The great women artists history forgot

Museums and galleries around the world are unearthing the work of great female artists who have been neglected or marginalised, writes Cath Pound.

"Why have there been no great women artists?" the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin famously asked in her landmark 1971 essay.

The point was of course that there had been, but centuries of misogyny in the art world meant if you looked at museum collections and exhibition programmes you really wouldn't know it.

Things are still far from perfect but a number of recent exhibitions have been giving some truly great artists their long overdue public recognition.

Clara Peeters, whose beautifully rendered still lifes have beguiled visitors at the Rockox House in Antwerp is one such artist who is about to emerge from under the radar in quite spectacular fashion.

When the show transfers to the Prado in Madrid in late October she will become, somewhat astonishingly, the first female artist to be given a solo show there.

A rare example of a successful female artist in the 17th Century, Peeters was an innovator in both form and content.

At a time when women were denied access to formal training, and their subject matter was restricted, she used these limitations to push the boundaries of one of the few genres open to her.

"She's not allowed a big space so just decided to focus on a small one and does that really well," says curator Alejandro Vergara.

Ignoring the high idealism of Rubens, which dominated the Antwerp art scene, Peeters chose instead to paint in the new realist style which was gradually gaining influence throughout Europe.

"And if you're painting in the realistic mode in Antwerp you're really being very different to everyone else working there," says Vergara.

Whereas previous still life painting had been largely allegorical, Peeters' work is characterised by a precise form and texture in which glowing vessels and foodstuffs contrast elegantly with dark unadorned backgrounds.

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