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Women entering and engaging with the art world once proved to come with societal obstacles, as women were excluded from contributing to intellectual discourse and denied leadership roles in the name of tradition. As artists, they were overshadowed. For so long, opportunities in the art world had been exclusive to men – whether it be becoming renowned artists, partaking in salons, or gaining power through the act of collecting art.
Yet, stories of notable female patrons extend back to the Ancient World. In spite of the climate of art being hostile towards women, they worked within the limitations placed upon them to revolutionize the culture of art institutions and shape the future of Art History.
“The term ‘patronage’ is inherently gendered and, in nearly all cases, female patrons worked within the limitations of patriarchal societies.” – Dr. Sheryl E. Reiss, Frieze
A patron of art does not simply collect art; they are taste-makers that shape the character of the works they commission (including not just works of art, but buildings and urban interventions as well). As a shaper of taste, a patron holds the power of changing the legacy of art and influencing art institutions that are treasured by the greater public.
A Reading in the Salon of Madame Geoffrin, 1755
Integral to the age of Enlightenment, the French salon was a social and cultural hub for philosophers, writers, and artists alike. Taking place in the home environment, women found it easier to participate under the restriction to the domestic sphere. They took on the role of hosting, which involved organizing and facilitating intellectual debates that ultimately led to political reforms.
These salon hostesses, dubbed “Salonnières”, saw the role of hosting as an opportunity to enter the public sphere, and engage with cultural and political life. This unique group of women harnessed immense power, and the modern world has continued to benefit from their impact – though notably, these women were part of the small, wealthy class of society, and did not represent all women.
Salonnières took on the role of funding the work of their protégés, some of whom they supported their entire lifetimes. The key to success for a salonnière was her extensive network. The influence of these women can be seen from the formation of cultural institutions and the success of many philosophes, writers, and artists, who wouldn’t have achieved success without their assistance.
The experiences of salonnières helped further the development of public female identity, though women’s involvement in salon culture and literature wasn’t met without pushback and erasure during post-revolutionary France, as the republican values that emerged placed masculinity at the forefront of the public sphere and women were again deemed to be better fit for the private sphere. Additionally, the extent of women's contribution to intellectual discussions has been contested by historians.
Daughter of Madam C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire in America and one of the first African American millionaires, A'Lelia Walker followed her mother’s footsteps as a patron of the arts. Walker ran the East Coast operations of her mother's company, Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, which developed and marketed hair care products for black women.
In 1913, A’Lelia convinced her mother to purchase two townhouses on West 136th Street in Manhattan, which were combined and made into a single live-work space for both business and entertaining, known as the Dark Tower. Walker’s country house in Irvington, New York and the Dark Tower in Harlem were the venues for Walker’s soirees, allowed for writers and musicians to meet and socialize, and provided safe spaces for queer culture. Walker’s parties fostered community for many African-American artists in her day.
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973). Gertrude Stein, 1905-6. Oil on canvas, 39 3/8 x 32 in. (100 x 81.3cm), currently residing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
A key figure in the modernist literature movement, Stein was an expat American writer who was also a notable art collector among the avant-garde artists in Paris. Stein held weekly salons in her Paris apartment, which was populated by European and American artists and writers. She was commissioned portraits of herself from avant-garde artists like Pablo Picasso and Félix Vallotton.
In 1905, Stein met Pablo Picasso, who painted her portrait. The style he used for the painting – a flatness, especially notable of her face – led to Picasso’s first Cubist paintings and taken to the extreme, seen in Picasso’s painting in the following year, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Stein’s patronage encouraged Picasso to continue painting throughout the early 1900s, before he received international recognition.
Stein was also an avid collector of art from Paul Cézanne, Juan Gris, and Henri Matisse, with one notable work in her collection being Matisse’s Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat), painted in 1905.
Anne Goldthwaite, Portrait of Katherine Sophie Dreier, 1915-1916. Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery
An American painter and co-founder of Société Anonyme, Dreier also engaged with progressive politics and attended suffrage meetings. Having pursued an art career, she worked between North America and Europe, exhibiting her work in Germany and meeting artists at Gertrude Stein’s Paris salons.
She popularized modern art in America throughout the early 1900s, which made her an early supporter of Conceptual art. Dreier was invited to show her work at the Armory Show in 1913, where she showed two paintings and became close friends with one of the other exhibitors, Marcel Duchamp. The show was famous for introducing the American public to avant-garde art, which was not well received, and served as a catalyst for Dreier’s advocacy for the artists behind the show.
She created the Cooperative Mural Workshop in New York, which served as an art school and supported exhibitions and performances by modernist figures, including dancer Isadora Duncan.
In 1916, Dreier and Duchamp teamed up with Man Ray to establish Société Anonyme, a forum for promoting modern art in the United States. Together, they organized exhibitions featuring the works of Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Fernand Léger, while also amassing a collection of over 1,000 artworks. As the group’s activities waned in the 1940s, the collection was given to Yale University.
Photo by April Greer For The Washington Post via Getty Images
As a passionate art collector, educator, civil rights activist, and philanthropist, Cafritz amassed one of America’s greatest collections of African-American art. Cafritz was born to a wealthy family in Alabama during the Jim Crow era and began her patronage early on in life. In college, she co-founded the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a high school dedicated to arts education.
Dedicated to increasing diversity in mainstream organizations and opening up opportunities for underserved populations, Cafritz spent decades serving on the boards of government and cultural institutions such as the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, American Film Institute, Smithsonian Cultural Equity Committee, and D.C. School Board.
Her 15,000 square-foot home boasts her collection of artworks. She later focused on collecting the works of contemporary artists, and acquired works from El Anatsui, Barkley L. Hendricks, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, and Kehinde Wiley, along with emerging artists like Noah Davis, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Titus Kaphar, and Toyin Ojih Odutola. Cafritz’s legacy lives on in the programs she helped establish and her tremendous collection of works.
The patron-artist relationship has prevailed into the 21st century, with a greater emphasis on encouraging the artist rather than solely the artist’s work. Though patrons these days generally don’t house artists in their lavish estates or commission them to paint portraits, like salonnières of the Enlightenment did in their time, they continue to support creators through giving them an avenue to success and economic stability and sustaining their living expenses.
The Internet has also revolutionized the way creators can receive support. Patronage is no longer only provided by the wealthy. Digital platforms like Kickstarter, GoFundMe and Indiegogo have helped fund individual projects, and websites like Patreon.com have enabled people to fund their favorite artists through monthly contributions, and often receive additional content.
For further reading, check out the list below: