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Art historian brings attention to overlooked women in 'The Story of Art Without Men'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: How many women artists can you name? That was a question that Katy Hessel, then a 21-year-old art history major, asked herself.

The results were disappointing. And so she set out to learn and teach herself and then others. The result is out now, "The Story of Art Without Men."

Jeffrey Brown has a look for arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: If you want to explore the history of Western art — and Katy Hessel does — you can't do better than come to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. So that's what we did.

When we talked about doing this interview, you proposed this room. And now I see why.

Katy Hessel, Author, "The Story of Art Without Men": This is Rosa Bonheur's The Horse Fair from 1852. And it's an extraordinary work.

I think, first of all, just the scale of it is absolutely extraordinary, not only just among the works around it, but the fact that a woman painted this in the 1850s, which was such a feat.

Jeffrey Brown: One painting by one woman, but part of a much larger, little-known history that Hessel lays out in her new book, "The Story of Art Without Men."

It happens that Rosa Bonheur is an artist I am familiar with, but only by chance. In 2020, we visited her 19th century home, now a small museum outside Paris, as part of a story on France's efforts to preserve lesser-known cultural institutions falling into disrepair.

In her lifetime, she achieved no small renown, but it didn't last and she never made it into the mainstream art history books, certainly not the classic Hessel had studied in school, "The Story of Art" by E.H. Gombrich, first published in 1950 and reprinted for decades since.

This is the book that many people studied as the bible, right, of art history.

Katy Hessel: Completely. It's the introductory bible to our history.

And I love it because it is for everyone. The fact that he writes in such beautiful prose that anyone can understand, you want to — you have heard of a term such as the Renaissance or the Baroque, and you can look that up in Gombrich. But he doesn't include any woman artist.

He only includes one in his 16th edition, which is crazy. And the fact that I loved this book growing up, I wanted to write — if he was going to leave that women, I thought I'd leave out men.

Jeffrey Brown: Now 29, Hessel first created an Instagram account, The Great Women Artists, featuring short videos.

Many women, of course, simply had no opportunity to become artists or to grow as artists without being able to draw live models, for example, or gained some exposure, but were soon forgotten. Hessel's book continues such stories.

You might know of Artemisia Gentileschi from the 1600s, recently given a major exhibition and coverage, including on our program, but what about, earlier still, Catharina van Hemessen or Sofonisba Anguissola?

Katy Hessel: A fantastic artist working in the 1550s. She made this remarkable work, which is called Self-Portrait With Bernardino Campi. It's her and her teacher.

At first, what might look like him dictating her appearance, we realized that it's her painting this picture. And, actually, what she's doing is, she's painting her teacher painting her.

Jeffrey Brown: Some works by Judith Leyster, Hessel notes, were attributed to her contemporary, Frans Hals. They'd fetch higher prices.

Katy Hessel: Similarly, the museum that we're sitting in right now, they bought a work by Marie-Denise Villers in 1917 for $200,000, but it was under the impression that it was by Jacques-Louis David.

So it is so interesting, the fact that actually what we have done is uncovered all these amazing artworks.

Jeffrey Brown: Are women not in these classic texts because the historians did not know of them, or because they knew of them, but they just did not value them enough?

Katy Hessel: I mean, this is the ultimate question that I want to ask my predecessors from 100 years ago: What happened to these women artists?

It's almost as though they were consciously written out of art history. I don't really know. Was it ignorance or was it purposeful?

Jeffrey Brown: Inevitably, the bulk of Hessel's history offers art from the 1800s and after, different periods, countries of origin, artistic styles, and kinds of art, including quilting, often dismissed as craft.

Katy Hessel: Because I don't agree that we should dismiss certain art forms and we should create a hierarchy.

That's what the academies in the 18th century really did. They said painting and sculpture is at the top, and embroidery and craft like decorative arts is at the bottom. And what did women have access to? Decorative arts and craft.

Jeffrey Brown: This is a room of images of women, some by women.

Katy Hessel: Exactly, including this fantastic work called Young Mother Sewing by Mary Cassatt.

Jeffrey Brown: Hessel used this painting from 1900 to make a broader case, that we might even rethink the meaning of modern art.

Katy Hessel: It means the participation of women artists, because women artists are no longer completely under the guard of or dependent on men. And they can decide what they want to make.

Jeffrey Brown: You're making this a definition of modernity?

Katy Hessel: I'm saying it's…

Jeffrey Brown: That women are now in the picture, not only in the picture, but making the picture.

Katy Hessel: Exactly. It's an element of modernity, I think, which I think, it's just — it's radical, because we're seeing their perspective for the very first time.

Jeffrey Brown: Hessel's rewriting of the canon, as she puts it, brings us up through the 20th century to now, with lesser- and better-known names.

She's careful to credit decades of scholarship. And she also cites the important activism of women, such as the Guerrilla Girls, whose famous 1989 poster asked, "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?"

But more work by women is on the walls here.

Katy Hessel: And what she's doing here…

Jeffrey Brown: And one of the Met's current special exhibitions is by the contemporary British painter Cecily Brown, who appears in one of Hessel's final sections.

In the contemporary art world, galleries and museum shows is filled with extraordinary women artists, right?

Katy Hessel: It is. But if I tell — Jeff, if I say a woman artist's price goes on average for just 10 percent of a male artist, we are still at such a hindrance as well.

And it's — but, yes, so much is happening right now. And it's the fact that the gender pay gap is hopefully improving. And that comes from every single angle of society. And that's what I really want to achieve, ultimately, is the sense of equality.

So, is progress happening? I like to think so. But we are just about getting there.

Jeffrey Brown: A continuing story, then, the story of art with and without men.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Amna Nawaz: Equality through art, we like that.

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