5 Fast Facts: Graciela Iturbide

One of the most influential contemporary photographers of Latin America, Graciela Iturbide (b. 1942) has produced majestic and powerful images of her native Mexico for the past 50 years. Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico is the artist’s most extensive U.S. exhibition in more than two decades, comprising 140 black-and-white prints that reveal the artist’s own journey to understand her homeland and the world.

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Iturbide, revealing how her process and pictures shed new light on other photographs on view in the museum’s collection.

A black and white self portrait of Graciela Iturbide who sits facing the camera, unsmiling with her hair wore down and parted in the middle. Her face is painted in traditional Seri marks, consisting of little white and colored dots horizontally across her cheeks and nose, and three triangle shapes on each of her cheeks.

Graciela Iturbide, Autorretrato como Seri (Self-Portrait as Seri), Sonoran Desert, 1979; Gelatin silver print, 6 ¾ x 6 ¾ in.; Courtesy of the artist; © Graciela Iturbide; Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

1. Picturing Self

While Iturbide typically photographs others, she occasionally captures her own likeness. Graciela Iturbide’s Mexico includes four autorretratos, or self-portraits, that reveal and conceal the artist. Consider how her contemporaries Kirsten Justesen (b. 1943), Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), and Gillian Wearing (b. 1963) obfuscate their faces to redefine traditions of self-portraiture.

2. Getting to Know You

Iturbide immerses herself in the communities she photographs to gain trust and respect. She spends extended time on location, participates in cultural traditions, and even works alongside her subjects. Similarly, Esther Bubley (1921—1998) and Nikki S. Lee (b. 1970) embedded themselves in rural America for their own respective series—LadiesHome Journal’s “How America Lives” (1948—1960) and The Ohio Project (1999).

3. Recording Tradition

Iturbide’s extensive catalogue of images of the Seri, Zapotec, and Mixteca peoples show her deep respect for and desire to record indigenous Mexican cultures. This work extends a tradition practiced by Lola Álvarez Bravo (1907—1993), who simultaneously captured distinctive Mexican customs and universal human emotions.

4. Investigating Nature

Iturbide observes and pictures aspects of the natural world that typically go unseen—like a bird’s skeleton or a cactus receiving IV fluids. Similarly, Maggie Foskett (1919—2014) created cliché verres to enlarge and make transparent nature’s underlying structures. Amy Lamb (b. 1944) employs carefully controlled studio conditions, unparalleled patience, and a watchful eye to capture the fleeting moment flowers bloom or seedpods burst.

5. Celebrating Authenticity

Juchitán’s egalitarian culture embraces a third gender known as muxes, or individuals assigned male at birth who dress and behave as women. Iturbide photographed a muxe named Magnolia at her request. South African artist and visual activist Zanele Muholi (b. 1972) also pictures individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community in her native country.

—Adrienne L. Gayoso is the senior educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Ruth Orkin

Ruth Orkin (1921–1985), an award-winning photojournalist and filmmaker, discovered her passion for photography as a young girl when thumbing through family scrapbooks filled with snapshots of Old Hollywood (her mother was a silent film actress). At 10 years old, Orkin received her first camera, a modest 39-cent device that helped develop her extraordinary career. NMWA’s collection includes 74 images by Orkin, which is a representative sampling of her 40-year body of work.

Ruth Orkin, Celebrity (Ava Gardner at Hollywood party), 1950s; Vintage gelatin silver print, 7 x 7 1/4 in.; NMWA, Gift from the collection of Charles S. and Elynne B. Zucker

Known for capturing the individual and collective human spirit, Orkin was particularly adept at picturing remarkable women at remarkable moments. Here are the stories behind a few she immortalized on film:

1. Herself
In 1939, at age 17, Orkin took a solo cross-county bike trip…without modern conveniences like a mobile phone or GPS. She traveled from Los Angeles to the World’s Fair in New York City, hitchhiking, hosteling, sightseeing, and capturing more than 300 photographs along the way. Her bicycle and shadow became self-portrait surrogates.

2. Marian Anderson (1897–1993)
Orkin precariously stood on a plank of wood balanced on two sawhorses to photograph the renowned singer rehearsing with conductor Leonard Bernstein at Lewisohn Stadium in New York City in 1947. This intimate image was snapped eight years after Anderson’s famous Lincoln Memorial concert for a desegregated audience (1939) and eight years before she became the first black singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera (1955).

