VMFA has a growing collection of works by women artists, including those highlighted here that are on view currently. The collection features works from across time and place. With such a vast arch across time, these works collectively underscore the dramatic shifts in the artistic, social and political landscape and their impact upon the creative expression.

African American Art, African Art, American Art, Decorative Arts after 1890, European Art, Impressionism, Modern and Contemporary Art, Native American Art
Subject Area:
African American, Fine Arts, History and Social Science, Visual Arts, Women
Activity Type:
Gallery Guides & Hunts


Mother and Child, Bessie Potter Vonnoh

Vonnoh, like her colleague Mary Cassatt, cultivated a successful career producing sculptures of upper-class women at different stages of life. Images of mother and child, like this one, were among her most popular works and were reproduced in numerous castings. Here the artist’s modeling skills are revealed in the controlled naturalism of the figures and the graceful treatment of the drapery.

Books and Pottery Vase, Claude Raguet Hirst

At the turn of the 20th century, Hirst’s meticulous still lifes held such public appeal that, as one critic wrote, “they are apt to be hanging crooked…as people take them down so many times to hold them and look at them.” While touching art in galleries was discouraged then, as it is now, close examination was precisely the response that Hirst sought. The painter was one of a handful of Gilded Age artists – and the only female (her first name was shortened from Claudine) – to gain critical acclaim for illusionary imagery.

In this painting, Hirst presents an arrangement of old books and a ceramic pot with Asian motifs. She draws the eye to a brightly lid, opened book rendered with such precision that words can be read from its pages. The worn volume was one of the artist’s favorites: a 1795 English translation of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s romantic novel, Paul and Virginia. The painting’s frame – contemporary with the canvas but not original – offers its own visual surprise. The beautiful curling grain is actually painted. One trompe-l’oeil triumph supports the other.

Child Picking a Fruit, Mary Cassatt

Child Picking a Fruit merges the subject that made Mary Cassatt famous—a young woman (possibly a mother) and child—with her more ambitious examination of “modern woman,” a topical theme at the turn of the 20th century as the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum. The image derives from the artist’s now-lost Modern Woman mural commission, produced for the Woman’s Building of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. For this prestigious world’s fair, Cassatt presented her allegorical subject in a three-panel lunette. The large central panel, Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge, featured women of different ages, clad in contemporary dress and communally harvesting fruit from an orchard.

War Torn Dress, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

A profound visualization of the struggle between Native and non-Native philosophies, War-Torn Dress presents a legacy that is more cautionary than celebratory. Quick-to-See Smith often uses clothing to highlight the human element of her powerful indigenous narratives. The diptych format literally tears the dress in two, reminding the viewer of the brutal American practice of tearing Native communities from their land under the guise of civilizing them. The implication of a body inspires contemplation on lives lost and the contested spaces they occupied. Placed prominently across the dress, “Your God, My God” proposes that within the fight over whose God is greater, all people reside in the Sacred, breathe the same air, and are of the same life force. The dress is now destroyed but deploys an urgent warning.


Portrait of the Comte de Vaudreuil, Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun

Vigée-Lebrun, daughter of a Paris pastelist, was a successful portrait painter from the age of fifteen. In 1779 she was called to court to paint Queen Marie-Antoinette’s portrait; she quickly became the queen’s favorite artist. Like the Comte de Vaudreuil, Vigée-Lebrun fled France at the beginning of the revolution, but was later invited to return, which she did briefly in 1802 and permanently in 1810. The Comte de Vaudreuil was a wealthy plantation owner who lived so grandly that he was cited as one of the causes of the French Revolution. A noted art collector, he once owned VMFA’s Finding of the Laocoön by Hubert Robert.

