National Museum of Women in the Arts
Joan Semmel
October 19 1932 - present
Photograph of Joan Semmel, courtesy of the artist
Place of Birth:
New York
Phonetic Spelling:
joh-n CIHM-ahl
Minority status:
White non-Hispanic
Work Type/Media:
Artistic Role(s):
Abstraction, Expressionism, Feminist Art, Other, Photorealism
Artist's Biography:
In the 1970s, during the rise of the feminist movement, Joan Semmel began making large-scale Photorealistic paintings that take an uncompromisingly honest look at the nude figure using her own body as subject. With the predominance of the concept of ‘male gaze’ in the feminist discourse, Semmel used her paintings to literally shift the viewer’s perspective of the female body and sexuality in her art.

Semmel studied at The Art Students League of New York and Pratt Institute and was trained as an Abstract Expressionist painter. In 1963, she moved to Spain and continued to work in an abstract style, exhibiting in shows throughout Europe and South America. In 1970 Semmel returned to New York and became involved in the feminist movement that was gaining momentum, which stimulated both her artistic production and her awareness of women’s issues. She returned to Pratt Institute and received her master’s of fine arts degree in 1972 and began teaching at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Maryland Institute of Art. It was during this time that Semmel reincorporated the figure into her works. Semmel stated, “My return to the figure in 1970, from an Abstract Expressionist background, was prompted by a need to work from a more personal viewpoint…to express personal and social concerns has led me to the most literal possible interpretation of female self-determination, a first person definition of self.”¹

Instead of working from sketches, Semmel chose to take photographs of herself, looking down on her body, an approach that extremely foreshortened the figure. By using these photographs to create her paintings, Semmel shows her body as she would experience it, not as an idealized nude. Two examples of this are Pink Fingertips (1977) and Sunlight (1978). Semmel also created paintings of lovers such as Intimacy-Autonomy (1974). Working from a photograph, she depicted herself and a lover in a post-coital state. Semmel positions the viewer not as voyeur but as participant by shifting the perspective to the head of the bed, as the lovers lie side by side, thus avoiding the objectification of the models.

Semmel is Professor Emeritus of Painting at Rutgers University and lectures nationally and internationally. She continues to create paintings that relentlessly look at the human figure, exploring the aging process, society’s obsession with youth, and the shifting ideals of feminine beauty.

¹Joan Marter, “Joan Semmel’s Nudes: the Erotic Self and the Masquerade,” Women’s Art Journal, 16.2 (1995) 24.

Other Occupation(s):
Curator , Feminist, Lecturer, Professor, Writer
Place(s) of Residence:
New York
Place(s) of Activity:
Where Trained/Schools:
Pratt Institute, New York, NY, USA (1961-1963, 1970-1972) The Art Students League of New York, New York, NY, USA (1958-1959) The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York, NY, USA (1949-1952)
Fellowships, grants and awards:
Grant, Richard Florsheim Art Fund, Tampa, FL, USA (1996) Distinguished Alumnus Award, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York, NY, USA (1985) Grant, National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, DC, USA (1980, 1985)
Earliest exhibition:
Key Gallery, New York, NY, USA (1962)
NMWA exhibition(s):
WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution
Artist retrospective(s):
Joan Semmel: Self Images, Mitchell Algus Gallery, New York, NY, USA (1999) Through the Objects Eye: Paintings by Joan Semmel, Pratt Manhattan Gallery, New York, NY, USA (1993)
Woman Under Sheet, 1974
Woman Under Sheet