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 Gatson 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].

5 Fast Facts: Niki de Saint Phalle

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002), whose work Pregnant Nana (1993) is on view in NMWA’s newly reinstalled collection galleries.

1. Art Therapy

A self-taught artist who had previously studied theater, Saint Phalle turned to painting after being hospitalized for a mental breakdown in 1953. Shortly after being discharged, she decided to abandon acting to pursue art more seriously.

Nikie de Saint Phalle - Pregnant Nana

Niki de Saint Phalle, Pregnant Nana, 1993; Carved and painted marble, 31 in. high; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift from the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Gift of Jeffrey H. Loria); Artwork © Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

2. With a Bang

While experimenting with materials, Saint Phalle created “Shooting Paintings.” She embedded hidden paint pouches in large assemblages under plaster. Shooting these works with rifles and pistols—and even cannons—caused explosions of color that completed each piece.

3. The Every(wo)man

In 1965, Saint Phalle started creating “Nanas,” abstract sculptures of women in varying poses, colors, and sizes. While nana means “chick” or “dame” in French, the artist viewed these works as modern archetypal figures of “Every(wo)man.”

4. Larger than Life

Saint Phalle opened her most famous exhibition, Hon—en katedral (She—A Cathedral), in 1966 at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. The interactive installation consisted of massive, reclined construction of a Nana, which visitors could enter through her open legs. Inside, visitors found a milk bar, aquarium, small theater, a kids’ slide, and other hidden surprises.

5. Artist/Activist

While many of her works are playful, Saint Phalle also tackled serious sociopolitical issues. Pieces like AIDS, You Can’t Catch it Holding Hands (1986), Guns (2001), and Daddy (1972) respectively deal with the AIDS crisis, gun violence, and sexual assault/abuse.

—Erin Allen was the winter/spring 2019 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Judy Chicago

A portrait of Judy Chicago in 2019; the artist is wearing a blue sequined shirt and jeans, purple short hair, and has her hands on her hips, the background is a tree.

Judy Chicago in 2019; Photo by Donald Woodman

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Judy Chicago (b. 1939), who will celebrate her 80th birthday on July 20. Chicago’s newest body of work, The End: A Meditation on Death and Extinction, will debut at NMWA on September 19 and run through January 20, 2020.

 What’s in a Name?

In 1970, Chicago changed her last name to identify herself as an independent woman, rather than one defined by her father (she was born Judy Cohen) or husband (she took the name Gerowitz on marriage, then was widowed at a young age). Her new moniker was originally a nickname she earned for her strong accent.

Ladies First

Chicago developed the Feminist Art Program at California State University at Fresno in 1970—it was the first program of its kind in the United States. After she and Miriam Schapiro (1923–2015) moved the program to the California Institute of the Arts, they led 21 students in developing Womanhouse (1971).

Her Story

Under Chicago’s direction, more than 400 people contributed to The Dinner Party (1974–9). The final installation features a triangular dining table, 39 place settings representing extraordinary historical women, and an additional 999 named on the Heritage Floor.

In this black and white photo, Judy Chicago addresses a gathering of volunteers in the Dinner Party studio, ca. 1978.

Judy Chicago addresses a gathering of volunteers in The Dinner Party studio, ca. 1978; Photograph by Amy Meadow; Judy Chicago Visual Archive, Betty Boyd Dettre Library & Research Center, National Museum of Women in the Arts

Cat Lady

For four and a half years, Chicago researched the history, physiology, and psychology of cats while rendering her own family of felines in watercolor. In Kitty City: A Feline Book of Hours, Chicago’s illustrations portray each hour of a day and are interspersed with “Feline Facts.”

In Her Own Words

Interested in more than five facts? Chicago is also the author of several books, including two autobiographies: Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist and Beyond the Flower: The Autobiography of a Feminist Artist.

—Ashley Harris is the associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Mildred Thompson

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Mildred Thompson (1936–2003), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

1. Citizen of the World

After graduating from Washington, D.C.’s Howard University in 1957, Thompson spent most of the 1960s and ’70s in Germany to escape the discrimination she faced in the United States, but she never forgot her roots. “I don’t really consider anyplace home…But when I’m asked where I’m from, I’m always from Jacksonville, [Florida].”

2. Taking Chances

In 1979, while living in Washington, D.C., Thompson met a French filmmaker and joined the crew as a photographer. They traveled to Paris, which remained her home base until she returned to the U.S. in 1985. She lived briefly in Los Angeles before settling in Atlanta for the rest of her life.

Mildred Thompson artist photo

Mildred Thompson; Photo courtesy of the Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, GA

magnetic fields

Mildred Thompson, Magnetic Fields, 1990; Oil on canvas, 62 x 48 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Georgia Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Georgia Committee and the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © The Mildred Thompson Estate; Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

wood picture

Mildred Thompson, Untitled (Wood Picture), ca. 1970s; Wood, 42 x 36 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Camille Ann Brewer in honor and memory of Mildred Thompson; © The Mildred Thompson Estate; Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

3. Hopelessly Devoted

In the middle of her career, Thompson decided to produce only abstract art—in paintings, sculptures, or prints—going forward. Her dedication to abstraction and her choice not to reference politics, violence, or the Black experience challenged expectations of African American artists at the time.

