Can art make a difference? Can it, say, solve social problems, or disentangle a political quagmire?

I would have said no, no, and no before 2009. That's the year Paula Rego's painting series "Abortion" changed public opinion and political will in her native Portugal.

Rego died last week, and whether you are for or against legal abortion, or even whether you like or dislike her work, the painting series that made a difference in a nation's laws merits attention.

Art News magazine's obit for Rego reported that she got the idea to paint the "Abortion Series" when a referendum to legalize abortion was defeated in her homeland.

Telling it like it is

With an unblinking eye, she described the suffering of illegal abortions with a bluntness unseen before. The Series consists of 35 images of women after illegal procedures, either hunched, prostrate, or on their knees in wrenching pain.

Tessie Solomon, writing the Rego obit for Art News, described her take on the show this way: "In some, the women stare directly at the viewer, seeming to admonish them for their role in preventing them from having safe and legal abortions."

The Victoria Miro Gallery, the exhibit hall in London that represented Rego's work, issued a statement praising her for her "uncompromising vision."

But it was Rego's own words that prompted my commentary today: "There were many things I wouldn't have spoken about in real life, but in my painting, I could do anything.

It's all allowed in pictures."

That wasn't always true. There was a time, as recent as the 19th-century, when female artists could not do anything they wanted. Instead, they were limited to painting still life and portraits. History painting, narrative, or storytelling art was considered men's work.

Art historian Linda Nochlin made that point in an essay for Art News in 1971 entitled "Why have there been no great women artists?"

Assuming the premise of her question is true (I'm not prepared to say that it is), her answer had to do with what society forbids and allows.

Separate and unequal

For instance, women were not allowed to study the human figure from a nude model for five centuries – beginning in the Renaissance.

And as Nochlin made clear, banning female art students from figure study was a huge deal because such study was "essential to the training of every young artist."

Explaining further, the historian classed figure painting as "the very essence of history painting generally accepted as the highest category of art." Michelangelo's Creation of Adam comes to mind.

Rego studied figure art at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College of London, where fellow figurative painter Lucien Freud also trained.

Nochlin's research found that not only did the Pennsylvania Academy forbid the study of the human figure to women, but the Women's Modeling Class was also made to use cows and bulls as models.

Deprived of figure study training, female artists ended up making art long deemed "minor" categories in the art world – like the still life.

What were art schools trying to protect women from - libidinous thoughts? Of course, we all had those, but not in the figure art classes. There's too much to learn, too much to get good at for sex thoughts. You artists out there in reader land who've had this training know this. Why didn't the art schools?