Visible Women

5 women artists and activists whose work was overshadowed by their husbands’

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Moya Crockett
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From a pioneering anthropologist to an acclaimed painter, Stylist highlights five women who deserve to be celebrated in their own right.

Today, Frida Kahlo is widely recognised as one of most important artists of the 20th century. But during her own lifetime, her own talents were often overshadowed by those of her famous husband, the painter Diego Riviera.

Case in point: in the early Thirties, Riviera and Kahlo were in Detroit, where he was working on a mural at the city’s Institute of Arts. When a (female) reporter wrote an article about Kahlo’s own work, it was published in the Detroit News with the condescending headline “Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art”. That article, which has been floating around on the internet for years, recently went viral once more. 

However, Kahlo is far from the only creative woman to have her work overlooked or eclipsed by her husband’s fame. Below, we’ve rounded up five artists and writers who deserve to be recognised for their own achievements – rather than viewed only as the wives of celebrated men. 

Jo Hopper

Jo Hopper appeared in every one of Edward Hopper’s paintings featuring a woman between 1923 and 1967 

Born Josephine Nivison, Jo Hopper married the American realist artist Edward Hopper in 1924. Today, his keen-eyed depictions of life in 20th century America are still famous, but she has generally been forgotten.

But Jo was an accomplished artist herself, and had been a successful painter for 15 years before Edward made her his muse. (Between 1923 and his death in 1967, she served as the model for every single one of his paintings featuring a woman.) Her work appeared in exhibitions alongside Man Ray, Modigliani and Picasso; in the year she married Edward, The New York Times had singled her out for praise over Georgia O’Keeffe and John Singer Sargent.

After Jo put Edward forward for an exhibition, his career rocketed into the stratosphere, and her work fell out of favour. Yet, like many wives of famous artists, she was integral to his success, managing his correspondence, maintaining records of his paintings, and liaising with gallerists to keep his career ticking over. 

She also provided him with artistic inspiration: many of his paintings feature motifs and colour palettes she had previously used in her own work.

Shirley Graham Du Bois 

Shirley Graham Du Bois with husband William 

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, who died in 1963 aged 95, was one of the most famous writers and thinkers of early 20th century black America. His 1903 nonfiction book The Souls of Black Folks is seen as one of the most important works in the history of sociology and African-American literature, and many of the concepts he invented – such as that of ‘double consciousness’ – are still cited in conversations about politics and pop culture.

Although not as well-known as her husband, William’s wife Shirley was also a talented author, composer and playwright, and a passionate activist for the rights of black people and women. Decades before the publication of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, Shirley wrote several biographies of important people of colour aimed at children, including one about Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American female poet.

She also wrote an award-winning historical novel about African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and composed the music for a 1932 opera about colonialism, slavery and freedom – which attracted over 15,000 people to one performance. 

Elaine de Kooning 

Elaine de Kooning in 1962

When she met Dutch abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning in 1938, Elaine Fried was 20 years old and studying art in New York City. He became her teacher, often destroying her work if he didn’t consider it good enough. Despite this, they married in 1943, and Elaine went on to build a successful career as an expressionist painter in her own right.

However, she was aware that – in an artistic movement heavily dominated by men – her own reputation was dwarfed by her husband’s. In 1951, she and Willem showed their paintings at an exhibition about artistic couples, which also included work by Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner and Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. Elaine later regretted agreeing to the show. “It seemed like a good idea at the time, but later I came to think that it was a bit of a put-down of the women,” she said. “There was something about the show that sort of attached women-wives to the real artists.”

As well as being a proficient artist – she had solo exhibitions all over the US and in Mexico, and in 1962 was commissioned to paint a portrait of then-President John F Kennedy – Elaine was also a prominent art critic and writer at a time when female art critics were extremely rare. 

Although not as famous as her husband for most of her life, her work began to receive more recognition in the years before she died in 1989. In the last few years, her paintings have appeared in several major exhibitions, including a retrospective of her portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.  

Eslanda Goode Robeson 

Essie Robeson with her husband Paul in London, 1933

Eslanda ‘Essie’ Goode was born in 1895, and became politically active while studying at Columbia University in New York. It was in Manhattan that she met the man who would become her husband, Paul Robeson. From a time in the first half of the 20th century, Robeson was one of the most famous black men in the world: a baritone singer, acclaimed stage actor, American footballer and political activist.

Essie’s life was inextricably bound up with that of her husband – in the Twenties, she gave up her plans to study medicine to become his manager. But she was also a pioneering anthropologist, activist and actor, with strong anticolonial and black feminist views that were entirely her own.

She studied anthropology at the London School of Economics, and a book she wrote based on her travels across Africa – in which she rejected notions of African primitivism and argued that black people should be proud of their African heritage – was well-reviewed. She believed that black women should be allowed to take the lead in political struggle, and continued exploring issues of gender, race and politics in her 1949 book American Argument

Martha Gelhorn

Martha Gellhorn at a press conference about the Spanish Civil War, circa 1946 

Considered one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century, Martha Gellhorn is nevertheless often discussed in the same breath as her first husband, the author Ernest Hemingway. But Gellhorn’s professional accomplishments are vastly more impressive than her five-year marriage to a man who often sought to stop her working.

Born to a middle-class family in 1908, Gellhorn started out as a journalist for The New Republic, before working at a news bureau in Paris. During the Great Depression, she travelled around the US reporting on how the economic crisis was affecting ordinary people, often working with photographer Dorothea Lange.

After meeting Hemingway in 1936, she travelled with him to Spain to report on the Civil War. Gellhorn then went to Germany to write about the rise of Hitler, and when WW2 broke out she reported on the conflict from Hong Kong, Finland, Burma, Singapore and England. On D-Day in 1944, Gellhorn was the only woman to land at Normandy. She would continue working as a war correspondent until she was in her early 80s.

Gellhorn and Hemingway divorced in 1945, after she grew tired of him complaining about her going overseas to work. She would later refuse to speak about him in interviews, saying she refused to be “a footnote in someone else’s life”. If ever there was a philosophy to live by, we think it’s that.

Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images