16th–17th Century

Judith Leyster, The Concert, ca. 1633; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Throughout the 1500s and 1600s, art played an important role in European aristocratic and ecclesiastical society.

Political, religious, scientific, and intellectual leaders of the day sought work by highly trained painters, printmakers, and sculptors. Women at this time typically did not have access to the sophisticated training needed to succeed as professional artists. In fact, most women artists during these centuries were children, nieces, or spouses of successful male artists. Only through these family connections, did they acquire the skills and the network of acquaintances needed to establish their careers.

Women artists from Northern Europe enjoyed some advantages over their female counterparts in the south. In Italy, the Roman Catholic Church was the principal source of artistic patronage. It favored devotional images, whose successful production typically required artistic skills and techniques that contemporary society forbade women.

The mostly individual, middle-class patrons in the increasingly Protestant north, by contrast, eagerly acquired art representing activities and experiences of their everyday lives. Women artists excelled in producing still lifes and genre paintings that appealed to these patrons. 

Despite social conventions that constrained women's activities and denied them opportunities available to their male colleagues, a number of European  women crafted successful careers as professional artists.   

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National Museum of Women in the Arts