Full-length portrait of William Henry Lambton (1764-1797) in a Van Dyck style costume, Angelica Kauffman

Angelica Kauffman was one of the most influential women artists of the 18th century. After eventually settling in Rome, she became a sought-after portrait painter for the young aristocratic travelers participating in the Grand Tour. This painting presents the quintessential characteristics of the Grand Tour portrait tradition. The sitter, a wealthy member of the British Parliament traveling through Italy at the time, is dressed in a fancy and anachronistic 17th-century costume. He stands on a terrace that opens onto a mountainous landscape. Next to him, a depiction of the Medici Vase, one of the most celebrated pieces still extant from the Greek classical period (AD 1st century), shows his cultural interest as an educated traveler and art connoisseur.

Venus and Cupid, Artemisia Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi, who trained in Rome with her father, Orazio, was the leading female artist of the 17th century. She worked mainly in Rome, Florence, and Naples. In 1616, she became the first female member of Florence’s noted Academy of Painting.

Gentileschi’s work, which is marked by the strong contrasts of light and dark as well as unusual, bold compositions, was influenced both by her father’s painting style and that of his famous associate, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Her subject matter often consists of powerfully rendered portrayals of women – Judith, Susanna, Cleopatra, and Danäe, for example – dramatically depicted either as heroines or victims.

In this work, however, Gentileschi has created a sumptuous image of Venus, the Goddess of Love, asleep under a velvet hanging. Her bedcover is painted with ultramarine, an expensive pigment made from powdered lapis lazuli. Behind her, Cupid wields a peacock-feather fan to keep pests from annoying or waking her. At the left is a view of a mountainous landscape with a small circular temple, reminiscent of the one dedicated to Venus near Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli, just outside of Rome.


Butterfly Whorl, Susan Point

Susan A. Point is a descendant of the Musqueam/Coast Salish people, who are indigenous to the lower mainland of Vancouver and the southern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and northern Washington State. Coast Salish women had a distinctive weaving style. To spin wool, they used a large spindle shaft with an attached wooden whorl as wide as eight inches in diameter. Point initiated the contemporary use of the spindle whorl form, and her distinct carving style has stimulated a renewed energy and interest in Coast Salish art. She is one of the few women who work on such a large scale in a traditionally male art form. By drawing attention to the artistic contribution of women while working in a medium typically reserved for men, she has broken new ground for future female artists.

Puttawus, 2020, Raven Custalow (American, Mattaponi, born 1987), plant based cordage, sinew, turkey feathers, shells, and possibly copper. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Eric and Jeanette Lipman Fund, 2021.86

Puttawus, Raven Custalow

Many nations of the Eastern Woodlands made and wore feather cloaks, or mantles. These garments were worn in various ways: draping only one shoulder, covering the entire body, or extending from the shoulder to the ground. Colors and weaving techniques differed based on the feathers used and how they were attached to the backing. Archaeological records show that these mantles are a uniquely Eastern Woodlands art form, documented by early colonizers of North America. However their physical existence is scant, with only fragments surviving in burial sites.

Raven Custalow is a Mattaponi tribal citizen and CEO of Eastern Woodland Revitalization, whose mission is to revitalize cultural practices specific to Eastern Woodland Indigenous people. She is seeking to revitalize the art of feather weaving not only among Mattapoint people but also to other regions in Virginia.


ibala leSindebele (Ndebele Design), Esther Mahlangu

In 2014 VMFA commissioned Esther Mahlangu to create two large-scale paintings to form a vibrant gateway for the African Art Galleries. The most renowned contemporary artist among South Africa’s Ndebele people, Mahlangu has transformed the art of mural painting from its historic tradition of designs on the exterior of rural houses to projects created in a global contemporary art context. Her career was propelled in 1989 when she was invited to participate in the landmark Magiciens de la Terre exhibition in Paris. In 1991 BMW commissioned her to paint a car for their Art Car program; to date, she is the only African and only female artist included in this project.

