A Painting of Womanhood

By Eden Haddad

Painting: La Vénus d’Urbin, Titien, 1538

Art is an outlet for human emotions to be expressed creatively. For centuries, human beings have found comfort in drawing, painting, sculpting and sketching the world around them. Giving life to their own imaginations in every possible way. Though it is considered a skill in current times, art – in its origins – was once limitless. Anyone could draw anything he/she wanted without worrying about being judged by critics or meeting impossible standards. Over time this changed, but the core of it remained the same. 

Art was a representation and a fantasy. It is the best and worst of humanity. When considering the realm of this skill and its masters, one would automatically think of the likes of Leonardo Davinci, Michelangelo, or even Picasso. In other words, countless male artists come to mind in relation to the practitioners of this craft and countless women in relation to their art. Venus, the Virgin Mary, the Mona Lisa… are all examples of the famous women painted and sketched time and time again. However, they are among the few in their category that are known. Many more remain unidentified and nameless, only existing within a limited capacity. In fact, this is so prevalent in the art community that, in schools of the discipline, drawing a nude woman is the final stage of true artistry for a student. Although, this is only true in accordance with men, as it was considered blasphemous for women to sketch human subjects in the nude. There have been a great stride made in the world of art towards the inclusion of women and their acknowledgment as equal artists. Nonetheless, a large gap remains between gaining equality for male and female artists as well as considering women as subjects and not just objects. 

            The need to integrate gender stems is for more than the progression of the world at large. It is inherently born from art. Though the definition of it changes from person to person, history stands as witness to the inseparable link between gender and art. If not in the painting itself, then in the eye of the beholder. A popular example – and cautionary tale – is that of Georgia O’Keeffe. One of the most famous artists whose portfolio spans from paintings of magnified flowers to abstract art. However, the key aspect of her art that had risen her to fame was her gender as a “female” artist. Due to that, the perspective of those that would look on to her art changed. What was once meant to be images of flora and fauna, thus became euphemisms for female genitalia. Given that she worked as an artist in the mid 20th century, alongside the easily misinterpreted art pieces, led her to become known as a feminist painter that broke the barrier of sexism in the art world. Despite the seemingly progressive tone of this branding, it was something that O’Keeffe took issue with. Citing that she is not a female artist, but simply an artist, and that interpretations of her work are plainly that. Interpretations and not the direct intended subject to be conveyed. Her voice was drowned out by those that claimed to be all for women in art, thus erasing its meaning. This is a recurring issue for artists that happen to be women. Any claim to fame is immediately associated with their gender rather than their actual artwork. While it cannot be denied that gender does play a role, the truth of the matter is that, when it comes to the community itself, being a woman leans more towards the idea of repression discarding attributed skills of the artist.

To shed more light on the subject, theorist Laura Mulvey, through her work in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, introduces a concept known as “the male gaze.” “The male gaze” is the transformation of women from independent beings to mere objects. In simpler terms, it is when women are shaped in and by the gaze of men, being sexualized and stripped off of their autonomy. This can be noticed through the lack of attributed names of women appearing in most art work, such as “Le déjeuner de l’herbe” or in some cases having a common identity assigned to all. For instance, any young woman with pleasing features can be dubbed as ‘Venus’, after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. The common theme being that of pleasure, even though the focus is not on female pleasure, but to the contrary that of others. Women always provide pleasure, but never receive it. In art, this fact is very true and is displayed throughout history, its artists, and the works we know today. 

In Judith Butler’s “Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity”, the first chapter tackles the issue of the representation of women. Any attempt to do so tends to be defeated by the execution. In order to represent women, one first tries to define them. By defining them, they are then restricting them to this definition alone, even though a woman is many things. A woman can be influenced by her culture, ethnicity, environment, sexuality… So any definition would automatically exclude several groups. Simone de Beauvoir said herself, “A woman is not born, she is made.” Despite the multiple barriers and obstacles, both in and out of the world of art, it cannot be denied that this odd paradox does not diminish the importance of women s’ representation in every facet of the world, but rather ensures it by displaying the importance of carving a rightful place for each and every person.


Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16, no. 4 (1975): 6-18.

Beauvoir, Simone . The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Messinger, Lisa Mintz. Georgia O’Keeffe. New York, N.Y. :Thames and Hudson : Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988.

Edited by Zeina Abdel Latif

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