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Women Artists: 1550-1950

DATES October 1, 1977 through November 27, 1977
  • September 12, 1977 Women Artists: 1550-1950 will be held at The Brooklyn Museum, Eastern Parkway and Washington Avenue, from October 1 through November 27. Eighty-three artists from 12 countries are represented in this first international exhibition of works by women artists. About 150 European and American paintings, supplemented with a few prints and drawings, are included. Organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the exhibition was made possible by grants from Alcoa Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

    Two distinguished guest curators assembled the show from dozens of public and private collections throughout the world: Dr. Ann Sutherland Harris, Chairperson for Academic Affairs, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and former Professor of Art History, State University of New York, Albany, made the selections for the period 1550-1800; and Dr. Linda Nochlin, Mary Conover Mellon Professor of Art History, Vassar College, for the period 1800-1950. While a number of the artists are familiar to the general public--Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, Sonia Delaunay, Käthe Kollwitz, Marie Laurencin, Berthe Morisot, Suzanne Valadon, and the contemporary Georgia O’Keef[f]e, Lee Krasner, Loren MacIver, and Alice Neel--many others will be new discoveries to most visitors.

    “Our intention in assembling these works by European and American women artists active from 1550 to 1950,” Drs. Harris and Nochlin state in the comprehensive exhibition catalogue,¹ “is to make more widely known the achievements of some fine artists whose neglect can in part be attributed to their sex and to learn more about why and how women artists first emerged as rare exceptions in the sixteenth century and gradually became more numerous until they were a largely accepted part of the cultural scene.”

    “These works do not share any special visual characteristics due to their female authorship,” Dr. Harris adds, noting that “if work by women artists has more in common with that by their male contemporaries than that by other women, nevertheless women shared some experiences that affected the kind of work they produced.”

    Most women artists before the 19th century were either daughters or wives of artists and were trained by their male relatives. Unlike their male counterparts, however, they were not allowed academic training or the study of anatomy; therefore, they usually had to limit themselves to the arts of portraiture and still life, many examples of which are included in the exhibition.

    An important exception is a superb pictorial dramatic narrative, “Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes,” painted around 1625 by the Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi, the best known woman painter of the 17th century. Among other early works on view are “At the Greengrocer,” painted in 1630 by Louise Moillon, one of the finest still-life painters of the first half of the 17th century in France; “Still Life with Flowers and Plums” (1703), by the Dutch Rachel Ruysch, the first woman to achieve an international reputation as a major artist in her lifetime; “Cornelia, Mother of the Gracchi” (1785), by the Swiss Angelica Kauffman, which embodies the neo-classical ideals of virtue, dignity and moral fortitude; and “Portrait of the Comtesse de Buquoi" (1793), by the renowned French portraitist Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun.

    Other artists from the early period include Sofonisba Anguissola (1532/35-1625), whose celebrity as a portraitist brought her to the court of Phillip II in Madrid where she painted the royal family; Judith Leyster (1608-1660), whose paintings were often attributed to Frans Hals; Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665), who depicted courageous women of ancient history; Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757), who initiated a vogue in France for pastel portraits; and Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744-1818) , who was praised for painting like a “clever man.”

    “Despite overt exclusion of women artists from the institutions governing their profession,” says Linda Nochlin in her catalog essay, "...women artists nevertheless made progress, as a group and as individuals, in the years following the French Revolution.” Artists of this period, specialists in portraiture and genre, include Marguerite Gerard, Constance Mayer, Pauline Auzou, Antoinette Haudebourt-Lescot and Mme. Villers.

    Later 19th-century paintings in the exhibition include works by the French artist, Rosa Bonheur, known for her paintings of animals; the French Impressionist Berthe Morisot; the American Mary Cassatt, who, according to Dr. Nochlin, was the most important woman artist of the l9th century and the most significant American artist, male or female, of her generation; the British Lady Elizabeth Butler, an anomaly among 19th-century women artists for her specialization in military subjects; and the British Edith Hayllar, known for her Victorian genre scenes.

    The enormous range and variety of styles and subjects presented by 20th-century artists shown here include such lesser-known figures as Florine Stettheimer, Romaine Brooks, Gwen John, and Vanessa Bell, the sister of Virginia Woolf. Among Russian avant-garde painters are Nataliia Goncharova, Alexandra Exter, Nadezhda Udaltsova, Olga Rosanova and Liubov Popova.

    “The exhibition should prove,” says Ann Sutherland Harris, “that women have always had great potential in the visual arts and that their contribution has grown as barriers to their training and careers have slowly declined.” The exhibition should also make clear that in terms of style, subject matter, and technique there are no perceptible distinctions between the approaches of the male and female artist.

    Still, as Dr. Nochlin says in an acclaimed essay written prior to the exhibition, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” “In the arts as in a hundred other areas, things remain stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all those--women included--who did not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle class and, above all, male. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cyles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education--education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter, head first, into this world of meaningful symbols, signs, and signals. The miracle is, in fact, that given the overwhelming odds against women, or blacks, so many of both have managed to achieve so much excellence--if not towering grandeur--in those bailiwicks of white masculine prerogative like science, politics, or the arts.”

    The exhibiton was shown previously at the Los Angeles County Museum, December 23, 1976 - March 13, 1977; the University of Texas at Austin, April 12 - June 12; and the Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, July 14 - September 4. At The Brooklyn Museum, its final showing, the exhibition was coordinated by Sarah Faunce, Curator of Painting and Sculpture, who planned the installation together with the Museum’s designer, Daniel Weidmann.

    A variety of lectures, films and concerts will be offered at the Museum in conjunction with the exhibition. Of special interest is a symposium, Women Artists as Feminists: 1550-1950, to take place on Sunday, October 16, at 2 P.M. Participants are Ann Sutherland Harris, Linda Nochlin, and Peter Walch, Assistant Professor of Art History, the University of New Mexico. Reservations, available from the Museum’s Education Department, are $2.00 for students and Museum members, $3.00 for non-members.

    Two exhibitions will open at The Brooklyn Museum on October 1 simultaneously with Women Artists: 1550-1950. They are Anni Albers: Prints and Drawings, 73 gouaches, drawings, and prints (lithography, screenprints, embossing, photo-offset) by the internationally-known weaver, designer and teacher; and Contemporary Women: Consciousness and Content, a limited selection of recent works by 29 living artists, organized for The Brooklyn Museum Art School by Joan Semmel, an artist and teacher at the School. A symposium on the occasion of the latter show, to be held Sunday, October 23, at 2 P.M., is The Personal and Public in Women’s Art. Moderated by Joan Semmel, panelists include Lawrence Alloway, author and critic; Harmony Hammond, artist ; Joyce Kozloff, artist; Carter Ratcliff, poet and critic; and May Stevens, artist. Admission is $2.00 for students and Museum members, $3.00 for non-members.

    1. Women Artists: 1550-1950, by Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin; 368 pp.; 204 photographs, 32 in full color; catalog, artists’ bibliographies, general bibliography, index. Published by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Alfred A. Knopf, N.Y., 1976. Available at The Brooklyn Museum bookstore, $6.95.

    Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1971 - 1988. 1977, 016-19.
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