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"Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History": Innovative Women Artists on Paper

In the second half of the nineteenth century there was an upward shift in the number of women who were considering careers in the art field—and making a success of it. Academies were opening their doors to females though their classes were still often held separately from those of their male contemporaries, and women were rarely allowed to draw or paint from the nude. But they were making strides by merely being allowed by their Victorian-era parents to have a life outside the home, one that involved imaginative creativity among like-minded women.

There were many ways that women entered the art world. Some served as models to the great artists of the day, like Suzanne Valadon, the illegitimate daughter of a laundress who, upon moving to Paris in her teens, sat for Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, and Puvis de Chavannes, and ultimately won their support of her own work. Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot, from a distinctly different class, also occasionally modeled (though fully clothed) for their fellow artists, and images of them by Degas and Manet, respectively, are shown here next to two of their own works. Both Morisot and Cassatt became known for their Impressionist scenes of domestic life. Cassatt’s color prints remain much sought after for their innovative use of the aquatint medium with a distinctive, Japanese-influenced style.

Lilla Cabot Perry came to art late, beginning her first formal art training at the age of thirty six. In 1874, Perry married Thomas Sargeant Perry, a university professor, with whom she had three daughters. The family traveled widely, living in Paris from 1887 to 1889, where Lilla studied painting at the Académie Colarossi and the Académie Julian. But it was in 1889, when she was forty-one, that Perry saw her first Impressionist painting, a work by Monet, in a Paris gallery. This experience literally changed her life; she sought out the artist and became his close friend. For nine summers the Perrys rented a house at Giverny, near Monet’s, and while he never took pupils, he often advised her. From 1898 to 1901 her husband was teaching in Tokyo, where she was able to study firsthand the original Japanese influences of Impressionism.

Eliza Pratt Greatorex was Irish by birth, but her family moved to New York in 1840. She married in 1849 but her husband died nine years later, leaving her with three small children (her two daughters, Eleanor Elizabeth and Kathleen Honora, also became accomplished artists). To support the family, Eliza set up a studio in New York and taught in a girls’ school for fifteen years while exhibiting frequently. Her astute business sense made her a success, and she traveled extensively, to Europe, Algiers, and out west. At a time when professional women artists were looked at askance, she was achieving her goals, and she imbued both of her daughters with the same aspirations.

As color lithography came into vogue and there was an explosion in the art poster market, the design arts attracted a number of women. Among them were Violet Oakley, best remembered today as one of the “Red Rose Girls,” and her fellow illustrators Elizabeth Shippen Green and Jessie Wilcox Smith. The three women lived together with a fourth, who kept house for them, allowing the artists full freedom to pursue their work. Oakley was also a muralist and was the first woman to receive a prestigious public commission, at the Pennsylvania State Capitol. In the Boston area, Ethel Reed, another illustrator and poster artist, was considered pre-eminent in her field—and she, too, like many of her colleagues, sat for other artists, including photographer F. Holland Day and Frances Benjamin Johnston. In the mid–1890s Reed was engaged to painter Philip Leslie Hale, but when that broke off she went to Europe and traveled widely.

The muralist, painter, and printmaker Gabrielle Clements lived with Philip Hale’s sister, the artist Ellen Day Hale. Clements, an 1880 Cornell graduate, studied art at the Académie Julian in Paris with Tony Robert-Fleury and William-Adolphe Bouguereau, exhibiting at the Paris Salon in 1885. Clements and Hale owned property together, traveled together, worked together, and studied together for nearly fifty years, deftly integrating their public and private lives.

Many women artists came to the field naturally, through familial connections. Sylvia Gosse was the daughter of painter Nellie Gosse and the writer Edmund Gosse, and was the niece of Laura Alma-Tadema. She studied in London, most notably with Walter Sickert, eventually running his art school and remaining a lifelong friend. She exhibited extensively and was one of the founding members of the London Group in 1914. Wendela Boreel, daughter of an American mother and a Dutch diplomat, grew up in England, taking art classes at the Slade School and evening classes with Sickert. She established her career with her beautiful intaglio work, exhibiting extensively in England and France.

Like Boreel, Clare Leighton and Gwendolen Raverat, the granddaughter of Charles Darwin, also studied at the Slade. Both became accomplished wood engravers. Leighton used her talents to support her political views, exhibiting through the American Institute of Architects (AiA) and illustrating the New Left Review. Raverat was more a traditionalist, influenced by the wood engravings of Thomas Bewick and inspired in her use of composition by her husband, the French illustrator Jacques Raverat. Eric Gill, a founding member of the British Society of Wood Engravers, inspired her to work with a more austere style.

When Winifred Knights came to the Slade a few years later, her work stood out and she was awarded the coveted Rome Scholarship. She remained in Italy for nearly five years, marrying painter W. T. Monnington and producing work inspired by the light and colors of the south. Like many of her fellow female artists, she was a muralist, and she received many commissions and exhibited widely before her death at the age of forty-eight.

Simultaneous with the rise of interest in wood engraving was a parallel interest in the art of the color woodcut, which evolved from an interest in Japanese ukiyo-e prints and the craft of creating woodcuts, which was closely associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. In Scotland, Elizabeth Brunton studied at the Glasgow School of Art, during the tenure of C. R. Mackintosh, Frances and Margaret MacDonald, and Herbert MacNair. This was followed by study in France, and she eventually became known for her color woodcuts. Her counterparts in America included Margaret Jordan Patterson, Ethel Mars, and Edna Boies Hopkins. Patterson and Hopkins had studied with the influential teacher Arthur Wesley Dow; and Hopkins and Mars, fellow Cincinnatians, both took classes with Frank Duveneck.