Beyond the pride Ndebele women take in their painted homes, these residences assumed new importance during the late 19th century as statements of identity and resistance against displacement from the land by white settlers. As a young girl, Esther learned the art from her mother and grandmother. For the VMFA project, her granddaughter Marriam assisted. Esther’s vision for a composition arises in her mind’s eye, and she works without aid of preliminary sketch or straight-edge tool. Techniques vary from using a single chicken feather to etch a fine line to multi-feather clusters and artist’s brushes for the broader areas of color.

Painted on linen, these works will survive indefinitely, whereas murals painted directly on building surfaces can be imperiled by renovation, overpainting, or degeneration from weather. Indeed, some of Esther Mahlangu’s most significant international mural projects now exist only through photographic documentation.


One Night at Jimmy's We Saw the Supremes on Color Television, Willie Anne Wright

“We’re living in an exciting period—a period of change. Value patterns are changing and to me it’s fascinating.”—Willie Anne Wright

Of the same generation as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, Wright finished her MFA in painting at Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University) in 1964, just as Pop Art began to take hold outside New York. Here Wright quotes Matisse with bold, overlapping floral motifs and a domestic scene, but unlike Matisse’s Parisian interiors, Wright’s setting is distinctly American with a TV as its focal point. When network television converted from black and white to color in 1965, the Supremes were a favorite musical group on The Ed Sullivan Show and other widely viewed programs. A keen observer of popular media and an avid fan of soul music, Wright translates this “period of change” into a singular visual composition.

Time Fractal, Virginia Jaramillo

“My work is an aesthetic investigation which seeks to translate into visual terms the mental structural patterns we all superimpose on our world- the framework of reference points we use to distinguish the “real” from the “unreal.”—Virginia Jaramillo

Now nearing six decades of practice, Virginia Jaramillo takes inspiration from a wide array of sources – such as science fiction, industrial design, and mythology – to make her iconic abstract paintings. Fascinated by human perceptions of time and space, she continuously pushes her artistic process by experimenting with material, including found objects and earth pigments. Jaramillo’s “curvilinear” series received critical acclaim in the landmark 1971 DeLuxe Show in Houston. The exhibition was a significant moment for artists of color working in an abstract mode during that period.

Blocks and strips, Ruth Kennedy

Gee’s Bend, later named Boykin, is located southwest of Selma, Alabama. The area is not only rural but isolated. Bounded on three sides by the Alabama River, Gee’s Bend was once home to numerous cotton plantations named after their owners, including Gee, Bennett, Pettway, and Irby. Many of the quilters were and are direct descendents of enslaved Africans who took the surnames of these plantation owners. Living in unheated shacks, Gee’s Bend women made quilts for warmth and utility. Drawing upon aesthetic legacies, creative vision, and patterns from the world around them, these quilters have constructed some of the most iconic textiles of the African American South.

No. 3 - 1957, Hedda Sterne

“New York seemed to me at the time like a giant carousel in continuous motion—on many levels—lines approaching swiftly and curving back again forming an intricate ballet of reflections and sounds.”—Hedda Sterne

Sterne grew up in the midst of the Romanian avant-garde in the 1920s. She traveled to Paris frequently in the 1930s, immersing herself in Surrealism before relocating to New York in 1941. There she quickly became active in the circle of exiled European artists and the younger generation of American artists who later became Abstract Expressionists. In the early 1950s, Sterne began painting with the newly invented aerosol spray, discovering that its speed and ease of movement paired with the paint’s diffuse, blurred edges effectively translated the sensation of the pulsating city environments she depicted.

Untitled (No. 25), Lee Bontecou

“My concern is to build things that express our relationship to this country—to other countries—to this world—to other worlds . . . to glimpse some of the fear, hope, ugliness, beauty, and mystery that exist in us all.”—Lee Bontecou

Between 1959 and 1967, Bontecou made works using canvas wired to a welded-steel framework. These wall-mounted constructions questioned the boundary between painting and sculpture, an issue the artist explored further by using raw canvas as a sculptural material. Bontecou meant her works to defy easy interpretation. Their gaping voids, backed with black, simultaneously invite and repel.

