Stencil of hand on cave wall

10.1 Female Painters in the Premodern World

The first of many problems finding the female painters of the past is that paint really doesn’t last that long. The surfaces people paint on don’t last that long either. So humanity has been painting for tens of thousands of years, but most of it has ceased to exist. To survive for those thousands of years, it generally to be done on rock and kept very dry and not exposed to many elements and especially not exposed to too many people. People are great at destroying art.

Even so there are prehistoric rock paintings still extant from cultures around the globe and that brings us to the second problem: it’s all unsigned. Most people, myself included, have the general, unconscious assumption that if somebody did something significant in the past, it was a man that did it. However, without a signature and some knowledge of male vs female names in the relevant language, there is really no reason to assume that. And in the case of rock paintings, there is a specific theory that overturns that assumption.

Some of the surviving paintings are handprints or hand stencils, and it turns out that men’s and women’s hands are not the same. At least in populations of European descent, women tend to have ring and index fingers of the same length, while men have ring fingers that are longer than their index fingers. Now remember this is only a tendency, not an ironclad rule. I am most definitely of European descent and when I looked at my hands for corroboration, I discovered for the first time that my hands have no symmetry. My left hand follows the pattern just fine, but my right hand would definitely be classified as a male hand. Maybe that explains why a guy in college told me I was very masculine. And he meant it as a compliment.

Anyway, this basic anatomical tendency has been used to analyze the hand paintings in caves in France and Spain, and the model predicts that 75 percent were done by women. Think of that! Of all the artists in there in the caves, working by lamplight, painting on the walls, 75 percent were women. 15 percent were adolescent boys and only 10 percent were done by adult men, the group we’ve always assumed were the artists (Messer).

Hand stencil on a cave wall
Hand stencil from Pech Merle in France. Notice that the index and ring fingers are about the same length, which suggests it’s a woman’s hand. (Source)

Now this conclusion cannot be corroborated by outside evidence because there is no outside evidence. And sadly the biological data don’t seem to hold up in Native American populations, so we can’t use it on their rock art (Messer), and I found no data at all on African or Asian or Oceanic hands, but my main point isn’t so much to prove any particular hand painting was done by a woman, but only to dispel that implicit assumption that they must have been done by men. As usual, women were fully capable of participating all the way along.

As we get into historic periods we still have the same basic problems: very few paintings remain, and very few of those have a named artist of any gender. As art forms go, sculpture, pottery, and architecture last longer, and that’s why you see so many of those in museums and historical tours. Never mind that all of the above was painted at one point. It isn’t painted anymore for the most part.

So we’re going to bypass Sumeria, China, and Egypt completely on this global history tour. But we will make a stop with the Greeks and Romans. We still don’t have much surviving painting here, but we do have some female names.

Pliny the Elder lived in the 1st century CE and in his copious writings, he included pages and pages about of painting. At the end in the very last paragraph of that chapter he deigns to admit that “women too have been painters” (Pliny, 170). He even lists a few:

  • Timarete, daughter of Mikon. She painted Artemis in an archaic style. No, I don’t know what he means by archaic style.
  • Aristarete, daughter and pupil of Nearchos. She painted Asklepios, the god of medicine.
  • Olympias, for whom Pliny lists neither a father nor a major painting.
  • Iaia, who was very popular in Rome in the 1st century BCE. She did portraits, mainly of women, and she charged more than the leading male artists of the day because she was both good and fast. She also did a self-portrait with the aid of a mirror. Pliny seems so astonished by this idea, that it probably was an original idea at the time.
  • And finally there is the female painter who has given the Latin grammarians fits because even classic writers sometimes write awkward sentences. Sorry, Pliny, but there is no agreement on whether Eirene painted (1) a maiden at Eleusis, (2) Kalypso, (3) an old man, (4) a juggler named Theodorus and (5) a dancer named Alkisthenes; OR if Eirene just painted the maiden at Eleusis, and another female painter named Kalypso did the rest. Pliny really needed an editor to rewrite that sentence and make it clear (Linderski, 343-344).

What’s interesting is that we can actually find an illusionist named Theodorus and a dancer named Alkisthenes listed as the hired entertainment at a party given in 279 BCE, giving us a date that Pliny doesn’t provide (Linderski, 352). What’s also interesting is the Kalypso was a common name for a slave girl in this period. So either Eirene thought a slave girl was worth the trouble of painting, or a slave girl was given enough opportunity to learn to paint at a high level (Linderski, 344). Or maybe Eirene just painted the mythical titan Kalypso from the Odyssey, which theory I find much less interesting.