Hopkins and her husband James traveled around the world on their honeymoon, stopping in Japan to learn more about the woodcut process, and then moved to Paris, where they again joined forces with Mars and her partner, Maud Squires, and Edna taught her friends the color woodcut process. In the ensuing years, Patterson traveled to Paris and learned the process from Mars. When World War I broke out, most of these artists left Europe and established a colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they eventually learned the new woodblock process, the “white-line” woodcut, so named because the entire image was printed on one block, with deep grooves between areas, which allowed the inks to be applied locally. This meant that all the colors could be printed at once, rather then in multiple printings, a block for each color.

In Provincetown, one of the most experimental of the artists working in this medium was Blanche Lazzell, justifiably renowned today for her lush woodcut scenes. But Lazzell also was extremely interested in the modern art movements of her time, and after the war she went to Paris to study with Albert Gleizes, André Lhote, and Fernand Léger. Her love of learning influenced her lifelong commitment to change within her work, and she moved smoothly between a realistic style and one that was closely akin to abstract Cubism.

In the west, Frances Gearhart became one of the leading figures in the Print Makers of Los Angeles, a group that by the 1920s was showing work by national and international artists, including work by Provincetown printmakers Ethel Mars and Blanche Lazzell. Gearhart and her two sisters, Edna and May, both of whom had studied with Dow in New York, worked and exhibited together, teaching in the local school system to make ends meet. Frances, the most innovative of the three, was known to apply watercolor to the block with a quite dry brush, allowing the strokes to remain visible after printing. This allows for a subtlety of coloration and shading, abjuring the flatness commonly associated with block printing.

Several intrepid women artists decided not just to learn the ukiyo-e process but to go to Japan to study the medium in depth. Bertha Lum and Helen Hyde both spent much of their careers in Asia. More astonishingly, after Lum left Japan she moved to China, where she raised her two daughters and continued to make prints, having left her husband behind in America. Lilian Miller, daughter of the American Consul General in Seoul, Korea, trained as an artist in Japan and later studied at Vassar. Miller lived “between two worlds”—East and West as well as feminine and masculine. For the art world she offered delicate imagery, wore kimonos, and signed her paintings Lilian May Miller. In her personal life, she was strong and self-reliant—and preferred to be called “Jack.” She was an accomplished athlete who hiked the Alps as well as the San Gabriel Mountains and vagabonded through Alaska.

In the 1920s and ’30s, women artists again turned to etching and lithography, as well as the new medium of screenprint, developed under the WPA. Ilonka Karasz, who had moved to the United States from Hungary in 1913, quickly established a successful, multifaceted career encompassing a variety of media from graphic and fine art to textile and furniture design.

Peggy Bacon was the daughter of two artists, but she was not encouraged to become one herself. Indeed, frustrated by the lack of recognition he received, her father committed suicide in 1913, but Peggy chose to continue as an artist despite this. She studied at the Art Students League for five years under John Sloan, George Bellows, and Kenneth Hayes Miller, and shortly after married artist Alexander Brook, with whom she became an important member of the Woodstock summer art colony. Isabel Bishop came to New York to study with Miller just as the first mixed life class was offered to women. She took her subjects from the area around her home near Union Square: shopkeepers, the homeless, and workers.

Yvonne Twining Humber was another woman whose career coincided with the Depression and the opportunities offered by the WPA. Humber was born in New York and grew up in England. Before her birth, her mother sang in the Paris Opera under the name “Madame d’Egremont” and her father was an amateur painter. When he died in 1917, Humber and her mother returned to the United States. They lived with different relatives before settling in Boston. She moved to Seattle in 1943 and, though not a household name, her frugal lifestyle and continuing work made it possible for her to donate $250,000 to Artist Trust five years ago. The money came from the proceeds of the sale of her house in Magnolia, which she left to move to a retirement home. The money funds a $10,000 annual fellowship for women artists in the region who are at least sixty years old and have continued to make art.

In England, Dame Laura Knight, who was raised by a single mother, also an artist, achieved success at a young age, winning silver and bronze medals from the South Kensington Schools. She married the artist Harold Knight in 1903, and while living in London she was intimate with members of the Russian ballet. In the early 1930s she spent several months touring with a circus, producing a poignant body of work documenting their itinerant lifestyle. Gypsies, too, were a favorite subject in her art, and in 1936 she was the first woman to be elected Associate of the Royal Academy. During World War II she was an official war artist, and at the end of the war she was selected to paint the Nuremberg war trials.

Marie Laurencin began her career as a porcelain painter in Sèvres, but upon coming to Paris to further her art education she met Braque and, soon after, Picasso and Apollinaire. Gertrude Stein was one of the early collectors of her work. In her long career, Laurencin focused on images of dancers and actresses, and, like Knight, circus performers. She also created costumes and scenery for the Russian ballet, book illustrations, and clothing design for Paul Poiret.

While this group of women artists and what they produced may seem tame today, in their own day their audacious efforts to make a success of their art careers against all complications were courageous. While some were from poor backgrounds, or burdened by single motherhood, or stigmatized for being a working woman at a time when gentility was gauged by how many servants you had, these women brooked the odds. Though often unconventional in their lifestyle choices, they achieved much that would be transmitted to future generations.

Nancy E. Green
The Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs