Throughout history women have been used by male artists as the subject of their art. Usually women have been characterised within the narrow stereotypes of the virgin, the mother or the harlot and idealised as muse to invoke a particular view of beauty, femininity and sexualized object of desire. Women artists’ representations of women challenge these traditional narratives and when examined in context can be read as historical documents that enable a greater understanding of the period in which they were created and the works themselves.

Early works by artists such as Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938) and Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) were created in a period where women artists began to turn to the female body as the primary subject for women’s experience. Valadon, the daughter of an unmarried domestic worker, grew up in Montmartre and became an artist’s model in the early 1880s after working as a circus performer. She became known in particular for her female nudes which depicted her models as awkward, solid and unidealised; far removed from contemporary notions of the female form in art. Her critics at the time considered her work to be unfeminine and even ugly.

In contrast, both Laurencin and her work was considered exquisitely feminine by contemporary society, but later feminist readings have re-positioned In Britain, Dame Laura Knight (1877-1970) became a notable female success in the male dominated British art establishment. In 1936 she was the first woman elected to the Royal Academy since its foundation in 1768 and subject of a significant retrospective exhibition there in 1965.  The youngest of the three daughters from a poor family, Knight enrolled as an 'artisan student' at the Nottingham School of Art where her mother Charlotte Johnson taught part-time.  At the age of fifteen she took over her mother's teaching duties and would later support herself through giving private tuition. it in the context of her bisexuality and as a means of subverting the patriarchal notion of femininity. Art historian Elizabeth Kahn has described her as ‘a young woman in the process of negotiating her way out of conventional femininities’, adding ‘she seemed to be searching for a unique identity that could resist the historic control of the male viewer.’

Many of the later works in the exhibition are drawn from Pallant House Gallery’s Golder – Thompson Gift including works produced in the late 1980s and 1990s by Jennifer McRae, Lys Hansen and Gwen Hardie which explore ideas of identity and the human condition.

Paula Rego has always been a strong conveyer of female experience, often looking askew at the complexities of family relationships or drawing upon the themes of fear and darkness that underpin traditional fairy tales and folklore. In her etching ‘The Guardian’ (2008), part of the House of Fairytales Portfolio, Rego has created an image of a bedtime story being told by a mother figure and subverts it from a comforting trope into something more sinister.

Shani Rhys James’ etching, ‘The Hand Mirror’ (2008), depicts a small girl holding a hand mirror and surrounded by an oppressive group of mannequins dressed in theatrical costume. The hand mirror is a talismanic object to Rhys James who uses a paint-encrusted mirror constantly in her studio, not to seek a direct likeness but rather to check the fall of light on skin or in an eye. She does not attempt to recreate a true reality in her work but rather to explore her own personal mythology and subconscious.

Other artists represented in the exhibition include: Prunella Clough, Laura Ford, Cathie Pilkington, Cornelia Parker, Kiki Smith, Jessica Harrison, Joyce Cairns, Christine Borland and Moyna Flannigan.

Women Artists: The Female Gaze will be on display in the De’Longhi Print Room at Pallant House Gallery from 28 June – 15 October 2017. Entry to the De’Longhi Print Room is free.