3. Ethel Waters (1896–1977), Carson McCullers (1917–1967), and Julie Harris (1925–2013)
Orkin photographed this talented triumvirate on opening night of the Broadway production of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding (1950). The play starred Waters, a veteran performer, and Harris, a rising star. Waters is known for recordings like “Stormy Weather” (1933) and for being the first African American to star in a television show and receive a Primetime Emmy nomination. Harris went on to become a highly awarded performer—she was an Oscar short of an EGOT.

Ruth Orkin, Ethel Waters, Carson McCullers, Julie Harris, opening night, “The Member of the Wedding,” NYC, 1950; Gelatin silver print; NMWA; © Ruth Orkin; Photo courtesy of the Ruth Orkin Photo Archive

4. Ninalee Craig (1927–2018)
Craig, the subject of one of Orkin’s most famous series, “American Girl in Italy” (1951), befriended the photographer in Italy during a solo trip to Europe. Together they staged photographs addressing challenges and surprises that women faced when traveling alone. Cosmopolitan published Orkin’s images in the article “Don’t Be Afraid to Travel Alone.”

5. Kathrine Switzer (b. 1947)
Orkin photographed Kathrine Switzer the day she became the female winner of the 1974 New York City Marathon. Before this victory, Switzer broke gender barriers in the running world. In 1967, was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon, only possible because her registration name, K.V. Switzer, didn’t reveal her gender. Women were banned from running the Boston race until 1972, the same year their results were officially recognized in the New York City Marathon.

—Adrienne L. Gayoso is the senior educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts about #5WomenArtists Changing the World: Mickalene Thomas

Artist Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971) creates paintings, photography, installations, and multimedia and video works that draw from art history, pop art, and visual culture. Her vibrant works have established a contemporary vision of female sexuality, beauty, race, and power, while centering queer identity. As a queer black woman, Thomas represents other black women in a way that celebrates their agency and erotic beauty.­

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Share your favorite women artists working for LGBTQ rights on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook using the hashtag #5WomenArtists and tagging @WomenInTheArts.

1. A Seat at the Table

Thomas cites a 1994 trip to the Portland Art Museum as the moment she knew she wanted to be an artist. “I saw Carrie Mae Weems’s work—specifically ‘The Kitchen Table’ series…it was transformative. Not only to me as a young black girl from Camden, New Jersey, standing in a museum in Portland, Oregon, but as a queer woman, as a young artist, seeing those works—they changed my life and allowed me to really consider being an artist.”

2. The Peacock in the Room

Thomas’s work frequently engages with race, gender, and representation through glitter, rhinestones, bright colors, fashion, and lively patterns. About this approach Thomas says, “The sparkles…are flamboyant work. It’s like the peacock in the room; it entices people to engage with the beauty…it draws people in, and then you encourage people to explore the themes on a deeper level.”

3. 21st Century Muse

In 2018, Harper’s Bazaar commissioned Thomas to create a series of images of her partner and muse, Racquel Chevremont, an art adviser and former model who collaborates frequently with Thomas. Curator Kimberly Drew declared the images “an ode to black love, but also a siren’s call for a more diverse future—one in which queer, black, and brown people can imagine the radical possibilities of embracing their own beauty and agency to tell their own stories.”

A front and back view of a pocket mirror by Mickalene Thomas that contain two photos of beautiful black women posed in seventies looking fashion with a wood paneled background.

Mickalene Thomas, Pocket mirror (front and back), 2016 (based on Mickalene Thomas, Din Facing Forward (left) and Qusuquzah Standing Sideways (right), 2012); Brushed bronze with epoxy-coated artwork, 2 5/8 in. diameter; Produced by Third Drawer Down; NMWA, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of NMWA Chief Curator Kathryn Wat; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

4. Dare to Dream

Thomas created a poster for the “Speak Up” fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) at Art Basel Miami in 2017. The poster was available for purchase at a pop-up shop and featured the phrase “Dare to Dream” over a photo of two women, including Chevremont, seemingly about to kiss. In a speech at the event, Howard Simon, ACLU Florida executive director, said, “Think about the shifts in the LGBTQ movement…one of the major things that moved that needle was the art community.”

