Ancestral Pioneers: Women Who Set the Course by Al Gury


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My artist friend and mentor, Eleanor Arnett, once told me that really good art was neither male nor female--it was just good.

Eleanor was born during the reign of Queen Victoria, educated in the Edwardian era, came of age during WWI, and painted until her death in 1985. Her career as a painter spanned nearly the whole 20th century. I learned from Eleanor what life and education had been for a woman artist.

She provided a history of women artists (the creative ancestors of contemporary artists) Violet Oakley, Alice Kent Stoddard and Ethel Ashton--a world of pioneer women painters that predated the feminist art of the 1960's and the Guerilla Girls who followed--women who, in the words of Carl David, Director of the David David Gallery in Philadelphia, were "for too many years way understated, undervalued and underestimated."

                                                                                Alice Kent Stoddard

                                                                                “Young Woman”
                                                                                Circa 1935
                                                                                Oil on canvas
                                                                                Courtesy: David David Gallery, Philadelphia

Eleanor told me stories of the early years of the Twentieth Century and the struggles she had to become and to remain an artist. Many of the struggles would be common to any artist, but some were particular to her as a woman.

She was expected to attend dances where a young woman's chief duty was to attract a potential husband. If a woman wanted to go to college or pursue a career, she had two options: to play dumb and be charming, or give up the idea of marriage and family. To be an artist meant not only running the gauntlet of the art world, but also facing the disapproval of family and friends for choosing an impractical way of life for a lady.

Violet Oakley, Elizabeth Shippen Green and Jesse Wilcox Smith, whom the illustrator Howard Pyle dubbed "The Red Rose Girls," serve as examples of women engaged the struggle. After studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, they studied with Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute, now Drexel University. Pyle encouraged his women students. Not all of the instructors were as supportive.

Carl David says that William Merritt Chase, the American Impressionist, pulled a work of his student, Martha Walter, from an exhibition when the painting might have overshadowed his own. Chase later apologized to Walter by doing her portrait.

Oakley, Shippen and Smith, now famous illustrators and painters, remained artists the best way they could, by sharing a house together and giving up the idea of marriage and family. Cecilia Beaux followed much the same path. She was the first woman faculty member at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, as well as a renowned portrait painter. Lynn Marsden-Atlass, Senior Curator at the Pennsylvania Academy Museum, speaks of Cecilia Beaux as a "pioneer female professor," and a "great inspiration to subsequent generations of artists". With great flair and toughness, Beaux built a career equal to her contemporaries and colleagues William Merritt Chase and Thomas Anshutz.

A famous gilded age photo of Beaux shows her in a grand white Edwardian dress and hat walking her dogs in collars and leashes. It just so happens that the "dogs" are two handsome young men in equally elegant white suits.



                                                                                    Violet Oakley
                                                                                    Portrait of Jessie Wilcox Smith
                                                                                    Watercolor and Pencil on Paper
                                                                                    12X8 in.
                                                                                    Courtesy of Drexel University

The Camouflage Corps and After

During World War I, Eleanor joined the "Camouflage Corps," as it was known. Painting green and brown splotches on canvas was a way for women artists to be involved in the war effort. After a year of study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Eleanor went to study with Hans Hoffman in Munich. There she found the freedom of invention and the flow between nature and abstraction that became her life-long inspiration.

In Philadelphia, women artists had gathered together in other groups like "The Red Rose Girls." "The Philadelphia Ten," (actually thirty women) who worked and exhibited together from 1917-1945, and included such well-known landscape painters as Fern Coppedge and Isabel Fenton.

The education of women in the arts is ill-defined until the 20th century. The difficulties women encountered with regard to social acceptance and freedom within the culture applied especially to the arts. Few women artists are recorded prior to the 16th century in Europe, and only in the 19th century do we see a significant number of practicing women artists.

Artists or Dilettantes?

Prior to the 16th century, the rare women working as book illuminators, goldsmiths, icon painters and embroideries were trained at home by their fathers, brothers and husbands. These women assisted in, and sometimes ran, workshops and small businesses.

Nuns were often trained in book illumination and other fine painting and decoration. Sending wealthy girls to convents for their education established the convention of well-educated young ladies being trained in drawing and watercolor that continued well through the 19th century. This tradition gave rise to the idea of women as dilettantes.

With the opening of the formal Academies in the 16th century, records show an individual woman occasionally being admitted. In 1616, Artemisia Gentileschi was the first woman to be admitted to the Academia del Designo. The emergence of women as professional artists begins during this time. Sofonisba Anguissola, trained by her father, was considered to be one of the finest painters of her era.

Art Training in America: The Naked Truth



                                                    Alice Barber Stephens
                                                    The Women’s Life Class Date: ca. 1879
                                                    Oil on Cardboard
                                                    12X14 in., [30.5X35.6 cm] Acc. No,: 1879.2
                                                    Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia,
                                                    Gift of the artist

While the number of documented practicing women painters increases from the 16th -18th centuries, it's not until the 19th century, and only very late, that real change comes for women aspiring to be professional artists. In Europe, women were not admitted to the professional schools of study, the Academies, until after the 1870's.

In America, the first art Academy, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, admitted women students from its founding in 1805. Women students followed a course of studies very like that of their male counterparts-drawing from plaster casts of Greek and Roman figures, studying proportion from classical prototypes and attending lectures on anatomy. When nude life drawing classes were begun at the Pennsylvania Academy shortly after its founding, women students, according to convention, were placed in classes separate from the men. The men drew from nude male and female models, while the women drew female models or costumed portrait models. The general idea in Victorian America was that exposing women to nudity, whether that of a Greek stature or a nude male model was bad for their futures and reputations, not to mention their psyches. (Even so, the Pennsylania Academy produced and still produces, some of the finest women painters in America: Among whom are Cecilia Beaux, Mary Cassatt, Violet Oakley and Alice Neel. The Pennsylvania Art Conservatory in Philadelphia recently presented an exhiibition, "Philadelphia Women Artists of the 20th century. Many of the women painters discussed above are represented in the exhibition.)

In the 1880's, Thomas Eakins, in his dramatic statement of impatience with Victorian restrictions, undraped a young male model during his anatomy lecture for a mixed audience. The young ladies may have been thrilled, but their mothers were not. In spite of an attempt at modernizing art education for women, and men, Eakins was fired. Later generations at the Academy and elsewhere see him as a hero of art education.

Even though a few years later his effort paid off in women students being able to draw, paint and sculpt from men wearing a "modeling strap", it was not until the 1960's that women art students were able to draw from a fully nude male in any American Art school. The last jock strap was dropped in the late nineteen sixties.

Making Choices

After WWI, women in America entered colleges and art schools in ever-greater numbers. American art education, under the inspiration of the Bauhaus school in Germany, prepared women for careers not just in fine arts but also in design, architecture and public works. The difficulty was not so much the older form of restrictions, which kept women from education at all, but the cultural expectations for "a normal Life". These included, and still include, marriage, children and a "practical" career that earns real money. Even worse for the contemporary "super woman", pervasive sexism in the art world and the culture at large had taken strange new twists and turns.

Philadelphia artist and educator, Susan Rodriguez, speaks of Elaine Dubrow, her aunt and inspiration. Dubrow grew up during the Depression and WWII. She held fast to the life of the artist during hard times, making the same difficult choices made by women artists earlier in the century. Women were now expected to be able to do it all. Dubrow's contemporary Alice Neel struggled to paint, have jobs, maintain a marriage and bear children. These modern women often didn't see their careers take off until later in life when they had more personal freedom. Whereas Dubrow sadly died at the age of 60 just when her career might have flowered, Neel, at the same age, finally achieved recognition. Her portrait of feminist Kate Millett on the cover of Newsweek thrust her into the limelight.

When we sit around with coffee and donuts in my classroom and have "art chats", students ask what it takes to become an artist. Van Gogh said it takes "patience, hard work and courage". I encourage them to make wise choices, to choose partners and friends who support their dreams and follow the advice of strong role models and artistic ancestors. I think Eleanor would say the same thing. So would The Red Rose Girls, The Philadelphia Ten, Elaine Dubrow, and Alice Neel.