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Paper Trails: A Century of Women's Prints, Drawings, and Photographs

In the past, a woman’s talent in the arts has often been equated with other home skills: cooking, sewing, or a flair for decoration. To spend too much time drawing or painting would have seemed a self-indulgence, even for someone from the middle classes. Such things were nice to know how to do, but not something that would ever be put to a practical use. Sometimes girls born into a family of artists might be trained in the arts, like Artemisia Gentileschi, but this was rare. Today, only a handful of names come to mind when considering art prior to the twentieth century.

While few women before that time made their living by creating art, there were some artistic fields in which they made their mark, such as textile design, china painting, ceramics, and embroidery. But by the end of the nineteenth century women wanted more, and there was a high demand for art classes for women. Art was one of the few genteel fields in which a woman could earn a living, and with art school training, they began to make some headway in areas using other materials and to compete with men for some positions.

Women entering art schools were not satisfied with classes in just the domestic arts and began taking classes in sculpture, painting, and learning to work with metal. But while they were no longer relegated to so-called “women’s work,” it was still an uphill battle to be accepted in a man’s profession. For this reason, many women took to making art on paper. The materials were less expensive and more portable, and the making of a drawing or a print could usually be worked into a life that also contained family responsibilities. A block of wood could be cut partially one day, finished another, and printed even later. Drawings, too, had this versatility and could be finished over time rather than in a single intensive session. This freedom was a boon, and as more women invested their efforts into becoming career artists, their impact broadened and intensified. Many women became art teachers, illustrators, and graphic artists
as well, expanding their earning possibilities into other realms.

In the field of photography, almost from its invention in 1839, women took a keen interest in learning the process, but here, too, it was in the early twentieth century when their options expanded. Two things led to this change: the availability of the lightweight, easy-to-use Brownie camera, which came on the market in 1900; and the influence of Alfred Stieglitz, under whose aegis many women began to exhibit their work widely.

Culled from the Johnson Museum’s collection, this exhibition celebrates a century’s worth of work on paper by women. They have been a potent part of every art movement since then, from the Provincetown color woodcuts to German Expressionism, photojournalism to Pop, and beyond.

Nancy E. Green
Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs