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Linda Nochlin (1931–2017)

Linda Nochlin has died at the age of eighty-six. Nochlin was a pioneering scholar of feminist art history––her groundbreaking 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” prompted arts professionals to change the way art was researched, recorded, taught, and exhibited.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 30, 1931, Nochlin graduated from Vassar College with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1951 and earned her master’s degree in English from Columbia University in 1952. She completed her doctoral work in art history, focusing on realism and the French nineteenth-century painter Gustave Courbet, at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts in 1963. She began working as a professor at Vassar shortly after.

In 1969 Nochlin started teaching one of the college’s first art history courses on women, “The Image of Women in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” In an interview with Maura Reilly for Artnews, Nochlin said she was inspired to write her landmark essay after an incident that took place during a commencement ceremony at Vassar College in 1970. The dealer and gallery owner Richard Feigen told her that he wanted to show more women artists, but that he couldn’t find any good ones. “Why are there no great women artists?” he asked. The question would serve as the cornerstone of Nochlin’s mission to expand the art-historical canon by identifying societal challenges that women have faced and attempting to tear them down.

An excerpt from her landmark essay reads: “The fact, dear sisters, is that there are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol . . . The fault, dear brothers, lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education . . . everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs and signals.”

While she was working on the piece, feminist art history did not yet exist. “Like all other forms of historical discourse, it had to be constructed,” Nochlin said. “New materials had to be sought out, a theoretical basis put in place, a methodology gradually developed.”

Nochlin went on to teach at the City University of New York, Yale University, and at New York University. She authored numerous publications, including Bathers, Bodies, Beauty: The Visceral Eye (2006), Women in the 19th Century: Categories and Contradictions (1997), The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society (1989), Women, Art, and Power, and Other Essays (1988), Courbet Reconsidered (1988), and Realism and Tradition in Art, 1848–1900 (1966).

Her curatorial work includes a 1988 retrospective of Courbet’s work at the Brooklyn Museum; “Women Artists: 1550 to 1950” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which she cocurated with Ann Sutherland Harris, in 1976; and “Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art,” which she cocurated with Reilly for the Brooklyn Museum’s inaugural show at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, in 2007.