5. Mic Drop

When asked about her role in conversations about race, gender, identity, and power, Thomas said, “As a black female queer artist, the fierce act of creating the work that I make is a courageous act unto itself. My responsibility as an artist is to continue to persevere and make the work, and that enacts change. My work celebrates and represents all types of powerful beautiful black women, period.”

—Alexa Kasner is the spring 2020 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts about #5WomenArtists Changing the World: Rosângela Rennó

Brazilian artist Rosângela Rennó (b. 1962) works with discarded photographs found in flea markets, family albums, newspapers, and public archives to question the nature and symbolic value of an image. Her works shed light on the overlooked narratives of everyday people—including migrants and immigrants—throughout history and in times of political and social unrest.

A man, woman, and small child stand in the desert amidst an array of polished metal car parts including hubcaps, a spotlight fixture for a truck, handrails, and other unidentifiable materials. The man smiles at the camera while holding the small child, who has her hair in two pigtails. The woman stands close to them but unsmiling. To the left of the family the words "Estado de Mexico" are written in yellow type. A cluster of tall, lean green trees are in the background.

Rosãngela Rennó, United States (Mexican Series), Estado de México, 1999; Iris prints on sommerset paper, 17 x 23 in.; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Rosângela Rennó, photo Eduardo Zepeda, courtesy of the artist and InSite

Share your favorite women artists working for immigrants’ rights on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook using the hashtag #5WomenArtists and tagging @WomenInTheArts.

1. The Ghosts of Brasília

In 1994, Rennó created the installation Immemorial for the group exhibition Relooking at Brasília. Instead of celebrating Brazil’s capital city, built rapidly between 1957 and 1960, Rennó faced its dark history. Overwhelming numbers of the project’s migrant workers—including women and children—fell to their deaths from the construction scaffolding. Rennó mined 50 worker identification photos from forgotten files and arranged the portraits like graves in a cemetery. Immemorial represents “a redemptive gesture, a resurrection of fallen bodies, those sacrificed in the building of the future.”

2. United States (Mexican Series)

Rennó worked with wedding portrait photographer Eduardo Zepeda on United States (Mexican Series) (1997–99), a public art project first displayed in shop windows in Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego, California. This suite of photographs shows people who had journeyed to Tijuana from Mexico’s 16 states, presumably to cross into the U.S. They are photographed in front of their workplaces in Tijuana, and an accompanying map indicates their places of origin. The work’s title deliberately—and ironically—alludes to the longstanding conflict surrounding migration and the heavy policing of the U.S.–Mexico border.

3. Reflections on a Colonial Past

In her video Vera Cruz (2000), Rennó appropriates a letter written by Portuguese knight Pêro Vaz de Caminha in 1500 about “discovering” Brazil. Rennó translated the letter into subtitles that play over a bleached background filled with scratches. The blank film alludes to the inability of the European and Indigenous peoples to understand each other. While Caminha’s letter has been described as reflecting “a deep sense of humanism,” history shows that colonization “brought about a savage suppression of traditional ways and freedoms.”

Renno_US3

Rosãngela Rennó, United States (Mexican Series), San Luís Potosí, 1999; Iris prints on sommerset paper, 17 x 23 in.; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Rosângela Rennó, photo Eduardo Zepeda, courtesy of the artist and InSite

Renno_US2

Rosãngela Rennó, United States (Mexican Series), Oaxaca, 1999; Iris prints on sommerset paper, 17 x 23 in.; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Rosângela Rennó, photo Eduardo Zepeda, courtesy of the artist and InSite

Renno_US1

Rosãngela Rennó, United States (Mexican Series), Michoacán, 1999; Iris prints on sommerset paper, 17 x 23 in.; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Rosângela Rennó, photo Eduardo Zepeda, courtesy of the artist and InSite

4. Hidden Histories

In 2016, Rennó presented Rio Montevideo, featuring images from the salvaged archives of the Uruguayan newspaper El Popular (published from 1957 to 1973). Photojournalist Aurelio González hid 48,626 negatives in the walls of the paper’s office to “save a record of the nation” before Uruguay’s military coup in 1973; this evidence of daily life and political unrest likely would have been destroyed otherwise. Her work raises compelling questions: What other visual narratives throughout history have been lost, hidden, or destroyed? Whose stories are not told?

5. Relearning to See

“The world will always have too many photographs,” Rennó has said. By working with found imagery, the artist brings new consideration to forgotten images and invites viewers to look closely. Perhaps, in that act, viewers can develop a deeper understanding of history’s obscured narratives and, in Rennó’s words, “the little stories of the downtrodden and the vanquished.”

—Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts About #5WomenArtists Changing the World: Kara Walker

Multidisciplinary artist Kara Walker (b. 1969) candidly investigates topics of race, gender, sexuality, and violence. While best known for her panoramic, cut-paper silhouettes, she has also produced large-scale sculptural installations, videos, paintings, and shadow puppets that address the history—and psychological impacts—of American slavery and racism.

An open spread of a pop-up book featuring one of Walker's signature black-and-white cut-paper silhouettes which shows a female slave holding a bucket to, presumably, her master, who sits on, presumably, a big pile of cotton while a young boy slave is on the other side holding a bag of cotton. In the distance another female slave picks cotton in front of a heap. Text from the narrative is positioned on both the right and left pages in the upper corners.

Kara Walker, Freedom, A Fable: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times, 1997; Ink on paper, laser-cut black card stock, leather binding, 8 1/4 x 9 1/2 in.; NMWA; © Ellie Bronson

Share your favorite women artists working for racial justice on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook using the hashtag #5WomenArtists and tagging @WomenInTheArts.

1. All Consuming

Walker does not believe that her provocative and historically inspired art “deals with history,” but rather that it responds to history. “Embedded in that statement, ‘Kara Walker is dealing with history,’ is this…desire for a hero who can fix this problem of our history and racism,” says Walker in an Art21 interview. “I don’t think my work is actually effectively dealing with history. I think of my work as subsumed…or consumed by history.”

2. Artist/Author

Walker often includes writing and storytelling in her artwork. Her pop-up book Freedom, A Fable: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times (1997), part of NMWA’s artists’ book collection, tells the story of a freed female slave. And in 2001, Walker created a series of short, diary-like writings on index cards that were exhibited in American Primitive at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. One card reads, “We are Superman. Venus, Oprah, Toni, Angela, Tina, Serena, Kara…We End in Vowel sounds and Our names Last Forever when you speak them aaah!”

3. Socially Aware Curator

In 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art invited Walker to curate an exhibition using its permanent collection. Walker titled the show After the Deluge as a response to the horrors of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. She juxtaposed paintings of churning water, including Winslow Homer’s Gulf Stream (1899), with her own print portfolio to address the external forces that shape and transform Black life, including “the sea, the slave trade, and the failure of retaining walls.”

4. Illustrating a Libretto

In 2011, Walker’s friend Alicia Hall Moran was cast as Bess in the opera Porgy and Bess. Walker sat in on run-throughs to sketch the show and was eventually asked to create illustrations for a limited-edition libretto. The resulting sixteen lithographs are “…more an homage to the feeling of the music” rather than addressing the show’s stereotypical portrayals of African Americans. Walker notes that Porgy and Bess “lives in a murky place in popular culture and personal reflection.”

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5. Unsweet History

In 2014, Walker and her team built the monumental sugar sculpture A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby in the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. The giant sphinx was a monument to the slaves whose labor built the sugar industry. In the heat of the summer, the sphinx and the smaller life-size sculptures of children began to melt. “I really love the fact of these figures melting and dripping,” said Walker. “[The figures and the factory are] still sort of weeping the substance.”

—Hannah Southern is the fall 2019 publications and communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts About #5WomenArtists Changing the World: Susan Goethel Campbell

Multidisciplinary artist Susan Goethel Campbell (b. 1956) creates installations, videos, prints, drawings, and artists’ books to highlight the indistinguishable characteristics of nature, culture, and the built environment. Campbell blurs the lines between these elements, documenting our changing planet and population and visualizing the intimate, ever-changing relationship between nature and human society.

Goethel Campbell_Ark 1

Susan Goethel Campbell, After the Deluge: The Post-Ark Report, 2002; Photoetching with aquatint and chine colle, 14 x 11 x 1 in.; NMWA, Museum Purchase; © Susan Goethel Campbell

Goethel Campbell_ Ark 2

Susan Goethel Campbell, After the Deluge: The Post-Ark Report, 2002; Photoetching with aquatint and chine colle, 14 x 11 x 1 in.; NMWA, Museum Purchase; © Susan Goethel Campbell

Share your favorite women artists working for climate justice on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook using the hashtag #5WomenArtists and tagging @WomenInTheArts.

