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.

Director’s Desk: Space Explorers

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, we regularly rotate our collection to spark new thematic connections. This is an essential part of our curatorial philosophy. In a six-post series, I will explore the themes featured in our most recent collection installation. Read about our “Family Matters” and “Rebels with a Cause” themes, and stay tuned for more.

Kirsten Justesen's Sculpture #2, a square cardboard box that features, on the top, a photo of the naked artist curled up inside of a box.

Kirsten Justesen, Sculpture #2, 1968/2010, Edition II, 1/5; Painted cardboard box and screened photograph, overall: 20 in x 24 in x 24 in.; Gift of Montana A/S

Spaces, both physical and metaphorical, often have strong gendered associations. Historically, conventional ideas about women’s purportedly delicate sensibilities led them to be regularly restricted to private, interior environments—sites of protection and confinement. Such isolation limited women’s active participation in the exterior, public realm directed by men.

Many women artists evaluate the complex interrelationships of inside/outside and the female body. Employing imagery and materials that frame, envelop, or reflect the body, they reconfigure our assumptions about personal space.

Gallery Highlights:

Body-art pioneer Kirsten Justesen subverts the conventional approach to sculpting the nude female figure. For centuries, artists positioned figurative sculptures atop a plinth in order to provide the viewer a 360-degree view. Justesen’s compelling Sculpture II (2010), a remake of an object she first created in 1968, upends this tradition. The piece comprises an open cardboard box that reveals a photograph of the artist’s own curled body. This image of a woman in a box disrupts the viewer’s voyeuristic perspective and, perhaps, provides commentary on social constraints imposed upon women.

Dutch photographer Hellen van Meene also depicts a woman in a confining situation. In her photograph Untitled (68) (1999), she positioned her model in a domestic space: hidden beneath the cushions of a living room sofa, like a child at play. The pillows envelop the woman, who rests with her eyes closed, and suggest both containment and comfort.

With her back to the viewer, the figure in Alison Saar’s print Mirror, Mirror: Mulatta Seeking Inner Negress II (2014) is also somewhat concealed, her face visible only through her reflection in the frying pan she holds. The figure and the print’s title evoke the fairy tale Snow White, which contains themes of female self-critique and a culturally narrow standard of beauty.

Hellen van Meene, Untitled (68), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 15 3/8 x 15 3/8 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Hellen van Meene, Courtesy of the Artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery

Director’s Desk: Space Explorers

Alison Saar, Mirror Mirror: Mulatta Seeking Inner Negress II, 2014; Woodcut on chind colle, 40 1/2 x 23 1/3 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of Dr. Leslie King-Hammond, Dean Emerita of Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore; © Alison Saar; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Director’s Desk: Space Explorers

Berthe Morisot, The Cage, 1885; Oil on canvas, 19 7/8 x 15 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Director’s Desk: Space Explorers

Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Natalie with Birdcages, 1950; Gelatin silver print 14 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Helen Cumming Ziegler

Although she worked more than a century before these contemporary artists, impressionist Berthe Morisot created a deceptively serene view in her painting The Cage (1885). She applied paint in vigorous strokes on an unprimed canvas to depict a pair of caged love birds. Huddled close together and positioned beside an exuberant vase of flowers, the birds appear diminutive and vulnerable.

Decades later, photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe also used the bird cage. Rejecting studio settings and mannequin-like poses, she brought a formal precision and an irreverent sense of humor to the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar from 1936 to 1958. Natalie with Bird Cages (1950) depicts a woman standing between two bird cages, seemingly at ease and assured—and by no means confined or caged herself.

These and other works in “Space Explorers” showcase how elements of architecture, mirrors, and other objects highlight the physical and psychological nuances of enclosure.