None of these women have any surviving paintings, so far as we know, but don’t underestimate their skill. The Egyptian mummy portraits, done at about the same time by artists in the Greco-Roman tradition have survived, and they look astonishingly modern: graded flesh tones, shadows and highlights to add three-dimensionality, etc. These painters are unnamed, but there’s no reason to suppose that all of them were men.

Portrait of woman with dark curly hair and earrings
Fayum Portrait of a Woman (75-100 CE) (Source)
I have no reason to think the artist was a woman, but it gives you an idea of what painters of the period could do.

In addition to the five or six women listed by Pliny, there are a handful of other scattered references to female painters in the classical texts. These include one named Helen, who painted the battle of Issus which was revered in a temple for a long time. That battle was one of Alexander the Great’s victories, and while we don’t have a surviving painting of it, we do have a surviving mosaic of it, which some say was modeled after Helen’s painting. Others say there’s no reason to think the mosaic was modeled on anything, but I’ll put that picture on the website too, just in case (Photius, 190, Kampen, 11).

Fragmented mosaic of men on horseback and infantry with spears
Alexander the Great in the Battle of Issus. Some think this mosaic was modeled after Helen’s painting. (Source)

We will continue to grasp at straws over in India, but for an entirely different reason. The region of Mithila, which now straddles the border of India and Nepal, was one of the earliest kingdoms established in India. The climate is very wet, which is exactly the wrong climate for paintings to survive. And sure enough, they don’t survive. But by ancient accounts it has always been an area of great artists, and at least for centuries, some say millennia, the painters are women. All of them. Painting is taught by all mothers to all daughters. Men and boys don’t do it.

If the tradition is as old as some say, then these painters are far older than the Greco-Roman ones I just talked about. Traditionally, they painted on the mud walls of the houses with three colors: black from soot, red from clay, and yellow from carnation pollen. The pigment was mixed with goat’s milk or juice from a bean plant. The brushes were made from rice straws or threads pulled from fraying fabric (Véquaud, 21-26). To Western eyes, the pictures look flat. Shading and three-dimensionality to make it look realistic are not the point, but it has beauty of its own.

Indian painting of four figures in a forest with flower border
Mithila Painting (Source)

None of it was intended to last. Mud walls in a humid climate require refreshing every few days, which sounds exhausting. In modern versions, of course there is more color and paper. Especially since houses are more likely to be made of concrete. The original practical reasons may be dying, but the art is not.

At no point were these paintings meant to be just decorative. It’s religious. The artist is told not to paint if she isn’t in a meditative state (Singh, 84). Then she may paint Hindu deities or birds and flowers of the natural world. If done well, the painting is a blessing on the house and the deities will come and inhabit it (Véquaud, 21). This is particularly important when used around a wedding. A girl must demonstrate her skill in painting. The French researcher who explained these paintings to the western world found all kinds of erotic symbolism in the wedding paintings, but that has met with strong disagreement from others. Basically it’s a rebuke: Indians don’t need westerners to interpret their symbols for them (Singh, 86).

The female painters of Mithila painted for themselves, their families, and their gods. But Indira Gandhi admired the work and commissioned one to paint her house (Véquaud, 31). And it has become a source of income for women in the area.

If we circle back around to the European scene, we find that in the Middle Ages artists were maybe not as good at some art forms as their classical ancestors, but there was a whole new art form called illuminated manuscripts.

Now I have to confess that prior to researching this episode my brain had distinct categories for painting vs. drawing vs. calligraphy, and I wasn’t going to include illuminated manuscripts because in my mind it fit in the drawing and calligraphy categories, not the painting category.

However, it turns out the definitions aren’t as clear as I thought. Certainly some of my sources use the terms painting and drawing interchangeably and certainly calligraphy can be done with a brush, rather than the pen I used in my short-lived ill-fated attempts at it. Basic point is I’m counting these people as painters.

My mental image of a medieval illuminator is of a monk in a cowl and tonsure, sitting in a dark room, hunched over a manuscript. But it turns out that my image should include a nun doing the exact same thing.

The first major convent turning out scriptures and other books worked around 800 CE under the direction of Gisela, sister of Charlemagne. He was not taught to read and write as a child (it wasn’t considered a necessary life skill for an aristocrat), but Gisela was taught. This was not unusual at the time. Many girls were being prepared for a religious life. Literacy was a life skill there (Carr, 5).

Gisela’s convent produced thirteen books, and if that seems like a paltry number, just think how long it would take you to write out your favorite book by hand, even if you didn’t care about your handwriting. This is why books were so rare and expensive. Nine of the ten scribes in Gisela’s convent have signatures. All are women, but these books didn’t have illumination, just the calligraphy (Mihajlovic, 7).

The earliest illumination that we know was actually done by a woman is from Spain. On July 6, 975, the Gerona Beatus was completed and signed. The three names associated were the Abbot Dominicus who commissioned it, Brother Emeterius, and Ende, helper of God and paintrix (that’s the Latin female suffix on that word) (Gu).

