Role of Women in the 20th Century

Self-portrait, 1944, bister, black chalk and chalk on cream-colored cardboard, heightened with white, 48,5 x 42,5 cm

Equal opportunities and reality

The representation of women in art plays a significant role for Ruth Baumgarte. The artist deals with the social role of women in the 20th century in numerous works. It not only includes impressions from her diverse and eventful life as an artist, mother of five children in a patchwork family and entrepreneur's wife in Germany, but also all of her strong experiences and emotional perceptions that she has of the very different women's lives on her travels in Europe and especially on the African continent.

As early as 1944, she portrayed herself in a self-portrait as a self-confident young woman who, with her head tilted, looks intently, forcefully and challengingly at her counterpart. Her curly, wind-blown hair corresponds to the turbulent sea and a threatening wall of clouds in the background. Against these moving elements of nature, the sitter sets her determined gaze and her hand, which firmly grips the zipper on the collar of her jacket. With this “willful act”, the artist based on a gesture used by Hans Baldung Grien and Christoph Amberger, among others, in the portrait of rulers and estates in Renaissance painting of the early 16th century.

But what opportunities do women have in art? From 1919 onwards, women artists in Germany could theoretically study at the same art schools as men, apply for scholarships, win prizes and sell their works in galleries, but the reality had little to do with equal opportunities. Thanks to the renewed rise in feminism, the male-dominated structures were slowly broken down from the 1960s onwards. 

Life, around 1950, ink (pen, brush) and watercolor on colored primed paper, 29.7 x 21.8 cm

Role image of women

As early as 1949, Ruth Baumgarte began her career as a freelance artist and much sought-after illustrator for newspapers and book publishers. In her commissioned works in the 1950s and 1960s, the artist came into contact with various aspects and role models of women in art and used a sharp pen to illustrate aspects of the female inner and outer world. Ruth Baumgarte honors the numerous tasks of a woman in modern times with her impressive ink and watercolor drawing Life around 1950. The artist sums up the various roles that a woman has to fulfill in society at the same time: a wide variety of figures revolve around a center of the picture, which is occupied by an oversized young woman. She has her arm propped up and looks thoughtfully to the side while the carousel of figures rotates around her. The numerous scenes form a "wheel of life", a wheel of fortune, with the woman's multiple and often parallel obligations: caring for the sick, serving, sewing, ironing, planting the garden, playing music, dancing, acting as a mother and - in this time for Not a given for women – driving a car. At the bottom right of the picture, Ruth Baumgarte portrays herself as an illustrator at her desk with a pen, inkwell and paper, who will create over 2,200 illustrations for newspapers, book publishers and companies.


Market Day (Red Flower Africa XIX), 1988, charcoal and chalk on blue-grey paper, 89,2 x 67 cm

Emancipation and scenically pointed drawings

Large-format charcoal drawings of women replaced the small formats in the 1980s and 1990s. They are impressions of the poor population in Egypt. In the sheets, the artist characterizes the role of women and their various tasks in African society, which mostly revolve around the house and preparing food. With the motif of agricultural workers, the artist adapts a well-known motif from art history and relocates it to the African continent: the gleaners by the French painter Jean-François Millet. The famous socially critical painting from 1857 was the first to depict the poor, working rural population without sentiment and thus influenced an entire generation of artists, including Vincent van Gogh.

What is remarkable is how some works also show the women in contemplative situations, for example huddled together or contemplating and contemplating like the figure in On the River Bank. Ruth Baumgarte thus portrays women not only as part of a highly controlled social community, but also as self-determined, emancipated individuals who claim their own living and thinking space for themselves.

In the spirit of female emancipation in the 20th century, Ruth Baumgarte honors the numerous tasks of a woman in the global north and the global south with these scenic drawings.