Portrait 1
Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (c.1615-17), oil on canvas 2ft 4in (71.5 x 71cm) © The National Gallery, London

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It's gratifyingly easy to compile a list of outstanding 20th century female artists and artisans. 

That list would, of course, include Barbara Hepworth, Laura Knight, Lucie Rie, Frida Kahlo, Clarice Cliff and Georgia O’Keeffe – and on it goes.

But before the emancipation that started in earnest with Suffragette activism and the First World War, it’s fair to say the trade's craft side was almost uniquely male territory.

All the more reason, then, to celebrate those female artists who did make their mark before 1900, unwilling to be held back by socially-determined domestic roles, exclusion from guilds and art institutes and the absence of property rights.

And while those listed below benefited from having either comfortable backgrounds, parental encouragement or partnerships with like-minded spouses, such advantages do not diminish their achievements, given the constraints of their eras. 

17th century

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c.1656) – painter
Key achievement: Emerging as the most celebrated female painter of the 17th century and one of the great artists of the Baroque period, having overcome a traumatic incident in her youth.

Born in Rome to artist Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), a court painter for Charles I, Artemisia trained under her father.

The rape she suffered at the hands of painter Agostino Tassi before she was 20 years old left its mark – Artemisia took part in Agostino Tassi’s trial leading to his conviction – and many of the 60 or so paintings attributed to Gentileschi feature a strong female subject.

One of her best-known works, a self-portrait depicting herself as St Catherine of Alexandria (c.1615-17), was purchased by the National Gallery in London for £3.6m in 2018 (pictured above).

18th century

Hester Bateman (1708-1794) – silversmith
Key achievement: Building a silver business that flourished for more than 100 years, producing pieces that are highly collected today.

Of all the apprenticed trades in the English guild system, that of silversmithing was one of the more female-friendly. Women silversmiths in the 18th century, such as Ann Robertson, Dorothy Mills and Eliza Godfrey, had their own makers marks.

Hester Bateman of London inherited the tools of her goldsmith husband, John, on his death in 1760.

She gained her first mark in 1774, becoming ‘Hester Bateman & Co’ in 1790, training her daughter Ann, as well as sons Jonathan and Peter, as silversmiths to carry on the family business.

Mary Beilby (1749-97) – enamel artist
Key achievement: Became a leading figure in the early history of English glass as a co-pioneer of painting enamel onto glass objects.

Sister to William Beilby, a successful glassworker who was a pioneer in firing enamel into glass, Mary learnt to paint enamel onto glass with help from her brother.

The pair worked together from 1760 to 1778 at the Beilby factory in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Particularly popular with rich clients were heraldic pieces and objects such as goblets and decanters commemorating national events.

Highly collectable, some Beilby pieces are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Louisa Courtauld (1729-1807) – silversmith
Key achievement: Building a dynasty the led to the foundation of the Courtauld Institute of Art.

The daughter of a successful French silk weaver, Louisa Ogier was born in London and at the age of 20, married Samuel Courtauld, scion of a Huguenot goldsmithing dynasty.

Together they ran a silversmith business making high-quality, fashionable household silver objects in the French Rococo style.

Louisa came into her own as a purveyor of silver goods when her husband died in 1765. She took the reins of the business to ensure it continued to prosper by switching to Neoclassical designs as they came into vogue in later Georgian times.

Her son, George, became successful in textiles, establishing the Courtauld textile company and whose descendent founded the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1931.

19th century

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) – painter and print maker
Key achievement: Gained critical and commercial success at a time when women were barred from leading art schools. Became a leader of the impressionist movement of the late 19th century.

US impressionist painter Mary Cassatt was the daughter of a wealthy Pennsylvania family, whose parents encouraged travel but objected to her becoming an artist.

Nonetheless at 15 years old, Cassatt gained entry to an art school in Philadelphia, later relocating to Paris to hone her artistic skills. As women were not yet admitted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, she studied privately with the school’s tutors.

In Paris, she befriended Edgar Degas who invited her to exhibit with other impressionists from 1879 into the 1880s, when her work gained recognition and sales.

Cassatt is best known for work depicting women from the female perspective and her paintings of mothers with their children. Her work has been reproduced on US stamps, including The Boating Party on a stamp in 1966.