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Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? An Art Historical Question from a Neurobiological Perspective

Caroline Wright's picture

In 1971 a question posed by Linda Nochlin changed the way art history was viewed. Her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists” explores the reasons for the severe disproportion of female to male artists throughout the course of art history (1). While this is undeniably at least in part an issue of social concern, the may be more than one answer. It is possible that art history and neurobiology can, in fact, over-lap. There are irrefutable physical, hormonal, and genetic differences between women and men. More importantly, aside from these primary and secondary sex-differences there are a wide variety of sometimes subtle, sometimes prominent neurological differences, from basic neural organization to the way female and male brains process everyday information (4). There are evolutionary advantages to having differences between the female and male members of a species. These differences in no way imply and superiority or inferiority between the sexes, especially in humans (4). In people, there is much more overlap in these dissimilarities, due largely to the fact that our own brain structure is largely malleable and able to be easily manipulated and changed due to our higher functional capabilities. It seems pertinent to investigate the fact that the reason there are “no great female artists” might because of biological differences in the creative process or ability to produce art.

In her article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists,” Linda Nochlin indicates that the answer to this question lies in institutional boundaries, as opposed to individual limitations, that hindered women for centuries from having access to the same opportunities as men, keeping them from being deemed “great.” For this statement to be true, there must be clear evidence that in fact there are not enough significant differences in the creative processes in women and men to make a distinction. As much as many might lie to deny it, there are some intrinsic differences to women and men. There are obvious, physical differences between the sexes, and these divergences do in fact to some extent permeate into variations in the brain. According to biopsychologist Jerre Levy, sex differences begin at a very early age: his work suggests that the right and left hemispheres of the brain develop at different rates in boys and girls, furthering verbal skills in girls and spatial skills in boys (3). Everyday functions are regulated by a complex series of hormones that are fundamentally different between men and women. Through one’s life this hormonal balance and the structure of the brain itself varies, which makes it difficult to make a determinate analysis of brain organizations and variations (3).

It seems that one of the main differences between the creative processes of female and male brains is that female brains tend to excel in verbal functions while males tend to excel at special functions, which are factors in creative processes. Y. P. Guilford did a study on gender-related differences in creative thinking. He measured EEG patterns in both men and women while they were asked to think about problem solving questions. Women generally have greater interactions between the right and left hemispheres of the brain than men, whose brain activity patterns seem to be more specialized thought processes. This would lead one to believe that high creativity levels denote interactions between the logical left-hemisphere and image and intuition right hemisphere, which would imply that women would have a greater overall level of creativity in men. However, Guilford’s experiments resulted in men having greater overall creativity levels. The researches found that in men, there was more inhibition of the left and right hemispheres from the respective opposite hemisphere, and they concluded that this controlled informational transfer might have accounted for the greater creativity levels. While there were some clear indicators for gender differentiation in creative processes, it is not clear exactly how these disparities would apply to the long history of absent female artists (5). Could the more prominent divide between the two hemispheres of the brain change the way the men and women create art?

Next it is key to look at gender differences in motion, which could account for differences in the physical act of creating art. Recently, New York University researchers explored sex differences in hand-eye coordination, specifically in reaching. They found that the dissimilarities were strongest when it came to “visual spatial processing – how you mentally rotate an object (2).” What they found was that in the female subjects, when reaching for an item (a visually guided movement), three separate brain areas were activated. In most cases this activity was recorded in both hemispheres of the brain. In men, however, activity during reaching was only recorded on one side of the brain, unless the activity was more complicated. However, though there were clear differences within the brain, the actual performance of the test subjects was essentially identical (2). When these findings are extended to apply to the physical act of creating art, there would be no biological difference in performance in female and male artists, nor in actual creative processes. Any discrepancies between the artistic abilities of women and men would have to be primarily influenced socially rather than biologically.

