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Now You See Us: Women Artists in Britain 1520-1920 Review – A Revealing Look at Overlooked Female Talent

Image of Jenny, the author, standing in front of Henrietta Rae's painting, "Psyche Before the Throne of Venus" (1894).
Image of Jenny, the author, standing in front of Henrietta Rae's painting, "Psyche Before the Throne of Venus" (1894). The image belongs to the author.

On a rainy Thursday morning, the opening day of NOW YOU SEE US: Women Artists in Britain 1520–1920 at Tate Britain, I eagerly made my way to the museum. The gloomy weather set the perfect mood for exploring the rich history and stunning artwork inside. Running until October 13, 2024, this exhibition was one of my most anticipated events of the year, and it did not disappoint. If you find yourself in London, this is an exhibition you absolutely should not miss.

Spanning 400 years of art history, Now You See Us is a revelation. Led by curator Tabitha Barber, the exhibition showcases the extraordinary contributions of over 100 women artists who defied societal norms. Featuring over 150 works by trailblazing women like Mary Beale, Angelica Kauffman, Elizabeth Butler, and Laura Knight, each piece offers a window into the struggles and triumphs of these remarkable artists. Their stories remind us of the hard-won freedoms women enjoy today, thanks to their relentless efforts to fight for their right to an art education, to participate in exhibitions, and to make a career in the arts.

As I walked through the exhibition, I was struck by the diversity of styles and subjects on display. Each artwork tells a unique story of resilience and creativity, from delicate miniatures to monumental canvases. The exhibition's title, Now You See Us, perfectly captures its mission: revealing the remarkable contributions of women artists who have long been overlooked or marginalized. Informative wall texts in each section provide historical insights, illuminating the significance of each artwork and artist.

Two woman looking at a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi at Tate Britain Museum
Visitors viewing Artemisia Gentileschi's self-portrait at NOW YOU SEE US: Women Artists in Britain 1520–1920 at Tate Britain. The image belongs to the author.

The journey begins with Artemisia Gentileschi, whose powerful self-portrait is a testament to female resilience in the face of adversity. Gentileschi's inclusion in the exhibition signals a shift from viewing women artists as mere anomalies. Moving forward, we encounter artists like Mary Beale, Levina Teerlinc, and Anne Wemyss, whose pioneering work challenged the male-dominated art world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Emily Mary Osborn
Emily Mary Osborn, "Nameless and Friendless" (1857).

In the early rooms, we see depictions of women excluded from art schools, unable to vote, and restricted by societal norms. Emily Mary Osborn's 1857 painting, "Nameless and Friendless," encapsulates this struggle perfectly. It portrays a lonely woman, anxiously awaiting judgment from an art dealer, surrounded by indifferent men. This painting is a poignant reminder of the invisibility and lack of agency experienced by women in a male-dominated society.

As we progress through the exhibition, we witness a transformation in art style, reflecting the gradual changes in women's rights over time. The works of artists like Mary Beale, whose meticulous records are kept by her husband, illustrate her professional achievements and highlight the perseverance required to succeed. These women forged ahead despite systemic barriers, often finding ingenious ways to navigate their restrictions. By the Victorian era, women artists began to gain more visibility and opportunities, although they still faced significant challenges. Florence Claxton's satirical piece, "Woman's Work," humorously critiques the limited roles available to women, making light of grim realities through dark comedy.

Woman in green dress. Mary Grace's self-portrait
Mary Grace, "Self-Portrait" (1760s). Oil on canvas.

One of the exhibition's most poignant moments is Mary Grace's self-portrait (image above), which captures her confident gaze and unwavering determination to succeed in a male-dominated field. Toward the end of the exhibition, visitors encounter a captivating section on photography. Delving into the early days of this medium, it was fascinating to learn how photography revolutionized artistic expression, offering new avenues for creativity. Pioneering women like Clementina Hawarden and Julia Margaret Cameron embraced this new medium, excelling in a rapidly evolving field.

The exhibition's final room explores modernity, showcasing how women forged their own paths and pursued careers with purpose and confidence. This progression is palpable as you move from room to room, seeing how each generation of women artists built upon the foundations laid by their predecessors. By the time I reached the last room, it felt as if all these artists were standing on the shoulders of those who came before them. They could now vote, travel, earn money, and express themselves as never before. This clever curation highlights how far women have come, both in art and society.

Visitors viewing art on displayed at NOW YOU SEE US: Women Artists in Britain 1520–1920 at Tate Britain.
Visitors viewing art on displayed at NOW YOU SEE US: Women Artists in Britain 1520–1920 at Tate Britain. The image belongs to the author.

As I exited the exhibition gallery, I felt a burst of energy and excitement after learning how female artists in England overcame adversity and second-class status, refusing to let societal rules stifle their creativity. Their perseverance, along with the efforts of many women before us, has granted contemporary women the same freedom of choice in society as men.

As the founder of The Nomad Salon, my decision to exclusively champion women artists stems from my deep frustration with the persistent gender inequality in the art world. Having majored in Art History, I was continually disheartened by the glaring absence of women artists in the curriculum. This exhibition reignites my commitment to ensuring that emerging women artists are heard and their contributions celebrated. It is not enough to retroactively honor those who struggled against impossible odds; we must actively support the talented women striving to make their mark in today's art world. We can no longer afford to overlook or marginalize these artists until they are long gone.

This exhibition is a powerful reminder that the fight for gender equality in the art world is far from over. With each new generation of artists, we move closer to a future where women's contributions are recognized and valued equally. If you want to learn about the talented women artists emerging today, follow The Nomad Salon. And if you wish to support them by purchasing their art, don't hesitate to contact me—I'm here to help. Together, we can contribute to a more inclusive and vibrant art world.


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XX Jenny


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