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Female Contemporary Artists

The History of Figurativism


Figurativism is a recurring artistic movement in both painting and sculpture in which the art is derived from an actual object and retains a very strong likeness to that object in reality. It goes back millennia, and has the ability to represent real-world objects, subjects and specific cultural values of the time it was made in. The subject of the artwork is often a human or an animal or a realistic painting of fruit, the ocean, or a battle. The point of figurative art is that it is representational of the subject, no matter what that subject is.


From petroglyphs and pictographs in the Upper Paleolithic era in the Stone Age to the Italian Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries, art has been utilized as a tool to record history, tell stories and spread news. In societies where few people were literate, art was an essential vehicle for communication and therefore all art had meaning and a message to convey. Artists back then used the models in their paintings as symbols to spell out the story intended to tell. People could “read” the paintings by deciphering what each symbol represented. 


In her colorful paintings, contemporary female artist Cassandra Gillens uses figurativism to tell stories passed down from her grandmother through the use of  symbolic objects such as fruits, animals, flowers and patterns in her compositions, as seen in her pieces “Apple a Day”, “Flowers for Mom” and “Family Portrait”. Another female contemporary artist, Chloe Wise, a Jewish Canadian painter based in New York, enjoys taking everyday objects and challenging the perspective the world has of them as seen in her painting, “Of False Beaches and Butter Money.” Best described by Wall Street International Magazine, “Female sitters in Wise’s delicately composed portraits stand amongst goods of this industry, conjuring the elite portraiture of a bygone era while negating the fixity of status that these images once affirmed. Instability is signaled through odd pairings of props, such as Evian water bottled filled with almond milk, as well as the engorged size of each sitter, looming over the viewer from a stratospheric vantage, reveling in her command of our attention and dissidence in conforming to any one frequency of time, place, or standard of beauty.”


Female figurative artists like Gillens, Wise, and Amy Sherald are very much of their time, painting about topics and motifs relevant to our present day lives. Sherald, a portrait artist based in Baltimore, reflects on the reasons why she paints her figures in an interview with the National Endowment for the Arts. “I was inspired to paint things that I didn't see within the art historical narrative. I'm not sure what came first, exactly. I was always drawn to the figure. It came naturally to paint people that looked like me, but then I also recognized that the art history books that I looked up weren’t culturally relevant…I understand the importance of being represented at a cultural level and being able to see reflections of yourself, and society, and in culture, … but then I also want to create a narrative that's extricated from a dominant historical narrative.” 


Using figurativism, Sherald is rewriting art history by telling old truths and new stories when there is a critical need for social justice to be included in dialogue around art history. She’s just one of many female contemporary artists rearranging the art world as we know it. Painters like Kehinde Wiley use figurativism to challenge societal norms, to bring awareness to issues with the hope of affecting cultural change for the future. 


One thing remains the same, though, figurativism is an important form of art that has the ability to positively impact the world through purposeful art. One of my goals is to someday have my name- Marisa Rheem- stand among these notable and cherished contemporary artists one day in the future.

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