After Tirtzah Bassel became a mom, she noticed something strange about the Western art canon that she’d always loved so much. The act of birth was conspicuously missing. Fresh out of the maternity ward and hyperaware that being born is among the few things all humans have in common, Bassel found this to be a glaring omission.
“Like, if men gave birth, wouldn’t every single male artist have his depiction of birth that was a quasi–self-portrait? That’s obvious,” the New York–based painter told ARTnews. “What better metaphor do we have for the creative act? Clearly that metaphor did not serve men very well, and so it’s just completely absent. Men have worked really hard to create all sorts of other metaphors for creativity that centered a male experience.”
Bassel returned to her studio a few months later and started playing with the idea of an imaginary canon where the experiences of birthing and menstruating bodies ruled supreme (and the patriarchy never existed). In Bassel’s parallel universe—and in a series she calls “Canon in Drag,” art is made by women, for women, and commissioned by women.
She started with familiar images by Old Masters such as Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Eyck. In Bassel’s version of the Crucifixion Diptych (1460) by Rogier van der Weyden, for example, a bloodied Christ is replaced by a menstruating martyr whose uterine wall sheds posthumously in a demonstration of possibility, loss, and renewal. The Origin of the World in Bassel’s canon resembles the infamous one by Gustave Courbet (1866), but as per its name, it shows the actual act of birth. (In the catalog accompanying the exhibition, a sort of alternate-universe art history textbook, the text for Origin of the World teases that this work “anticipated the 21st-century phenomena of birth as performance art.”) And in her remake of Petrus Christus’s The Nativity (ca. 1450), Joseph is no passive bystander but rather the primary caregiver of the baby Jesus, tenderly cradling him with skin-to-skin contact.
Bassel strays from the original artworks she transforms but never veers from the canon itself. “There’s an argument for ‘Let’s burn the whole thing down and start somewhere else,’ for obvious reasons,” Bassel admits. “I don’t want to throw it out; I just want it to expand. And the other thing is, for better and for worse, the canon holds such authority.”
In her adaptation of the canon, Bassel has created works that are utterly satisfying on their own. But she is not the first woman to appropriate iconic images by men to drive home a point about gender imbalances. Below are 11 other artists who have made canonical artworks by men their own, across painting, photography, video, and sculpture.
Linda Nochlin, Buy My Bananas, 1972
A year after publishing her influential 1971 essay in ARTnews, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, Linda Nochlin slipped a surprise into the slides accompanying her lecture about 19th-century eroticism at the annual conference of the College Art Association. First she projected Achetez des Pommes (Buy My Apples) (c. 1890), an anonymous French photograph of a nude woman selling apples from a tray on which her bare breasts also rested. Then she projected an image of her own making: Buy My Bananas, a photo she staged of a nude man in much the same pose (except his penis rests above a tray of bananas). The audience reportedly erupted in laughter. Nochlin’s point was simple: While female bodies were regularly objectified throughout art history, male bodies were not.
“Feminist art history is there to make trouble, to call into question, to ruffle feathers in the patriarchal dovecotes,” Nochlin wrote in 1988. “At its strongest, a feminist art history is a transgressive and anti-establishment practice, meant to call many of the major precepts of the discipline into question.”
Sylvia Sleigh, The Turkish Bath, 1973
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres used a hammam as an excuse to paint fleshy female nudes in all manner of poses in his orientalist painting The Turkish Bath (1863). In feminist artist Sylvia Sleigh’s remake, a harem of nude men fill the frame (including the artist’s husband, Lawrence Alloway, who is the reclining figure in the right foreground).
“I made a point of finding male models and I painted them as portraits, not as sex objects, but sympathetically as intelligent and admired people, not as women had so often been depicted as unindividuated houris,” said the artist in 1995. “I had noted from my childhood that there were always pictures of beautiful women but very few pictures of handsome men so I thought that it would be truly fair to paint handsome men for women.”
Maria Lassnig, Art Education, 1976
This animated film opens with mysterious dark shapes floating in space, which quickly resolve into Michelangelo’s Expulsion from Paradise. Later, Mona Lisa brushes her teeth and keeps on smiling. Austrian artist Maria Lassnig said her goal for this short film filled with Western art history’s greatest hits was to “[interpret] famous paintings, such as those of Vermeer, Michelangelo, etc., whether in feminist terms or otherwise.” (Parodying Michelangelo again in the film, Lassnig added a Creation of Adam segment where Adam asks God whether the angelic women tucked under his arm is his wife. No, God answers, she’s his secretary.)
Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (1666-68), a work Lassnig knew well and visited at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, appears twice in Art Education. “You treat me like an object,” protests the model to the artist painting her, during its first appearance, to which he answers, “you are an object now.” The scene fades out and when it reappears later the two figures are reversed—the female model has left her perch by the window to sit at the easel, while the male artist has been stripped of his clothes and made to stand still. Seen nude and in profile view (instead of clothed and from the back, as in the original Vermeer), the artist is bald and potbellied. “Honey, you’re a wonderful model,” the woman reassures him.
Cindy Sherman, “History Portraits” series, 1988–90
As with her celebrated “Untitled Film Stills” series, most of the images in Cindy Sherman’s “History Portraits” look like you’ve seen them before but can’t put your finger on quite where. Imitating the look and scale of canonical Renaissance, baroque, rococo, and neoclassical works, Sherman’s “History Portraits” explore stereotypes, gender identity, and portraiture while also leaving behind obvious clues about the artifice of these reproductions. With their unsubtle prosthetics and wigs and overdone makeup, there’s something “off” about these images, suggesting that the originals they’re based on are also constructs that shouldn’t be trusted.
Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met. Museum?, 1989
New York’s Public Art Fund asked the Guerrilla Girls to design a billboard, but when they came back with a design asking, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” their proposal was rejected. The Guerrilla Girls ran it anyway as an ad on New York City buses, and it’s been widely reproduced and quoted ever since. They also recreated it with updated statistics about women’s representation at the Metropolitan Museum in 2005 and 2012 and as a U.K.-centered project in 2021.
The poster’s image quotes Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Grande Odalisque (1814) but removes this reclining nude from her silky daybed and replaces her head with the signature gorilla mask donned by the anonymous collective of women artists. The statistics about the number of female artists versus female nudes at the Met came from the Guerrilla Girls taking a physical head count. “The results,” they cheekily write on their website, “were very revealing.”
Ironically, this work criticizing gender disparity at the Met is now in the museum’s permanent collection. Predictably, perhaps, it is not on view.
Deborah Kass, 12 Red Barbras (the Jewish Jackie Series), 1993
In one of Deborah Kass’s best-known series, “The Warhol Project” (1992–2000), the artist uses the Pop artist’s celebrity portraits to address the lack of representation of Jewish people that she experienced growing up. “I had never seen a movie star that looked like Barbra [Streisand], which is to say that looked like me and everyone I knew,” Kass has said. Among the icons Kass granted the Warhol treatment are Streisand, Gertrude Stein (whom she turned into Chairman Ma as a wink to Warhol’s Chairman Mao), and Kass herself.
In 12 Red Barbras, 1993, Kass substitutes singer Barbra Streisand for Warhol’s repeating profile images of Jacqueline Kennedy. “I replace Andy’s male homosexual desire with my own specificity,” Kass explained. “Jew love, female voice, and blatant lesbian diva worship.”
Linda Vallejo, Venus de Milo II, 2012
Just as Kass made Warholesque portraits celebrating Jewish divas and Thomas used iconic paintings to create space for Black women, California-based multimedia artist Linda Vallejo has pointed to the lack of representation of her Mexican-American heritage by turning everyone brown. In her ongoing series, “Make ’Em All Mexican,” Vallejo colorizes classical works from antiquity onwards. “When you begin looking at it, you begin to see that we are missing from this conversation,” Vallejo told the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve basically reappropriated culture, taken it back and I’ve made it brown, so everybody gets to be brown.”
Mickalene Thomas, Naomni Looking Forward, 2013
In 2010 the Museum of Modern Art in New York asked Mickalene Thomas to create something for its 53rd Street restaurant windows. She came back with her own version of Manet’s landmark painting, Luncheon on the Grass (1862). In Thomas’s collaged photograph, not only is the commanding trio of Black women dressed (and exquisitely), but men don’t even have a seat at the picnic.
Thomas often references Western art history in her work, as in this painting of supermodel Naomi Campbell, which—like the Guerilla Girls piece above—quotes Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s Grande Odalisque (1814). “By portraying real women with their own unique history, beauty, and background, I’m working to diversify the representations of Black women in art,” Thomas told Smithsonian magazine.
She has also revised the work of Manet’s contemporary, Gustave Courbet. In 2012 she reworked Courbet’s Origin of the World as Origins of the Universe I (2012), a painted self-portrait she created by photographing her own torso, abdomen and genitals and then transferring the image to canvas (using her signature rhinestones to stand for pubic hair and labial folds). The passive objectification that appears in the original painting became a powerful image of agency.
Angela Fraleigh, Carried by Voices, 2014
Angela Fraleigh brings the rococo period into the 21st century, in more ways than one. Many of the female figures that she copy/pastes from historic works into her own canvases are drawn from that period, but Fraleigh also purposefully focuses on an era that was deemed feminine and when women were arts patrons. Madame de Pompadour, for example, was a prominent supporter of François Boucher, and in her painting Carried by Voices, Fraleigh used the figures from Boucher’s Diana Leaving her Bath (1742). The Roman goddess Diana and the crouching nymph accompanying her look the same, but they now fill the canvas and are set against a gold and turquoise pattern designed by American artist Candace Wheeler. Wheeler advocated for professional opportunities for women in the late 19th century and founded an all-female design firm, Associated Artists.
“My paintings pull at the shadows of historical works of art and ask what dormant new narratives might be found in the female subjects that inhabit them,” Fraleigh wrote in a 2015 essay. “Is it possible to restore autonomy to these models, to whatever nuances of expression might have been contained in their poses? Maybe it cannot be ‘restored’—they are long gone—but perhaps it can be conceived afresh.”
Allison Zuckerman, Every Fear Is a Wish, 2020
In her heroic-size paintings rendered in acrylic paint over digital collages, Zuckerman too lifts female figures from historic paintings and inserts them into a contemporary setting. A single painting of hers may quote from Picasso, Rubens, and Lichtenstein, remixed with pixelated effects and cutouts of Zuckerman’s previous work. “I seek to reclaim female figures from a male-dominated art historical canon and usher them into the present moment,” Zuckerman told Forbes magazine. “I liken my style to a DJ sampling music; I pick and choose images from different moments throughout art history. . . . It is my goal to embolden my female figures to be active participants in their own representation.”
Lilli Carré, Glazing, 2022
Confined by a white cube, the nude woman in artist and filmmaker Lilli Carré’s looped animation Glazing moves through famous art-historical representations of women as if through a yoga flow sequence. None of the poses are right, though, and the hand-drawn woman quickly rejects them by shifting to the next pose or, at times, bouncing off the walls of the claustrophobic space she can’t escape. She becomes the nude woman in Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass and then his Olympia; later she’s Botticelli’s Venus. For an instant she becomes Sargent’s Madame X before raising both arms in a warrior stance. At the end she morphs into each of the five figures in Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, before the loop starts all over again.