TV blog

The Story Of Women And Art: Hunting the hidden artists

Assistant Producer

You don’t have to go back 500 years to find those who doubt women’s artistic capacity.

Brian Sewell famously declared there ‘has never been a first-rank woman artist. Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness.’ Georg Baselitz concluded ‘women don’t paint so well. That is a fact.’

Whilst much has changed in the last five centuries, certain opinions seem to have evolved very little.

This is not, however, a series about critics. Nor is it a sorrowful tale of downtrodden women, victims of gender and circumstance.

Instead, we discover a long line of artists – painters, sculptors, designers – whose restless talent drove them to dizzying heights of creativity.

Amanda Vickery standing on the edge of the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence

From the Renaissance to the modern day, all faced obstacles on account of their sex, yet each produced works of stunning originality.

Delving through artists’ lives, we found ourselves irresistibly drawn into stories of luck, loss, penury, ego, attack and scandal – and that’s before we even got to the art.

The works themselves proved as compelling as they were varied, from the fearless brushstrokes of Artemisia Gentileschi, and the unbridled extravagance of Rose Bertin, to the subversive liberation of Madeleine Vionnet, and the raw power of Georgia O’Keeffe.

As the assistant producer on the series, much of my time in the early days was spent hunting through books, archives and museum websites, many of them not in English.

My Italian is virtually non-existent, but I can now spot terms like ‘not on display’ from 1000 paces.

The Vasari Corridor: Why does Florence’s who’s who of art history have so few women?

As part of a skeleton team, split between two cities, we all had to multitask wildly.

On location, I could often be spotted running off (usually literally) with our second camera, whilst our hugely talented directors and crew were hard at work elsewhere.

Whittling down the artists we could feature in the series, when there were so many deserving of our attention, was gut-wrenching.

With limited time and money, we had no choice but to restrict ourselves to a select few countries, so we could ensure we did each work of art we visited justice.

We wrestled with the horrors of leaving entire continents unexplored, consoling ourselves only with the hopes that a different series might one day have the chance to pick up where we so reluctantly left off.

Having thrown ourselves headlong into piecing together each woman's life, every cut was hotly contested, and losses keenly felt.

All of us were forced to abandon intriguing figures we had come to admire, such as Anna Maria van Schurman, Elisabetta Sirani, Mary Delany, Eleanor Coade, Edmonia Lewis and Suzanne Valadon, to name but a few.

Of the artists who did make the cut, it would be impossible to pick a lone favourite, but certain stories were especially striking.

Lavinia Fontana's subtle portrayal of dark family politics and sexual disillusionment, in what seemed at first glance to be an innocent family portrait, was breathtaking in its wit, scale and artful execution.

The Gozzadini Family: ‘A surviving record of a torrid and toxic family drama’

Fascinating too were the modern stories of those who work tirelessly to restore lost works of art by women to the public.

This series could not have been made without the help of countless experts - many, but by no means all, women – who so generously gave us their time, knowledge and insight.

The detractors may remain unmoved, resigned to their bleak opinions of women’s art, but this series gives another, very different perspective on the achievements of an extraordinary range of artists.

In truth, the reality is far too rich and complex to sum up in one neat judgement, but in sharing the stories behind these works of art, we hope to give people a chance to make up their own minds and keep the debate raging.


Charlotte Gittins is the assistant producer of The Story Of Women And Art.

The Story Of Women And Art is on Friday, 16 May at 9pm on BBC Two and BBC Two HD, or you can watch the series on BBC iPlayer. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

More on The Story Of Women And Art
BBC Your Paintings: Discover public artworks
BBC Arts & Culture: Discover more arts and culture programmmes

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • Comment number 45. Posted by Hellenaki

    on 19 Jul 2014 07:30

    An excellent series, a breath of fresh air. As a practicing artist and ex-teacher I would like to put the information to use, letting it inform my work and practice. How can I unless it becomes available as a DVD or download, etc. please BBC could you accept the power of your creation and allow it to inspire the artists of today thus it becomes part of history itself.
    Amanda's enthusiasm was inspiring too!