4. Color-centric

Thompson did not sketch or pre-plan her works. However, she did select palettes that would run throughout a series. As she once said, “Magnetic fields are yellow. Radiation is blue.

5. It’s About Time

In 2017, 14 years after the artist’s death, Galerie Lelong & Co. of New York announced their representation of Thompson’s estate. This marks her first formal relationship with a gallery.

—Ashley Harris is the associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses

As part of NMWA’s #5WomenArtists campaign, impress your friends with five fast facts about Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses (1860–1961), whose work is part of NMWA’s collection.

Grandma Moses pictured in a 1953 edition of the New York World-Telegram and Sun newspaper

Grandma Moses pictured in a 1953 edition of the New York World-Telegram and Sun newspaper; Photo by newspaper staff photographer Roger Higgins. [Public domain]

1. Make it Work

As a self-taught artist working in rural New York, Moses lacked access to high-quality art materials in the early part of her career. Without any small brushes, she used matches and pins to paint details such as eyes and mouths.

2. What’s in a Name?

When Moses first began exhibiting her work, she was simply referred to as Mrs. Moses. An art critic noted in a 1940 New York Herald Tribune review that her neighbors called her Grandma Moses, and the name stuck. Moses had nine grandchildren and over thirty great-grandchildren.

3. Winter Wonderland

In many of her winter landscape paintings, Moses sprinkled glitter over the snow. Though some critics called her amateurish for using a nontraditional material, she refused to stop, as she thought glitter captured the appearance of snow shimmering in sunlight.

4. Moses Mania

Moses’s nostalgic depictions of rural America were widely reproduced. Her paintings were licensed by Hallmark, which sold 16 million greeting cards featuring her paintings in 1947 alone. One could buy fabric and plates printed with images of her paintings, and even a record called “The Grandma Moses Suite.”

A painting of a scenic rural landscape

Grandma Moses, Calhoun, 1955; Oil on pressed wood, 16 x 24 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; © Grandma Moses Properties

5. Telling Her Story

Moses published her autobiography My Life’s History in 1952 at 92 years old. In one chapter, she expressed her distaste for the restrictions placed on her because of her gender, writing, “Many a time I had to rock the cradle; I liked it, but I had rather been outdoors with my brothers.”

—Allison Burns was the summer 2018 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Magdalena Abakanowicz

As part of NMWA’s #5WomenArtists campaign, impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017), whose work is part of NMWA’s collection.

A large red, circular, sculpture of textured cloth hangs from the ceiling of a gallery.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Abakan Red, 1969, pictured in NMWA’s 2007 WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibition; sisal weaving on metal support; Collection of the Museum Bellerive, Zurich

1. The Horrors of War

When she was only nine years old, Abakanowicz’s beloved surroundings in Poland became a war zone under Nazi occupation during World War II. She witnessed her mother being shot in the arm by German soldiers. Throughout her career, she would be driven by a universal truth: “Humans could accomplish so much while also being responsible for their own fall.”

2. Breakthrough

After starting her career as a painter in the 1950s, Abakanowicz moved on to textiles, winning the Grand Prix of the São Paulo Biennial in 1965 for her first major body of work, Abakans (ca. 1960s)—large-scale, three-dimensional, soft sculptures. Using her memories of nature and war, Abakanowicz astonished her audiences with these “complicated, huge, magical forms.”

3. One with Nature

Natural elements, miniature and massive, inspired Abakanowicz. While making the gouache Fish (1955–56), she recalls being “provoked by an inexplicable inner process, a force only apparently understood.” Works like Bois-le-Duc (1970–71) evoke monumental tree trunks and may reflect her whimsical inquisitiveness as a youth exploring Polish forests.

4. Humanizing War

Continually influenced by the effects of war, Abakanowicz began scaling her work down to human proportions. In 4 Seated Figures (2002), part of NMWA’s collection, a row of androgynous figures appear hollow, exposed, and fragmented. Using rough burlap to portray a worn exterior, she evokes the vulnerability of victims of war.

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Burlap, resin, and iron rods, 53 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 99 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Magdalena Abakanowicz

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Burlap, resin, and iron rods, 53 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 99 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Magdalena Abakanowicz

5. Public Art 

NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project, a public art space featuring contemporary works by women artists, featured Abakanowicz’s figurative sculptures from September 2014 to September 2015. Her work Agora (2004–2006), an installation of 106 headless and armless iron sculptures, is on permanent loan in Chicago’s Grant Park from the Polish Ministry of Culture.

