Skip to content

Great women artists

Written by
Image of Gabriella de la Rosa
Gabriella de la RosaLead Editor, Curatorial Content Online, National Trust
An oil painting showing a female painter next to a canvas of a painting of herself
Self portrait by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun | © National Trust Images/Angelo Hornak

The history of art is seldom told through the accomplishments of great women artists. Yet there are many fascinating stories to uncover: Rachel Ruysch fetched exorbitant sums for her still lifes, often outselling Rembrandt; Rosalba Carriera popularised pastel portraiture, taking the medium to unprecedented heights; and Angelica Kauffman was so popular that the word ‘Angelicamad’ was coined to describe the desire to reproduce her work in prints and on porcelain, fans and more. Learn more about some of the finest and most successful professional female artists, with examples of their work on display at the places we care for.

Obstacles to women in the arts

For centuries, women seeking professional careers in the fine arts were restricted in their opportunities for an artistic education. At times, they were denied art apprenticeships and entry to guilds and academies. They were forbidden to draw nudes from life – a fundamental practice in art training. Later, institutional barriers gave way to social ones, which proved equally – if not more – restrictive. Despite these obstacles, women have long defied conventions to pursue careers as professional artists.

Early professional painters

A seated women wearing a high-necked Elizabethan-style ruff dress with a vacant expression on her face
An Unknown Noblewoman seated in a chair by Lavinia Fontana | © National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

Lavinia Fontana

Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) was one of the most important portraitists working in 16th-century Italy. She first made her name in Bologna where she captured the likenesses of fashionable women of the aristocracy. With support and encouragement from Pope Paul V, Fontana moved to Rome in 1603. It was there she became one of the first women to accept and complete large-scale public commissions. She was married to a minor artist, Gian Paolo Zappi, who worked as her assistant and with whom she had 11 children. You can see her portrait of an unidentified noblewoman at Petworth House in West Sussex.

1 of 3

Rachel Ruysch

Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750) was one of the greatest still life painters of her time. She led a successful career that saw her elected to the painters' guild in The Hague and named court painter to the Elector Palatine in Dusseldorf. So successful was Ruysch that her pictures regularly fetched higher sums than Rembrandt’s. Her sumptuous displays of flora and fauna are rendered with extraordinary attention to detail and scientific accuracy, a reflection of wider societal interests in the natural world. This still life, from the collection at Dudmaston in Shropshire, presents a luscious arrangement of fruit by a stone plinth. A lizard can be seen eating a bird's egg in the nest in the lower right corner, a commentary on the promise of life and the certainty of death.

Still Life with Fruit, Bird's Nest and Insects by Rachel Ruysch

Rosalba Carriera

Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757) was one of the most successful women artists of any time period. Born into a modest family in Venice, she began her career painting miniature portraits on ivory to adorn the inside of snuff-box lids. In time, she became internationally renowned for her portraits in pastel. The use of pastels had previously been restricted to informal drawings and preparatory sketches, but her mastery of the medium elevated it to a serious and highly admired art form. Her clientele included British Grand Tourists to Venice. Francis Whithed (pictured here) and his cousin John Chute sat for Carriera in 1741. In 1754, Chute inherited The Vyne in Hampshire where both Carriera portraits can be seen.

Francis Whithed by Rosalba Carriera

An oil painting of three women in long flowing dresses. The one in the middle is wearing white and represents the artist herself. To her left is a figure in a red dress holding some musical notation on paper. To the right is a woman in blue carrying an artist's palette. Behind them is a mountainous scene.
Self-portrait of the Artist hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting by Angelica Kauffman at Nostell Priory, Yorkshire | © National Trust Images

Angelica Kauffman

Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807) was born in Switzerland but settled in London in 1766. She was one of the most prominent artists in 18th-century England and one of only two founding female members of the Royal Academy. This self-portrait, executed in 1794 in Rome, presents the artist as a kind of female Hercules, choosing not between Virtue and Vice, but between the discipline of painting (traditionally a male-dominated field) and the discipline of music (seen as a feminine convention). It was acquired in 1908 by Rowland Winn, 2nd Baron St Oswald for Nostell in West Yorkshire.

