7 Trailblazing Female Artists of the 20th Century

Art is universal, but it hasn’t always been so. Even in the 20th century, active female artists were the exception rather than the rule. So what better way to honor both the International Women’s Day together with the incredible juggernauts of female art than to take a closer look at some of the women who redefined art over the course of the fast-paced 20th century?

Women Artists

Imagine that you were in a pub quiz and that you get the question of naming five prominent artists. Even if you were given the prompt of naming artists from the same era or movement, you’d think to yourself “Well, that’s easy”. And, for the majority of people, it would be. Picasso, Monet, Dali, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Pollock… And you could keep on coming up with names of individuals who forever changed the history of art we know today.

But imagine, if you would, a different question. Imagine if you were asked to name five female painters or five female artists from the same era. Instead of boasting about your knowledge you might start scratching your head in contemplation. It’s not right, but it’s the way things are. However, it’s not the way things should or could be.

Art Redefined: Changing the Perspective

Now, back to the game of female-artist bingo. In the visual arts’ sphere, Frida Kahlo or Marina Abramović may come to mind. But we’d usually be stumped here, wouldn’t we, and therein lies the problem. Throughout history, women in art and, let’s face it, many other spheres, were thought of as less than men. It might sound harsh, it might sound like a hackneyed mantra of militant feminist, but it’s the truth, and one all of us are witnessing over and over again, in so many aspects of life.

The history of art is male-centric. Let’s take impressionism as an example. Who’s the most renowned artist of this movement that we’ve all heard of? That’s right, it’s Monet, or it’s Renoir. But it’s never Berthe Morisot, a female artist equally as talented as her peers. To this day, she still isn’t as nearly recognized as the male artists of her era, and it’s not just her – it’s many of the female artists we’ve never heard of. That’s exactly why this is the perfect opportunity to shed some light on some of the most prominent and important 20th century female artists who happen to also be among the greatest artists of all time.

Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was an American painter and printmaker, best known for her portraits of mothers and children. Pennsylvania-born Cassatt studied art in the US before moving to Paris in 1866, where she would spend much of her life.

In Paris, Cassatt was exposed to the Impressionist movement and began incorporating its techniques and style into her own work. She became friends with many of the leading Impressionist painters, including Edgar Degas, who would become a close collaborator and influence on her work.

Cassatt’s paintings are notable for their sensitivity and attention to the relationships between people, particularly mothers and their children. She often used pastel colors and soft brushstrokes to create gentle, intimate scenes. In addition to her paintings, Cassatt was also an accomplished printmaker and produced a number of etchings and lithographs throughout her career.

Today, Cassatt is considered one of the most important American artists of the 19th century and is recognized as a pioneer of the Impressionist movement. Her work can be found in museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a Mexican artist known for her powerful self-portraits and unique style that blended traditional Mexican folk art with surrealism, although she vehemently denied there was anything surreal to the emotions she portrayed on canvas.

Born and raised in Mexico City, Kahlo contracted polio as a child and later suffered a near-fatal bus accident at the age of 18, which left her with lifelong injuries and chronic pain. Kahlo’s paintings often explore themes of identity, pain, and the human experience.

She frequently depicted herself in her artwork, using her own experiences and emotions as inspiration. Her self-portraits and other paintings often feature bold colors, intricate patterns, and symbolic imagery drawn from Mexican culture.

Despite facing significant challenges and discrimination as a woman artist in Mexico during the early 20th century, Kahlo’s work gained recognition during her lifetime, and she became an important figure in the Mexican art scene. Her work has since achieved global recognition, and she is now considered one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century.

Today, Kahlo’s paintings can be found in major museums and collections around the world, including the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Her image and iconic style have also been celebrated in popular culture, making her a feminist icon and cultural icon beyond the world of art.

Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O'Keefe

Feminist icon Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was an American artist best known for her large-scale paintings of flowers and landscapes. Born in Wisconsin, O’Keeffe studied art in Chicago and later moved to New York City, where she gained recognition for her abstract and symbolic paintings.