—Olivia Lussi was the fall 2016 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and Adrienne L. Gayoso is the senior educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (b.1940), whose work Indian, Indio, Indigenous (1992) is on view in NMWA’s newly reinstalled collection galleries.

1. Cultural Arts Worker

Smith describes herself as a “cultural arts worker” and uses her art to raise awareness of the maltreatment of the Native American community, both historically and today. She uses a combination of traditional tribal motifs and contemporary symbols to call attention to issues regarding human rights, consumerism, and the environment.

A large-scale collage including striped and polka-dotted fabrics; the masthead of Smith's reservation newspaper, Char-Koosta; parts of a U.S. map; and a comic strip. These collaged elements are juxtaposed with blocks of stained or roughly brushed and dripped paint.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Indian, Indio, Indigenous, 1992; Oil and collage on canvas, 60 x 100 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund; © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

2. Power in Numbers

Since the 1970s, Smith has curated exhibitions highlighting Native women artists to counteract art world gender imbalance. She recalled that “one woman… laid [an exhibition] catalog against her cheek and cried, she had no idea there were so many Native women artists out there and she no longer felt alone.”

A painted image of a bird with some stick figure faces drawn in the background, the words "Batteries Not Included" are typewritten vertically on the left side. The colors are terracotta neutrals -- brown, tan, red, and orange, with a bit of blue on the bird.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Four Directions, 1994; Lithograph with linocut collage, 48 1/4 x 34 x 1 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Anastasia Pfarr; © Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

3. Going Green

Smith has described her work as “Nomad Art,” which embodies the ideals of Nomadic life: take only what you need from the earth and respect the materials that you use. Many of her artworks include biodegradable materials like rice glue, charcoal, and rag paper.

4. Horse Power

Horses are a common motif in Smith’s works. This imagery was influenced by her father’s role as a horse trader and rodeo rider in the Pacific Northwest and California. Horses run through Smith’s works such as Trick Rider (1999) and War Horse in Babylon (2005).

5. Pioneering Change

As one of the first Native women to be recognized as a renowned modern and contemporary artist, Smith has stated that “[Her] generation is the first to break the ‘buckskin ceiling.’”

—Erin Allen is the winter/spring 2019 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Laure Tixier

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Laure Tixier (b. 1972). Tixier’s Plaid Houses (Maquettes) (2005–11), currently on view in NMWA’s collection galleries, explore a range of architectural styles in a rainbow of colors, referencing the variety, beauty, and complexities of the built environment.

1. Earliest Green Architecture

White Hut and Brown Usha Hut recall modest, vernacular architecture from around the world. Historically, huts were constructed of natural materials like animal skin, wool, grass, earth, and wood. Yurts or gers, a type of portable hut, have been common dwellings for nomadic Central Asians for centuries.

A row of multi-colored felt houses of different styles.

Laure Tixier, Plaid Houses (Maquettes): Blue Japan House, Blue Art Deco House, Red Deconstructivist House, White Hut, Acid Green Dome House, Brown Usha Hut, Pink Tower, Turquoise Blue Colonial House (Barbados), Orange Breton House, 2005–11; Wool, felt, and thread, dimensions variable; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Les Amis du NMWA, Paris, France; © Laure Tixier

2. Sunny Side

Orange Breton House is a nod to chaumières (thatched cottages) in Brittany, France’s northwest coastal region. Characteristics of these traditional dwellings include walls of local stone like granite, schist, or sandstone; steep gabled roofs covered with dry vegetation; and siting facing south to make the most of daily sunlight.

3. Streamlined Structure

Blue Art Deco House celebrates the first truly international architectural movement. Born in Europe in the early 20th century and introduced worldwide at the 1925 Paris International Exhibition, Art Deco is a simple, symmetrical style that boasts clean lines and the innovative use of manufactured materials like plastic and concrete.

4. Disjointed Diva

Tixier’s red asymmetrical house reflects Deconstructivism, a postmodern architectural style that emerged in the 1980s. It often incorporates organic shapes, acute and obtuse angles, and irregular surface areas to impart a sense of chaos. Practitioners include Zaha Hadid (1950–2016), the first woman to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize (2004).

 A young girl with her blond hair in a ponytail, wearing a purple shirt, and holding a NMA visitor's guide, looks excitedly at Laure Tixier's Plaid Houses (Maquettes). Her mother stands behind her also enjoying the work.

A young NMWA visitor experiences Laure Tixier’s Plaid Houses (Maquettes) (2005–11) during the 2019 Women’s March on Washington Free Community Day; Photo by Kevin Allen

5. Imperialist Edifice

Turquois Blue Colonial House (Barbados) reminds viewers of colonialism’s long-term impact on culture, community members’ self-determination, and commodities. A British colony from 1625 to 1966, Barbados reflects prevailing architectural styles from England. This form resembles the Jacobean St. Nicholas Abbey, built as a sugarcane plantation house in 1658.

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