Ende may or may not have been a full-fledged nun, but she was living and working at the Tábara double monastery, double meaning that it had both monks and nuns (Carr, 6; Mihajlovic, 7). The manuscript is 284 pages with 115 miniature paintings. They are full of color and geometric designs and many human figures with long faces and hands.

Medieval painting of twelve apostles with halos and colorful robes adn four palm leaves
The Twelve Apostles from the Gerona Beatus by Ende (Source)

After Ende there are many scattered references to women in the scriptoriums, though it is true that they were more often listed as the scribes rather than as the illuminators (Mihajlovic, 11).

Diemud of Bavaria was once credited with a whopping 45 books to her name, but further research has revealed that it was a common name in convents and that the 45 books were illuminated by at least 3 Diemuds and maybe more (Carr, 6; Mihajlovic, 8).

Then there is Claricia, who supposedly not only signed her work but also included a self-portrait. It’s a delightfully quirky little miniature of herself swinging from the tail of a Q in a Psalter from Augsburg, Germany. She did not paint herself wearing a nun’s habit, so one theory is that she was a well-to-do teenager sent to the nuns for an education (Carr, 6). I like that theory.

Latin calligraphy with illuminated Q and a woman in dress swinging as the tail of the Q
Claricia swinging from a Q in a late 12th century manurscript (Source)

The other theory is less delightful. Unlike Ende, Claricia’s portrait doesn’t actually say she was the painter, so it’s maybe not a self-portrait at all. If you pan out and look at the placement on the page, she’s got her back turned to the Virgin Mary and Holy Child on the opposite page. Also the Q she’s swinging from is part of the word Quid which opens Psalm 51. In translation, it reads “Why do you glory in malice, you who are mighty in iniquity? Your tongue is sharp like a razor.”

So according to this second theory, Claricia wasn’t a quirky teenager champing at the bit, doodling in the margins of her homework assignment. Nope, in this case, the painter is more likely a crotchety old man, thinking dark thoughts about kids these days, how disrespectful they are, especially that Claricia girl, who needs to learn some manners (Mariaux, 400-402). You can take your pick about which interpretation you prefer.

Less ambiguous is Guda’s self-portrait. She was a 12th century nun who painted herself into an initial and to the relief of historians, labeled it clearly: “Guda, a sinful woman, wrote and painted this work” (Mariaux, 414). In contrast to Claricia, she is wearing a nun’s habit and she’s placed within the text so as to suggest that she’s watching the Second Coming of Christ and hoping that her devotional work and humility will count in her favor when the Final Judgment gets around to deciding her (Mariaux, 414).

Latin manuscript centered on illuminated letter in green, black, and red
Guda’s Self -Portrait from the 13th Century (Source)

The more you look, the more references to women there are, including Herrad of Landsberg who compiled the Hortus deliciarum, a pictorial encyclopedia of poems, songs, and classical writings, and 336 illustrations by and for the nuns of her abbey.

Then there is Hildegard von Bingen, better known for her music, but also the compiler of texts. She may not have been the actual painter of the miniatures included, but the vision, the instructions, the idea was hers (Carr, 7).

And that brings us to the final problem in identifying female painters. Even if the work survived, even if it’s signed, it’s hard to know what that signature meant. Throughout most of history, painters were not geniuses, worthy of much praise and adoration, they were only skilled craftsmen and technicians. So the person who signed might not be the painter as we understand it. It might be the person who commissioned it or designed it. To make a modern analogy, an architect creates a plan and certainly deserves much credit, even though she probably doesn’t do the actual building.

Outside of the abbeys and convents, women were also painting. We know not because we have surviving signed paintings, but because of the guild records. Women don’t get equal representation or anything ridiculous like that, but in 1454 the Bruges painter’s guild was 12 percent female. By 1480, it was 25 percent female (Karr, 9). In 1339 in Florence, I don’t have percentages, but their membership is implied because their guild dues were only two-thirds that of a man’s (Mihajlovic, 10). Probably that means they were also paid less, but they were there.

All of this is about to change. With the Renaissance comes the view of the artist as a semi-religious genius touched by God, and geniuses generally like to sign their work. The sheer numbers of known artists will explode both for men and women. From this point on, my problem isn’t going to be finding the women, but deciding which ones to cut out. There is plenty of excellent painting. Even so, there will be no one in this series who achieved the same level of recognition as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh, or Picasso, and it’s worth asking why not.

In 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin wrote a groundbreaking essay called “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” She covers all the paternalistic explanations and rips them apart before saying:

The fault, dear brothers, lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education . . . The miracle is, in fact, that given the overwhelming odds against women . . . that so many . . . have managed to achieve so much sheer excellence.”