—Susan Fisher Sterling is the Alice West Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Maria Sibylla Merian and Rachel Ruysch: Opportunity and Mobility

Mobility was key for early modern artists—the ability to travel might make an integral difference to network, train, deliver commissions, or expand their subject matter. However, cultural mores in 17th- and 18th-century Europe discouraged women from being mobile, rooting their work to the home and hindering the careers of women artists. Dutch flower painter Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750) and German naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) navigated these limitations in very distinct ways, nurturing long and successful careers despite all odds.

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Rachel Ruysch, Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge, ca. late 1680s; Oil on canvas, 42 1/2 x 33 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Rachel_Ruysch_-_Spray_of_flowers_with_insects_and_butterflies_on_a_marble_slab_-_1690s_-_PD.38-1975

Rachel Ruysch, Spray of Flowers with Insects and Butterflies on a Marble Slab, ca. 1690s; From the Fitzwilliam Museum collection

Expected to tend to domestic matters, women artists were encouraged to paint the natural world—it could be accomplished from home and did not require live models or significant time in the public sphere. These limitations hindered actions toward building successful careers: the ability to travel to study or observe nature firsthand and the ability to market and promote one’s work. Given this, most known women artists in this period were trained by an artist father or husband. Ruysch’s father, Frederik Ruysch, was a natural scientist who excelled at scientific illustration and trained her from an early age. Merian was trained by her stepfather, still life painter Jacob Marrel.

Marriage and childbirth posed great obstacles to women artists’ careers. After marriage, many women artists either stopped working or were absorbed into their husbands’ workshops. In cases where a woman continued to work independently, viewers may wonder if—or how—having children affected her work. Compare Ruysch’s Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies, and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge (ca. late 1680s), with Spray of Flowers with Insects and Butterflies on a Marble Slab (ca. 1690s). The earlier work is large in scale and highly detailed. The later work, which dates from her early motherhood years, is smaller and focuses on a simpler arrangement. Merian published her earliest book, Neues Blumenbuch, in 1875, when her oldest daughter was seven. This book featured only 12 examples of flowers and lacked the specimen diversity and scientific ambition of her later works. Viewers may speculate that motherhood had a direct effect on their works, or that perhaps it was simply one of many factors that contributed to a change in their works.

Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 1 (from "Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/2 x 14 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 11 (from "Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/2 x 14 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 18 (from "Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/4 x 14 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Plate 9 (from _Dissertation in Insect Generations and Met

Maria Sibylla Merian, Plate 9 (from "Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam", second edition), 1719; Hand-colored engraving on paper, 20 1/2 x 14 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Ruysch, a mother of ten, worked primarily from home. Due to her early access to and study of specimens, she was able to show great invention in her flower paintings. Floral subjects were very conducive to the domestic environment and, as a result, she painted prolifically. Her work was highly mobile, even if she was not. Merian, divorced with two children, had greater opportunities for mobility. At the age of 52, she embarked on a dangerous two-year trip to Suriname, in South America, with her youngest daughter to draw and study the indigenous plants and animals firsthand. The resulting illustrated book, Dissertation in Insect Generations and Metamorphosis in Surinam, garnered her international acclaim. On the whole, her work helped revolutionize scientific illustration.

Ruysch and Merian built successful careers in spite of the limitations of motherhood and social expectations, issues that still affect women today. Through family connections, opportunities, and their considerable talent, both artists gained mobility and built groundbreaking artistic paths.

—Katherine Ruckle was the fall 2018 educational intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Director’s Desk: Family Matters

Marisol's The Large Family Group (1957) is framed by Patricia Piccinini's The Stags (2008) in NMWA's Family Matters gallery; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Marisol’s The Large Family Group (1957) is framed by Patricia Piccinini’s The Stags (2008) in NMWA’s Family Matters gallery; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, we regularly rotate our collection to spark new thematic connections. This is an essential part of our curatorial philosophy. In a six-post series, I will explore the themes featured in our current collection installation. Read about our “Rebels with a Cause” theme and stay tuned for more.

