The His-Story of Art


Georgia O’Keeffe. Mary Cassatt. Frida Kahlo. You recognize these names, right?

These women and the images they created—the macro views of flowers and skulls, the tender moments between mother and child, the bold, revealing self-portraits—are very familiar to us, almost iconic.

Georgia O’Keefe is my favorite artist, especially her New Mexican landscapes. But I didn’t learn about her until I was an adult. When I was in college, H.W. Janson’s History of Art: A Survey of Major Visual Arts from the Dawn of History to the Present Day was the definitive art history textbook. With the book as our guide, we worked our way through Prehistoric, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Islamic, and Gothic art.

But just as we entered the early Renaissance in Europe, student unrest over the Vietnam War brought strikes and demonstrations to college campuses. On May 4, 1970, a confrontation between the National Guard and students at Kent State University resulted in four student deaths. My college closed at 2:30 a.m. the next morning and we packed up and went home for the year. It was a tumultuous time.

If the semester had continued, we still would not have learned about Georgia, nor Mary, or Frida. Janson’s History of Art, with 553 pages, 80 color plates, 848 black and white images, contained no female artists.

Not a one.

Apparently, since the Dawn of History, women hadn’t been a part of the History of Art.


In the late 60’s, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and her husband, architect Wallace F. Holladay, were surprised to find the same gaping omission. They had traveled abroad and admired a 17th century still life by Flemish painter Clara Peeters. When they returned to the U.S. and sought information about Peeters, they also discovered that History of Art made no reference to Peeters or any other woman. It was then that the Holladays began collecting works by women.

Clara Peeters, Still Life of Fish and Cat, National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C. Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Clara Peeters, Still Life of Fish and Cat, National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C. Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

As the collection grew, so did Mrs. Holliday’s vision of creating a museum of women’s art. Coincidentally, the modern women’s movement in the 70’s was picking up steam and demanded a revisionist look at art history that included women and multicultural contributors.

A_Museum_of_Their_Own_smallIn 1981, Mrs. Holladay incorporated the National Museum of Women in the Arts as a private, nonprofit museum, residing in her house. The NMWA eventually found a home in a renovated, former Masonic Temple and opened its doors in 1987 in Washington, D.C. The Holladay Collection became the core of the museum’s collection. As a charter member, I attended the members’ preview. I’ve never forgotten the grandeur of the Great Hall and the galleries that finally gave women’s art a home.

The NMWA Great Hall Photograph courtesy of Tom Field

The NMWA Great Hall
Photograph courtesy of Tom Field

Today, the NMWA has a collection of over 4,500 objects by women, which includes not only paintings starting in the 16th century, but works on paper, photography, sculpture, Native American pottery, and contemporary art books. Beyond the visual arts, the Museum also celebrates the performing arts and the written arts. The museum describes their mission this way: “By bringing to light remarkable women artists of the past while also promoting the best women artists working today, the museum directly addresses the gender imbalance in the presentation of art in the U.S. and abroad, thus assuring great women artists a place of honor now and into the future.”

And what about the absence of women in Janson’s History of Art? Oh, that was finally rectified in 1986—23 years after the first edition! See if you can find Frida now.

Thank you, Mrs. Holladay! Your vision assures that generations of girls will see talented female role models celebrated in museums. With that kind of inspiration, they will confidently follow their artistic dreams the way Georgia, Mary, and Frida did.

If you can’t visit the National Museum of Women in the Arts in person, learn more at

Teachers will find resources and outreach programs at

Who is your favorite female artist?

19 comments on “The His-Story of Art

  1. Cathy Ballou Mealey says:

    So many great museums in DC. Must make sure that I get to this one the next time I am there!

  2. Thanks for the “mini” art history of women artists. Women have been given much less attention throughout history, and it is always inspiring to read anything about our role models. Nice work Mary!

  3. Reblogged this on Darlene Beck-Jacobson and commented:
    Here is a Mini history of women in art. Mt illustrator friend Mary Zisk wrote the piece.

  4. rnewman504 says:

    Ah Janson, the holy grail of text books. My freshman year of college I remember lugging that book everywhere I went (up and down the stairs of the Philly Museum of Art, to the Barnes Foundation, etc.), and I’m pretty sure I memorized every plate at the time. But I had the “newer” edition (if I’m not mistaken his son may have worked on the book), and I do remember Cassatt and O’Keeffe in the text. But, honestly, the references to women artists were few and far between. Granted Janson covers a lot, but women artists deserve more of a voice in his text–especially, since it is the primary text that most colleges use for Art Hist. 101. Perhaps, colleges will start using Holladay’s text as well. Next time I’m in Washington, would love to check out the museum. Terrific post!

  5. mziskjr says:

    It’s true. Today’s Janson is lacking in female artists. Here is a statistic from the Guerrilla Girls:

    Only 27 women are represented in current edition of H.W. Janson’s survey, History of Art—up from zero in the 1980s.

    Less than 3% of the artists in the Modern Art section of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but 83% of the nudes are female.

    See more at:

  6. I greatly admire Käthe Kollwitz. Her drawings are direct and touching. I associate her with Expressionism because she so utterly lacks affectation. She is overdue for a major retrospective.

  7. Mary Zisk says:

    Peter, I’m familiar with Kollwitz’s drawings. The NMWA catalog has several, but I didn’t realize she also created powerful, emotional sculptures. Here is more info from the museum:

  8. Jean Powell says:

    I visited the National Museum of Women in the Arts this summer. Beautiful space and truly inspiring work by women throughout the ages.

    • mziskjr says:

      Jean, I’m glad you fit this museum into your visit. I haven’t been there since the opening and would love to see the expansion.

  9. Susan Brody says:

    As the mother of a 17-year-old female artist (and of an older son who happens to live in D.C.!), I was THRILLED to learn about this museum and can’t wait to get there. Thank you so much for this informative post, Mary!

  10. Sharman says:

    Mary…..So very proud of you & all your accomplishments! I will always say: “I knew her when…..”
    Love you!

  11. […] week, I posted here about the absence of women in an art history textbook, and the founding of The National Museum of […]

  12. Amy says:

    Thanks so much about writing about the National Museum of Women in the Arts! We’d love to have you visit us in person or online at We have two fabulous exhibitions on view through Nov. 10 by artists Faith Ringgold and Audrey Niffenegger.

  13. kamikinard says:

    Thank you Amy! I’d especially love to see Faith Ringgold’s exhibit because I’ve always been a fan of Tar Beach. I’m sure you will get a lot of future visitors from people who have read this post. I know I will stop by next time I am in DC. Thanks again for commenting.

  14. Sandy Olson says:

    How true this post is! Women are so under-represented in the history of art (in the history of anything, actually) that it’s astounding. I discovered this as I came across the most beautiful painting by British female painter Miss Irlam Briggs (born 1867) and there is hardly any information about her or her paintings out there. I now own 5 of her paintings, including 2 self portraits. I’m curious to know if the NMW has any or knows of her. Thanks for posting!

  15. […] Mary created the great drawing to prove her point! From : The His-Story of Art […]

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