1. Foundational Influences

Campbell has spent most of her adult life in Detroit, Michigan, and cites paintings in the Detroit Institute of Arts as having stylistic influence on her own works. Frederic Edwin Church’s Cotopaxi (1862) is one she would “look at and respond to over many years.” Campbell has also mentioned James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket (1875), which depicts an atmospheric event, as a major influence on her own explorations of landscape.

2. The Art of Repurposing

In her “Grounds” series, Campbell explores the unexpected beauty between natural and manmade forms. Campbell grew sod inside consumer packaging until it took the shape of the containers. She then upended and freeze-dried the forms, which released them from the packaging and liberated the root mass. This series demonstrates an interconnectivity between organic matter and post-consumer debris.

3. Biblical Proportions

Part of NMWA’s extensive artists’ books collection, Campbell’s After the Deluge: The Post-Ark Report (2002) is loosely based on the biblical tale of Noah’s ark. Campbell’s retelling reveals the fates of various animal species in the 21st century. The poetic—and sometimes cheeky—narrative draws on text and clippings from the New York Times and Detroit Free Press and underscores the impact of human encroachment on animal habitats.

An open view of Susan Goethel Campbell's artists' book RIM, which is made from magnetic sheeting and opens to form a circle around a hollow core. The inside panels of the circle contain rural landscape painting with handwritten text over the images. The outside are covered in magnetic sheeting. The cover of the book, which simply says "RIM" is positioned in the center of the start of the circle.

Campbell’s artists’ book Rim (2000) addresses suburban sprawl, population density, and the loss of undeveloped land in Detroit

4. Reading the Sky

In 2009, Campbell set up a camera on the 22nd floor of Detroit’s Fisher Building to take one photo each minute for an entire year. She then compressed the files into a three-hour video. The resulting installation, Detroit Weather: 365 Days, documents the ways in which weather and industry affect one another. Campbell said, “You can…see stacks from the Ford Rouge Plant and Zug Island pumping out emissions and intersecting with weather patterns.”

5. Forces of Nature

Campbell is consistently inspired by the oscillating nature of Detroit’s landscape. “To watch the landscape change quite drastically by plant life has been largely influential throughout most of my time here. That cyclical process of something manmade being reclaimed by nature has been a really powerful influence on my work.”

—Alexa Kasner is the is the spring 2020 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts About #5WomenArtists Changing the World: Guerrilla Girls

Since 1985, the Guerrilla Girls, a collective of anonymous feminist activist artists, have brought widespread attention to the issues of sexism and racism in the art world. By disrupting mainstream culture and media with posters, billboards, publications, social media, public appearances, and exhibitions, this group calls out bias—and advocates for gender equity—in art, film, pop culture, and even politics.

A black and white ad that features an empty left hand side of the page and an all-caps vertical message on the right hand side that says "You're Seeing Less Than Half the Picture." Under that, also in all caps it reads "Without the vision of women artists and artists of color." Below that is Guerrila Girls name in bold caps followed by "Conscience of the Art World."

Guerrilla Girls, You’re seeing less than half the picture… (from the series “Guerrilla Girls Talk Back: The First Five Years, 1985–1990”), 1989; Photolithograph on paper, 17 x 22 in.; NMWA, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay

Share your favorite women artists working for gender equity on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook using the hashtag #5WomenArtists and tagging @WomenInTheArts.

1. The Conscience of the Art World

The Guerrilla Girls address systemic discrimination by “revealing the understory, the subtext, the overlooked, and the downright unfair.” Though members obfuscate their identities by wearing gorilla masks and adopting the names of deceased—and often forgotten—women artists, the collective isn’t shy about shaming specific collectors, critics, museums, galleries, and publications for their problematic practices.

2. Creative Complaining

The group reveals shocking statistics and presents them with sardonic wit and surprising graphics. This strategy shakes audiences out of complacency and encourages action. One famous tactic—the museum “weenie count”—juxtaposes the percentage of female artists whose work is on view with the percentage of nude women, painted by men, on display. Try this revealing exercise during your next museum visit.

