Eric Solomon

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907. Oil on canvas. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Figure 1. Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Oil on canvas, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Feminism is a methodological approach to art history which assumes that modes of art production, and the subsequent analysis of said production, have historically reflected and worked to reinforce patriarchal models.

Feminist art history, pioneered in the 1970s, was central to the development of social art history. Social art historians have worked to question how sociological factors such as economics, class, gender, and race have affected art production. Feminist art historians choose to focus on issues of gender. In doing so, the practice has evolved in a somewhat bifurcated manner, with one school of feminist art historians focusing on the role of women in art (expanding the canon to include more female artists, for example) and another focusing on how art historians have traditionally interpreted that art (assessing the ways in which these interpretations have contributed to gender inequalities, for example).

Feminist art history arose as a methodology out of what is now an iconic question: “Why have there been no great women artists?” Linda Nochlin, the scholar who originally posed this question in 1971, took this as the starting point for her investigation into the systematic exclusion of women from the history of art.

She begins by claiming that scholars have traditionally tried to answer this question by “[digging] up examples of worthy or insufficiently appreciated women artists throughout history.”1 Nochlin claims that this is the wrong approach; she writes: “The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists.”2 Rather than looking for these artists, Nochlin thinks scholars should instead question why no female artists flourished in the same ways their male counterparts did. She puts forwards two answers as outlined by Svetlana Alpers. They are: (1) “There have been no [female artists] because of disabling social circumstances;” and (2) “The whole thrust of what we mean by greatness suggests a certain notion of art, its production, and its function in society.”3 Essentially, Nochlin argues that pervasive and patriarchal power structures in society prevented women from gaining access to the professional arts training necessary to be considered great artists. Further, she claims that the very conception of greatness is constructed around the idea of a male artist. Under this conception, a female artist would need to give up her womanhood to meet the requirements of being great.

Nochlin’s essay proved to be groundbreaking, and it soon opened the door to a flood of feminist scholarship that began to deconstruct the ways in which art has historically been interpreted. Anna Chave does this when she critically examines how women have historically been excluded from engaging with what is perhaps the most celebrated painting of the twentieth century: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907) [Figure 1]. Chave employs a feminist methodology to examine the ways by which traditional scholarship cemented the idea that this painting required a male perspective. She writes: “Virtually every critic who has addressed Les Demoiselles has not only assumed what is indisputable- that the picture’s intended viewer is male and heterosexual- but has also elected to consider only the experience of that viewer, as if no one else ever looked at the painting.”4

Les Demoiselles D’Avignon depicts five prostitutes vying for the attentions of the viewer. In return, the viewer penetrates the picture, and presumably the women, via the phallic shaped table protruding into the painting. Chave explains that this reading of the painting often elicits horror on the part of the male viewer.5 Traditionally, scholars have grounded this horror in the fact that the depicted prostitutes are visibly syphilitic.6 Chave, however, arrives at a different conclusion through a feminist reading of the image.

She writes that the women do not appear syphilitic.7 Instead, she claims the anxiety the image has traditionally produced is a result of the implied agency of the depicted women. She sees this agency in the expressions the women adopt. She writes, “the woodenness of the women’s stances and their faces’ mask-like stolidity make plain that they know they are party to a tiresome artifice…These women…can be had of course, but on another level they cannot be  had.”8 The demoiselles’ visible disinterest in their client (the viewer) gives them power over him.

Chave further expands this argument by claiming that Picasso’s proto-cubist move to flatten the picture plane, thereby ridding it of its depth, makes it so that the male viewer no longer feels able to penetrate the picture plane. Essentially, she argues that the horror is not rooted in a supposed contraction of syphilis, but rather in the realization that the male viewer no longer has the power to dominate the women via his penetration. She concludes her argument with the following powerful feminist critique:

If the demoiselles can never function successfully as models of empowerment, they have nonetheless already functioned effectively as lightning rods for fear of the empowerment of women and people of color…What jars [the viewer] is the glimpse it seems to afford of a time and circumstance when the continued primacy, or even viability, of their habitual modes of perceiving and knowing appear not merely doubtful, but also distinctly unwelcome.9

This profound feminist reading of Picasso’s painting and the reclamation of female agency within it is what makes Chave’s article so emblematic of feminist art historical practices.



  1. Linda Nochlin, Women, Art, and Power: And Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 147.
  2. Ibid., 149.
  3. Svetlana Alpers, “Art History and Its Exclusions: The Example of Dutch Art,” in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany, ed. Norma Broude et al. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1982), 184.
  4. Anna C. Chave, “New Encounters with Les Demoiselles D’Avignon: Gender Race, and the Origins of Cubism.” in Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History After Postmodernism, ed. Norma Broude et al.(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), 302.
  5. Chave, “New Encounters with Les Demoiselles D’Avignon,” 304.
  6. Ibid., 310.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 303.
  9. Ibid., 316.