Artnews reports that Linda Nochlin, the art historian best known for her formative feminist essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” published in 1971, died on Sunday. She was 86.
Nochlin was born in Brooklyn in 1931. She would go on to study philosophy at Vassar and English at Columbia University in the 1950s, ultimately completing her doctorate in art history in 1963. When she became a Vassar professor in the early 1960s, second-wave feminism was just starting to take form, and it quickly began to influence Nochlin’s work in art history, leading her to teach one of the first Vassar courses on the subject, “The Image of Women in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.”
The catalyst behind Nochlin writing “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” was a moment in 1970 when gallery owner Richard Feigen asked her a question that feels depressingly familiar even in 2017: “Linda, I would love to show women artists, but I can’t find any good ones. Why are there no great women artists?” In her essay Nochlin underlines the fact that, for centuries, the dominant viewpoint of art history has been that of a white, Western, man, and that the reason there are no “great” women artists is because the canon doesn’t consider them to be great. And it’s not like men ever afforded women the same opportunities to paint and sculpt as men had, barring them from the training and education they needed to be “great” in the eyes of Western art history.
“As we all know, things as they are and as they have been, in the arts as in a hundred other areas, are stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those, women among them, who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and above all, male,” Nochlin wrote. “The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.”
Over several decades Nochlin would go on to write several books of feminist art history including Women, Art, and Power, and Other Essays (1988) and Representing Women (1999) among others, curate exhibitions for LACMA and the Brooklyn Museum, as well as continue her less cited but celebrated research on painter Gustave Courbet. But it was her work in popularizing feminist theory in art history that made her a trailblazer. The open letter condemning sexual harassment in the art world published earlier today is “dedicated to the memory of feminist art historian Linda Nochlin (1931-2017), whose activism, spirit, and pioneering writings have been an inspiration for our work.”
And on behalf of every woman undergrad art history major who’s had to argue with a peer about the so-called inferiority of women artists, I thank the late Linda Nochlin for writing the perfect text to shut them up.