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Have you heard of Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentilschi? Find out why her popularity, and that of other artists, has risen dramatically since the 1970s. And vote for America's favorite novel here!:

Chart the frequency of mention of any artist, maker, genius, et al, through the Google Books Ngram Viewer:

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One of the many injustices of creative work is that talent does not always lead to success.  The world of art is by no means a meritocracy.  That's why you see work valued for millions that you think you could do yourself and that's why plenty of super talented artists never get the attention or reward they deserve.  But just because you don't get your due right now doesn't mean it's never gonna come and just because you're famous right now doesn't mean the rug isn't gonna get pulled out from under you.  I have proof.

So you may have heard of the 17th century Italian baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, but if you'd been born a century earlier, you probably wouldn't have.  If you take a look at the Google Books Ngram viewer and enter her name, you can see a graph that charts how often her name appears in English language books between a set of years.  This tool analyzes a database of over 5 million books and allows you to chart the frequency of any set of comma delimited search strings.  If the search term is found in 40 or more books, then the frequency is plotted on a graph and the data is normalized by the number of books published in each year.

You can also filter by language and see that in her home country of Italy, there's a much better chance you'd have heard of her a century ago.  Now this tool certainly has its flaws, including faulty optical character recognition, but Google claims it's relatively reliable from 1800 onward and we're gonna work from that assumptions because the holy grail for any artist is not just selling art and having shows, but being written about.

Exhibitions are up for only a handful of months in just one location, but a published review or a mention online or in an actual printed book can live forever and since we are all bound by space and time, the printed and digitized record is critical to our understanding of what's going on today and what has happened in the past.  

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So when we look at Gentileschi's chart in English language books from 1800 on, we can see relatively few instances of her being mentioned for a good long time.  Gentileschi was firmly in the grave by this point, but in her day, she'd been a remarkably well-known painter, one of few women encouraged or even permitted to become an artist.  She was a follower of the mighty Caravaggio whom you really shouldn't chart in comparison because it's depressing, but Caravaggio made large scale paintings of dramatic moments set in high contrast, like this one of the biblical story of Judith beheading (?~2:39).  Gentileschi painted this story, too, in a manner some consider more masterful than Caravaggio.  Her composition is remarkably dynamic, the scene horrifically life-like.  Caravaggio's Judith is delicate and unsure, Gentileschi's is powerful and determined. 

Gentileschi's father, Orazio, taught her to paint.  He was a respected enough artist of his time who also covered the Judith scene but in a way I think we can all agree is less exciting, and you know what?  You can chart him along side Artemisia because it's much less of a downer.  Anyway, when he felt he could teach her no more, he assigned her a tutor who ended up raping her.  She took to tutor to court and became embroiled in a prolonged court battle that made her famous but not in a good way.  

She persisted and eventually became the first woman to be admitted to the Academy of Art in Florence, but while she did relatively well at the time, for centuries after, her work was often misattributed to men and she was largely left out of the histories of Italian art of the time, but now we talk about her.  Starting in the 1960s, we see a sharp rise in her appearance in books, which we can credit to the feminist critique of art history that began happening around that time.  Historians started to take another look at the art historical canon, that elite club of artists who have passed from hopeful humans tinkering around in their studios to the geniuses worthy of our adoration.

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The perfect storm of second wave feminism, the civil rights movement, and the chicano and gay rights movements provided the conditions for people to wonder more vocally why there seemed to be only white male artists in our history books.  Linda Nochlin wrote an essay in 1971 that you should really read, which explores the question 'Why have there been no great women artists?'  She talks about the assumptions we make about how art gets made and by whom, saying, "These assumptions, conscious or unconscious, link together such unlikely superstars as Michelangelo and Van Gogh, Raphael and Jackson Pollock, under the rubric of great, an honorific attested to by the number of scholarly monographs devoted to the artist in question and the great artist is, of course, conceived of as one who has genius.  Genius, in turn, is thought of as an atemporal and mysterious power, somehow embedded in the person of the great artist."  

With this in mind, we're led to ask what the conditions were of Gentileschi's time that limited her own career but allowed Caravaggio to rise to the designation of genius.  Nochlin argues that a dispassionate, impersonal, sociological, and institutionally oriented approach would reveal the entire romantic, elitist, individual glorifying, and monograph producing substructure upon which the profession of art history is based and which has only recently been called into question by a group of younger dissidents.

These younger dissidents resurrected and rediscovered the work of a number of artists.  Flemish still life painter Clara Peeters saw a similar resurgence as did Dutch artist Judith Leyster whose name languished in obscurity for ages until a painting attributed to (?~6:02) was acquired by the Louvre in 1893 and found to have her initials.

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She dipped again until the 1960s.  Art historians of the 1960s and '70s brought a number of living artists into the limelight as well.  Notably, the women artists of abstract expressionism, many of whom were still making work when people started taking notice.  Jackson Pollock's long-suffering wife Lee Krasner was a gifted artist long before the two met.  In the 1930s, she studied under famed abstractionist Hans Hoffman, who supposedly described her work once as "so good you would not know that it was done by a woman."  That was a compliment.

Krasner was barely mentioned at all until Pollock's death in 1956 gave her a bump in notoriety, but it was in those golden '70s that her name began to find its place in art news and art history, leading her to say in 1973, "It's too bad that women's liberation didn't occur 30 years earlier in my life."  

Under-recognized black artists began to see increased attention at this time as well.  The artists you see graphed here had been making art for some time without enormous attention when the trend starts to move upward.  Jacob Lawrence began his career in the 1930s and did receive attention for his "Migration" series in the '40s but it was in 1960 that his first museum retrospective came.  Master collagist Romare Bearden saw a similar surge of recognition in the '60s and actively worked to create exhibition opportunities for others.  Photographer and film-maker Gordon Parks charts a similar trajectory.  

Black artists and collectives played active roles in the social and political change underway, and throughout the '80s and '90s, we saw a surge in the number of exhibitions and books focusing on African-American art and a growing interest across fields in both identity politics and the experience of marginalized groups, but again, it's all relative.  When you bring in a name like Andy Warhol to put it in perspective, but these shifts are still meaningful and measurable and as you can see if you look at the trajectories of some artists, fame doesn't last forever.  

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Godfrey Kneller, who I'd never heard of before today, was a German-born portrait painter well-known in Europe in the 17th century who was still super popular in 1800 but his notoriety has steadily declined and Artemisia is just barely eking him out.  Of course, much has changed since our charting stops in 2008.  How we can read and understand the analytics the internet has to offer is still largely up in the air.  

Google Trends is starting to do this but is much better showing us which artist has sold at auction at a given week than it does reflect major movements, but I'm hopeful that will change with more time and more sophisticated and customizable tools.  After you take your own deep dive into the Google Ngram Viewer, charting the great names of your field, I challenge you to see genius as anything other than an idea we bestow upon others, not something they are or have inside, but something we make of them.  Genius emerges as the most fickle and ephemeral of things, unfairly and inconsistently doled out to a shifting cast of characters.

What the Google Ngram Viewer allows us, in a limited way, is a glimpse into our own roles in the writing and rewriting of histories.  What we write about, what we pay attention to, and what we search for matters.  I'd argue that we're writing and rewriting the canon in all of our fields with everything we do and post and comment upon.  What are the conditions of right now that are making possible our bold face names?  Who is trending and why?  And who is toiling away in obscurity that future generations might resurrect?  

The Great American Read is a new series on PBS about our most beloved books and why we love to read and it leads up to a nation-wide vote on America's favorite novel.  

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Head to to vote for your favorite book today.  Check the link in the description for more details.  

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