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Visitors observe a selection of Guerrilla Girls' posters in NMWA's collection; Photo by Kevin Allen

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Guerrilla Girls, Hormone imbalance. Melanin deficiency. (from the series "Guerrilla Girls Talk Back: Portfolio 2"), 1993; Ink on postcard, 17 x 11 in.; NMWA, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay

horror on natl mall_GG

Guerrilla Girls, Horror on the National Mall!, 2007; Color photolithograph on paper, 23 x 13 in.; NMWA, Gift of Susan Fisher Sterling in honor of Steven Scott; © Guerrilla Girls, Courtesy of www.guerrillagirls.com; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Guerrilla Girls_pop quiz march

Guerrilla Girls, Guerrilla Girls' Pop Quiz (from the series "Guerrilla Girls Talk Back: The First Five Years, 1985–1990), 1987; Photolithograph on paper, 17 x 22 in.; NMWA, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay

3. The Only “ism” Here is Feminism!


By 1989, when the Guerrilla Girls created When Racism And Sexism Are No Longer Fashionable…, NMWA already owned artworks by 34 of the artists named. Today, the museum’s collection features works by more than 1,000 artists, including 46 of those mentioned. Can you find artwork by artists on that list at your favorite museum? If not, ask why!

4. Not OK!

While the Guerrilla Girls initially addressed the lack of diversity in the New York art world, the group’s work has grown to point out inequities throughout the U.S. and abroad. In 2007, the collective collaborated with the Washington Post to admonish “boy crazy” federally funded D.C. arts institutions. The capitol city’s top art museums held very few pieces of art by women, with most of it kept in storage, not on display.

5. Guerrillas in Our Midst

NMWA hosted a special exhibition, The Guerrilla Girls Talk Back, in 2011, featuring a selection of the museum’s 84 works by the collective. Today, several of their works are on view in the thematic collection gallery “Rebels with a Cause”—swing by the museum to see them in person.

—Adrienne L. Gayoso is the senior educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Alice Neel

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Alice Neel (1900–1984), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

1. “Collector of Souls”

Neel preferred to paint the intricacies of the human condition. She called herself a “collector of souls,” as her portraits emote psychological intensity and individuality. “Every person is a new universe unique with its own laws emphasizing some belief or phase of life immersed in time and rapidly passing by,” Neel once said.

2. The Personal is Political

Neel often conveyed the struggles of poverty in her portraits. T.B. Harlem, in NMWA’s collection, depicts Carlos Negrón, the brother of the artist’s then-lover, suffering from tuberculosis. The disease spread easily across the overcrowded neighborhood of Spanish Harlem in New York City where Neel and Negrón lived. Neel’s 1940 portrait functions as a form of social activism with her empathetic portrayal.

Alice Neel, T.B. Harlem, 1940; Oil on canvas, 30 x 30 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © The Estate of Alice Neel/Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York

Alice Neel, T.B. Harlem, 1940; Oil on canvas, 30 x 30 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © The Estate of Alice Neel/Courtesy of David Zwirner, New York

3. Star Struck

Many high-profile people in the New York art world found themselves in Neel’s studio. She painted portraits of Andy Warhol, Frank O’Hara, Robert Smithson, and Linda Nochlin. The vulnerable and humanizing portraits belie the larger-than-life personas of these cultural icons.

4. Favorite Quotes

Neel cultivated her own artistic style. However, she conveys her art historical acumen by visually quoting motifs and themes of earlier artists. To name a few, Negrón’s wound in T.B. Harlem evokes traditional images of the martyred Christ; Mary Cassatt’s family portraits influenced Neel’s representations of mothers with children; and Neel’s 1977 portrait of Mary Garrard resembles Young Sailor by Henri Matisse (1907).

5. Save the Best for Last

In 1980, Neel completed her first self-portrait at the age of 80. Self-Portrait combines three subjects that Neel had previously probed: the nude, the elderly woman, and the artist. She humorously examines taboos of elderly women in the art world by depicting herself as both the female nude and the wise painter.

—Hannah Southern is the fall 2019 publications and communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Louise Dahl-Wolfe

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1895–1989), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe's black and white portrait of Carson McCullers, who poses in a white oxford shirt with her hands above her head, the left clasping a cigarette.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Carson McCullers, 1940; Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler; © 1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

1. Name Game

Louise Emma Augusta Dahl was born in San Francisco to Norwegian immigrant parents who believed it was good luck for a child’s initials to spell out a word. Perhaps that superstition had merit, because their daughter became a LEADing fashion photographer in her lifetime!

