History has demonstrated that to succeed as a woman in the fine arts has been no simple feat. While female artists have yet to come close to their male counterparts in terms of the highest selling prices at auction, works by female artists are more in demand and achieving higher prices now than they ever have at any other period in history.

Sotheby's recent "The Now Evening Auction" notably featured works by an overwhelming seven female artists, fetching prices from 415,800GBP on the low end to 2,919,000 GBP on the high. Sotheby's had tightly curated the lot to feature the hottest artists of the 21st century. This means the artists featured in the sale are still alive and see the success of their works within their lifetime. 

What is most remarkable about the sale is that most of the female artists featured are also incredibly young; Rachel Jones 31, Jadé Fadojutimi 29, Shara Hughes 41, Flora Yukhnovich 32, Hilary Pecis 43, Cecily Brown 53, Elizabeth Peyton 57. Even the eldest among them is at a reasonably young age to be seeing a successful career within an ecosystem that historically only affords meteoric success to female artists after their death.

A Case Comparison: From Past to Present 

Let's consider the case of a young successful living female artist to that of one that only received wide-scale recognition and high sales at auction after her death. The dialogue between them reveals how much has changed for female artists throughout a short period.

Let's take Flora Yukhnovich. The young British painter gained widescale recognition for her contemporary take on the eighteenth-century French Rococo movement. In the auction as mentioned earlier, Yukhnovich's Warm, Wet' N' Wild, sold for a record price of 2,697,000 GBP, surpassing a humble estimate of 150,000 - 200,000 GBP.

Flora Yukhnovich, Warm, Wet ‘N’ Wild, 2020, oil on canvas. 210 x 179.8 cm. 82.8 x 70.9 in. Private Collection

Now let's compare her to a female artist who only reached monetary success and high auction sales after her death. We won't tread too far back to demonstrate that these changes are pretty recent. Looking at Alice Neel (1900-1984), an American Postwar and Contemporary painter who is best known for her stylized candid style of portraiture. Neel's highest-selling painting Dr Finger's Waiting Room, 1966, sold just last year at Christie's for 3,030,000 USD in New York, surpassing its initial estimate of 600,000 – 800,000 USD.

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Alice Neel, Dr. Finger’s Waiting Room, 1966, oil on canvas. 127 x 91.4cm. 50 x 36 in. Private Collection

While both paintings achieved incredible success at auction, the big difference is that Yukhnovich sees her success within her lifetime. That too, very early in her lifetime, the artist is only in her early 30s. In comparison, Neel, who died in 1984, was largely unrecognized in her life as the other female artists of her time. Neel's career was overshadowed by the male-dominant abstract expressionist painters and additionally impeded by the unequal opportunities faced by women at that time. She did not live to see the kind of success Yukhnovich now, demonstrating that things have crucially changed for practising female artists. 

Yet, despite the improvements observed in recent years, it cannot be denied that male artists still dominate the sector. For example, Yukhnovich's recent sale was overshadowed by headlines of a Banksy work in the same lot selling for nearly double the price.

Female artists still represent a mere two per cent of the total art market. Where over 196.6 billion USD was spent on art at auction between 2008 and 2019 only 4 billion of this accounted for work made by female artists. This is a grim statistic that demonstrates despite all that has changed, there remains much work left to be done. 

Looking to the Future 

Earlier this month, Sotheby’s revealed a lot that featured only female artists for the first time. Sotheby’s London “(Women) Artists” auction featured works from the 17th-21st century celebrating women’s historical contributions to the art historical canon and their narratives. It featured artists like; Cecily Brown, Dorothea Tanning, Rita Ackermann, Irma Stern, Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, Marina Abramovic and more. The sale was noted as a huge success with many record-breaking numbers for numerous artists, and many surpassed pre-sale estimates. 

If we look to the NFT space, which has continued to proliferate since its sudden uprise, the disparities for female artists mirror the traditional art world. A study published in November of 2021 showed that female artists accounted for only 5% of all NFT sales. One pivotal project tackling this disparity is World of Women (WoW), an algorithmically generated profile pic project on the Ethereum blockchain. WoW sets itself apart from the ubiquitous PFP projects pervading the space by firstly illustrating all-female PFPs. Co-founder and artist Yam Karkai illustrates racially diverse characters with varying rarity attributed to their distinct characteristics and accessories such as jewellery, lip colors, and hairstyles. Another distinctive feature of the project is its mission to empower women through art and promote diversity. The project is putting its money where its mouth is, with 2.5% of sales donated to real-world causes and charities that benefit disadvantaged women and girls. The project has even made its way to the traditional art world; Woman #5672 was auctioned off in Christie's 20th/21st Century earlier this month: London Evening Sale selling for 567,000 GBP, surpassing its pre-sale estimate. The notable celebrity collectors supporting the project include Reese Witherspoon, Eva Longoria, and Shonda Rhimes. 

World of Women, Woman #5672, minted on 28 July 2021. Non-fungible token. 800 x 800 pixels unlockable to 4,000 x 4,000 pixels. Sold for £567,000 on 1 March 2022 at Christie’s in London.

These projects demonstrate that the future for female artists looks bright. As a whole, the market for work by female artists is on the rise. In the past decade, it has doubled from $230 million to $595 at a rate of growth faster than the art market, which increased by 72 per cent over the same period. 

Recently we had the pleasure of hosting both Henry Highley, Phillips Director of Private Sales and the Principal Auctioneer and Marina Ruiz Colomer, Sotheby's Director and Specialist of Contemporary Art, on our Twitter Spaces series. Both specialists commented on the strength of cutting-edge contemporary works in the art arket right now. Ruiz Colomer, who put together the Sotheby's sale, noted that "people want to see, buy, and collect art that is making an impact on their time." This sentiment is reflected by the increased demand for art made by female artists who visibly impact the here and now. 

Although there is much work left to be done in terms of gender equality in the art world, we must not fail to recognize how far we have come and how the women of yesterday have paved the way for better and increased opportunities afforded to women of today.