Sylvia Sleigh is an important Feminist realism painter. She was a Welsh-born naturalized American who studied at the Brighton School of Art and had her first solo exhibition in 1953 at the Kensington Art Gallery. She married Lawrence Alloway, art critic and future Guggenheim curator, before moving to the United States in 1961.
In 1970, from feminist principles, she painted a series of works reversing stereotypical artistic themes by featuring men in poses that were traditionally associated with women, like the reclining Venus or odalisque. Some directly allude to existing works, such as her gender-reversed version of Ingres's Turkish Bath, which depicts a group of nude male art critics, (Smart Museum of Art). This and other works also present a reversal of the male-artist/female-muse pattern typical of the Western canon. As Sleigh explained, "I feel that my paintings stress the equality of men and women. I liked to portray both man and woman as intelligent and thoughtful people with dignity and humanism that emphasizes love and joy." For her sensitivity to the humanity of her figures, her paintings have been compared to those of Alice Neel in the New York Times.
Sleigh was a founding member of the all-women SOHO 20 Gallery (est. 1973) and later joined A.I.R. Gallery (est. 1972). In 1978 she contributed to the Sister Chapel, a collaborative installation, wherein she depicted Lilith with the superimposed bodies of a man and a woman to emphasize the fundamental similarities between the genders. Manipulating existing art historical models for group portraits, Sleigh painted the now famous portraits of the women artists of SOHO20 and A.I.R. Gallery. October: Felicity Rainnie and Paul Rosano is a particularly significant work as it is included in partial reproduction in the context of the artist’s own sitting room in the iconic 1974 SOHO20 Portrait, owned by the University of St. Louis – Missouri. It is also notable that October features the reclining Paul Rosano, one of Sleigh’s favorite male sitters.
Sleigh’s work is held in many important collections including the National Portrait Gallery, London; The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; Akron Art Museum, Akron, OH; Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY; The Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, NY; Mills College, Oakland, CA; Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC; Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR; Rowan University Art Gallery, Glassboro, NJ; The Smart Museum, Chicago, IL; University of Missouri-St. Louis, MO; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA; Weatherspoon Art Museum, and the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, NC. During her lifetime she received the College Art Association Lifetime Achievement Award, a Pollock-Krasner Grant and a National Endowment for the Arts, Visual Artists Fellowship. The Women's Caucus for Art posthumously honored Sleigh in 2011 as a recipient of the organization's Lifetime Achievement Award.