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San Francisco Chronicle


Annie Kevans: Women and the History of Art

by Julian Guthrie


1 October 2014



When Annie Kevans was getting her start in the art world, she began to look around for role models who were women. She was surprised to find a rich array of successful female artists but dismayed to learn that these women had largely been left out of the historical art canon.


After Kevans had her first child, she was asked more than once if she planned to return to work — something she figured would never be asked of a male artist. Kevans, who is British, turned her disappointment and irritation into a new exhibition of paintings focusing on female artists who have been largely forgotten by modern audiences.


The works, “Women and the History of Art,” are being shown in a solo exhibition at the Jenkins Johnson Gallery in San Francisco through Dec. 23. The show marks the first West Coast exhibition of paintings by Kevans, whose art is shown in major galleries and museums.


“Critics just didn’t take women seriously,” said Kevans, who lives and works in London. “Because a lot of women were married to other artists, people assumed they were helped by their husbands. But actually, those women were artists before they were married; indeed, that’s how they met their husbands.”


The new show presents composite portraits of female artists across history, from European women in the 16th century to forgotten Pop artists of the 1960s — Rosalyn Drexler, Idelle Weber and Jann Haworth — and black female artists including Alma Thomas, whose work is in the White House.


The series began with portraits of European artists but spans to women including Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe, whose success has at times been attributed to their artist husbands. Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938), the first woman admitted to Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts, is better known for her personal relationships with Renoir, Degas and Erik Satie than her accomplishments as an artist.



Kevans also found inspiration in the stories of artists who were mothers, including the 16th century Italian, Lavinia Fontana, who had 11 children and was regarded as the first female artist to work on par with her male peers, painting papal portraits and altar pieces.

Kevans’ paintings also highlight how women faced additional adversity because of their race.


The African American artist Edmonia Lewis (1843-1911) made her name as a sculptor and attended Oberlin College, where she was attacked by locals who accused her of poisoning her white roommates. She was put on trial and acquitted, yet she was eventually prevented from graduating. Despite her hardships, Lewis continued to sculpt and traveled to Europe with money she earned as an artist. She was recently added to a list of the 100 greatest African American artists.


Kevans hopes that her portraits— constructed using existing images, research and imagination — will help “repopulate the male-dominated artistic landscape,” giving names and faces to talented women who had been forgotten.


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