O’Keeffe’s work is characterized by her use of color and form to create powerful, sensual images that capture the beauty and essence of the natural world. Her paintings often featured close-up views of flowers, bones, and landscapes, with a focus on organic forms and shapes.

O’Keeffe gained widespread recognition during the 1920s and 1930s, and she became one of the most important American artists of the 20th century. Her paintings are now housed in major museums and collections around the world, including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which was established in her honor. In addition to her paintings, O’Keeffe was also known for her independent spirit and feminist beliefs. Her life and work continue to inspire generations of artists and cultural figures, and she is recognized as an important figure in American art history.

Alma Thomas

Alma Thomas

Alma Thomas (1891-1978) was an African American artist and educator, known for her unique abstract paintings that explored color and form and her activism and active membership in an art community she helped built. Born in Georgia, Thomas spent much of her life in Washington D.C. She worked as a teacher before devoting herself to painting full-time in the 1960s.

Thomas’s paintings are characterized by their bold use of color and geometric shapes. She often used bright, contrasting colors and arranged them in intricate patterns, creating compositions that were both playful and sophisticated. Her work was inspired by a variety of sources, including nature, music, and the art of the Harlem Renaissance.

Thomas played a pivotal role in supporting and promoting African American artists. She was a founding member of the Barnett-Aden Gallery, which provided a platform for black artists to exhibit their work during a time when segregation and discrimination were still prevalent in the art world.

Today, Thomas is recognized as one of the most important abstract painters of the 20th century and a pioneering figure in the art world. Her work can be found in major museums and collections around the world, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Helen Frankenthaler


Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) was a NYC-born and bred American abstract painter known for her large-scale canvases and use of color. Frankenthaler’s works are characterized by her use of color, often applied in thin, translucent layers to create a sense of depth and movement on the canvas.

The well-educated artist was a pioneer of the “stain” technique, in which she poured thinned paint onto unprimed canvas, allowing the pigment to soak into the fabric and create a fluid, organic effect.

Frankenthaler was a key figure in the postwar American art scene, and her work was influential in the development of the Color Field movement, which emphasized the emotional impact of color and form over traditional representational art.

Her paintings are now housed in major museums and collections around the world, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In addition to her painting, Frankenthaler was an active member of the art community and an advocate for the arts. She served on the boards of several museums and organizations, and she was a recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the National Medal of Arts in 2001.

Olja Ivanjicki

Olja Ivanjicki

You’d be forgiven for missing out on the works of Olja Ivanjicki, a prolific Serbian painter born in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1931. However, she truly defined an era of Yugoslav and, to an extent, worldwide art with 99 exhibits, two of them in The Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She was voted the greatest Yugoslav painter of the 20th century. 

Her art was focused on the beauty and the mysticism of women combined with an almost cyberpunk aesthetic, which served to create works that, to this day, seem like they have been gifted to us from the future. Ivanjicki was one of the most prominent representatives of Serbian abstract art and was known for her unique style that combined elements of surrealism and symbolism. Today, Ivanjicki is remembered as one of the most important figures in Serbian contemporary art and her legacy continues to inspire artists and art lovers around the world.

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama (born 1929) is a Japanese artist known for her colorful and bold installations, sculptures, and paintings. Kusama moved to the United States from her native Japan in the late 1950s. Kusama’s work is characterized by her use of bright colors, repetition, and bold forms.

She often creates large-scale installations that invite viewers to immerse themselves in her work. Many of her pieces also feature polka dots, which have become a signature element of her style.

Kusama’s work has been influential in the development of minimalism, pop art, and feminist art. Her work often explores themes of identity, infinity, and the human experience. She has been the subject of numerous exhibitions and retrospectives around the world, and her work can be found in major museums and collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

In addition to her artistic achievements, Kusama has also been an advocate for mental health and has spoken publicly about her struggles with mental illness. She has used her art to explore and express her experiences with mental health, and her work has inspired others to do the same.