Who Were the Greatest Women Artists of the Twentieth Century? A Quantitative Investigation
NBER Working Paper No. 12928
Recent decades have witnessed an outpouring of research on the contributions of women artists. But as is typical in the humanities, these studies have been qualitative, and consequently do not provide a systematic evaluation of the relative importance of different women artists. A survey of the illustrations of the work of women artists contained in textbooks of art history reveals that art historians judge Cindy Sherman to be the greatest woman artist of the twentieth century, followed in order by Georgia O'Keeffe, Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, and Frida Kahlo. The life cycles of these artists have differed greatly: the conceptual Sherman, Hesse, and Kahlo all arrived at their major contributions much earlier, and more suddenly, than the experimental O'Keeffe and Bourgeois. The contrasts are dramatic, as Sherman produced her greatest work while in her 20s, whereas Bourgeois did not produce her greatest work until she had passed the age of 80. The systematic measurement of this study adds a dimension to our understanding of both the role of women in twentieth-century art and the careers of the major figures.