What are a few artworks you admire that are female empowering? I would like to make this a theme in my own work as well, yet sometimes my female characters don't look at the viewer either.
While looking at the viewer is important, but I don’t think it is needed in every single piece to make something empowering–it is sort of just like a first step. However that being said, if you go through the western canon of painting you’ll notice how overwhelmingly rare it is to have a female subject look directly at the viewer, and if she is she is often being flirty and is painted in an idealized/sexualized/demur way (in whatever was in “fashion for ladies to be like” at the time). Mix that with the artists overwhelmingly being upper class men, it leads to some uncomfortable sexism within the artist’s gaze being forced upon the subject. Empowering the subject is more than letting the female figure look at the viewer, it is coding her to show the power that she holds in the situation of the painting–which can be conveyed both within an obvious way (ex. pretty much any “Judith Beheading Holofernes” piece) and the more subtle ways (ex. “Morning Sun” by Edward Hopper or “Femme Avec Des Fleurs” by Romaine Brooks) that let you create any scenario.
One of my absolute favorite paintings that embrace this idea in the Western Canon is “The Reluctant Bride” by Auguste Toulmouche. While the subject is not classically strong, she is shown being unhappy, looking right at the viewer almost defiantly. She sees you, and you see her and she is having none of it. It lacks all the sentimentality that you normally see in paintings from this time period, which makes it stand out.
You can’t go wrong with just about any work from Frida Kahlo, who mastered the ideas of empowerment through both obvious strength but also vulnerability and pain. Look at the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi, who’s life and work fight against domineering male forces. In fact there are so many overlooked “Old Masters”, including Judith Leyster, Barbara Longhi, Marie Bracquemond, Emily Mary Osborn, and Lavinia Fontana to name a few. Of course this list is overwhelming incomplete, western centric, and only features artists from hundreds of years ago.
So here are some of my favorite current illustrators (since I mostly pay attention to illustrators) off the top of my head who often make empowering pieces featuring women (it also gives you a chance to see how different all of the images/subject matter is–with the uniting factor that the female figures exist without objectification–the key to empowering art is knowing a woman is a multi-dimensional subject within the piece, not a flat decoration): Jillian Tamaki, Jessica Singh, Emily Carroll, Angie Wang, Sarah Green, and Celine Loup among many many many others. Of course this is just an intro, part of making art is exploring the intricacies of what you want to make and how you want to approach it, as well as how you represent women–or any non-cis male figure actually. Because that is taking the narrative back, and away from the overwhelmingly heavy presence of the white male Western Canon that is all too powerful in the art world…*whew*