Women sculptors have had an unconventional path into the art world. Up until the 19th century, sculpture was an extremely labor-intensive endeavor which required teams of male assistants.
Hosmer hailing from an affluent Massachusetts family was trained at New York and Boston universities before making her way to Rome where she worked with expatriated American artists.
Mary Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), was an African and Native American artist of American origin who achieved international renown for her sculptures that explored racial themes influenced by classical Greek and Roman art. Lewis became one of the first female sculptors to gain notoriety for their work and helped pave the way for artists of color to succeed in an otherwise predominantly White artistic world.
Edmonia was born free in Upstate New York to multiracial parents who taught her art lessons from both her mother (a Chippewa Indian woman who worked making moccasins), as well as from her West Indian tinsmith father who gave art lessons; both later gave her art lessons that enabled her to draw during early days at Oberlin College (the first institution accepting black students).
Lewis then moved to Boston where she met prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and sculptor Edward Brackett who taught her the craft of sculpture. Her clay and plaster sculptures of Garrison, John Brown, and other leaders brought modest financial success; one notable creation by Lewis was her bust of Colonel Robert Shaw who led 54th Massachusetts Regiment composed entirely of black troops during Civil War – thanks to which Lewis could travel abroad to Rome, Italy for further studies in art.
Anne Whitney belonged to an influential American expatriate group of artists that included Harriet Hosmer, Margaret Foley and Anne Whitney. Like these women she adopted the neoclassical style that was popular at that time in Europe; some of her earliest pieces featured literary characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare or figures from the Bible as figures for sculptures.
Lewis made her mark during the 1870s as she posed for carte de visite pictures wearing her signature sculptor’s cap and jacket, along with a large dark shawl. These remain the only known portraits of her; she would only return occasionally due to her success abroad which ensured her an adequate living situation here in America.
Lewis was an accomplished painter and writer whose writings on art and politics provided a foundation for future feminist and suffragist activists.
Niki de Saint Phalle
Niki de Saint Phalle was an unconventional modernist artist who celebrated women and broke boundaries in an otherwise male-dominated art world with her unique aesthetic and playful spirit. As self-taught, Niki taught herself modernist art while remaining self-reliant enough to navigate obstacles that threatened her career with ease. Her vibrant paintings often combined flamboyance with feminist values in celebration of female sexuality – she became one of her generation’s leading lights due to this dynamic combination.
Saint Phalle had an expansive fifty-year career that saw her create paintings, sculptures, performative works, drawings and prints. Much of her earlier work reflected traumas she had endured due to physical and psychological violence as well as a nervous breakdown which led to hospitalization for treatment – however her artistic expression served as her therapeutic method and allowed her to release anger and frustration through creative works.
Moving to Paris in the mid-50s, she joined a collective called Nouveau Realisme and first gained attention for her ironic parodies of art informel painting through her Tirs series; these included plaster reliefs pocked with holes that burst when shot at, leaving stained surfaces behind them. Later she created monumental assemblages featuring monsters and mystical female figures which became her signature subjects.
Saint Phalle was an ardent rebel who dedicated herself to challenging patriarchal culture and artistic conventions of her day from day one of her career. Her outspoken style and undaunted determination inspired later artists such as Louise Bourgeois’ soft fabric sculptures depicting female bodies.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s signature work was her Tarot Garden sculpture park in Tuscany, constructed from 1978 to 1982 and considered one of the greatest accomplishments ever in terms of both scale and scope. Saint Phalle used her philosophy of care and compassion in public projects like this; one example being her early involvement in HIV prevention efforts with printing materials designed specifically to raise awareness.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s artworks are known for their vibrant colors and sinuous forms, with light reflecting off mosaic surfaces to produce a magical effect. Many of her monumental sculptures utilize mirrors to highlight curves and details within her pieces – like Nana Bloum 6 meters which features panels reflecting light to give an incredible sense of movement and depth.
Bourgeois was an accomplished artist renowned for her skill across sculpture, installation, painting and printmaking as well as sewn fabric pieces that explored themes of memory and the body. Influenced by Surrealism and Cubism among others, her innovative use of marble and bronze transformed them into organic forms that elicited emotions such as love or fear in her works.
Born in Paris in 1911, Bourgeois assisted her parents’ tapestry restoration business before joining Fernand Leger’s studio as an assistant. At first she studied mathematics before shifting focus towards art; upon migrating to New York in 1938 she taught art classes while exploring her own creativity with sculpture forms while drawing, painting and making prints to supplement her income.
Bourgeois began her sculpting career by exploring themes of femininity and sexuality. Drawing upon memories from her childhood as inspiration for her works that evoked feelings of anxiety and isolation, her spider and mother sculptures symbolized two opposing forces that interlaced in an ongoing cycle of struggle and attachment.
Bourgeois used her later sculptures as a form of emotional self-healing by incorporating elements of Sigmund Freud’s theories into her process as an “exorcism”. Her pieces often depicted her personal history and family dynamics – often her father’s affairs with multiple women or mother’s mental illness as themes within them.
As she continued her exploration, Bourgeois launched an ongoing series called Cells. Here she displayed symbolic objects and personal items arranged within rooms that audiences were invited to enter; symbolic representations of both husband and daughter could also be found here. Twosome, an installation by Bourgeois that used a motor to move two steel cylinders back and forth like breathing was also present – creating the appearance that logic and emotion are constantly opposing forces that must co-exist together within her.
Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), one of America’s premier female sculptors, became one of her generation’s best-known female sculptors for her monumental, monochromatic wooden wall sculptures and outdoor environments that set her apart from her contemporaries. Nevelson began as a painter before turning her attention toward sculptures as her chosen medium.
Nevelson was the daughter of Russian immigrants and was born in Poltava Governorate (now Ukraine), then part of the Russian Empire at that time. Following this move to Rockland, Maine in 1905 where her father owned a lumberyard where she could interact with material early on and by age 10 had decided she wanted to become a sculptor.
Nevelson began studying art at the Educational Alliance School of Art in New York City, meeting Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo while in class. Following graduation, she taught art classes at Flatbush Boys Club before working for Works Progress Administration’s WPA program where her first figurative sculptures such as Ancient Figure were first produced – these early pieces featured blocky interlocking masses as their signature features.
Nevelson began exploring abstract sculpture in the mid-1940s, using Farm assemblages of wooden, metal and found objects (e.g. Black Zag X from 1969) as her primary mode. Additionally she utilized new materials like cor-ten steel and plexiglass.
As Nevelson’s work developed, her most notable works became those that integrated multiple sculptures into one environment – known as “environments.” These large-scale assemblages demonstrated her depth of understanding about space and depth while making an impressionistic statement. These larger works stand as one of modern sculpture’s crowning achievements.
Nevelson continued her artistic exploration throughout her life by taking modern dance lessons with Ellen Kearns and studying voice and acting. She was a member of several artists’ organizations including Artists Equity as an active patron of the arts; additionally she collected books and records as well as supporting contemporary artists through her gallery which still remains open today in New York.