There are a number of issues in constructing a history of women artists.
- Scarcity of biographical information about all artists. While this is true of males, and that it is presumed that there were fewer females who were artists, this dearth of information is even more problematic.
- Anonymity. Women artists were often most active in artistic expressions that were not typically signed. This includes many forms of textile production, including weaving, embroidery, and lace-making as well as manuscript illumination. During the Early Medieval period, manuscript illumination was a pursuit of monks and nuns alike. While occasional artists of this period are named, the vast majority of these illuminators remain unknown. This leaves researchers with whole groups of artists for whom no information is available.
- Impermanence of the media. Textiles in particular are fashioned of media that have strong susceptibilities to light, temperature, and moisture. Additionally, these products are usually functional objects and as such subject to wear. This means that only a tiny fraction of the textile work created by women is extant.
- Painters' Guilds. In the Medieval and Renaissance periods, many women worked in the workshop system. These women worked under the auspices of a male workshop head, very often the artist's father. Until the twelfth century there is no record of a workshop headed by a woman, when a widow would be allowed to assume her husband's former position. Often guild rules would forbid women from attaining the various ranks leading to master, so they remained "unofficial". As with all workshop production, the works produced would be signed by the workshop master, with the signature signifying a level of quality, rather than singular authorship. It is hard to differentiate the elements created by the various artists of any workshop, and until the late Renaissance few works were signed at all.
- Naming Conventions. Another problem is the convention whereby women take their husbands' last names. This obviously impedes research, especially for example, in some cases where a work of unknown origin may be signed only with a first initial and last name. Furthermore, most reference works on artists, even those online, allow searches by last name only, but not by first name only (although some such as Askart.com [www.askart.com] allow this). Clarity of identity is central to the western notion of the artistic genius who creates masterpieces which may be clearly situated and studied in relation to the contributions of other artists.
When one speaks of artists who happen to be women, however, even the simplest biographical statements may be misleading. For example, one might say that Jane Frank was born in 1918, but in reality, she was Jane Schenthal at birth — Jane "Frank" didn't exist until over twenty years later.
The changing of women's last names, combined with a research system based on patriarchally transmitted surnames, creates a discontinuity of identity for women, as a class, blurring the view for anyone trying to establish a clear path for the individual artistic careers of women.
- 1. Incorrect Attribution. Finally, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, work by women was often reassigned. Some unscrupulous dealers even went so far as to alter signatures, as in the case of some paintings by Judith Leyster, seen in a self-portrait at upper right, which were reassigned to Frans Hals.
- 2. Incorrect Attribution. Marie-Denise Villers (1774-1821) was a French painter, who specialized in portraits. She was born Marie-Denise Lemoine in Paris. She came from an artistic family, and her sisters Marie-Victoire and Marie-Élisabeth Lemoine were also accomplished artists. In 1794, Marie-Denise married an architecture student, Michel-Jean-Maximilien Villers.
Villers was a student of the French painter Girodet. She was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of the Year VII (1799). Villers' most famous painting, Young Woman Drawing, (1801) is displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting was attributed to Jacques-Louis David at one time, but was later realized to be Villers' work. It is considered to be a self-portrait of the artist.
By contrast, in the late twentieth century, in a rush to acquire paintings by women, there have been cases of paintings wrongly attributed to women.