Ten Favorite American Women Artists
As I See It
I have a Master's Degree in Art History. I tell you that because during my course of study few American women artists were discussed at any length. It was as if their work was somehow inferior to their male counterparts. I have found the case to be quite different during the years I spent as a curator in an art museum. So I am passing my favorites on to you.
"Self Portrait" by Elizabeth Nourse
Sarah Miriam Peale
Leading Baltimore Portrait Painter
Sarah Miriam Peale is often considered to be the first woman professional artist in America. What makes her a professional? The simple fact that Sarah Peale was able to support herself through her art for most of her life. She was born in 1800, a time when it was very difficult for a woman to make a living as an artist. But Sarah had an advantage. She was part of the Peale family of artists whose patriarch was Charles Willson Peale, a leading Philadelphia artist, scientist, patriot and the father of four male and four female important early artists. Sarah's father was Charle's son James Peale.
Sarah Peale chose to pursue her career as an artist rather than marry. Marriage in those days could mean lots of children, since birth control was a hit or miss proposition and that would hurt her chances of continuing her career. So she became a skillful portrait painter who could compete with the best of the male artists of her day.
"Self Portrait" by Sarah Miriam Peale
Painter of Peasant Life
Elizabeth Nourse was born in America in 1852 and went abroad to study in Paris and never returned. American artists who do this are called expatriates. Elizabeth has the dubious distinction of being a relative of Rebecca Nourse, The Witch of Salem, who was burned at the stake in 1692. But I digress.
When Elizabeth left America to study in Paris, she was doing what many American artists did to get what they felt was a superior art education that American academies did not offer. Her intention was to stay with her sister for a couple of years and return to America. But her acceptance in Europe and her love of painting the peasants there, kept her abroad for the rest of her life. She did, however, exhibit her paintings in America, including the Chicago 1893 World Exposition. She became one of America's leading expatriate artists and was renowned for her sensitive paintings of European peasants.
"Dans l'Eglise a Volendam" by Elizabeth Nourse ("In the Church at Volendam")
Painter of the Gilded Age Elite
The Gilded Age was the time when wealth was amassed and flaunted. During this period, Cecelia Beaux, born in 1855, became the most sought after woman portrait painter of the elite. Raised in a genteel Puritan family, tutored at home, she was encouraged to pursue her art talent at an early age. Beaux was another woman who put career before marriage. She studied in Paris, rivaled John Singer Sargent as a successful portraitist and was recognized for her insightful portraits. William Merritt Chase said she was not only a great woman artist but the best that ever lived. Although I like Beaux's portraits, I think Chase went a little far in his praise. But such hyperbole never hurt anyone.
Cecelia Beaux won many awards and accolades and was a painting instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Art, which reflected her importance as a painter and the fact that she was held in high esteem by her contemporaries.
"Self Portrait" by Cecelia Beaux
If I wanted to attach "great" to any nineteenth century American artist it would have to be Mary Cassatt. She was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1844. At the tender age of seventeen she enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She found the curriculum lacking and begged her father to send her to Paris to study. Cassatt left for Paris in 1866 and quickly became an exhibitor at the Paris Salon. Her tenure in Paris was cut short by the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Fortunately, the war was over in a year and Cassatt was back in Europe exhibiting at the Paris Salon and in America.
Mary Cassatt's claim to fame is her acceptance among the French Impressionists. She is the only American woman artist to become associated with that group. Her closest friend in that group was Edgar Degas with whom she had a forty year professional relationship. Cassatt never married, but her favorite subjects were women and children.
"Self Portrait" by Mary Cassatt
Jessie Willcox Smith
Illustrator of Children
Too often illustration is viewed as a secondary art rather than a fine art. But greatness lies in this group of artists just as it does among the so called fine artists. Even in American illustration, women artists are not as common as their male counterparts, but some stand out. Among them is Jessie Willcox Smith. She began her art career, as any other artist would, by studying art at a proper art school. Her choice was the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Art and her teacher was the renowned American realist painter Thomas Eakins.
Smith preferred a less academic approach to art than her teacher and began doing work for advertisements. Liking this approach much better, she began to study under Howard Pyle whose style of teaching was the opposite of her stilted academic training. Smith found illustration fun and rewarding both monetarily and artistically and became famous for her charming illustrations of children for "Good Housekeeping" magazine for which she did 200 works.
