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A Look At Some of the Earliest Female Artists

Since the beginning of time, people have created art. Whether that be through cave paintings or through pottery, art has always been a fixture of the human existence. While the contributions of female artists has skyrocketed in recent decades, with many receiving more recognition posthumously, most of the earliest female artists have been lost to time.

The biggest issue in attempting to recognize women’s contributions to ancient art is the lack of historical record. A recent study of ancient European caves found that 75% of the handprint paintings were made by women. This challenges the previous theory that male hunters created all the cave paintings in honor of their victories and instead posits that women not only created the handprints, but also the hunting scenes, since their lives were equally affected by the success of the hunt. However, the lack of written records means that it is nearly impossible to definitively determine whether or not the other paintings were also made by women. Despite this complication, these findings suggest that women have always been involved in the creation of art, an idea which is often forgotten since the most notorious female artists came along much later in the historical timeline. This would mean that the earliest artists in history were actually women.

Handprint found in the Pech Merle cave, which was one cave used in the study

While most ancient artists’ names were never recorded, and are therefore forgotten, a select number of artists have survived. One such artist is Helena of Egypt. Little is known about her life, except that she created artworks soon after the death of Alexander the Great. Her most famous, and only known, painting is of Alexander defeating the Persian army at the Battle of Issus, a scene which is recreated in the famous Alexander Mosaic found in Pompeii. In fact, scholars debate whether or not the mosaic was made by Helen as a copy of her own painting.  

The Alexander Mosaic

While early recorded history is regrettably lacking in mentions of female artists, they have always existed in the background. Oftentimes, the phenomenal work of more contemporary female artists makes it easy to only focus on them when discussing women in art history, however, the art world  has been influenced by women for millennia and it is important to recognize some of the earliest female artists, including those that remain nameless.

Sources:

Hughes, Virginia. “Were the First Artists Mostly Women?” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 10 Oct. 2013, news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131008-women-handprints-oldest-neolithic-cave-art/.

Lightman, Marjorie, and Benjamin Lightman. A To Z of Ancient Greek and Roman Women. Facts On File, 2008.

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