The views of the influential art critic John Ruskin was unequivocal: “I’ve always said no woman can paint,” he grumbled.

Would he have held that view if he’d attended Dangerous Women, the Russell-Cotes Gallery’s latest exhibition?

Probably. Because art produced by women has generally always had a lower profile, lower price and lower appreciation than that produced by men.

We may admire the work of Brit artist Tracey Emin, whose 1995 film Why I Never Became A Dancer and stitched piece The Simple Truth is part of the show.

But the simple truth about that, says collections officer Helen Ivaldi, is that: “The comparison of the highest-grossing female artists at auction to men is that the men tend to make triple the figures.”

She explains that while the proportion of female art students is higher than male: “The number of male artists represented through art dealers and galleries is much higher. The highest-grossing art sales at auction last year were all works created by men.”

The exhibition uses works from the Russell-Cotes’ collection to illustrate why women artists frequently had to resort to painting traditionally female subjects such as flowers, children and cute cottages.

As Helen explains: “Women weren’t allowed to go to art school but if they did manage to be accepted they had to go around in groups, and they were often banned from certain classes.”

Being banned from male life drawing would have been, she says, very restricting. “They wouldn’t have had that academic training.” Many women had strong ideas about the subjects they wanted to paint but no one would buy their work so they retreated back to ‘safe’ cottages and flowers.

Some female artists ‘disappeared’ after getting married: “Being able to continue was often dependent on their husbands being supportive of their choices,” says Helen.

Women invented their own solutions. Some married artists themselves and others, such as Georgina Lara whose work features in the exhibition, simply pretend to be a man called George.

Even the reason why the Russell-Cotes has so many works by female artists tells a story. While the gallery’s redoubtable Victorian founders Merton and Annie had a loving, modern, equal partnership, the reason they acquired so many good-quality works by women artists was because, says Helen: “Merton had a good eye for a bargain and female artwork is always more competitively priced than male artwork.”

But visitors will rejoice that they did – there are paintings by Lucy Kemp-Welch, by Louisa Canziani and a splendid bronze maquette for a statue of Queen Victoria made by her spirited daughter, Princess Louise.

Although Louise came from the most privileged family in the land, and possessed undoubted talent as a painter and sculptor, even she wasn’t immune to the snobbery and backward-thinking that pervaded the Victorian art world.

“People claimed her tutor was the real author of her work,” says Helen.

“That was not true.”

Later work in the exhibition includes a painting by Evelyn Dunbar, the only full-time salaried female war artist.

Her exquisite little artwork shows the Women’s Land Army in its canteen, another example, perhaps, of how, even during the 1940s, there were strict ideas of what women artists should be painting.

Childless Tracey Emin’s belief, inscribed on the gallery wall above her ‘Here To Stay’ exhibit is that: “In return for my children’s souls I have been given success.”

It’s as sobering a thought that despite all the advances and Equality Acts, it is still less than 100 years since women were given the vote. And, says Helen, many female artists did not actively support that.

  • Dangerous Women is at the Russell-Cotes Gallery in Bournemouth until March 2015