The new exhibit at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, “Women Picturing Women: From Private Spaces to Public Ventures,” opened Feb. 6 and will be on display until June 13. Vassar curator Patricia Phagan’s last exhibition is inspired by a study for a 1905 mural entitled “Westward,” which led her to wonder how many images of women that were created by women were in the Loeb’s collection. Phagan also acknowledges Vassar graduate and former Professor of Art History Linda Nochlin ’51, widely acclaimed for her 1971 article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” as well as her focus on feminism in art. Phagan’s selection for the exhibit features 40 works and explores the world through the female perspective, a rarity in pre-modern art.
The first gallery of the exhibit consists of the most common subject selected by women artists: portraits. “The Checkered Dress,” a watercolor painted in 1907 by Hilda Belcher, depicts a young woman reclining in a chair. Her relaxed pose and casual dress place the setting firmly in the domestic sphere. Belcher confessed she considered the painting “fake,” as it was constructed from various sources—her memory of a dress, her imagination and her friend and fellow artist Georgia O’Keefe’s face—rather than one distinct moment. Another portrait of note, “Study of a Head,” was done by Vassar Class of 1870 alumna Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin. The daring close-up, unconventional for the time, enhances the unknown woman’s direct gaze. Her long, exposed neck, Gibson-girl styled hair and set jaw signal her modernity to the viewer, likely inspired by Coffin’s own identity as a college-educated, unmarried woman living in a time when the expectation for women was motherhood.
Moving into the second gallery, a series of domestic scenes and idyllic landscapes greet the visitor. Perhaps the most arresting painting is Florine Stettheimer’s “Natatorium Undine,” which displays diaphanous bodies garbed in whimsical hues frolicking about at a fantastical pool party. The artist herself can be seen at the top left, reclining under a yellow parasol. Stettheimer deeply valued her privacy, so it is no surprise that this decadent, exuberant gathering takes place in an imagined landscape rather than one drawn from her real life.
Finally, the third room contains documentary photographs as well as paintings and sketches that convey intellectual narratives. This gallery differs from the first two as it reveals the works created by women who entered the public sphere, a realm considered suitable only for men until the 20th century. An image entitled “Nurse Attending to Ill Woman at Home” offers an intimate look into the everyday life of ordinary New Yorkers during the early 1900s. The photographer, Canadian-born Jessie Tarbox Beals, was part of a group documenting social conditions for charity organizations before becoming the first female news photographer in the United States. Towards the center of this gallery is Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs’ allegorical linoleum cut, “Black Venus.” The cut parodies Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” but this goddess takes a more active role, steering two fish to ride over the waves rather than standing passively in a clam shell. According to the Loeb’s description of the piece, Burroughs promoted Black art and culture while fighting for social justice, co-founding the Southside Community Art Center and the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago to spread her love of art to the community.
In “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Nochlin explains that “It was indeed institutionally made impossible for women to achieve artistic excellence, or success, on the same footing as men, no matter what the potency of their so-called talent, or genius.” Despite the limitations faced by women, the sheer diversity of subject matter, medium and style in the exhibit reveals that these artists’ creativity and imagination could not be extinguished by the prominent societal expectations of the 17th to mid-20th centuries. “Women Picturing Women” serves as a recognition of female artistic pursuits in times when art was a man’s world, a farewell to the Loeb for Patricia Phagan and a renewed pledge for the museum to acquire and display more works by women.