Home Magazine 25 Most Iconic Female Painters!

Hopping around the globe through 25 Iconic female artists who work primarily in painting. They either have made a lasting impact on 20th-century art or are still navigating and shaping the international art world system. Of course, great female painters exist and have existed, not only in the shadow of male artists and dealing with various hardships but with their own singularities and stubborn voices.   

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The anonymous group Guerrilla Girls wrote in 1988 that one of the advantages of being a woman artist is “Not Having to undergo the embarrassment of being called a genius”. But each woman on the following list is definitely a visionary, resistant and fighting spirit and, as a pioneer in her specific painting segment, has radically changed the way we perceive and experience the art of today.

Ghada Amer

Among the most representative artist on the international cultural scene, the iconoclastic enfant terrible Ghada Amer (1963, Egypt) paints pictures with needle and thread instead of brush and paint, representing lascivious female figures. Her work questions gender and sexuality issues, our ordinary and rigid boundaries between male and female and how Western view tends to transform women into stereotyped objects. She is one of the top-selling artists of the Middle East, read the article Contemporary Art in the United Arab Emirates.


Ghada Amer, My Nympheas #2, 2018, acrylic, embroidery, and gel medium on canvas,  163 x 183 cm© Ghada Amer Courtesy of Marianne Boesky.


Julie Mehretu

Julie Mehretu was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1970. She is well-known for her multilayered and thick acrylic paintings with mark-making (using pencil, pen, ink) on monumental canvases. Her territory of investigation is above all architecture and the densely populated cities of the 21th Century. Going through many artistic references, Mehretu has described her rich and highly worked canvases “story maps of no location”. A sensational lucid dream rather than actual reality. She is one of the 12 women are among the top 100 contemporary artists classified by auction turnover in 2018-2019: The Art Market Report 2019.


Julie Mehretu, Stadia II, (2004). © Julie Mehretu, courtesy of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.


Etel Adnan

Etel Adnan (1925) is a Lebanese painter, essayist and poet. In 2003, she was named “the most celebrated and accomplished Arab American author writing today”. Her visual production poetically interprets the Northern Californian landscape which is mingled with time, memory and a sense of displacement. Her art is a form of philosophical abstraction in blocks of paint. Check out more about Etel Adnan.


Etel Adnan, Ohne Titel, 2015. Oil on linen, 38 x 46 cm. © Etel Adnan Courtesy Galerie Lelong, Paris.


Marlene Dumas

The prevalent medium of the “White-African” Marlene Dumas (1953, South Africa) is oil on canvas and ink on paper to trace emotionally intense and dramatic portraits of human faces, nude figures, or even a group of people. Often inspired by private memories, her art conveys the anxieties of human existence. Read more on our article dedicated to A Brief History of the Fine Art Nudes.


Marlene Dumas, For Whom the Bell Tolls, 2008, oil on canvas, 100x90 cm
© Marlene Dumas Photo: Peter Cox, © 2015, ProLitteris, Zurich.


Vija Clemins

Vija Clemins (1938) is among the most famous female painters from Lithuania. In 1965, after refusing to accept the predominant Formalism, she started to create illusionistic and magical paintings and drawings of ocean waves, clouds, night skies, the moon’s surface, so realistic to be mistaken for photographs. Her documentary technique called “redescription”, rendered in graphite, charcoal or oil paint, has always stood outside traditional stylistic currents.


Vija Celmins, Untitled (Big Sea #1) (1969). Private collection © Vija Celmins, courtesy the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery. Photo © McKee Gallery, New York.


Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova's (1881-1962, Russia-France) oeuvre span across various avant-garde movements of the early 20th century. Combining Modernism with elements of traditional Russian folk art and Paul Gauguin’s ornamental treatment of figure groups, icon painting, oriental art and Cubism. An Eastern giant, with a strong personality. 


Natalia Goncharova, Fishing (fishers), 1909, Oil on canvas, 112 x 99.7 cm © Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection.


Tamara de Lempicka

The first woman artist to be a glamour star, the Polish Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) whose extravagant, sensual and polished paintings continue to illuminate our days. She didn’t copy from the past, creating a new (can be called “cool”) style “light, brilliant colours and sense the elegance in the models”. On 12th November 2019, a new auction record was set for the Tamara de Lempicka's work La Tunique Rose. Read more on Latest from Sotheby's: a new CEO and a new record in less than one month!


Tamara De Lempicka, Los dos amigos – Confidencias, 1928, óleo sobre lienzo © Tamara Art Heritage ADAGP, Paris VEGAP, Madrid, 2018.


Sonia Delaunay

Between art and fashion, the Ukraine abstract painter Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) developed, as an Avant-gardist, a new art of contrasting colours, geometrical shapes and bright light on everyday objects, books or clothing.

Discover on Kooness Why Sonia Delaunay is a great artist?


Sonia Delaunay, "Prismes électriques," 1914 "The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay" © Tate Modern, London 2015.


Paula Rego 

Paula Rego (1935) is a Portuguese-born visual artist whose art has challenged the audience for decades. The only woman in The London Group, her educated and refined paintings and prints are often based on children’s folktales. Rego’s style has evolved from semi-abstract in the 1960s towards representational, from oil paint and collage to pastels, reflecting feminism, a world of pain but also a ferocious satire.


Paula Rego, The Dance, 1988, Acrylic on paper on canvas, 212.6 x 274.0 cm Tate Gallery, London © Tate, London 2017 ©Paula Rego, Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art.


Georgia O’ Keeffe

Mother of the American Modernism, Georgia O’ Keeffe (1887-1986) was best known for her pure abstract flowers’ close-up on canvas, skyscrapers and audacious landscapes. Her unique style has taken her to the podium of the greatest women artists, being the highest-paid American woman artist. She is included in the list of 23 watercolour artists you should know about!


Georgia O’Keeffe, Abstraction Blue 1927 Oil on canvas 102.1 x 76 cm Acquired through the Helen Acheson Bequest
© 2019 The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Ellen Gallagher

In 1995, the black painter Ellen Gallagher (1965, USA) was invited to show at the Whitney Biennial in New York, because her own aesthetic technique - a parody of American minstrel from the 19th century translated into a series of small pictographs on large paper and canvas surfaces - caught the attention of American art scene, such as Kiki Smith and Nan Goldin. 


Ellen Gallagher, IGBT, 2008, gesso, gold leaf, varnish ink and paper on canvas, 202x188 cm © 2008 Ellen Gallagher.


Elizabeth Peyton

One of Gallagher’s American peers Elizabeth Peyton (1965), although her beginnings were portraits of pop and rock musicians such as John Lennon or johnny Rotten, is now popular for these “post-modern icon paintings” after Marcel Proust and William Shakespeare. For the most famous portraitist in the world, a timeless mood of happiness and a trace of grief, in both “low culture” of music and “high culture” of literature, are the distinctive elements. Her latest “Aire and Angels” at the National Portrait Gallery in London was included in the Top 10 exhibitions during Frieze Art Fair 2019!


Elizabeth Peyton, Keith (From Gimme Shelter) 2004 Oil on board 25.4 x 30.5 cm © Elizabeth Peyton.


Laura Owens

The Los Angeles painter, gallery owner and educator, Laura Owens (1970) is very versatile and radical. One of the most influential artists of her generation, launching an innovative approach to painting which challenges traditional dichotomies between figuration and abstraction, as well as disrupting the relationships between avant-garde art, craft, pop culture, and technology. 


Laura Owens, Untitled, 2000. Acrylic, oil, and graphite on canvas, 72 x 66 1/2 in. (182.9 x 168.9 cm).
Collezione Giuseppe Iannaccone, Milan © Laura Owens. Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art


Helen Frankenthaler

American abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) was a major contributor to the history of postwar American painting, known as Color Field Movement. Atmospheres of water in constant movement and a triumph of colors mark her first legendary artwork professionally exposed in 1952 “Mountains and Sea”, using her celebrated soak-stain technique. Read more of Helen Frankenthaler on the article Purity of Emotion in Abstract Art!


Helen Frankenthaler, Open Wall, 1953. Oil on unsized, unprimed canvas, 53 3/4 x 131 inches. 
© 2019 Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian.


Joan Mitchell

Along with Frankenthaler, The leading American Abstract Expressionist artist Joan Mitchell (1925) was one of the few female painters to gain critical and public acclaim. Her paintings are expansive and gestural, sometimes violent; her subject matter was the landscape; her procedure consisted in a whole series of oppositions: light versus dark, grid versus chaos, consistency versus limpidity. At Christie's New York in 2014, Mitchell's untitled 1960 abstract painting, sold for $11.9 million, established a new record for an artwork by any female artist at auction. Read more about Joan Mitchell...


Joan Mitchell, Strata, 1960 (detail), Oil on canvas, 51 ¾ x 78 inches, Gift of Enrico Donati


Agnes Martin

The Canadian Agnes Martin (1912-2004), one of the great hermit of Abstract Expressionist painters, had developed an independent style by the early 1960s, staying in voluntary isolation. Her rare acrylic and graphite on canvas are about light, fusion and formlessness. A dissolving form in search of perfection. Learn more of Agnes Martin on Kooness.


Agnes Martin, The Tree 1964 Oil and pencil on canvas 182.8 x 182.8 cm Larry Aldrich Foundation Fund © 2019 Estate of Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Frida Kahlo

The “painter of dreams” Frida Kahlo (1907, Mexico) has created intimate and intricate self-portraits somewhere between naivety, realism and surrealism. Her artworks are deeply entangled in her personal biography: after a road accident, with the spine fractured, she had to wear a plaster corset that forced her to draw and paint in order to lighten the constant struggle between life and death. Read about Frida Kahlo’s “Viva la Vida”, the documentary directed by the Italian Giovanni Troilo... 


Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait on the Border Line Between Mexico and the United States, 1932
© Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Leonora Carrington

The so-called disturbing “Muse of Surrealism”, Leonora Carrington (1917-2011, England) had lived in Mexico for almost 70 years producing enigmatic and symbolic artworks and writing ante litteram sci-fi stories. Her surreal, wild, feminist universe results from Central American folk art, Celtic literature, alchemy, Renaissance paintings and a repertoire of fantastic creatures.


Leonora Carrington, And Then We Saw the Daughter of the Minotaur!, 1953. © 2019 Estate of Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of Gallery Wendi Norris.

Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley (1931, England) became the star of Op Art in 1965 after her inclusion in the 1965 exhibition “The Responsive Eye” at The Museum of Modern Art. She has studied at Goldsmith’s College of Art and at the Royal College of Art, exploring what she terms the “formal structures of seeing”. The black and white period with geometric formal repertory is her career’s most famous phase which led her to be the first woman painter ever to win the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1968. Have you ever wondered What Op Art is?


Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1961, synthetic emulsion on board.


Jenny Saville

Jenny Saville (1970) - a member of Young British Artists - often credited with reinventing figure painting for contemporary art, creates innovative large paintings that, without filters and uncensored, investigate and distort the female body. She naturally paints flesh: damaged, dimpled, altered, turning the art historical theme of female nude upside down. Her thick, bruised figures tackle taboo issues around motherhood, plastic surgery, dieting, exercise, and the representation of women in art and popular culture. She is one of the 51 most popular contemporary artists in Kooness’ list!


Jenny Saville, Hyphen, 1999, oil on canvas, 108 x 144 inches (274.3 x 365.8 cm) Artwork © Jenny Saville, courtesy Gagosian


Yayoi Kusama

A Japanese contemporary artist famous as “the princess of Polka dots”, is Yayoi Kusama (1929) who add all-over marks and dots to her painting as a way to self-obliteration into the cosmo and to infinity. Find out more on Kusama’s works.


Yayoi Kusama, Mushrooms (OBST), acrylic on canvas, 24.2 x 33.3 cm © Der-Horng Art Gallery, Tainan


Cai Jin

In the 1990s, the painter Cai Jin (1995) was one of the most famous and important women artists in China, and she started taking part in the country’s Avant-Garde movement. Influenced by Van Gogh and other Impressionists, Cai Jin is best known for her long series of lyrical Banana paintings, studies of a dying tropical plant that obsessed her for many years has begun to dialogue with abstract paintings, creating cloud-filled skies and submarine landscapes.


Cai Jin, "Landscape No. 17," 2008. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Chambers Fine Art.


Beatriz Milhazes

One of the most original voices in contemporary Brazilian art Beatriz Milhazes (1960) - and one of the top-selling female artists alive - creates vibrant, colourful, kaleidoscopic large scale paintings juxtaposing indigenous Brazilian imaginary to Modernist European design elements. 

Beatriz Milhazes, Moinho vermelho, 1999/2000, acrylic and metallic paint on canvas, 249 x 149 cm, © Galeria Camargo Vilaça, São Paulo


Adriana Varejão

The younger generation of Brazilian artist is also represented by Adriana Varejão (1964) who tells stories imbued with violations both from colonial era and present-day through vast pictorial installations. Her trademark is the ceramic cobalt blue tiles which have become characteristic in private Portugues and Brasilian buildings and baroque churches. But her azulejos (tiles) are damaged and fragmented as a metaphor for cultural and time disruption combined with a sense of light and allure. Read also about the Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves...


Adriana Varejão, Milagre dos Peixes (Miracle of the Fishes), 1991, oil and plaster on canvas, 210.2 x 170 cm,
© Galeria Thomas Cohn de Arte Contemporânea, Rio de Janeiro

Del Kathryn Barton

Australian Del Kathryn Barton (1972) is an art world sensation. Barton graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the College of Fine Arts at the University of New South Wales in 1993. It is not sufficient to define her decorative, highly detailed paintings a combination of traditional painting techniques with contemporary design and illustrative styles and animation. Every detail and figure is full of charm, vertigo, eccentricity and all-female shamelessness. Del Kathryn Barton has the power to articulate the fantasy and imaginative plot of her childhood without artistic precedents.


Del Kathryn Barton, Mother (a portrait of Cate Blanchett), 2011, watercolour, gouache, acrylic and pen on polyester canvas, 240 x 180 cm,
© Art Gallery of New South Wales


Written by Petra Chiodi

Cover image: Jenny Saville, Hyphen, 1999, oil on canvas, 108 x 144 inches (274.3 x 365.8 cm) Artwork © Jenny Saville, courtesy Gagosian


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