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  • Comment number 44. Posted by kathyh

    on 9 Jul 2014 21:48

    Just been watching a recording of the 2nd episode and realised I missed the last episode only to find it's not on iPlayer, very disappointed. Also it sounds from your blog like there are lots of other interesting stories to be told. Please can you make more program's about the other artists you left out?

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  • Comment number 43. Posted by sanderling

    on 3 Jul 2014 07:44

    I wrote about 'why no women in art' as part of my studies years ago.
    When Pauline Boty attended art school in the 60's in London there were no women's toilets in the college.
    This programme had good intentions but Amanda Vickery was dreadful and would put many viewers off watching. Her presenting was hand flapping-ly patronising and full of personal intonations.
    I persevered out of personal interest and a curious wonder that none of the art doc. programmes had ever covered women in art before.

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  • Comment number 42. Posted by jara70

    on 9 Jun 2014 21:30

    Sorry, I meant Teresa Díez, XIV century.

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  • Comment number 41. Posted by jara70

    on 9 Jun 2014 11:19

    More women in Art:

    Hildegard von Bingen
    Margarita van Eyck
    Eleisabetta Siri
    Judith Leyster
    Angelica Kauffmanny
    Mary Moser
    Mary Cassatu
    Cecilia Bohl de Faber
    Susana Horenbout
    Luisa Roldán

    ...and so on (more in Music, Philosophy, Literature, sometimes working for their husband or partner who were the ones who had the success and sometimes with a male nickname for not being rejected).
    I would like to mention Maya Deren, a great film director who is not very well known, despite the fact is as good, or better than other male film directors. She worked from the 40s until 1961.

    And I would like to add that studied 3 years of Art while doing my BA in Geography and History in the Seville University and I didn't heard at all about all of those women (the same happened with Mary Wolstonecraft in the subject "History of politic's thoughts" if I could translate it like this).

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  • Comment number 40. Posted by srfirehorseart

    on 5 Jun 2014 20:48

    A very interesting series and a subject long overdue for anyone who has taken an interest in the Guerrilla Girls' campaigns to get more recognition for women artists. I hope to see a follow up looking at more women artists in modern and contemporary art. Maybe then we can fill in some more gaps and so fulfil your wish that 'a different series might one day have the chance to pick up where we so reluctantly left off'.

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  • Comment number 39. Posted by davidmerc

    on 5 Jun 2014 18:41

    I found the programmes quite interesting ,and cannot understand how so many galleries/museums do not display more of the art which was produced by the very capable artists in the programme. I would appreciate it if someone could identify the music in episode 3 , particularly the 2 pieces played in the Georgia O'Keefe segment in New Mexico.

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  • Comment number 38. Posted by Rose

    on 5 Jun 2014 10:22

    Whilst I enjoyed the programme, I am astounded that there were no non-white women. How was that allowed to happen?

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  • Comment number 37. Posted by Diana Pilcher

    on 1 Jun 2014 16:45

    This is a hugely complex subject and a very difficult one to discuss the hidden accomplishments of women artists whilst acknowledging all of the barriers faced by an artist - gender being just one.
    But a very worthwhile programme all the same, despite cultural bias.
    One thing to bear in mind is that all forms of social exclusion have similar goals that are to do with power and therefore I value this programme as exposing how the invisibility of any artist's work or opportunity to produce art is primarily linked to power and self-interest.

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  • Comment number 36. Posted by Soozi Quattro

    on 31 May 2014 21:37

    I haven't been able to see the first two programmes yet but was really disappointed in the third. A garden designer and an interior designer were included - why? Where were Gwen John, Sonia Delauney, Barbara Hepworth, Dorothea Tanning, Louise Bourgeois, Bridget Riley,
    to name but a few? These were all working before the beginning of Britart, which would have yielded a few more famous names. At one point I wondered if the programme had been sponsored by Ikea! This was a really dull and uninspiring programme, such a disappointment.

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