A woman of genius…

…does not exist, if she does, she must be a man’ 19th century art critic

Though women have a long history as artists, their contributions to the arts were shaped by the society and culture of their time. In addition, their reputations as artists were subject to the caprices of later interpretations of art history.

The Women of Genius series of drawings focus on self-portraits by female artists: women looking at themselves and depicting themselves as they choose.

It became a collaboration with Maidstone Museum, setting out to explore a new facet of the museum collection. The historical achievements of women in the arts were investigated by showing rarely seen artworks, hidden away in museum storehouses, alongside work about women artists by Cooke. The Fabricators series was created in response to craft objects made by women from the museum collection.

This became an online exhibition at GalleryEll


For most women wanting a professional career in art, access to training and materials was one of the main obstacles. Therefore, many early female artists were the sisters, wives or daughters of artists, giving them precious access to these resources. However, it then becomes difficult to distinguish between works of individual family members and identify those made by the women. One of the reasons that there are so few works positively attributed to Marietta Robusti is that her work was subsumed into that produced by the studio of her more famous father, Tintoretto.

Women of the time were not expected to have professional careers, so many were forced to give up their practice upon marriage. Anna Dorothea Therbusch only resumed painting after the death of her husband. Those who managed to overcome this often had husbands who were supportive and ran the family home, but family and domestic scenes often still featured strongly as subject matter.

Series 1 – Erased:Redrawn, charcoal, eraser on paper, 30 x 42cm

Artemisia Gentileschi
Sofonisba Anguissola
Anna Dorothea Therbusch
Anna Piattoli
Mary Beale
Lilly Spencer Martin
Angelika Kauffman
Caterina Van Hemessen
Barbara Longhi
Marietta Robusti

The Feminine Touch

Male genius has nothing to fear from female taste. Let men conceive…great art. Let women occupy themselves with those types of art which they have always preferred such as pastels, portraits, miniatures…or the painting of flowers” Legrange, 1860

There was a prevailing attitude up until the 20th century that women did not have the strength, or the ‘spark of genius’ to be great artists and that there was something essentially feminine about the work of women. Works by some of the artists here were bought by museums and collectors as that of their more famous male contemporaries. When the mistakes came to light in the 1950s and 60s, the works were reappraised as clearly displaying the “weakness of the feminine hand.”

Restrictions in travelling and working outside of the home in professional studios meant that women often specialised in portraiture and flower painting which could be done in the family home. Others specialised in media such as watercolour and pastels. These were more accessible and required less rigorous training than oils, but were seen as lesser pursuits by the art establishment of the time.

In addition, until the late 19th century it was thought inappropriate for women to view nude male life models. This restricted women’s ability to gain the most lucrative commissions of historical subjects. Lavinia Fontana was the first artist to challenge this, though critics noted that her works “…do not have the excellence and valour found in such things by great men, because they are after all by a woman who has left all that is suited to her hands and fingers

Series 2 – Sandpaper, charcoal, eraser, sandpaper on paper, 60 x 80cm

Anna Dorothea Therbusch
Judith Leyster
Adelaide Labille-Guiard
Lavinia Fontana
Elisabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun
Ellen Day Hale
Rosalba Carriera
Marie-Denise Villers


Before the 1500s, crafts such as tapestry and embroidery were carried out in similar studio arrangements as those for painting and sculpture, with collective effort used to produce works of art. The Italian Renaissance promoted the idea that painting or sculpture was the work of a solo genius, rather than an artisan product, so over time, craft skills were demoted and eventually associated with female production – requiring diligence and patience but not the ‘spark of genius’ needed for great art.

It was thought appropriate for daughters of the middle and upper classes to learn these skills to make them ‘accomplished’ ladies, so handcrafts such as paper-cutting, needlework and pin-prick pictures were practiced as amateur pursuits, alongside singing and music. The Maidstone Museum collection has many examples of these works, some of which are displayed here.

There were some women who elevated these various crafts to new heights, making an art out of them – perhaps even putting the spark of genius into them. These have been depicted here in a series of portraits using a technique of pricking holes in paper, a brief enthusiasm for which existed in the late 1700s.

Series 4 – 1000 Pricks, pinpricks in paper, 30 x 40cm

Julia Margaret Cameron
Mary Delaney
Harriet Powers
Bess of Hardwick
Anne Atkins
Mary Linwood


Women’s artworks and reputations as artists have often not survived intact. Either the provenance has been forgotten, the works attributed to male contemporaries, or has become subsumed in family-run studios. Due to the relatively low monetary value placed on women’s work, there is little financial incentive to conserve, restore or track down their paintings, especially if a piece has been passed off as that of a higher earning artist.

For some, only a self-portrait survives in an archive with not even a name attached. Piecing together the past can be a difficult task when often, so little biographical information is available. Many women who were very successful in their lifetimes became invisible for the majority of 20th century art history. This leads to the question of what will survive from our era. In a hundred years’ time, which names from our time will have been written about in the history books, who will be fetching higher prices at auction and who will have their work in prestigious collections?

Percentage of Female Turner Prize winners – 19%
Work by women in the Tate Modern – 17%
No. of women artists in contemporary art top 100 sellers list – 3
Women artists in the top 100 sellers at Sotheby’s – 0

Series 3 – Fragments, charcoal, paper collage. 50 x 70cm

Chiara Varotari
Unknown Artist
Unknown Artist
Unknown Artist
Unknown Artist
Unknown Artist
Arcangela Paladini

Installed view. Sofonisba Anguissola and Vicki Cooke at Maidstone Museum