For centuries, women artists did not receive much support. This is often explained by the supposed inability of women to compete with male creativity. In particular, sculpture was considered a masculine art form because it required physical labor. Disdain for their achievements did not stop all women sculptors from creating astonishing and innovative works. Below are eight great names of female sculptors who have secured their place in art history.
1. Camille Claudel: The Forgotten Woman Sculptor (1864 – 1943)
Born into a wealthy farming family, Camille Claudel showed an interest in sculpture from an early age. Although her mother, a conservative Christian, opposed Camille’s desire to study, her father moved his family to Paris so that their daughter could become one of the first women to receive professional artistic training in France. A passionate reader, Camille draws her inspiration from myths, legends, popular novels and works of philosophy. His unique artistic talent was quickly noticed by art admirers and collectors.
While Claudel’s career was booming, his mental health deteriorated, largely due to his emotional and abusive relationship with another legendary sculptor, Auguste Rodin. Her mother, still disapproving of Claudel’s professional career, decides to take matters into her own hands by forcibly placing her daughter in a psychiatric asylum. The great artist would spend the last thirty years of her life in complete isolation, falling into obscurity decades after her death. For years, she was mentioned only as the muse and lover of Auguste Rodin. However, in recent decades, art historians have begun to highlight the uniqueness of Claudel’s style and craftsmanship.
2. Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907)
Edmonia Lewis was the first artist of African-American and Native American descent to achieve international fame despite barriers of race and class. Having lost both her parents prematurely, Lewis was cared for by her aunts. She also had to work from a young age. She earned her living by selling embroidered clothes. After her brother managed to earn enough money during the gold rush, he financed Edmonia Lewis’ education at Oberlin College in Ohio. Oberlin was well known as a liberal institution with dominant abolitionist views, which advocated coeducation rather than segregation.
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However, the progressive façade did not help Lewis complete his education. In 1962, as American Civil War continued, she was falsely accused of poisoning two of her white classmates. Even proving his innocence in court did not save Edmonia from a violent beating at the hands of an angry racist mob of local residents. This was followed by his expulsion from the college.
Edmonia Lewis continued to study on her own. Her first financial success came when she began creating busts of famous abolitionists lost in war. However, her real achievements began in the 1870s, when she moved to Europe and settled in Rome. After studying classical sculpture there, she created her most famous works, including the dramatic Death of Cleopatra.
3. Niki de Saint Phalle (1930 – 2002)
Niki de Saint Phalle began her artistic career in the 1950s, when the post-war world was particularly hostile to women who rejected traditional roles. She was born in France to a family of French-American bankers, but her wealthy upbringing did not bring many joys to the aspiring artist’s life. From her early years, Niki de Saint Phalle and her siblings suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of their parents. In order to escape her family, she married a family friend, but soon found herself trapped in the same life of domestic duties and responsibilities that she hated as a child.
Shortly after freeing herself from her family life, Niki de Saint Phalle found herself in European and American artistic circles. His daring experiments with materials, techniques and formats quickly attracted the attention of young and established artists, from Robert Rauschenberg has Marcel Duchamp. Niki de Saint Phalle’s naive and playful style was just a cover to make room for conversations on uncomfortable and sensitive topics like AIDS crisisracial and gender inequalities and climate change.
4. Augusta Savage (1892-1962)
Augusta Savage, the great American sculptor of the Harlem Renaissance, began experimenting with clay in his early teens, much to the anger of his father, a Methodist minister who considered creating art to be a sin. Despite years of beatings and abuse, she remained persistent, then moved to New York and received a scholarship to Cooper Union College. A prestigious art school in France also accepted Savage as a student, but the American side refused to send her there, saying other students would feel uncomfortable studying with a black woman.
Yet, with the help of his patrons and fellow sculptors, Augusta Sauvage managed to cross the ocean and settle in Paris for several years. There she not only researched European art, but actively presented and sold her own works, even winning prestigious awards. She returned to the United States in the early 1930s, when Great Depression put artistic production on hold. Determined to help her community, she opened an art studio and two art galleries, teaching children and adults to paint and sculpt. Although a relatively small number of his works survive, his influence on the growing African American art scene was evident and lasting.
5. Wangechi Mutu (1972 –)
Wangechi Mutu is a contemporary Kenyan sculptor who explores cultural identity and femininity through the lens of African culture and history. Often described as an Afrofuturist, Mutu creates fantastical sculptures blending science fiction and African tradition, overturning colonial narratives and imagining new futures.
In 2019, The Metropolitan Museum in New York commissioned a series of facade sculptures from Wangechi Mutu. The niches facing Fifth Avenue had been empty since the museum was built, and Mutu was the first artist asked to fill them with new pieces. The artist first thought of caryatids, ancient Greek sculptures depicting women holding up buildings in place of columns. She married this concept with traditional African sculpture of seated women, transforming them into alien figures greeting visitors. Among the figures’ most notable features were the lip plates, traditionally worn by women belonging to the upper classes of some Ethiopian tribes. Mutu transformed them into mirrors, reflecting light and interacting with the viewer as they approached the museum building. After Mutu’s initial involvement, the Met decided to modify the facade sculptures annuallyordering pieces from different contemporary sculptors.
6.Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010)
The French sculptor Louise Bourgeois has built his own mythology throughout his long career. Much of Bourgeois’ work is rooted in his childhood experiences. She documented her mother’s comforting but fleeting presence by creating spiders. For Bourgeois, a spider is a friendly creature, providing protection against disease-carrying mosquitoes. The spider web motif was equally crucial to the artist since his mother was a tapestry weaver and restorer.
The treatment of a father figure in Bourgeois’s work reflected feelings of fear, disgust, and distrust. Her father had a series of affairs barely hidden from his wife and daughter. Bourgeois depicted his toxic and depressing presence in his installation Destruction of the father. The composition comes from a childhood dream in which Bourgeois and his siblings dismembered and ate their father. Her father’s numerous affairs had an impact on Bourgeois’s treatment of sexuality in art, which was the subject of numerous research papers and critical essays. The sexuality in his works is neither romantic nor joyful but distorted, often repugnant and forever marked by early trauma.
7. Kara Walker (1969 – )
Contemporary artist Kara Walker is one of the leading Afro-American voice in the art world. She is known for her uncompromising treatment of themes surrounding slavery, systemic racism and violence. Although Walker is a multidisciplinary artist, sculpture remains an important part of her work. One of the main characteristics of Walker’s work is its subversion of prestigious, types of predominantly white arts and crafts that were popular during the colonial era. By mixing contexts and symbols, she points out the hypocrisy and cruelty of certain moments in history.
The monumental sculpture A subtlety, built and then demolished in 2014, showed a 75-foot-long sphinx constructed from sugar blocks in a former sugar factory. Sugar sculptures were popular table decorations in Western aristocratic homes. At the same time, sugar production involved slave labor, with slaves barely having access to the product they produced. The features of the sphinx have little in common with the famous Egyptian figure. Its sphinx shows a stereotypical depiction of a black woman, mother and servant in the era before the Civil rights movement.
8. Feminist sculptor: Judy Chicago (1939 – )
The most famous work of Judy Chicago is the monumental Dinner. However, his sculptural work is not limited to the famous triangular table. Chicago is primarily known as a feminist artist. At the beginning of his career, the artist worked on minimalist sculpture. By simplifying the vocabulary of shapes, she focused on the nuances of colors and tones. The title of the work comes from the name of soul singer Wilson Pickett, popular in the 1960s. Critics, including Clement Greenbergmet Judy Chicago’s early minimalist works with appreciation, but her later success overshadowed these pieces.