5 Women Artists

Walk into some art museums, and you are much more likely to see a woman depicted in a work of art than see a piece created by a woman. By some estimates, over 50% of visual artists are women, but less than 5% of the artists featured in the world’s most popular art museums are female. While history and society continue to consider great artists to be men, here are a few of the women artists who have broken the glass ceiling and are currently on view at MAG. Three of these five are Rochester artists: Kathleen McEnery Cunningham, Nancy Jurs, and Josephine Tota.

Josephine Tota (1911–1996)

Her work is on view in both the Forman and Wilson Galleries
Tota was a shy, first-generation Italian immigrant who spent much of her adult life working as a seamstress in Rochester, New York. Tota was retired and in her early seventies when she first discovered her inner surrealist. In a solitary journey of creative exorcism, Tota channeled her obsessive energy, personal tragedies, and lifetime of memories into harrowing, self-referential images. Prior to this creative leap, years of amateur studio classes developed Tota’s sophisticated, if not academically trained, artistic sensibility. She was an avid art enthusiast, with wide-ranging tastes and a particular fascination for medieval paintings and surrealist artists such as Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dali.

The Memorial Art Gallery is organizing a major exhibition of Tota’s work that will tour with International Arts & Artists starting in fall of 2018.

Shown: Untitled, 1982.

Kathleen McEnery Cunningham (1888–1971)

On view in the Forman Gallery

A popular modernist painter whose work consisted of figures and portraits, her most famous pieces depict powerful images of women both nude and clothed. McEnery lived the last 57 years of her life here in Rochester, NY, and donated many of her works to the Memorial Art Gallery. She also served on MAG’s board of managers from 1927 to 1971. She continues to be honored as one of our most influential local artists.

Shown: Colette, circa 1908-1910. Learn more

Attributed to Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755–1842)

Portrait of a Woman as a Bacchante, probably 1790s
On view in the Forman Gallery
Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, also known as Madame Lebrun, was a French painter well known for her many portraits of Marie-Antoinette and the Queen’s wide circle of friends. At the beginning of the Revolution, and fearful that she, like her royal patrons, would lose her head, Élisabeth left France. This also allowed her to escape her unhappy marriage. She traveled throughout Europe, where she was successful as a society portraitist, until her return to France in 1805. She then wrote her memoirs, which describe the Europe of her time as well as the difficulties of surviving as a female portraitist.

Shown: Portrait of a Woman as a Bacchante, probably 1790s. Learn more

Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750)

Floral Still Life, 1686
On view in the Gianniny Gallery

Rachel Ruysch is recognized as the most gifted painter of still life and flower painting of the Dutch Golden Age. Her father was a well-known professor of anatomy and botany, and Rachel copied the natural curiosities in his collection from a very young age. She began studying with the still life painter Willem van Aelst when she was just a young teenager, and continued painting until she was 83 years old. Ruysch was very famous in her own lifetime—eleven poets wrote tributes to her, as did her biographer, and her paintings sold for very high values.

Shown: Floral Still Life, 1686. Learn more

Nancy Jurs (1941–)

Emergence, 1995
On view in Centennial Sculpture Park
Jurs, who was trained in Rochester at New York’s School for American Craftsmen, creates artwork that reflects a woman’s position in the family. Her early work consisted of carving hollow vessels into the shape of the female torso symbolizing her thoughts regarding childbirth and motherhood. Her work in pottery often expresses female forms, as does her construction of “blouses” which is symbolic of women’s bodies and spirit. She says her work “now appears to be much more about women in emergence–a growing out, rising above, or hatching from other forms and constraints.”

Shown: Emergence, 1995. (1 of 2) Learn more