13 Of The Most Subversive And Inspirational Female Artists In The History Of Art

Throughout the history of art, there have been artists who have defied all norms to create art that stayed true to their essence. Of particular note, are the female artists, who emerged as powerful voices in the artistic tradition.

We take a closer look at these phenomenal artists and their artworks.


Artemisia was first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence, in a time when female painters were hardly accepted by artists or patrons.

It is believed that when she was a teenager, she was raped by a painter. She took to art to express herself after the incident. Her multiple paintings of Judith slaying Holofernes, is sensational in it’s interpretation of women overthrowing the oppressiveness of patriarchy.

Judith and Holofernes (1612-21) by Artemisia Gentileschi



Hannah Wilke was an American painter, sculptor, photographer, video artist and performance artist.

In her SOS Starification Object Series (1974-82), Wilke created a series of images, with little blobs of chewing gum resembling vulval sculptures stuck to her body. Her photographs represent a juxtaposition of tribal scarification and objectification, with her body being scarred due to invasive staring.

Starification Object Series by Hannah Wilke




Adrian Piper is an American conceptual artist and philosopher. Her work addresses ostracism, otherness, racial “passing,” and racism.

In her Catalysis performances (1970), Piper turned herself into a human provocation in public places such as the New York subway. She rode the subway after soaking her clothes in pungent substances for a week to make them stink. She muttered in the street, entered the elevator of the Empire State Building with a red towel stuffed in her mouth or simply made eye contact with strangers. Her aim was to bring attention to social unease and racial tensions in America.

Catalysis Performances (1970) by Adrian Piper



Recognized as ‘The Mother of American Modernism’, Georgia O’Keeffe is best known for her paintings of enlarged flowers, New York skyscrapers, and New Mexico landscapes.

In the early 20th century, Georgia O’Keeffe posed nude for her lover, Alfred Stieglitz, and painted explicit abstractions. Her paintings of flowers have been described as being highly sexual, which indeed was her intention. Her legacy of some 900 paintings has continued to inspire artists and art lovers.

Black Iris (1926) by Georgia O’Keeffe




Claude Cahun was a French artist, photographer and writer.

In photographs taken from the 1920s to 1940s, this French artist often portrays herself in male clothes and hairstyles, contemplating her own transformed image as she transcends the pervasiveness of gender roles. Cahun’s art is considered to be pioneering, in that it allowed artists to question the established notions of sexuality and social convention.

Self Portrait (1927) by Claude Cahun




Frida Kahlo lived in  self-expression. Some would say her work was Surrealism while some would label her as a feminist, but she simply carried herself as an individual — not choosing a self identity as a member of any particular art school — not even taking an identity as a particular gender. In being herself, she made significant contributions to art, women and politics.

Moses (1945) by Frida Kahlo




Louise Bourgeois was a French-American artist. Best known for her large-scale sculpture and installation art, Bourgeois was also a prolific painter and printmaker.

She explored a variety of themes throughout her career, which made it difficult for her to identify herself as a member of any particular artistic movement. She had a lot in common with surrealist and feminist artists, as some of her artwork delved into the female body and sexuality.

Femme Maison by Louise Bourgeois




Lyubov Popova was a Russian avant-garde artist (Cubist, Suprematist and Constructivist), painter and designer.

Popova worked towards what she termed painterly architectonic, which was an amalgamation of distinct styles. The advent of cubism led Popova to taking apart the traditional subjects of art.  A great example of her work, is her 1915 painting The Model, which eschews all gender conventions.

The Model (1913) by Lyubov Popova




Cindy Sherman is considered to be a master in socially critical photography.

In her Untitled Film Stills, she creates visions of herself to find her own identity. Sherman’s believed that the self is created by storytelling. She poses as a Hitchcock heroine, she re-enacts films, she presents herself with monster makeup, all to evoke situations which leave us with a knowledge of what shapes us.

cindy sherman
Untitled by Cindy Sherman



Francesca Woodman was an American photographer best known for her black and white pictures featuring either herself or female models.

Her art is heavily introspective, often depicting herself merging with her surroundings. It is indeed subversive but very gentle, as it explores a world only visible to the self, untarnished by the influence and expectations of society.

WOMAN (1972-981) by Francesca Woodman



Eva Hesse was a Jewish German-born American sculptor, known for her pioneering work in materials such as latex, fiberglass, and plastics. She is one of the artists who ushered in the postminimal art movement in the 1960s.

Her sagging, hanging sculptures reveal other dimensions to the physical world. Eva worked non-stop on an impressive body of work, completing dozens of major sculptural works and hundreds of works on paper.

Untitled by Eva Hesse (1960)



The Italian painter has over 100 works documented, making her oeuvre the largest for any female artists prior to 1700. She was the first woman artist to paint female nudes.She was also an official painter to the Papal Court in Rome, which was remarkable as she already had eleven children. She served as an inspiration to women of her era and continues to do inspire women till this day.

Portrait of a Lady with a lap dog by Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614)



Sofonisba Anguissola also known as Sophonisba Angussola or Anguisciola,was an Italian Renaissance painter. Michelangelo became Anguissola’s unofficial mentor. She received great opportunities due to her wealth and status, but she was still denied many possibilities as an artist because she was a woman. For example, because it was deemed improper for women to view nude models, she couldn’t partake in life drawing and her artistic scope was limited as a result.

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola (1556)


If we have missed an artist who has influenced or inspired you, please leave a comment and let us know.

Sources: Wikipedia.com, Huffingtonpost.com, TheGuardian.com


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