Ten Bios of Women Artists Who Found their Place in History by Mary Zisk
“My cousin had given me his History of Art textbook, but when I poured through that fat book page by page by page, there were no lady artists in it at all! In 572 pages! And I went through it three times. Frontwards and backwards. There were plenty of paintings of ladies—a lot of them without clothes on—but no paintings by ladies. None. Zero!” —The Art of Being Remmy
History of Art by H. W. Janson was first published in 1962 and quickly became the quintessential text for college art history classes. But as Remmy—the 12-year-old aspiring artist in my middle grade novel—discovered in 1965, no women could be found in the chunky textbook. And it wasn’t until 1987 that women finally first appeared in the pages!
Thanks to the modern women’s movement and revisionist history, women artists are gaining the recognition they deserve, and biographies of trailblazing, creative women are now abundant and inspiring. Here are 10 books that will delight the artist in everyone.
Mary Cassatt: Extraordinary Impressionist Painter
By Barbara Herkert, illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska
Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) left Philadelphia to study art in Paris, a radical move for a proper young woman. But she was determined to follow her passion. Her talent was noticed by Edgar Degas who invited her to join his rebellious group of artists—the Impressionists. Cassatt’s portraits of mothers and children celebrate intimate moments with expressive brushstrokes.
Sonia Delaunay: A Life of Color
By Cara Manes, illustrated by Fatinha Ramos
Sonia Delaunay (1885–1979), was a painter of abstraction and color who was also a textile, theater, and fashion designer. In this book, Delaunay and her son have a fantastical car ride, gliding into a landscape of colors and shapes, as if they’ve driven into one of her paintings.
Blood Water Paint
By Joy McCullough
This gripping YA novel in verse and prose tells the story of determined Renaissance painter, Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656) who worked in her father’s shadow. Her passion for work enabled her to withstand prejudice and fight injustice. Her paintings of strong women from the Bible reflect the struggles and tragedies she herself faced.
Art From Her Heart: Folk Artist Clementine Hunter
By Kathy Whitehead, illustrated by Shane Evans
Clementine Hunter (1887 -1988), self-taught Louisiana folk artist, worked hard on a plantation, but found time to paint scenes of rural life on whatever materials she could find—window shades, glass bottles, old boards. Segregation laws once prevented her from going into a gallery that exhibited her work, but ultimately, her paintings became celebrated by museums and Presidents.
Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide
By Isabel Quintero, illustrated by Zeke Peña
This YA graphic bio presents photographer Graciela Iturbide’s (b.1942) work through first-person prose, illustration, and photography. An inventive depiction of the creative process, the book offers an intimate look at indigenous communities in Mexico and at Mexican Americans in the U.S.
Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos,
By Monica Brown, illustrated by John Parra
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) fascinates art lovers (I have a Frida Barbie, myself) and has been the subject of several bios for kids. This bio focuses on Kahlo’s life as a young girl at La Casa Azul with her beloved pets and creatures and the inspiration she found from Aztec culture. We meet the parrots, dogs, and spider monkeys that will find themselves in the paintings of the adult Frida.
Yayoi Kusama: From Here to Infinity!
By Sarah Suzuki, illustrated by Ellen Weinstein
Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) imagined the world and everything in it—the plants, the people, the sky—covered in polka dots. Her paintings, drawings, sculptures, and even her body are covered with dots. She travels the world creating art installations that spread and share her dots with everyone.
Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines
By Jeanne Walker Harvey, illustrated by Tiemdow Phumiruk
Maya Lin (b. 1959) is the artist/architect whose vision became the sobering and touching Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The daughter of a clay artist and a poet who immigrated to the U.S. from China, young Lin observed the woods and wildlife around her and learned to think with her hands as well as her mind.
The Girl Who Drew Butterflies: How Maria Merian’s Art Changed Science
By Joyce Sidman
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was fascinated by bugs and especially caterpillars. Her close observation and drawings made her one of the first to document the metamorphosis of the butterfly. The original paintings by Merian herself along with her passion and determination will inspire future artists and naturalists.
My Name Is Georgia: A Portrait
By Jeanette Winter
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is my personal favorite artist—from her images of New York City skyscrapers to her paintings of New Mexico mountains, skulls, and flowers. This book introduces us to the independent girl who grew to be an innovative artist committed to her own vision and freedom.
Learn more about women artists by visiting the National Museum of Women in the Arts (nmwa.org) in Washington, D.C. The Museum was established in 1987, the same year H. W. Janson’s History of Art first included women artist. By the way, even today, the book only features 27 women artists—out of 318 artists total, or 8%.
Mary Zisk is the author/illustrator of the illustrated middle grade novel, The Art of Being Remmy. (When mid-1960s attitudes kept girls in their place, 12-year-old Remmy Rinaldi is determined to be an artist, in spite of her father’s objections, competition from a boy, and possibly losing her best friend to a rat fink.) Mary lives in New Jersey with her daughter and four white fluffy rescued dogs. http://www.MaryZisk.com