(Nochlin, 46)

Those overwhelming odds were upheld by barriers both internal and external. As only one example of the external barriers, Nochlin points out that the nude figure was an essential part of a serious artist’s education and repertoire from the Renaissance through the 20th century. As late as 1893, women were generally not allowed to attend classes with a nude model. But they were allowed to be the nude model which as Nochlin says, is “an interesting commentary on the rules of propriety” (Nochlin, 53). Women simply weren’t allowed to be serious about their art. As a result, women who wanted to make art often confined themselves to the so-called lesser categories: portraits, landscapes, still life. Not the grand, large scale works of a Jacques Louis David, for example. One thing Nochlin does not discuss is why a landscape or a portrait is considered lesser. I am possibly revealing my ignorance here, but I have to wonder, is there really something that makes those inherently lesser, or was it regarded as lesser because women could do it? If you know, get in touch.

As for the internal barriers, those come because art exists within a social structure. Women largely did not even aspire to be great artists. They were taught to value their roles as wives and mothers more. And both of those roles can be all-consuming.

The solutions are, of course, complicated. Great progress has been made on the external barriers, but even those sometimes persist and defy easy explanation. For example, the top price ever bid for a piece of art by a male painter is $450.3 million for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi in 2017. I imagine that statistic may already be out of date, or will be soon, but on the list of the 100ish most expensive art sales, there is not a single female artist. Not even one. A fair number of artists I had never heard of, but zero women. Georgia O’Keeffe holds the record for a female painter, at a mere $44.4 million for Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 in 2014. It’s almost a tenfold difference from Leonardo. The discrepancy is huge. Why? I don’t know, but it says more about the nature of markets than about the quality of the art.

The internal barriers are potentially even thornier than the external ones, particularly because we don’t want to tell women not to take their family roles seriously. At least, I don’t.

But here’s what Nochlin has to say. She says waiting for men to make changes won’t work. Instead,

“Women must conceive of themselves as potentially, if not actually, equal subjects, and must be willing to look the facts of their situation full in the face, without self-pity, or cop-outs; at the same time they must view their situation with that high degree of emotional and intellectual commitment necessary to create a world in which equal achievement will not only be made possible but actively encouraged by social institutions.”

(Nochlin, 47)

So starting next week, there will be no self-pity, just an intellectual commitment to look honestly at those women who did achieve sheer excellence despite the barriers in their way.

Selected Sources

Works Cited

Boccaccio, Giovanni. Concerning Famous Women. 1362. Translated by Guido A Guarino, New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, 1963.

Carr, Annemarie Weyl. “Women as Artists in the Middle Ages.” Feminist Art Journal 5, no. 1 (April 1, 1976).

Gu, Wen. “Ende: The First Spanish Female Manuscript Illuminator Documented.” DailyArt Magazine, 15 Nov. 2022, Accessed 23 Mar. 2023.

Hughes, Virginia. “Were the First Artists Mostly Women?” National Geographic, 10 Oct. 2013, Accessed 14 Mar. 2023.

Kampen, Natalie. “HELLENISTIC ARTISTS: FEMALE.” Archeologia Classica 27, no. 1 (1975): 9–17.

Linderski, J The Paintress Calypso and Other Painters in Pliny, ZPE 145, 2003; with addenda RQ II 2007

Mariaux, Pierre Alain. “Women in the Making: Early Medieval Signatures and Artists’ Portraits.” Reassessing the Roles of Women as “Makers” of Medieval Art and Architecture, edited by Therese Martin, Brill, 2012, pp. 393–428.

Messer, A’ndrea Elyse. “Women Leave Their Handprints on the Cave Wall | Penn State University.”, 15 Oct. 2013,

Mihajlovic, Maja. Dictionary of Women Artists. Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997.

Moore, Mary B. “Sophilos and Early Greek Narrative.” Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 51, Jan. 2016, pp. 10–29, Accessed 7 Sept. 2020.

mpinder20. “Female Painters in Antiquity.” Women in Antiquity, 3 Apr. 2021,

Photius, Saint Patriarch of Constantinople. The Bibliotheca. Translated by Rene Henry, Tertullian, 2002, Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.

Pliny the Elder. Chapters on the History of Art. Translated by K. Jex-Blake, London, MacMillan and Co, 1896, Accessed 15 Mar. 2023.

Snow, Dean. (2013). Sexual Dimorphism in European Upper Paleolithic Cave Art. American Antiquity. 78. 746-761. 10.7183/0002-7316.78.4.746.

Taormina, Tricia. “India and Nepal’s Mithila Art Is Having a Feminist Renaissance.” Atlas Obscura, 20 Nov. 2019, Accessed 20 Mar. 2023.

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