Celebrating the great women artists in our collections

For centuries, women seeking professional careers in the fine arts were restricted in their opportunities to receive 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.

Self-portrait Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Bru

Defying the odds

Some women ran lucrative commercial portrait studios and were the main breadwinners for their families. Some fetched exorbitant sums for their exquisite still lifes. Some broke societal boundaries and some were artistic innovators. And some are the greatest exponents in their field.

Here, we present a selection of the finest and most successful professional female artists in our collections and share examples of their work on display at our places.

Early professional painters
An Unknown Noblewoman seated in a Chair

Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) 

Lavinia Fontana 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 that 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. Her portrait of an unidentified noblewoman can be seen at Petworth House in West Sussex.

Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart with her first Husband, Sir Lionel Tollemache and her Sister, attributed to Joan Carlile

Joan Carlile (1600–1679) 

Joan Carlile was one of the first Englishwomen to be recorded as a professional painter. After her death she was described as a copyist of Old Masters in favour with King Charles I. Despite this, only her portraits of her contemporaries have been reliably identified. This painting of Elizabeth Murray (at centre), chatelaine of Ham House, is one of Carlile's earliest known works. Carlile and Murray were neighbours in Richmond, London where Ham House is located.

Portrait of a woman, possibly Mary Knott attributed to Mary Beale

Mary Beale (1633–1699) 

Mary Beale was one of the most successful professional female painters in 17th-century England. She was friends with Sir Peter Lely, court painter to Charles II, and enjoyed the rare privilege of observing him at work in his studio. In addition to making reduced-format reproductions of Lely’s pictures, Beale supported her family through her own thriving portrait business. In 1663 she recorded her thoughts on how to paint apricots. Although never formally published, ‘Observations by MB’ is the earliest known treatise on painting written in English by a woman. This portrait can be seen at Chirk Castle in Wales.

Master of still life
Still Life with Fruit, Bird's Nest and Insects by Rachel Ruysc

Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750) 

Rachel Ruysch 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 social interests in the natural world. This still life, from the collection at Dudmaston in Shropshire, presents a lavish array of fruit on a stone ledge. 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.

Venetian virtuosa
Portrait of Francis Whithed in pastel by Rosalba Carriera

Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757) 

Rosalba Carriera 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.

Painting in the age of Revolution
Garden Still Life by Anne Vallayer-Coster

Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744–1818) 

Anne Vallayer-Coster 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.

Self-portrait Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Bru

Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) 

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun 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, who commissioned this self-portrait.

Founder-member of the Royal Academy
Self-portrait the Artist hesitating between the Arts of Music and Painting by Angelica Kauffman

Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807)  

Angelica Kauffman 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.

The Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood
How the Virgin Mary came to Brother Conrad of Offida

Marie Spartali Stillman (1844–1927) 

Marie Spartali Stillman 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.

The Mourners by Evelyn de Morgan

Evelyn De Morgan (1850 or 1855–1919) 

Evelyn De Morgan was a prolific and successful painter. Her depiction of strong, vibrant women departs significantly from the languid, ethereal waifs of most Pre-Raphaelite painting, with whom De Morgan is associated. The Mourners is one of several works she painted to express her distress over the horrors of war. The linearity of design and the elaborate drapery reflect the influence of Edward Burne-Jones, however De Morgan's depiction of robust, vibrant women presents a significant departure from his example. The Mourners can be seen at Wightwick Manor in the West Midlands, where the work of 11 professional female artists are on permanent public display.