Self-portrait of the Artist hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting by Angelica Kauffman

Anne Vallayer-Coster

Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744–1818) was admitted to the Académie Royale when she was only 26 years old, securing one of only four places allocated to women at a time. Her precocious talent, especially in the depiction of flowers, brought her to the attention of the French court and her most important patron, Marie Antoinette. Vallayer-Coster was a superb colourist excelling in the depiction of a wide range of still life subjects including silver, shells, game, and in this example at Basildon Park in Berkshire, tools of hunting and gardening.

Garden Still Life, with Implements, Vegetables, Dead Game, and a Bust of Ceres

Vigée Le Brun

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) was one of the finest painters of her day. An immensely successful portraitist, she represented her subjects in natural, relaxed and intimate poses. Aristocrats, artists and authors alike sat for her, though she is best-known for her portraits of Marie Antoinette. With the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, she was maligned by the press and had to flee France. Her career re-flourished in Italy where she painted portraits of English tourists, including Frederick Augustus Hervey. It was Hervey, who built Ickworth in Suffolk and commissioned this self-portrait.

Self portrait by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun

The Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood

An oil painting depicting a man in monk's robes kneeling at a cross where the Virgin Mary with a glowing halo is offering a small child to the monk. The setting is a magical woodland and to the left, another monk looks on with hands in prayer position.
How the Virgin Mary came to Brother Conrad of Offida and laid Her Son in his arms by Marie Spartali Stillman | © National Trust Images

Marie Spartali Stillman

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927) was one of a small number of professional female artists working in Britain during the second half of the 19th century. Her opaque watercolour technique is characteristic of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, with whom she was closely affiliated. The flat, frieze-like composition is characteristic of Spartali's work, reflecting her study of 15th-century Florentine art. Her vision of the Virgin in a coppiced woodland is taken from a 14th-century florilegium on the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. It can be seen at Wightwick Manor where there is a strong collection of Pre-Raphaelite work.

1 of 2
An oil painting of three women in long flowing dresses. The one in the middle is wearing white and represents the artist herself. To her left is a figure in a red dress holding some musical notation on paper. To the right is a woman in blue carrying an artist's palette. Behind them is a mountainous scene.

Paintings in National Trust Collections

The National Trust’s paintings collection comprises a unique holding of around 13,500 works which exemplify British collecting tastes from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries. Many of the paintings still hang in rooms in which they were displayed historically.

You might also be interested in

Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, also known as Bess of Hardwick' by Rowland Lockey. Hanging in the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire

Remarkable women in history 

Learn about remarkable women in history linked to the places in our care, from the political player who helped make Charles II king to the archaeologist who helped discover a 7th-century Saxon ship burial.

A charcoal drawing of a lady in her mid-30s, with curled hair and a benevolent look on her face

Great women gardeners 

Learn about pioneering women gardeners from Edith, Lady Londonderry’s rare plants and symbolism, to Kitty Lloyd Jones, one of the first women to train as a professional horticulturalist.

Oil painting on panel of a Young Girl holding a Chaffinch

Highlights from 100 paintings in the collections we care for 

The 13,000 oil paintings in our care are nearly all displayed in the houses of their historic owners. Learn about the stories behind a selection of the artworks and their owners.

The Malthouse Gallery at Wightwick Manor and Gardens, West Midlands

The De Morgan Gallery at Wightwick 

Visit the De Morgan Gallery, a partnership with the De Morgan Foundation. ‘Look Beneath the Lustre’ looks at how Evelyn and William De Morgan were inspired to create art.

A painting of a young man casually lying on the ground in a green woodland glade. He wears ornate blue and white Elizabethan-style trousers and bodice and he has a dark brown beard and moustache. Behind him, in another woodland glade, there are two horses and another figure.

See great masterpieces in National Trust collections 

Masterpieces by Velázquez, Rembrandt, Hieronymus Bosch and El Greco can be seen in the collections at the properties in our care across the UK.