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The Art World Gender Bias: A Gift From the Past

We have mastered the art of aversion when confronted with the art world gender bias. Why don’t we want to talk about it and is the market value of women artists representative of today’s attitudes?


The facts are undeniable: art by male artists dominates the art world’s market share. The most expensive artwork sold by a man is Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (1499-1510), while the most expensive by a woman is Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1 (1932). Da Vinci’s painting was sold for $450.3 million USD, whereas O’Keeffe’s was sold for $44.4 million USD – not even ranking in the top 100.


Clearly, this $405.9 million discrepancy is startling, nevertheless, comparing Da Vinci and O’Keeffe is like comparing apples and oranges. Da Vinci is still a league above any other male artist and has a legacy spanning over 500 years, while O’Keeffe was alive in the 1980s.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1, 1932 – most expensive work by female artist.
Leonardo Da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, c. 1500. – Most Expensive artwork of all time.

The Art World Gender Bias: A Historical Perspective

There is no point arguing that historical art by men is far more valued than by women since it was not socially acceptable for women to be artists. Furthermore, their role was that of homemaker, unlike the role of artist which required high skill that it was believed only men could achieve. Even so, there are some exceptions to this, with Artemisia Gentileschi perhaps being the most famous. 

Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi- Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1612-13
Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi- Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1612-13

The Role of Gender in Today’s Art Market

As the times have changed, women artists have been increasingly showing up in the art scene, although at an extremely slow rate.

Today, more women than ever are choosing the artistic path. On the other hand, when we compare the living artist sales, there is still a huge gap between the most expensive artwork by a woman (Propped, by Jenny Saville, 1992), which sold for $12.4 million, and by a man (Flag, by Jasper Johns, 1945-44), which sold for $110 million.

Jenny Saville, Propped, 1992. – most expensive work by living woman artist
Jenny Saville, Propped, 1992.
Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-55.

Furthermore, Artsy found that the total auction market share in 2022 was 88.24% attributed to male artists, along with only 9.39% by women and 0.02% by non-binary artists.

Still, this is only a slight improvement from 2012-2022 where 92.37% was male and 6.08% female (0% non-binary).

2022 breakdown of art auction market share by gender. from Artsy
2022 breakdown of art auction market share by gender. Source: Artsy
2012-2022 breakdown of art auction market share by gender. Source: Artsy
2012-2022 breakdown of art auction market share by gender. Source: Artsy

Sexism is a Dirty Word

Declaring that the art world is sexist will result in many hackles raising, with industry professionals saying “I’m not sexist, I love the work of women artists.” And perhaps German artist Georg Baselitz’s stance that “women don’t paint very well. It’s a fact. The market doesn’t lie” is not a common one. But there are definitely a lot of strange reasons that people come up with in response to the suggestion of bias.

Artist George Baselitz
Artist George Baselitz. Source: The Independent

This blog was actually inspired by an interaction I had on an Instagram reel. The post was by another user who was pointing out that art by men is much more valued than by women artists. My contribution was a comment that highlighted the fact that female artists now outweigh male artists in art school, which is not a ratio represented in the art market. Of course, people got defensive:

“Honestly, do you think those men don’t deserve it? You know they do.”

“…and you think women deserve better?”

plus, the deeply insightful:

“The men in art really know why they choosed it cuz they have manly fields to study while the women noot.”

I have read this one several times and still can’t decipher it. Regardless, my point was misinterpreted, and I offended the masses. By me pointing out that men are more successful as artists, many assumed that I was implying that they did not deserve it. Many did not believe that there was a bias, believing that this is all in the past.

We Love Art by Women

Then there was this comment:

“not sure that anyone looks at a piece of art and thinks ‘I liked it until I found out the artist had a uterus.'”

Which I think hit the nail on the head. Women’s situation in the art world has improved drastically in recent decades. Although there is certainly still some sexism in the art world, I also believe that there are now many in the industry, perhaps even a majority, who appreciate women artists just as much as men.

Auctioneer taking bids for Jenny Saville's Propped.
Auction of Jenny Saville's Propped(1992). Source: Sotheby's

Remnants of Yesteryear

Here is the problem. The art industry is an industry. It is driven by art sales. Collectors and galleries want to acquire the artwork that has the highest perceived value. Anything else would not be a good investment. Like my opening sentence stated, facts don’t lie. Art by men is more valuable than art by women. This is not a fact that was formed in today’s context; it was cemented all those years ago, before Da Vinci even painted Salvator Mundi.


The high value of men’s art is so ingrained that shifting the focus onto women’s art is considered a financial risk. Very few are willing to take the risk and place high bids on female work, because, historically, this has not been a good investment. While the buyer themselves may prefer the work of a woman, they are still hesitant to buy it for this reason.

Guerrilla Girl, Kathe Kollwitz (pseudonym) in Bilbao, 2013. Photo by Guerrilla Girls, courtesy guerrillagirls.com
Guerrilla Girl, Kathe Kollwitz (pseudonym) in Bilbao, 2013. Photo by Guerrilla Girls, courtesy guerrillagirls.com

A study conducted by Robert Hoffman and Bronwyn Coate and published in The Conversation revealed that gender influences perceived value, not taste. Two groups of participants were shown similar artworks by male and female artists. One group was allowed to know the names and genders of the artists. Both groups favoured female and male artists equally yet when asks about which they thought to be more valuable and liked by others, the participants who knew the genders were more likely to pick the male artists.

Example of pair of paintings shown to participants in The Conversation’s study. Left: Judith Leyster (Woman), Right: Bartholomeus Assteyn (Man). Source: The Conversation
Example of pair of paintings shown to participants in The Conversation’s study. Left: Judith Leyster (Woman), Right: Bartholomeus Assteyn (Man). Source: The Conversation

Final Thoughts

The art world’s gender bias is a complex issue with no easy solutions. However, there has been slow progress. Although the 2022 insights into the art market seems dismal, it is a small improvement from previous years.

By taking steps to increase the visibility of women artists and by educating people about the history of gender bias, we can work to create a more equitable art world for all.

Cover Picture: Gallery View – Jenny Saville, Strategy,1994. Photo: Rob Corder

Rosie Bird

Rosie is an artist and creative innovator from Brisbane Australia. With two fine arts degrees and years of experience in the contemporary art world, she has acquired a wealth of industry knowledge. She founded open-folio as a way of creating a vibrant online community of contemporary artists and helping them reach their fullest potential.

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