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.
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.
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.
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.”