Women's Histories: artists before 1900


The exhibition Women’s Histories presents nearly a hundred works dating from the 1st to the 19th centuries. As the title indicates, this is not a single history, but rather many, chronicled through objects made by women who lived in Northern Africa, the Americas (before and after colonization), Asia, Europe, India and the ancient Ottoman Empire.

One of the exhibition’s most striking characteristics is its emphasis on the dialogue between paintings and textiles—after all, paintings are often also made on fabric. Featuring 60 paintings, 2 drawings and 34 textiles from different eras and national origins, Women’s Histories highlights works that go beyond traditional categories of the fine arts, seeking to offer broader and more plural perspectives. Although some of the makers are anonymous, the pieces shown were all produced by women. In many regions of the world before 1900, hand-made textile work was considered gendered labor, and was seen as the purview of women—no less than fine art painting was typically undertaken by men. Placing these different forms of work together demonstrates the persistence of women’s making across time. Despite textiles being excluded from definitions of art, and despite being barred from training in art academies, Women’s Histories shows that women have always made art.

In fact, some women artists have had highly successful careers. This was the case for pre-Columbian weavers, who enjoyed a prestigious position in Andean societies; for Sofonisba Anguissola, who worked for the Spanish court in the 16th century; for Mary Beale, whose husband was her studio assistant in the 17th century; for Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, who occupied the role of “first painter” of the queen of France in the 18th century; and for Abigail de Andrade, who won a gold medal at the 1884 Salon in imperial Brazil. Even so, women occupy a much smaller place than their male peers in art history textbooks, in official narratives, and in museum collections. MASP owns only two paintings by women artists before 1900: a self-portrait by Portuguese painter Leonor de Almeida Portugal de Lorena e Lencastre, and a view of Rio de Janeiro’s Guanabara Bay by English artist Maria Graham, especially restored for this exhibition.

It is difficult to point to feminist histories before the 19th century, and for this reason we say women’s histories. But looking back at women artists of previous eras helps establish feminist lineages. An encounter with these multiple precursors—named and unnamed, famous and obscure— invites us to rethink traditional art history and its hierarchies that tend to celebrate art as an activity for white European men. The unique spectrum of works on display illuminates that art is much larger and more complex than is normally taught.

CURATED BY Julia Bryan-Wilson, Adjunct-Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, MASP; Lilia Schwarcz, Adjunct-Curator of Histories, MASP; Mariana Leme, Assistant Curator, MASP.