There are countless remarkable women who came before us who deserve our attention and respect, but history often obliterated them. The current special exhibit at the Portland, Maine Art Museum (Women Modernists in New York) is helping to correct this omission by resurrecting four early 20th century women artists, who, aside from Georgia O’Keefe, are relatively unknown.
In addition to O’Keefe the artists represented are Florine Stettheimer, Helen Torr, and Marguerite Zorach. They were part of New York’s avant-garde art world from 1910 to 1935 when artists were rejecting their academic training to experiment with abstract images. The suffragette movement was in the forefront, giving impetus to women artists who sought to break new ground.
In spite of the changing times, the work of women artists was seen through a gender lens, critiqued according to its “feminine” qualities. The women in the PAM show resented this limitation. They longed to have their work viewed as a full expression of themselves, and not just of their femininity.
I was moved not just by the magnificent art represented in the Portland exhibit, but also by the backstories of the roadblocks confronting these women artists.
For Stettheimer, it meant continuing to paint when her work didn’t sell. For Zorach it meant moving on to tapestries when child-rearing prevented her from painting for long uninterrupted hours. Torr put her art on the backburner to assist her famous husband, artist Arthur Dove, prepare for his many gallery shows and later to nurse him when he was ill. For O’Keefe, marriage to Stieglitz became too demanding, hence her move to the Southwest.
In spite of their stylistic differences, a wonderful vitality connects all four women artists in the PAM show. Florine Stettheimer adopted the bold colors of the Fauves to create vivid abstract landscapes and later seductive floral images. Her charming self-portraits belie her unhappiness over being dismissed by the art critics of her era.
Helen Torr’s powerful geometric land and seascapes, to my way of thinking, are just as good as those of her famous husband Arthur Dove, but they didn’t receive many gallery showings. It may be Torr’s despair over this fact that is responsible for her honest, pained self-portraits.
Georgia O’Keefe’s close association (and later marriage) to the influential gallery owner Arthur Stieglitz may have been the deciding factor in her fame. Her spectacular flower images were dissected for their erotic, feminine qualities. Reverence for nature, a recurring symbol in O’Keefe’s later works, seem to reflect the peace she discovered in her solitary desert lifestyle, miles away from the conceit of the New York art world.
While Marguerite Zorach’s later tapestries are just as impressive as her energetic paintings and were often well received, she typically priced them too high to sell. Did her resentment at being shunned by art critics prompt this move? Was Stettheimer similarly motivated by her refusal to sell her art?
To this day life remains difficult for women artists. The Guerrilla Girls, an activist group of women painters dating back to the 1980’s, have created posters and staged protests to call attention to our chauvinist art world.
I left the PAM exhibit proudly carrying its beautiful catalogue.Now when I need inspiration, I can sit in my little study and reacquaint myself with the stunning images of four brilliant women artists who predate me by 100 years!
If they could overcome social rejection to keep on creating, what excuse do I have for not following my passion? What excuse do any of us have?