Numerous women artists created groundbreaking works at the side of well-known male artists, either as their pupil, model or partner – but many of them were unable to step out of those men’s shadows.

The anonymous “masters”

It is hard to know which visual works of art were produced by women in the pre-modern era. This is because female artists often worked only in family businesses or were employed in painting workshops and did not sign their own artworks. Instead, these were sold as the work of their male employer or head of the family. We can assume that many pieces by “anonymous masters” were produced by women.

Judith Leysters »Lustige Gesellschaft« (1630) wurde bis 1893 Frans Hals zugeschrieben, dessen Signatur über Leysters charakteristischen Initialen lag.
Courtesy Musée du Louvre / The Yorck Project, DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH
Artists degraded to pupils

Throughout art history, we find frequent examples of women inaccurately described as the “pupil” of a certain artist. This was true of Dutch portrait painter Judith Leyster, for instance. Although Leyster became a member of a renowned painting guild at the age of just 24, for many years her work was attributed to portrait painter Frans Hals, with Leyster credited merely as his pupil. In 1893, Leyster’s initials were found under a forged signature by Hals on a painting in the Louvre. This discovery sparked a re-exploration of Leyster, who had remained largely unknown until the late 19th century due to this misattribution. Hals, on the other hand, was celebrated as a great portrait painter, comparable to Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Today, the origins of eighty works attributed to Hals are being critically reassessed.

“Women are always referred to as pupils, even if they had their own successful careers for twenty years. As soon as a woman starts working with a man, she is considered his assistant.”
Ingrid Pfeiffer, curator at SCHIRN Kunsthalle
The ambiguous role of the “muse”

When we think of a muse, we have an image of someone who is passive, submissive, nothing but beautiful. Muses, usually women, are subjects who inspire artists, usually men, to create great works of art for which the men are then celebrated as geniuses. Today, we treat such obvious power imbalances with distaste. And thank goodness we do, as it is clear that the traditional concept of the muse must be called into question.

Man Rays Fotografie von Meret Oppenheim, 1933
© Man Ray Trust 2015 / VG BILDKUNST 2021
“An artist is expected to lead the kind of life that suits him – and his fellow citizens turn a blind eye. But if a woman does the same thing, then all eyes pop open. […] Nobody will give you freedom. You have to take it.”
Meret Oppenheim
Man Rays Fotografie von Lee Miller
© Man Ray Trust 2015 / VG BILDKUNST 2021

On the surface, the surrealists, who aspired to alternative social forms and lifestyles, seemed an attractive community for women artists. And yet surrealist art has a questionable image of women – revering them as nymphets, witches, incarnations of erotica, and the ultimate muse. Shockingly, independent and modern women artists like avant-garde photographer and painter Dora Maar and photographer Lee Miller are still described as “muses” to this day.

“None of these women artists would ever have voluntarily described themselves as a muse. Never!”
Ingrid Pfeiffer, curator at SCHIRN Kunsthalle Frankfurt
Artist couples – The art of (in)equality

Art history is full of love affairs and marriages between artists. It is striking that, in almost every case, it is the man who enjoyed greater professional success and renown. Many women gave up their own artistic endeavours in order to provide emotional support for their partner. They worked to earn a living for both, organized everyday life, took care of the children, and worked to promote their partner’s art.

In the 19th century, it was expected that a woman would give up her career when she married. French painter Marie Bracquemond, for example, exhibited her work alongside other impressionists, including at the Paris Salon, and she was held in high regard by Edgar Degas. But her husband Félix Bracquemond, who was also a painter and probably envious of her burgeoning success, had little patience with his wife’s ambitions. As a result, she soon gave up painting and her oeuvre remains limited.

Leonora Carrington und Max Ernst, 1937, Fotografie: Lee Miller
© Lee Miller Archives, England 2021. All rights reserved.

The list of artist couples where the man is better known than the woman is long and discouraging. Leonora Carrington was only with Max Ernst for a few years, and yet she is still known primarily as his lover. Lucia Moholy, whose sharp, clear photographs largely shaped our image of the Bauhaus, was long overshadowed by László Moholy-Nagy, whose photographs she developed in the dark room, whose texts she edited, and with whom she developed the photogram – an invention later credited to her husband alone. Marianne von Werefkin stopped painting completely for years in order to assist her husband Alexej von Jawlensky – an absurd decision that she quickly regretted, eventually resuming her practice and experiencing her most active and successful period.

“What I think is really interesting and fantastic is that now, belatedly and sadly after many of those artists have died, we can address that balance and we can begin to think that: Okay. Well, Josef Albers was a great painter, but boy, Annie Albers was an extraordinary innovative character.”
Frances Morris, Director of the Tate Modern in London
Josef und Anni Albers
© VG BILDKUNST 2021 / Courtesy of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation

Lee Krasner was only able to fully develop an independent career after the death of her extrovert husband Jackson Pollock. Known for decades primarily as Pollock’s widow, Krasner was not appreciated as an abstract expressionist artist in her own right until the 1980s. 

Jackson Pollock und Lee Krasner in Pollock‘s Atelier, Lawrence Larkin für The New Yorker, 1949
Courtesy Jason McCoy, American Contemporary Art Gallery-Munich
“I painted before Pollock, during Pollock, after Pollock.”
Lee Krasner

But while equality and mutual recognition seem to be the exception, there were some inspiring couples who flew in the face of the conventions of their day. One such couple were Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Robert Delaunay, who came to embody the perfect artist couple without having to sacrifice their own personalities. Russian avant-garde artists Natalja Gontscharowa and Mikhail Larionov even reversed expected gender roles – she was a prolific artist, while he promoted her work. The dream art couple of the 1960s were Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely, whose personalities contrasted as sharply as their art.

Yet even now, in the 21st century, we often find unequal appreciation of the man and the woman in an artist couple. While painter Neo Rauch is considered a star, Rosa Loy is usually referred to simply as his wife. One newspaper article on an exhibition opening was satirically entitled “I am the wife of Neo Rauch, and I also paint.”

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Pablo Picasso und Dora Maar
© Man Ray Trust 2015 / VG BILDKUNST 2021