The canvases call to mind army fatigues, laundry bags, or tarps; the wire that attached them suggests sutures closing a wound. Bontecou’s use of common materials allies her with the Assemblage approach of artists like Robert Rauschenberg, and her pared-down materials and interest in geometry hint at Minimalism. But her works’ strong emotions and political and cosmic allusions set her apart from both these movements.

Mother Goose Melody,, Helen Frankenthaler

“The painter makes something magical, spatial, and alive on a surface that is flat and with materials that are inert. That magic is what makes a painting unique and necessary. Painting, in many ways, is a glorious illusion.”—Helen Frankenthaler

In Mother Goose Melody, Frankenthaler combines the gestural splashes and drips of Abstract Expressionist painting with the innovative stained-canvas technique she helped pioneer in 1952. The array of colors, shapes, and lines makes this composition rhythmic and dynamic. The spiraling red form on the right counters the dense area of color on the left, while the broad yellow band stretching across the bottom unites both. The artist noted that the three brown shapes could refer to herself and her two sisters, and that the red and black lines “made a sort of stork figure—the whole thing had a nursery-rhyme feeling.”


Chrysalis Four, Kiyomi Iwata

“Fabric itself can become more intellectually challenging and I like that kind of surprise in human beings too, when you get to know each other. It is kind of nice to have layers and layers of human experience come out. That is what I enjoy very much about life and cloth. “—Kiyomi Iwata

Iwata began her career in the arts after taking a batik-dying class at VMFA’s Studio School in 1967. In the early 1970s she moved to New York where she studied weaving and textiles at the New School of Social Research. Primarily a fiber artist, Iwata uses her medium—most often silk—to push the boundaries between painting and sculpture and explore the intersection of Japanese and American artistic traditions

Chrysalis Four marks her transition from using woven silk to form volumetric structures, like boxes, to treating kibiso thread as lines in a two-dimensional composition. Kibiso is the rough, thick silk thread produced by silk worms before they begin to make the smooth thread traditionally used in textiles. Here the loosely woven kibiso references the life stages of a silk worm, forming the shape of eleven cocoons. The transparency of the forms, however, allows each thread to cast a bold shadow, creating an intricate drawing behind the three-dimensional object.

Chill, Candida Alvarez

“Having run away from seemingly inadequate definitions for abstract painting, I find myself immersed in a relationship that tracks, exchanges . . . there is no more picture; there is only painting.”—Candida Alvarez

Alvarez is an abstract painter whose works integrate pop art, color theory, and memory. The artist draws upon her Puerto Rican heritage through her use of complex, vibrantly layered compositions. Moving between abstract and figurative forms, she often cites pop culture, historical and modern art references, current affairs, and personal memories.

In Chill, Alvarez employs silhouettes of white and a gray against pops of bold, bright colors. The work is as much about the wintery landscape of Chicago, where the artist resides, as it is about a fascination with the aesthetics of cartoons, kitsch, and hand-crafted objects. The painting evokes the monochrome, rich with texture, yet disrupted with pops of color. Alvarez discusses the work as one in which shape and color dominate. The process of how paint is applied to the canvas becomes focal to the viewer’s eye. For the artist, notions about abstractions being devoid of figuration is debunked in this gestural wintery landscape.

Interior: Two Chairs and Fireplace, Mickalene Thomas

“What’s so great is that Matisse looked at Manet. And Romare Bearden looked at Matisse and Manet. And I’m looking at all three; it’s a lineage.”—Mickalene Thomas

Thomas explores traditional notions of femininity and beauty, as well as female empowerment, through paintings portraying provocative, glamorous African American women. She begins her three-part process by building sets redolent of 1970s domestic interiors, where she then poses and photographs her model. Finally, she paints the image on a much larger scale, incorporating materials such as glitter and sequins.