"Back to School Again" by Jessie Willcox Smith
Marguerite Stuber Pearson
Boston School Painter
I have a special place in my heart for Marguerite Stuber Pearson, because I did my master's thesis on her. Pearson taught me what it means to be determined in the face of adversity. As a young girl she dreamed of becoming a pianist, but her dreams were shattered when at age sixteen she contracted Polio, which left her paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. She could not use her hands to play the piano, but she could use them to paint. Pearson studied under Edmund Tarbell, the founder of the Boston School and the Guild of Boston Artists, a group that combined the impressionist style with a realistic approach.
Pearson painted in Rockport, Massachusetts where she built a single story house that was wheelchair accessible with wide doorways and a staircase meant for posing people not climbing. Most of her paintings are of seated women because that position was more comfortable for Pearson to paint. She dressed her models in antique clothing, favoring the Victorian Era of long gowns. Her style was very well received and she was able to live on her income as an artist.
"The Blue Danube" by Marguerite Stuber Pearson
The Armory Show
Get Ready for a Big Change
The Armory Show in 1913 was a style and life changer. Everything American artists had come to cherish in their approaches to art, changed with this exhibition of abstract art. Most, but not all, of the works shown in this exhibition were by European artists.
The long tradition of American realism was about to take a hit and the outrage was heard around the country. Two hundred and Seventy thousand people attended The Armory Show. Art students protested and the public recoiled but they came, saw and purchased and the movement away from realism began, and along with it a change for American women artists.
Don't get me wrong, The Armory Show was not an emancipator for women artists, but it was an overall impetus towards change.
The Greatest of the Great Abstractionists
Georgia O'Keeffe became famous for her simplified abstractions of flowers, bones and mountains. Her style consists primarily of closeup, enlarged images of her subject which turns realism into abstraction. O'Keeffe was discovered and made famous by Alfred Stieglitz, an early champion of abstract art and an important photographer in his own right. Stieglitz gave O'Keeffe her first exhibition in his New York gallery.
O'Keeffe married Stieglitz and went on to surpass his greatness as a photographer with her abstract approach to nature. Stieglitz was twenty-three years older than O'Keeffe and the May/December marriage was filled with problems, but none of that interfered with her art and she quickly became the most important American artist, man or woman, of the twentieth century.
"Jimson Weed" by Georgia O'Keeffe
Lee Krasner was among the first generation of abstract expressionist painters. This style focuses on artist's brush strokes moving across the canvas in what appears to be random. But don't be fooled. This is a well controlled style that is filled with swirling patterns of color. Krasner studied at the National Academy of Design in New York. A mutual artist friend introduced her to Jackson Pollock, the first and foremost painter of the Abstract Expressionist movement and the two eventually married. A marriage filled with turmoil, since Pollock drank heavily and Krasner struggled to control her husband and create her art, often taking a subordinate role to Pollock.
Pollock was killed in an automobile accident while drunk during a time when Krasner was in Europe. Although she struggled to come to terms with her husband's death, Krasner eventually overcame her turmoil and discovered her place as an important abstract expressionist.
"Right Bird Left" by Lee Krasner
Color Field Painter
Strongly influenced by Jackson Pollack, Helen Frankenthaler developed her own style of abstract painting that put her in line with a group known as Color Field painters. She married Robert Motherwell, another famous abstract artist who founded what became known as the New York School.
Don't feel bad if you are lost in art terms that can be more confusing than enlightening. Suffice it to say that color field painters rely more on color than on form. Frankenthaler continues the tradition towards letting things happen on the canvas and further away from any recognizable image. Her world is made of color, sometimes a single color with subtle changes in hue or multiple colors juxtaposed. Her art is meant to create a feeling rather than suggest an image.
Helen Frankenthaler sitting amongst her art in 1956.
American Women Artists - A World of Discovery Awaits You
I have only scratched the surface by giving you my favorite list of ten American women artists, but there are so many more that I have not covered. Take some time to discover the names and styles that made these women famous.
I could never cover all the great American women artists or even come close, so I am sure I left out one of your favorites. Feel free to add them to this list or just comment on the lens.