When selecting subjects, artists and their patrons often turn to those closest to them: spouses, partners, children, parents, siblings, friends, and pets. Artists from all periods have created tender, naturalistic renderings of loved ones meant to record important moments or emotions. Their imagery sometimes even focuses on other species to represent all living beings that seek companionship and protection.

Historically, images of families created by women artists have tended to be sober and refined, in keeping with the traditional idea that family portraiture is a space for presenting tranquil relationships. Today’s artists examine a broader range of familial experiences, expressively depicting the moments of humor, insecurity, rivalry, and joy that shape family connections.

Gallery Highlights:

Zanele Muholi (b. 1972) is a South African artist and visual activist known for their self-portraits and documentation of LGBTQI lives in South Africa. Their portrait of two women, Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg (2007), expresses a sense of enchantment and happiness, defying the discrimination and violence often directed towards homosexuality in South Africa. By capturing their subjects in moments of intimacy and affection, Muholi emphasizes their humanity.

Alice Neel (1900–1984) depicts her boyfriend’s brother, Carlos Negrón, in T.B. Harlem (1940). Negrón had just moved to Spanish Harlem in New York from his native Puerto Rico. A bandage on his chest covers a wound from a treatment for tuberculosis, which spreads easily in densely populated neighborhoods. The archaic operation removed ribs to ease the effects of the disease. Radiating emotional intensity, Neel’s touching portrait of Negrón alludes to poverty as a social issue without sacrificing her subject’s dignity.

In the center of the room, the large-scale sculpture The Stags (2008), by Patricia Piccinini (b. 1965), presents two motor scooters transformed into futuristic creatures. They spar like male deer in the wild, evidently beyond human control. The Stags uses vehicle parts to evoke animal forms and the intimate relationships among these creatures.

zanele muholi, katlego

Zanele Muholi, Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg, 2007; Chromogenic print, 30 x 30 in.; Museum purchase: The Paul and Emily Singer Family Foundation with additional support from Nancy Nelson Stevenson; © Zanele Muholi; Courtesy of the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town / Johannesburg

alice neel T.B. Harlem

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

Patricia Piccinini the stags

Patricia Piccinini, The Stags, 2008; Fiberglass, automotive paint, leather, steel, plastic, and rubber, 69 3/4 x 72 x 40 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Patricia Piccinini; Photo by Graham Baring

earl of gower Angelica Kauffman

Angelica Kauffman, The Family of the Earl Gower, 1772; Oil on canvas, 59 1/4 x 82 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Angelica Kauffman (1741–1807), one of the most successful portraitists in the eighteenth century, became a sensation in London, captivating society and shaping European visual culture. The Family of the Earl Gower (1772) depicts the British politician Granville Leveson-Gower, his third wife, Lady Susannah, and their children dressed in lyrical costumes and interacting with marble busts, lyres, and period props. Her Neoclassical style communicated the family’s prominence.

Marisol (1930–2016) was one of the most respected and popular artists of the 1960s. Her carved wood sculptures blend Latin American folk art styling with the wit of Dada and Pop Art. The Large Family Group (1957) is one of the artist’s earliest works. It depicts a family with members who extend their arms outward in a welcoming gesture—a gesture that I hope also invites visitors to think about their own associations with the word “family.”

—Susan Fisher Sterling is the Alice West Director of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Marisol (María Sol Escobar)

Impress your friends with five fast facts about artist Marisol (1930–2016), whose work is on view in NMWA’s collection galleries.

Marisol Escobar circa 1963; Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, and the World Telegram & Sun; Photo by Herman Hiller

Marisol Escobar circa 1963; Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, and the World Telegram & Sun; Photo by Herman Hiller

1. Mum’s the Word
Marisol lost her mother to suicide when she was just 11 years old. Deeply affected by this loss, she spent years not speaking unless absolutely necessary. New York Times journalist Grace Glueck referred to these periods as “marathon silences.” Curious to hear Marisol’s elusive, ethereal voice? Listen to this 1968 interview from the Archives of American Art.

2. Welcome Home

The Large Family Group (1957), one of Marisol’s earliest wood sculptures, depicts a family of five standing in close proximity. With outstretched arms, the figures invite viewers into their intimate unit. A new addition to NMWA’s collection, this family previously called the Corcoran Gallery of Art home.

3. See Me?!

Marisol, like Judith Leyster (1609–1660), Frida Kahlo (1907–1954), and Kirsten Justesen (b. 1943), represented her own likeness to explore identity and perhaps to cement herself into history. Check out Self-Portrait (1961–62),  Mi Mama y Yo (1968), and Self-Portrait Looking at the Last Supper (1982–84) three important examples of self-portraiture in the artist’s body of work.

4. Honorable Mention

Marisol is one of 13 women artists represented in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection. Her bronze sculpture of Father Damien (1969), a Catholic priest who served a leper settlement in Hawaii, depicts a stoic man at the end of his life, maimed by very disease that ravaged his community.

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Marisol's Father Damien (1969) statue on display in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the United States Capitol; Photo courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol

The Large Family Group & The Stags

Marisol's The Large Family Group (1957) and Patricia Piccinini's The Stags (2008) on view in NMWA's collection galleries; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

5. Loyal Lady

The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, became first museum to acquire works by Marisol—The Generals (1961–62) in 1962 and Baby Girl (1963) in 1964. This institution held a special place in Marisol’s heart. Upon her death, she expressed her enduring gratitude by bequeathing her estate to the museum.

—Adrienne L. Gayoso is the senior 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.

Images of Conflict: Ambreen Butt and Margaret Bourke-White

Conflict zones have historically been male-dominated spaces, for those participating in war and struggle as well as those documenting the events. Photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White and multimedia artist Ambreen Butt offer alternative perspectives to the field’s predominant male viewpoints. Though their work spans different mediums, times, and regions of the world, the two women are united by their incisive interpretations of conflict.

Margaret Bourke-White, Self Portrait with Camera, ca. 1933; Gelatin silver print; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the collection of Susie Tompkins Buell

Margaret Bourke-White, Self Portrait with Camera, ca. 1933; Gelatin silver print, 13.625 x 9.5 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the collection of Susie Tompkins Buell

Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971) began her career photographing architecture and documenting the poverty of the Dust Bowl as Life magazine’s first female photojournalist. During World War II, she became the first female war correspondent after initially being denied accreditation to accompany U.S. forces overseas. From the frontlines, she produced matter-of-fact photographs that documented Europe’s war-torn cities and the liberation of concentration camp survivors, among other important events.

Bourke-White’s self-confidence and conviction—two qualities necessary for the work she was doing—are evident in her own Self-Portrait (1933). Standing next to her camera, she gazes confidently into the distance. Here she presents herself as the subject: a professional photojournalist. Her wide-legged stance and androgynous clothing convey her defiance at being treated like a “girl,” which she often was during missions. Bourke-White crafts a very specific persona for her audience: a fearless, strong woman whose eye does not flinch at war, death, and destruction.

Differing from Bourke-White’s unflinching photographs are the layered and lyrical depictions of conflict from artist Ambreen Butt (b. 1969). Her mixed-media works are rendered in the tradition of Persian and Indian miniature painting, with collaged shredded text and systemic mark-making that show her contemporary art influences. They explore the relationships between beauty, violence, strength, and vulnerability, as Butt methodically layers images and processes her difficult subject matter. In all of her images, heroines—both historical and contemporary—are redefined through the gaze of a female artist.

In the series “Dirty Pretty” (2008), Butt portrays female Pakistani lawyers protesting the government’s suspension of the country’s Chief Justice in 2007. Instead of looking on as passive bystanders, the women demonstrate alongside their male counterparts as intrepid activists. Butt communicates their sorrow and horror—yet, above all, it is their act of resistance that stands out. Their faces are hand-stitched in a prominent red thread over layers of historical imagery, which appear like apparitions in the background.