Thomas’s dialogue with art history is evident in this painting, which, unusually for her, presents a setting without the figure. The rich profusion of patterns plays on Henri Matisse’s paintings, while the illusion of torn and pasted fragments recalls Romare Bearden’s collages.

Stadia III, Julie Mehretu

“I’m interested in describing this as a system. . . a whole cosmos, and that is the overall painting, while the little minute detail marks act more like characters, individual stories. Each mark has agency in that sense—individual agency.”—Julie Mehretu

Mehretu’s monumental paintings address contemporary themes of power, colonialism, and globalism with dramatic flair. She adopts imagery from architecture, city planning, mapping, and the media. At the same time, her bold use of color, line, and gesture makes her works feel like personal expression.

Stadia III belongs to a series of three Stadia paintings dealing with the theme of mass spectacle. Conceived in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the series reflects Mehretu’s fascination with television coverage that transformed the war into a kind of video game—as many at the time commented—and in the spectrum of nationalistic responses that she witnessed during travels to Mexico, Australia, Turkey, and Germany. The series also reflects her interest in the international buildup to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.


Queen of Hearts (for Hous'hill, Catherine Cranston's residence, Glasgow, Scotland), Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh

Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, wife of Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, created numerous stenciled and gessoed pictures for the tearooms that her husband designed for Catherine Cranston in Glasgow. Later Macdonald Mackintosh assisted her husband in the interior decoration of Hous’hill, Miss Cranston’s Glasgow residence. These four panels, originally set into the walls of the Card Room in Cranston’s house, depict the queens of the four card suits flanked by two court pages. Macdonald Mackintosh’s use of gesso to create a high-relief linear style was characteristic of her work during the period.

Pirogue Chaise Longue, Eileen Gray

This unusual chaise longue, inspired by Polynesian and Micronesian dugout canoes, known in Frances as pirogues, is lacquered and silvered. Very similar to one that Gray designed in 1919-20 for Madame Mathieu Lévy, a successful Parisian fashion designer known as Suzanne Talbot, it is among the most celebrated examples of furniture in the Art Deco style.

Dragonfly Lamp, Clara Driscoll

After starting work for Tiffany in 1888, Clara Driscoll became head of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department in 1892 and designed the majority of Tiffany’s lamps. Her design for the dragonfly shade was among Tiffany’s most popular lamps. An article in The New York Daily News (April 1904) profiled Driscoll as one of a group of American women who earned $10,000 or more annually. Although Louis Comfort Tiffany kept all the names of his workers anonymous, that article identifies Driscoll as the designer of one of the most iconic lamps for Tiffany Studios. A variant of VMFA’s dragonfly shade was first publicly shown in French art dealer Siegfried Bing’s exhibition L’Art Nouveau at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1899. A year later, another version of Driscoll’s dragonfly lamp shade won a prize at the World’s Fair in Paris. A third example of Driscoll’s dragonfly lamp shade was on display at the Exhibition of Modern Decorative Arts in Turin, Italy, in 1902.

Artist Interviews

Howardena Pindell: Artist

Artist Howardena Pindell discusses the development of her style, with commentary from Valerie Cassel Oliver of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Naomi Beckwith of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, co-curators of the exhibit, “Howardena Pindell: What Remains to Be Seen.”

Alison Saar @ VMFA 1993

Hear and see what major artists have to say about their works and concepts in their own words. These concise videos–2 to 3 minutes–are historic interviews recorded one-on-one by VMFA in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Artist Interview and Performance: Raven Custalow

In 2020, Raven Custalow, Virginia Native artist of Mattaponi and Rappahannock ancestry and an enrolled member of the Mattaponi tribe, was commissioned by VMFA to create a feather-mantle titled Puttawus. This video shows the artist at work and performing while wearing the feather-mantle.

Artist Profile: Willie Anne Wright

Willie Anne Wright shares about her work and process.