Fictional Female Artists in Novels by Women Writers

A bibliography from guest author Marilyn Hoder Salmon

Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history

- Novalis, 1799-1800

When a woman novelist portrays a woman artist painting in her studio, the reader is invited to reflect upon women’s creativity and their struggles to attain a space in which to create.

- Roberta White, A Studio of One’s Own: Fictional Women Painters and the Art of Fiction

It may be surprising to discover how much fiction there is in this category, over 500 novels listed in an Internet search. As a recurring theme in women’s fiction we look to nineteenth-century women writers who often created women protagonists undertaking professional lives in all the arts. Unlike other careers, these vocations are known to require unlimited dedication and self-fulfilling achievement, thereby revealing the limitations traditionally applied to women’s lives. Modern literature carries this theme forward.*

The Story of Avis, by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1877), (Reprints Available).

Avis, a promising artist, is persuaded to marry, and thus enters into the difficulties of the divided-self. This excellent book is one of the earliest female-artist novels.

Diana and Persis, by Louisa May Alcott (1879), (Reprints available).

While best known for Little Women, Alcott wrote several stories about women artists. This story is based on her sister May’s experiences as a woman of her time, who travels to Europe to study art and encounters the gulf between creativity and domesticity.

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin (1899)(Reprints available)

Chopin’s masterpiece, set in aristocratic Louisiana, centers on Edna Pontellier, a wife and mother. Edna’s decision to forsake her family to live independently and become an artist leads to one of the most critically debated resolutions in fiction. One interpretation is metaphorical: Edna, unable to realize her dreams in life, returns to the sea to await rebirth in a future time of equality.

To The Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf (1927), (Reprints available).

Woolf’s most acclaimed and influential novel centers on the artist Lily Briscoe’s struggle to avert the social belief that “women can’t paint, women can’t write.” As Woolf noted in contrast, the artistic purpose is “making of the moment something permanent.” Lily’s summer with the traditional Ramsey family offers her a vivid challenge to autonomy.

Plum Bun, by Jessie Redmon Faucet (1929), (Reprints available).

A Harlem Renaissance classic, the novel is about Angela Murray, a light-skinned African-American woman who desires to pass for white solely to attain the freedom to pursue an artistic career. Angela learns the price one may pay for denying inherited roots, then is given the chance to take back her authentic self.

Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood (1989).

Renowned Canadian author Margaret Atwood centers this novel on Elaine Risley, an established artist who shapes painful memories into art. During a retrospective of her paintings Elaine revisits her past. Atwood herself is known to draw, and the novel is considered to be autobiographical.

Spending, by Mary Gordon, (1998).

Gordon’s novel about artist Monica Szabo is a humorous story, centered on a character who is a realistic ideal of a woman artist making her way and one “who indulges in wish fulfillment.”

The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud (2013).

Nora Eldridge, a schoolteacher with thwarted artistic longings, befriends Sirena Shalid, a successful artist, and together they intertwine ambition, envy and betrayal.

The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt (2014).

Harriet Burden, Hustvedt’s protagonist, is an older artist, who believes sexism has damaged her career, and in revenge she creates several works and attributes them to men with unexpected results. (Named one of the best books of 2014.)


Additional Suggestions:

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte (1848), (Reprints Available), (and excellent Masterpiece Theatre production)

Women Artists, Women Exiles (short stories), by Constance Fennimore Woolson, (1870-1880s), (Reprints Available)

The Sandcastle, by Iris Murdoch (1957)

Happenstance, by Carol Shield (1980)

The Truth About Lorin Jones, by Alison Lurie (1988)

The Serpent Garden, by Judith Merkle Riley (1996)

The Serpentine Cave, by Jill Paton Walsh (1997)

Stone Field, True Arrow, by Kyoko Mori (2000)

Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, by Harriet Scott Chessman (2001)

The Passion of Artemisia, by Susan Vreeland (2002)

The Painter From Shanghai, by Jennifer Cody Epstein (2008)

I Always Loved You, by Robin Oliveira (2014)

Leonora: A Novel Inspired by the Life of Leonora Carrington, by Elena Poniatowska (translated by Amanda Hopkinson, 2015)

Biography / Memoir:


Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, by Hayden Herrera (1983)

Diane Arbus: A Biography, by Patricia Bosworth (1984)

Unexpected Journeys: The Art and Life of Remedios Varos, by Janet A. Kaplan (1988)

Georgia O’Keefe: A Life, by Roxana Robinson (1989)

Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life, by Laurie Lisle (1990)

Persepolis (graphic memoir), by Marjane Satrapi (2003), (sequel, The Story of a Return)

We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoir of Faith Ringgold (2005)

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, by Linda Gordon (2010)

About the Author

Marilyn Hoder-Salmon is an literature educator and writer based out of Coconut Grove, in Miami, FL. She holds a Bachelor, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, 1967; Master of Arts, University Miami, Florida, 1976; Doctor of Philosophy, University New Mexico, Albuquerque, 1983.

She is a pioneering activist of women's and civil rights and has held various positions in higher education including director communications Urban League Miami, Florida, 1968—1976, founding director Women's Studies Program Florida International University, Miami, 1982—1999, associate professor English, since 1995, Director Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad, Madras, India, 1989. Awards include the Breaking the Glass Ceiling Award presented by the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, 2013,

Writing include the book Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Screenplay as Interpretation, 1992, Collecting Scholar's Wives, 1978, and an introduction for The Mortal Storm, 1998.

*For additional suggestions, questions or comments, email at hodersm [@]