Ambreen Butt, The Great Hunt I (from the series “Dirty Pretty”) (detail), 2008; Water-based pigments, white gouache, text, thread, and gold leaf on layers of mylar and tea stained paper, 45 x 30 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Massachusetts State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Ambreen Butt; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Ambreen Butt, The Great Hunt I (from the series “Dirty Pretty”) (detail), 2008; Water-based pigments, white gouache, text, thread, and gold leaf on layers of mylar and tea stained paper, 45 x 30 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Massachusetts State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Ambreen Butt; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

“My protagonist is not an idealized character; she is a mirror in which a million women see their faces,” Butt has said. This universality is also seen in Bourke-White’s work—her photographs and writings offer her perspective as a woman in a male-dominated society and profession, helping other women to see themselves and their own potential. Butt’s works center around heroines, while Bourke-White becomes a heroine herself. Ultimately, in both of their works, women are portrayed as active witnesses—they claim agency, and they make their marks on society.

Ambreen Butt: Mark My Words was on view at NMWA from December 7, 2018–April 14, 2019.

—Louisa Potthast is the winter/spring 2019 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Allons-y! Exploring Francophone Sculpture in NMWA’s Collection

On Saturday, April 6, NMWA held its first-ever Language Immersion Conversation Piece. Based on the same framework as daily 30-minute discussion-based experiences, visitors from the Young Women’s Francophone Meetup Group explored the collection galleries to learn more about Francophone women artists while practicing their French. Together, the group found common threads among three sculptures on view in the collection: Après la tempête (After the Storm) (ca. 1876) by Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), Pregnant Nana (1993) by Niki de Saint Phalle (1930–2002), and Spider III (1995) by Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010). While these pieces differ greatly in style, they’re tied together by a common theme—the artists’ depiction of maternal love.

Sarah Bernhardt, Après la tempête (After the Storm), ca. 1876; White marble, 29 1/2 x 24 x 23 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Sarah Bernhardt, Après la tempête (After the Storm), ca. 1876; White marble, 29 1/2 x 24 x 23 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Viewing the first sculpture, Après la tempête, the group took a few moments to look closely at minute details. They noticed the contrast between the smooth skin of the young boy and the rough, wrinkled face of his grandmother, as well as the careful carving of the fishing net draped between the figures. Despite the somber tone of the piece, some visitors discussed the grandmother’s strength as she cradles her dying grandson. Others noted the possibility of a hopeful ending to the otherwise tragic scene, suggested by the power with which the young boy grasps his grandmother’s robes.

Following this solemn piece, visitors explored the uplifting themes in Saint Phalle’s Pregnant Nana. The group noted the vibrancy of this piece in comparison to the first—the bright patterns of color adorning the breasts, stomach, and buttocks of the figure drew their attention to these stereotypically feminine parts of her form. They also discussed the meaning of the title, and learned that nana is actually a slang term for “chick” or “broad” in French. The figure’s celebratory, carefree pose, combined with an informal title, speak to the joy of motherhood, rather than the pain that Bernhardt depicts in the first sculpture.

The last thematic piece immediately stood out from the others, and the group questioned what Bourgeois’s Spider III had to do with the concept of motherhood. Some mentioned Charlotte’s Web as a possible connection, and learned that Bourgeois associated spiders with her own mother due to their fierce protectiveness and ingenuity. The abstract portrayal of motherhood in this work urged the group to think outside the box when it comes to what maternal love can look like, and also provided the opportunity to learn a new word—tisserand—meaning “weaver” in French.

Louise Bourgeois, Spider III, 1995; Bronze, 19 x 33 x 33 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; Photo by Emily Haight

Louise Bourgeois, Spider III, 1995; Bronze, 19 x 33 x 33 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; Art © The Easton Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY; Photo by Emily Haight

Discussing these sculptures in French prompted an engaging conversation about the significance and cultural context of the artwork. This Language Immersion Conversation Piece offered visitors the opportunity to practice speaking a second language, and also provided a platform for creating new dialogues between works by Francophone women artists.

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

Director’s Desk: Rebels with a Cause

At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, we regularly rotate our collection to spark new thematic connections. This is an essential part of our curatorial philosophy. In a six-post series, I will explore the themes featured in our most recent collection installation.

Eight diverse women museum visitors are scattered throughout the NMWA collection galleries browsing the art on the walls.

NMWA visitors browse the newly reinstalled collection galleries; Photo by Kevin Allen

Throughout Western art history, women artists have distinguished themselves by persistently and successfully working within a system that has tried to suppress them and/or devalue their efforts. Not to be dismissed, they charted their own courses, petitioned for admittance to all-male art schools and artists’ organizations, and developed their own networks.

Beginning in the 20th century, many women artists boldly engaged with social issues and embraced their roles as advocates. These visionaries demonstrate that revolution comes in many forms, and their voices are alternately gracious, shrewd, fierce, and funny. In our “Rebels with a Cause” gallery, these artists—and often the individuals they portray—demonstrate that women have blazed trails and propelled change for centuries.

Gallery Highlights:

Born in 1552, Italian Renaissance painter Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614) is regarded as the first professional woman artist in Western Europe. Not only did she work within the same sphere as her male counterparts, but her husband gave up his artistic ambitions to manage her career and their household. Through eleven pregnancies, Fontana produced vibrant, detailed works, and eventually became a portraitist at the courts of several popes in Rome.

What If Women Ruled the World (2016), the six-foot neon sculpture by Yael Bartana (b. 1970), raises questions around gender equity, national identity, and the fate of humanity. The piece is inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, in which a select group of powerful white men assemble to discuss options for survival in the face of an accidental nuclear Armageddon. Bartana’s piece proposes and proclaims a more peaceful alternative to this vision.

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Lavinia Fontana, Portrait of a Noblewoman, ca. 1580; Oil on canvas, 45 1/4 x 35 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay; Funding for the frame generously provided by the Texas State Committee; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Yael Bartana, What if Women Ruled the World, 2016; Neon, 98 1/2 x 38 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase, Belinda de Gaudemar Acquisition Fund, with additional support from the Members’ Acquisition Fund; © Yael Bartana; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Yael Bartana, What if Women Ruled the World, 2016; Neon, 98 1/2 x 38 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase, Belinda de Gaudemar Acquisition Fund, with additional support from the Members’ Acquisition Fund; © Yael Bartana; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

sherald_amy-redbone_strawberry_shortcake

Amy Sherald, They call me Redbone but I’d rather be Strawberry Shortcake, 2009; Oil on canvas, 54 x 43 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the 25th Anniversary of NMWA; © Amy Sherald

sherald_amy-redbone_strawberry_shortcake

Guerrilla Girls, Do women Have to Be Naked update (from the series "Guerrilla Girls Talk Back: Portfolio 2"), 2005; Lithographic poster, 12 x 14 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; © Guerrilla Girls, Courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com

Amy Sherald (b. 1973) reworks the traditional portrait format to reimagine the African American experience and challenge concepts of racial identity. Sherald’s haunting figures are expressionless and dressed in playful, costume-style clothing. In all of her works, including our painting They Call Me Redbone but I’d Rather be Strawberry Shortcake (2009), Sherald paints her subjects in grayscale, metaphorically removing their skin color and helping viewers imagine a world without restrictive stereotypes.

No discussion of “Rebels with a Cause” would be complete without the Guerrilla Girls, a group of famous—but anonymous—activist-artists who began wearing gorilla masks to call out sexism and racism in the art world of the 1980s. Several of their broadsides are on view at NMWA, including the well-known poster Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? (2005). Fortunately, as this and other works in this new themed gallery illustrate, women artists have found other ways to get their work noticed and their talent and ideas across.

—Susan Fisher Sterling is the Alice West Director of 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.