Women’s History Month has led to an influx of articles on the stat of women in the arts. They cover the positive trends for women in terms of representation in major art institutions, appreciation for female artists of the past and sales in the market. As a part of our heritage month series, we are focusing on the sales trends by taking a closer look at the top selling American female artists. They are ranked by the total value of their impressive secondary market sales.
- Cindy Sherman ($121M)
Cindy Sherman was born in Glen Ridge, New Jersey but raised in Long Island, New York. Her exploration of art began while studying at Buffalo State University. She established her reputation with her Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), a series of 69 photographs of the artist enacting female clichés of 20th-century pop culture.
Her work is considered a re-examination of women’s roles in history and contemporary society, but Sherman resists the notion that her photographs have an explicit narrative or message, leaving them untitled and largely open to interpretation. “I didn’t think of what I was doing as political,” she once said. “To me it was a way to make the best out of what I liked to do privately, which was to dress up.”
Sherman’s Auction History
Because Sherman achieved international success at a relatively young age, her work has had a considerable maturation in value over the past two decades. In 1995, the Museum of Modern Art purchased the complete set from Untitled Film Stills for $1 million. By 2014, the entire collection was auctioned off at Christie’s for $7 million.
- Louise Bourgeois ($135M)
Born in Paris in 1911 and educated at the Sorbonne, Louise Bourgeois, moved to New York in 1938 after marrying art historian Robert Goldwater. Her artwork, which spanned most of the twentieth century, was heavily influenced by traumatic psychological events from her childhood, particularly her father’s infidelity. Bourgeois’ continual coverage of the themes of loneliness, jealousy, anger, and fear along with sexually explicit subject matter and her focus on three-dimensional form were rare for female artists at the time. Art was her tool for coping. She once said, “Art is a guarantee of sanity.”
Overdue Critical Success
Bourgeois’ idiosyncratic approach wasn’t appreciated during the height of her career while formal issues dominated art world thinking. When the focus shifted to the examination of various kinds of imagery and content in the 1970s and 80s, her work came to the forefront. In 1982, at 70 years old, Bourgeois finally took centre stage with a retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art. After that, she was filled with new confidence and forged ahead creating installation pieces, drawings on paper and printmaking. Bourgeois died in New York in 2010 at the age of 98. Her pieces earned $5.2 million at auction in 2016.
- Mary Cassatt ($140M)
Mary Stevenson Cassatt was born in Allegheny City (now part of Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania in 1844. She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before traveling to Paris to continue her artistic training. Cassatt remained in France for most of her career where she was recognized by contemporaries like Edgar Degas. Degas invited her to join the Impressionists and she holds the distinction of being the only American artist to exhibit with the group in Paris. Her signature subjects were portraits of women and portrayals of mothers and children caught in everyday moments.
Critical Success and Legacy
Cassatt’s work spanned mediums, combining the light colour palette and loose brushwork of Impressionism with compositions influenced by Japanese art as well as by European Old Masters. This versatility helped to establish her professional success at a time when very few women were regarded as serious artists.
As an advisor to art collectors, her influence benefitted many public and private collections in the United States. From her early days in Paris, she encouraged the collection of old masters and the French avant-garde. She was also instrumental in shaping the collection of Mr. and Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, most of which is now in the Metropolitan Museum.
Failing eyesight severely curtailed Cassatt’s work after 1900. She spent most of the time during the World War I in France and died in 1926.
- Georgia O’Keefe ($185M)
Born in 1887 in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Georgia O’Keefe studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York. Over her seven-decade career, she sought to capture the emotion and power of objects through abstracting the natural world. She was one of the first American artists to practice pure abstraction and her husband Alfred Stieglitz identified her as the first female American modernist.
By the mid-1920s, O’Keeffe was recognized as one of America’s most important and successful artists. She became known for her paintings of New York skyscrapers—an essentially American image of modernity. Her paintings of flowers, barren landscapes, and close-up stills have become a part of the interpretation of the American artistic landscape.
Later in life, O’Keefe suffered from macular degeneration but her failing eyesight didn’t diminish her will to create. At age ninety, she observed, “I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” While almost blind, she enlisted the help of several assistants to enable her to again produce art. In these works, she returned to favorite visual motifs from her memory and vivid imagination. O’Keeffe died in Santa Fe, on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98. She set the record for a work sold by a female artist in 2014 with her Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 which sold for $44.4 million.
- Joan Mitchell ($306M)
Joan Mitchell was born in Chicago in 1925 and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her work was inspired by landscapes, nature, and poetry, while her intent was not to create a recognizable image, but to convey emotions. She referred to herself as the “last Abstract Expressionist,” often creating large and multi-paneled paintings that featured sweeping brushstrokes and bold coloration.
Impressive Market Success Trickles Behind Early Critical Success
Mitchell’s success in the 1950s came at time when few female artists were recognized. Though critics tended to interpret her paintings as expressions of rage and violence due to her what many considered an abrasive personality, they almost as often saw the lyricism in her work.
It took decades for her critical success to result in market success but, since 2004, Mitchell’s paintings have been selling in the millions. Her most recent sale was a painting that was auctioned for £1,565,000 at Sotheby’s in June 2016. Mitchell died in 1992 at the age of 67.
The list of high-grossing female artists is growing with Cady Nolan and Julie Mehretu, who was featured on our list of top selling African American artists, leading the pack for American women. Who will crack this list first? With Cindy Sherman still producing great work and Joan Mitchell’s continuing strong results, it could be a few years before there is a major change in this ranking.