer these questions for the next generation.

35 thoughts on “Why are there so few female artists in the National Gallery?”

  1. As you say, you can't change history, but you can change your acquisition plans. The paintings are out there, so search them out and write the cheques!! And given the number of women who are reaching higher positions in the business world, pitch your acquisition goals to them and I'm sure they'll contribute to the cause…

  2. I've seen this whole topic be very much politicized, but i have faith in the National Gallery that the focus will continue to be on beautiful artwork and stories (as shown in this video, Rachel Ruysch being one of my favourite painters).

  3. They were not good enough. There have been many female artists rewarded in their own time and collected, it is a huge feminist lie. This is distorting history, due to modern politics.

  4. How about balance based on artistic merit? Pushing for artworks because they were painted by women is the XXI version of the Vatican's Fig Leaf Campaign.

  5. It's just an historical fact, there's not much more to be done other than put forward theories as to why this was the case. The past is the past, the social situation was different, women simply had highly involved and expected domestic roles that took precedence and impeded such things. Today people may find this "assigned roles" hard to understand, but it really may not have been so strange to people actually in it at the time, it was simply expected that men did one thing, and women did another, that there were things more suited to each sex. There are still many situations and roles like that today that even progressive people don't ever stop to question.

  6. The comments here show exactly why initiatives like this are needed today. It's not to change history, it's to create a balanced future. Cheers to the National Gallery for recognizing this need and taking steps to do what they can. No one expects them to change the past. But pointing out these beautiful pieces, telling their stories, talking about the women who did collect and promote art.. that's all part of it. Love this video and the sensible approach.

  7. "Excludet from history": This uneducated person shows no respect for history … Jean d'Arc, Katharina the Great,
    Caterina de Medici, Elisabeth of Russia, of England, Maria-Theresia of Austria, Madame Pompadour, Margret Thatcher,
    Hera, Apfrodite, Helena, Marianne of the french revolution, Hildegard von Bingen, Eva of Paradies … etc. etc. …

  8. This is such an important question and topic which applies to all the Arts including Visual Arts. However, the fact that you are asking the question is significant as long as the Gallery consciously and constantly seeks to remedy and redress the exclusion of women artists from the historically male-dominated canon. The women artists you do showcase are magnificent. Artemisia Gentileschi is my favourite.

  9. Why aren"t there more women artists? Fist of all, art was developed by MEN to impress women, and get a partner. Women don't have to impress men in order to get a partner, they just have to have a vagina. Second of all, women get pregnant. I know, it's a shock for feminists these days, but yes, it happened from time to time. And having children gives you little time for creating art. And third of all, because of the IQ distribution, women cluster more closely to the average IQ, in other words you get fewer extremely intelligent women, but also fewer extremely stupid women. And you need a high IQ in order to create splendid works of art.

  10. with women so busy these days at work and now with society trying to create a 'new' society where women thrive at the workforce, who is going to look after the kids? You can't have both. I really don't get feminism. I reckon a man could have written a maleist manifesto in the 50s and flipped the scenario and made the claim that men are slaves to women. They bust their ass for a measly check and then it goes on 'some' women he doesn't even love nor 'have' to provide for. No man would do that though because its a reprehensible accusation. I happen to think feminism was and is a reprehensible accusation, and a false one!! Women were never oppressed. The pill didn't come out till the 60s. And, family is more important than work. So, we should cherish the tradition of family and a women who thinks she can sincerely do both to the best of her ability without negatively effecting her closest kin is simply dishonest.

  11. This is simply as boring a question as you could ask. It's obvious why this has come to pass, why waste energy answering a simple question?

  12. Women were not invested in, they were going to be sold off to a husband and die young and that was the paradigm.

  13. guys and chicks are different. they have access to different kinds of pain (man's is religious, women's is childbirth) – which is pretty much why chicks can never be poets.

  14. 'Women are meant to be loved, not understood' (Oscar Wilde) See, women are for loving not for making artistic contributions – we might then start to understand them!

  15. ok – allow me to use the same exact equation in the opposite direction – Why did so many MEN die on D-Day? Why are there thousands and thousands of dead MEN buried in Normandy? Where are all the dead women? Why are there nothing but dead men throughout the majority battles of history and very very very very few dead women?

  16. thank you for this. i was asking these questions all my childhood and all my life because i always felt it as a problem. you helped! hugs from Czech Republic <3

  17. How about buying art from the living female artists to narrow the gap? Rose Franzen for example is a brilliant modern painter

  18. Can you do a "progressive" video like this but for black people…
    & Chinese ..
    & Indian..
    & Mexicans
    & Australians
    & People who are in wheelchairs.
    & countless other groups who are not represented.
    I don't believe in group identity. I believe in the individual.
    The galleries were fine as they were.

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