2. DIY Determination

A self-taught photographer, Dahl-Wolfe initially wanted to be a painter. A meeting with Anne W. Brigman (1869–1950), famed for her evocative photographs of female nudes in natural landscapes, inspired Dahl-Wolfe’s early experiments with a camera. She even cobbled together her first darkroom enlarger using a tin can, an apple crate, and a reflective Ghirardelli chocolate container.

3. Tennessee Triumph

Best known today for her innovative fashion photography, Dahl-Wolfe enjoyed her earliest professional success with documentary imagery. Living in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, with her husband in the early 1930s, the artist created compelling images of rural life and poverty during the Great Depression. Mrs. Ramsay, Tennessee, her first published photograph, appeared in Vanity Fair in 1933.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe's photo of young actress Lauren Bacall in Helena Rubinstein's Bathroom.

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Lauren Bacall in Helena Rubinstein’s Bathroom, 1943; Gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler; Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe © 1989 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

4. In Living Color

Dahl-Wolfe’s earliest color images for Harper’s Bazaar appeared in 1937, making her one of the first fashion photographers to embrace the newly available Kodachrome film. She also proved among the most skilled practitioners of the medium. The artist credited her formal training in painting, color theory, and design with honing her eye for color and contrast.

5. Star Gazing

During her 22 years at Harper’s Bazaar, Dahl-Wolfe portrayed many young movie stars, including Vivien Leigh and Bette Davis, as well as emerging writers like and Eudora Welty. A 1943 cover by Dahl-Wolfe is credited with helping launch the Hollywood career of 17-year-old model Betty Joan Perske—a.k.a. Lauren Bacall.

—Deborah Gaston is the director of education and interpretation at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Joan Mitchell

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Joan Mitchell (1925–1992), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

1. High Achiever

As a young girl, Mitchell worked tirelessly to win her hard-to-please father’s approval. She was a published poet by age 10, a champion tennis player and diver, and a competitive figure skater. Mitchell was named “Figure Skating Queen of the Midwest” in 1942 and competed in the national championship that year, though she finished a disappointing fourth. After the loss, she vowed to only focus on one thing and do it well: art.

2. Precious Cargo

In 1949 Mitchell married her first husband, Barney Rosset, in Provence, France. The couple decided to make a life in New York and, instead of flying, booked a first-class suite aboard an ocean liner departing from Cannes because they had too much luggage—and too many paintings. Mitchell’s works were taken by rowboat to the ship and then carefully loaded aboard.

Joan Mitchell extended the scope of abstract-expressionist painting by applying it to the subject of nature. Like most of her works, Sale Neige (Dirty Snow) signifies Mitchell’s memories of or feelings for the landscape. The work may be an evocation of childhood memories of her home in Chicago or a reflection upon the feelings of isolation that the winter landscape can intensify.The pale grays, lavender, and cobalt blue in the top half of the canvas blend together to read as a chilly white crust, a sensation reinforced by the painting’s title. The lower half, densely painted with broad strokes of dark blue, purple, green, and black, becomes the landscape under the snow. Cold and snow are frequent subjects within Mitchell’s oeuvre. She remarked: “I think of white as silent absolutely. Snow. Space. Cold. I think of Midwest snow…icy blue shadows.”

Joan Mitchell, Sale Neige, 1980; Oil on canvas, 86 1/4 x 70 7/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © Estate of Joan Mitchell; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

3. Lady Painter

Mitchell sarcastically adopted the moniker “Lady Painter,” knowing that her work was on par with male Abstract Expressionists, but unrecognized by them and the art world at large. She is quoted as saying, “Not bad for a lady painter,” with a smirk while walking through her 1988 retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

4. Hearing Color

In the first full-length biography of the artist, author Patricia Albers revealed that Mitchell had both synesthesia and a photographic memory. But these perceptive talents are not the only things that made Mitchell successful. To think that would, as Albers writes, “disregard her painterly intelligence, her professionalism, her years of training and work.”

5. Women Supporting Women

In 1979, after Mitchell’s relationship with Jean-Paul Riopelle ended, the artist found support in a new friendship with Gisèle Barreau, a French composer. In the years after meeting Barreau, Mitchell’s works are said to be her most radiant. Her Grande Vallée series is based, in part, on a story Barreau told her. During this inspired time, Mitchell also became the first American woman to have an exhibition at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

—Alicia Gregory is the assistant editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. [With research by Brittany Fiocca, summer 2015 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts].