The best books about women artists: overviews and individual lives

Who am I?

As a teenager, I found the layered poetry of Sylvia Plath as riveting as an impasto-layered canvas by Vincent Van Gogh. A love for the rhythm of words and paint, as well as the power of art to tell stories and critique history led me to study art history. Influential college professors opened my eyes to the systematic exclusion of women from art and history. Today, I’m a professor at the University of San Francisco, where I specialize in modern, contemporary, and African art, with an emphasis upon issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and class. I’m particularly interested in women artists and artists who cross cultural boundaries. 


I wrote...

Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist

By Celia Stahr,

Book cover of Frida in America: The Creative Awakening of a Great Artist

What is my book about?

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo adored adventure. In 1930, she was thrilled to realize her dream of traveling to the United States. Only twenty-three and newly married to world-famous muralist Diego Rivera, Kahlo was at a crossroads in her life. San Francisco, Detroit, and New York with their magnificent beauty, horrific poverty, racial tension, anti-Semitism, and thriving music and dance scenes, pushed Kahlo in unexpected directions. Shifts in her style of painting began to appear, cracks in her marriage widened, and tragedy struck twice, while she was living in Detroit. Frida in America is the first in-depth biography of these formative years spent in what Frida often called “Gringolandia,” a place that both angered and fascinated her. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Women, Art, and Society

Celia Stahr Why did I love this book?

As an undergrad, I was blessed to have two professors who changed the course of my life: Angela Davis and Whitney Chadwick. Both of these professors discussed the intersectionality of gender, race, and class. Women, Art, and Society was published in 1990, and in 2020, the sixth edition was released. Although women artists’ representation in art history pedagogy has improved since 1990, the art world in general still favors men over women, making Chadwick’s book a relevant read. It provides a historical and critical look at women artists from the Middle Ages to the present, covering a range of media and artists from various cultural and geographical backgrounds. It challenges the assumption that great women artists are the exception to the rule and charts the evolution of feminist art history. 

By Whitney Chadwick,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women, Art, and Society as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Whitney Chadwick's acclaimed study challenges the assumption that great women artists are exceptions to the rule, who 'transcended' their sex to produce major works of art. While acknowledging the many women whose contribution to visual culture since the Middle Ages have often been neglected, Chadwick's survey amounts to much more than an alternative canon of women artists: it re-examines the works themselves and the ways in which they have been perceived as marginal, often in direct reference to gender. In her disussion of feminism and its influence on such a reappraisal, the author also addresses the closely related issues of…


Book cover of Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists

Celia Stahr Why did I love this book?

If you want to learn about the history of African American women artists from the era of slavery to the 21st century, this is the book to read. Lisa E. Farrington astutely analyzes this fraught history with a style of writing that’s available to both scholars and non-scholars alike. It’s for anyone who has an interest in how images of Black women have evolved over time from racist stereotypes in art and popular culture to empowering images created by Black women artists who “contested society’s insistence on their subservience and vulgarity.” Farrington’s groundbreaking book, which was published in 2005, makes it clear that when Black women artists control their own images, it changes the trajectory of both art history and popular culture. 

By Lisa E. Farrington,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Creating Their Own Image as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hailed as "a captivating and thorough study of a long-ignored aspect of America's art history" (CHOICE), Creating Their Own Image offers the first comprehensive history of African-American women artists, spanning from slavery to the Harlem Renaissance and the tumultuous civil rights era, right up to the present day. Lavishly illustrated throughout with color illustrations, this magnificent volume richly details hundreds of important works-including
some images never before published-to present a portrait of artistic creativity unprecedented in its scope and ambition. Weaving together an expansive collection of artists, styles, and periods, Lisa Farrington argues that for centuries African-American women artists have…


Book cover of Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa

Celia Stahr Why did I love this book?

Ruth Asawa’s art and life are inspirational and anyone reading this book will discover why. The Japanese American artist’s life was filled with challenges from contracting diphtheria, to being forced to live in a concentration camp, to marrying across racial lines when most states banned it, to contracting lupus in middle age. Yet, her strong work ethic and creative passion prevailed, spawning a new art form of hanging looped-wire sculptures. The last two photos in the book show Asawa inside and surrounded by her organic-looking sculptures, conveying a symbiotic relationship between the artist and her art. There is a meditative mood to these Imogen Cunningham photos that match the experience of seeing Asawa’s pieces in real life. When I finished reading this book, I felt bathed in Asawa’s beautiful spirit.  

By Marilyn Chase,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Everything She Touched as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Everything She Touched recounts the incredible life of the American sculptor Ruth Asawa.

This is the story of a woman who wielded imagination and hope in the face of intolerance and who transformed everything she touched into art. In this compelling biography, author Marilyn Chase brings Asawa's story to vivid life. She draws on Asawa's extensive archives and weaves together many voices-family, friends, teachers, and critics-to offer a complex and fascinating portrait of the artist.

Born in California in 1926, Ruth Asawa grew from a farmer's daughter to a celebrated sculptor. She survived adolescence in the World War II Japanese-American…


Book cover of Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract

Celia Stahr Why did I love this book?

Before reading this book, I had never heard of Mary Sully. I’m thrilled that I now know about her stunning “personality prints,” abstract designs arranged in horizontal triptychs. Sully, who was born on the Standing Rock reservation in 1896, was largely a self-taught artist who never achieved wide recognition. Philip Deloria, a professor of history and a relative of Sully’s, delves into the complexities of what it meant to be a Dakota Sioux woman artist working with an innovative style of abstract art that didn’t fit into neat categories. This mirrors, Deloria says, the “scramble for survival” that an “Indian” woman had to navigate in a “difficult world.” That difficult world is still with us today, making this story a throughline to the present and a must-read.

By Philip J. Deloria,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Becoming Mary Sully as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Dakota Sioux artist Mary Sully was the great-granddaughter of respected nineteenth-century portraitist Thomas Sully, who captured the personalities of America's first generation of celebrities (including the figure of Andrew Jackson immortalized on the twenty-dollar bill). Born on the Standing Rock reservation in South Dakota in 1896, she was largely self-taught. Steeped in the visual traditions of beadwork, quilling, and hide painting, she also engaged with the experiments in time, space, symbolism, and representation characteristic of early twentieth-century modernist art. And like her great-grandfather Sully was fascinated by celebrity: over two decades, she produced hundreds of colorful and dynamic abstract triptychs,…


Book cover of Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art

Celia Stahr Why did I love this book?

Mary Gabriel, an incredible storyteller, does a masterful job uncovering the extraordinary lives and artistic contributions of five very different Abstract Expressionist painters: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler. I’ve done a lot of research on this movement with a particular focus on Elaine de Kooning, but I never felt that Gabriel was rehashing the same material. With her engaging style of writing, she brings a fresh perspective to a story that needed to be told. This group of women artists has largely been left out of the canonical versions of Abstract Expressionism. Some have fared better than others, but as a group, their presence is lacking. Through these daring women’s lives, readers learn about the complexities of gender bias in the pre-and-post-WWII years.

By Mary Gabriel,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Ninth Street Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NINTH STREET WOMEN is the impassioned, wild, sometimes tragic, always exhilarating story of five women who dared to enter the male-dominated world of twentieth-century abstract painting--not as muses but as artists. From their cold-water lofts, where they painted, drank, fought, and loved, these pioneers burst open the door to the art world for themselves and groundbreaking artists to come.

They include Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, whose careers were at times overshadowed by the fame of their husbands, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, but who emerged as stunning talents in their own right, as well as a younger…


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Book cover of The Twenty: One Woman's Trek Across Corsica on the GR20 Trail

Marianne C. Bohr Author Of The Twenty: One Woman's Trek Across Corsica on the GR20 Trail

New book alert!

Who am I?

I married my high school sweetheart and travel partner, and followed my own advice to do graduate work, and started my career working for the French National Railroad in New York City, mapping itineraries for travelers to Europe. Travel means the world to me and if I don’t have a trip on the horizon, I feel aimless and untethered. I worked in book publishing for 30 years and dropped out of the corporate rat race to take a gap year abroad. I wrote about our “Senior year abroad” in my first book Gap Year Girl. I returned to the US to teach middle school French and organize student trips to France. 

Marianne's book list on by women about outdoor adventure

What is my book about?

Marianne Bohr and her husband, about to turn sixty, are restless for adventure. They decide on an extended, desolate trek across the French island of Corsica — the GR20, Europe’s toughest long-distance footpath — to challenge what it means to grow old. Part travelogue, part buddy story, part memoir, The Twenty is a journey across a rugged island of stunning beauty little known outside Europe.

From a chubby, non-athletic child, Bohr grew into a fit, athletic person with an “I’ll show them” attitude. But hiking GR20 forces her to transform a lifetime of hard-won achievements into acceptance of her body and its limitations.

The difficult journey across a remote island provides the crucible for exploring what it means to be an aging woman in a youth-focused culture, a physically fit person whose limitations are getting the best of her, and the partner of a husband who is growing old with her. More than a hiking tale, this is a moving story infused with humor about hiking, aging, accepting life’s finite journey, and the intimacy of a long-term marriage—set against the breathtaking beauty of Corsica’s rugged countryside.

By Marianne C. Bohr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Twenty as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Great for fans of: Suzanne Roberts's Almost Somewhere, Juliana Buhring's This Road I Ride.


Marianne Bohr and her husband, about to turn sixty, are restless for adventure. They decide on an extended, desolate trek across the French island of Corsica-the GR20, Europe's toughest long-distance footpath-to challenge what it means to grow old. Part travelogue, part buddy story, part memoir, The Twenty is a journey across a rugged island of stunning beauty little known outside Europe.


From a chubby, non-athletic child, Bohr grew into a fit, athletic person with an "I'll show them" attitude. But hiking The Twenty forces her to…


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