Art history reads like a litany of the same male names, over and over again, while women artists are sidelined as either “exceptional talents” or “token females”. For decades, women in art were thus excluded from academic discourse.

“There were many women artists who were much more prominent in their own time, but after they were gone art history came and shovelled dirt over their graves.”
Julia Voss, art critic

Although many women artists featured in exhibitions and enjoyed success during their lifetime, they were systematically written out of art history after their death. Until well into the 20th century, art history was the preserve of men, and while they did not deny the existence of women artists, they did for a long time use art produced by women to “prove” the superiority of male artists and consolidate that idea in the public psyche.

Artworks by women were considered separately – in special chapters on “women’s art”. Pieces by women were more quickly consigned to storage in museums and were more likely to be exposed to destructive influences. All this led to the ongoing marginalization and devaluation of female artists and the misappropriation of their work.

“During their lifetime, women artists were given opportunities; they had exhibitions, sold artworks, and received good reviews. But when art historians wrote about them afterwards, they suddenly played a very minor role. That shows that the problem lies in art history.”
Ingrid Pfeiffer, curator at SCHIRN Kunsthalle

Until well into the 19th century, any evaluation of artistic competence was dominated by the myth that only men were capable of creative genius and could therefore hope to achieve greatness in art. Women artists, on the other hand, were purely intuitive; they were “miracles of nature” and were, at best, skilful imitators.

“Mrs Cassatt is completely under the influence of the great Manet, whose artistic accomplishments she copied.”
Anton Hirsch on Mary Cassatt
Mary Cassatt „Mother and Child – The Godnight Hug“, 1880

Time and again, art by women was described using typically feminine adjectives like “tender”, “sentimental”, “graceful” and “irresolute” – thus subordinating it to artwork produced by men. The misogynistic current in art literature found its pinnacle in Karl Scheffler’s 1908 essay “Die Frau und die Kunst” (“Woman and Art”), in which he stated: “Men enhance their nature by becoming artists, whereas women warp theirs.”

Even the highly successful impressionist Berthe Morisot was judged purely on her feminine credentials. George Rivière wrote: “charming images, so delicate and, above all, so feminine.” Morisot’s free and audacious style, which broke with the traditional rules of painting, was not praised as a bold transgression but reviled as a shortcoming:

Berthe Morisot “Morgentoilette”, 1875-80
Courtesy Stickney Fund, The Art Institute of Chicago
“With her talent, why doesn’t she make the effort to finish her paintings? Berthe Morisot is a woman and therefore capricious. Like Eve, she takes one bite of the apple but then all too quickly abandons it. That’s a pity, as she bites very well.”
Paul de Charry on Berthe Morisot, 1880
Berthe Morisot “In the Bois de Boulogne”, 1879
Courtesy Erik Cornelius/ Nationalmuseum Schweden

The modern painting style of expressionist Helene Funke, inspired by her studies in Paris, was given a harsh, uncomprehending reception by Viennese art critics:

Helene Funke, „Träume“, 1913
Courtesy Belvedere Kunstmuseum Wien / Foto: KOBERSTEIN
“Images daubed crudely by a woman’s hand like a bricklayer with his trowel – images that are abhorrent to me and to most men.”
Arthur Roessler
Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler „Lissy“, 1931
Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler „Lissy“, 1931

Thankfully, however, the patriarchy that dominated art history did not go unchallenged. In her 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, Linda Nochlin reveals the shameful exclusion of women artists in art history, creating a groundbreaking manifesto for a feminist take on art history.


The role of art by women and its reception remains a topic of discussion to this day, and the sexism has not gone away. In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine in 2013, Georg Baselitz stated “Women don’t paint that well. That is a fact.

Although few people nowadays would go so far as to publicly express doubt about women’s ability to produce art, this bias is still expressed in less direct ways: women’s art is given less consideration in exhibitions, museum acquisitions and public collections, and women artists are far less likely to be awarded grants, prizes and professorships.

But change is in the air: women are increasingly taking on leading roles at art institutions – the number of female museum directors and gallery owners is growing, and those women are trying to bring greater diversity to art shows. And yet, according to the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), art by women constitutes just three to five percent of the permanent collections in Europe and the United States.


It is clear, therefore, that much remains to be done.


Sibylle Zeh

*1966 / German contemporary artist

Sibylle Zeh was born in 1966 in Stuttgart (Germany). She first studied in Vienna at the Academy of Fine Arts and the University of Applied Arts and later at the  Academy of Arts in Berlin. There she has been living and working for many years now – amongst other works, on the  „Künstlerinnenlexikon“ (encyclopedia of female artists),

„I practically make something visible by letting something else disappear“
Sibylle Zeh

By chance Zeh stumbles over Reclam‘s „Künstlerlexikon“ ( encyclopedia of artists) in a book store in 2006 and immediately notices how few women are included in the supposed overview of art history. By painting over all of the entrys for male artists with white paint, she makes the lack of balance visible.

„A few things have really changed for the better, for example there are Galleries that are very committed to showing a wider range of artists. But it can still happen to you today that you‘re walking through a museum and see just two paintings by female artists.“
Sibylle Zeh

Sibylle Zeh remains critical. She continues working on encyclopedias of female artists and other interesting art projects. News on the artist‘s work can be found on her website:

Discover the artists

The HIStory of forgetting

The HIStory of forgetting

The masculine perspective on art
Die Surrealisten, fotografiert von Hermann Landshoff, 1942
bpk / Münchner Stadtmuseum, Sammlung Fotografie / Archiv Landshoff