One thing that is for certain is that the more an area of the brain is used, the more that function improves. So, two-hundred years ago when women were strongly discouraged from doing anything other than staying at home and doing female activities like raising children and doing housework, the key parts of the brain that would be used for painting never had a chance to be developed. Even in the rare cases of artists like Artemisia Gentileschi, there is a case to be made that although they got in much practice, since they were still excluded even then from practicing drawing and painting from real-life nude models, there were still parts of their visual cortex and other multi-function regions of the brain that could not develop in the same way that those of their male counterparts could have been.

I find a lot of merit in Nochlin’s argument – the historical facts are there: women were simply denied advantages that men had in all aspects of life, which included some of the fundamental fine arts educations opportunities. I do believe that there have in fact been some great female artists and that due to social constructs, their work has largely been ignored and disregarded in the scope of history. Regardless of gender, the ability to produce art is a distinctively human ability. Instead of segregating its participants, we should instead celebrate its profound importance in our history and modern society.


1); “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

2); “Male and Female Brain Patterns Differ During Reaching,” Science Daily.

3); “Male brain, female brain: the hidden difference; gender does affect how our brains work - but in surprising ways,” Psychology Today.

4); “Are There Differences between the Brains of Males and Females?” Brain and Mind.



&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=400777&md5=efd052f5bcbd7788dc54d70d220755b4; “Gender differences in hemispheric organization during divergent thinking: an EEG investigation in human subjects,” Science Direct.


Number=5&catID=9, ; “Sex Differences in the Brain,” Scientific American.


Alexis's picture


Sweeping generalisations, whether constructed using empiricle evidence, as in the original article, or wholly unscientific, as in the above comment, are rarely good for dealing with people. Although we can be made to fit sort-of neatly into a limitless number of boxes, using statistical tendencies to describe major social inequalities is simply not enough. Can you imagine how ludicrous it would appear if I suggested one bring an umbrella to Vancover, but not to Seattle, in winter time? Although both are known to be extremely rainy cities, one technically receives more sunshine than the other, to an extent comparable to many of the so-called inherent differences between men and women, and yet because the cities do not form a binary you would never expect to see Seattle referred to as sunny, warm, and dry at Vancouver's expense.

Apart from perpetuating an unfavourable status quo, I can't see how this use of pop science (Psychology Today? Please) can do anyone at all any good. If I am a woman with strong spatial thinking skills, focus, and/or a propensity towards spending a lot of my time being creative, how does the reassurance that other women "generally" prefer to do other things because they're better at them comfort me? Furthermore, neither the original article nor any commenters have been quite as eager to explain why, as Nochlin suggests, there have also been no great "Lithuanian jazz pianists" or "Eskimo tennis players."

artisticallyinclined 's picture

Response to interesting article

What you fail to consider is that Dickinson and Austen lived in a time different from ours, yes they were free to write, but there is more to creativity, to the art of the imagination than merely sitting and allowing our minds to wonder, imagination is an active pursuit, women of that time, whether they were writers or wives were often limited to what propriety deemed acceptable, the flaneur was a man, he was free to explore the underbelly of the city, it is he that had the freedom required to truly imagine worlds. I find it hard to believe that you could expect 1984 from Austen or Dickinson, its as though you were asking Picasso from Rembrandt.

neurolempicka's picture

Interesting Article. I tend

Interesting Article.

I tend to find that men are more creative because they think wider and more visionary than women. Emily Dickinson, for example, was very good verbally, but limited herself to what went on inside her brain and shielded world. Austen too was good verbally, but wrote only about the domestic world she knew. When a female artist decides on a subject or theme for production of art, they can't seem to move away from it. If you could tell Dickinson or Austen to focus on a different subject, such as politics, violence, the future, or social inequality, they could probably make brilliant poetry/prose on those subjects. You could have had a female Dostojevski or Orwell. They are great, partially because they write about the world and what happens in the world. The workings of their life or brain might have been interesting to them, but would not be so to us.

Maybe the inhibition of interaction between men's brain hemispheres forces them to look at more alternatives when painting, and compensate with the dominant hemisphere? Perhaps females get carried away by their own verbosity; and males who cannot depend on such gifts, rely more on context and what's actually going on.