Women in the Arts: [Citation Needed]

The gender gap in the arts is narrowing, yet women continue to only make up around 25% of solo gallery shows, and in 30 years of prizes, a woman has only won the Turner Prize six times.

Editors at work at the Wikipedia Edit-a-thon; Photograph by Kat Brewster

Editors at work at the Wikipedia Edit-a-thon; Photograph by Kat Brewster

Consider Wikipedia: It is often the first resource for any high-school or college research paper, any quibble about who starred in what movie, or, for that matter, any question asked of the internet. With almost 5 million English-language articles and growing (there is even a Wikipedia article that attempts to calculate the size and growing rate of Wikipedia), Wikipedia is a dominant digital source for human knowledge.

Then, consider the fact that Wikipedia reports that only 8.5% of its editors identify as female. With that lack of female voices contributing to the seventh most visited website on the entire internet, there’s going to be a worrying lack of representation. Couple the online gender disparity with the one found in the arts, and we’ve got a problem.

It’s possible that with the historic underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, some women feel that they lack the skills or confidence to contribute online. Recent events and longstanding dynamics—from Gamergate to any YouTube comment thread—may mean that women don’t feel safe creating content. But it doesn’t take a woman to write about a woman, so what explains the lack of female artists on Wikipedia? And if people aren’t writing about women artists, what’s the likelihood they’re learning about women artists? What are the consequences?

On March 8, International Women’s Day, the National Museum of Women in the Arts held a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon to combat the gender disparities on the internet and in Wikipedia arts representation. The aim was to create, edit, and expand Wikipedia entries about female artists, as well as give women the skills to continue to contribute. With my friend Kim, my laptop, a cup of coffee, and a book about women in the arts (thanks, Library and Research Center!) I was more than ready to participate.

Photograph by Laura Hoffman

Photograph by Laura Hoffman

First, Wikipedia’s editing system is a little tricky to learn. I had worked with HTML in the past, but Wikipedia is its own beast. Thankfully, we were given a quick tutorial and a cheat sheet, so once I started with smaller editing commands for an hour or so, I felt confident diving into articles.

Here’s something I hadn’t anticipated: Wikipedia was always my go-to for reading about people (Millennial alert), which meant I couldn’t use it as a reference tool for quick facts. I hadn’t even realized my own dependency on Wikipedia until this moment, and it made it all the more important for me to add some content. So, I opened a book and started editing.

When I resurfaced hours later, I had contributed bits and pieces to articles about Cady Noland, A. L. Steiner, and Sophie Calle. These edits were small—largely adding citations, moving content, or adding to help with flow or cohesiveness—but I was surprisingly gratified to know that I had contributed to someone else’s knowledge of these artists. As a whole, Art+Feminism’s 2015 Wikipedia Edit-a-thon added 334 new articles to Wikipedia about female artists and, more importantly, gave me the confidence to continue contributing to Wikipedia in the future.

—Kat Brewster is a development events intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Recent library acquisitions: Bookplates by Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová

Museum visitors may remember the recent exhibition in NMWA’s Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center featuring wordless novels by the first woman graphic novelist, Czech artist Helena Bochořáková-Dittrichová. Her bold black-and-white woodcuts visually narrate her life experiences, religion, and history.


Shortly after the show closed, the library obtained a 1925 limited-edition portfolio of copperplate and woodcut bookplates that the artist personally designed for others. Although not complete—the library’s copy is missing two bookplates—the 13 prints nonetheless represent a likely commercial activity for the artist, a means of making a living. Additionally, the copperplate prints reveal her talent and skill with drawing, a very different medium from woodcuts. These works contrast nicely with the accomplished graphic work evident in her woodcuts. Much like her wordless novels and illustrated stories, her bookplates focus on quiet domestic scenes. Many feature a person reading in a library or in a pastoral setting.

Venice, Ex libris Ant. a Otmar Špička; Drypoint copperplate engraving (left), and Student, Ex libris Ant. a Otmar Špička; Drypoint copperplate engraving (right)

Venice, Ex libris Ant. a Otmar Špička; Drypoint copperplate engraving (left), and Student, Ex libris Ant. a Otmar Špička; Drypoint copperplate engraving (right)

Bookplates commonly contained the Latin words ex libris, which translates from Latin as “from the books of” or “from the library of.” These consist of labels that bear the name of a book owner and are pasted inside the front covers (endpapers) of books as an expression of ownership. This tradition became popular after printed books in the mid-15th century created a need for owners to distinguish between multiple copies of the same book. In the late 19th and early 20th century, collecting reached its peak as people began to view bookplates as miniature works of art. They were valued as much for the artwork as for what the plates portrayed about the book owners.

In Europe, wood and copper engravings, etchings, and serigraphs were popular among designers.  Eastern European artists produced especially distinctive book plate designs due to the region’s rich tradition of graphic arts, artistic experimentation, and dramatic social upheaval. The independence of Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s homeland, Czechoslovakia, after nearly 400 years of Austro-Hungarian rule, inspired artists and writers to create a national image influenced by Expressionist, Surrealist, Constructivist, Art Nouveau, Futurist, and Art Deco movements popular throughout Europe during that time.

Books for Young People, Ex libris Mor.zem. ústavu nevidomých v Brne; Woodcut engraving (left), and Birthplace, Ex libris Anka Součková; Woodcut engraving (right)

Books for Young People, Ex libris Mor.zem. ústavu nevidomých v Brne; Woodcut engraving (left), and Birthplace, Ex libris Anka Součková; Woodcut engraving (right)

Despite these trends, Bochořáková-Dittrichová’s work, at least in the material that the library currently owns, seems to focus on domestic scenes, life stories, religion, and history from abroad. Did she deliberately avoid creating darker works that expressed oppression and nationalistic ambitions? As the library continues to collect material on and by this important graphic artist, it will be interesting to find out.

All are welcome to look at these beautiful bookplates and the other materials by Bochořáková-Dittrichová. If you’re touring the museum, the library makes a great starting point on the 4th floor. Interesting exhibitions feature archival manuscripts, personal papers by women artists, rare books, and artist’s books. Reference Desk staff are always happy to answer questions and offer assistance. Open to the public weekdays 10 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1 p.m.–5 p.m.   

—Jennifer Page is the Library Assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Behind the Scenes in the Registrar’s Office: Crates, Notes, and Dust Motes

Visitors to the National Museum of Women in the Arts have no doubt seen Anne Vallayer-Coster’s majestic portrait of Madame de Saint-Huberty in the Role of Dido, which currently hangs on the east wall of the mezzanine level. However, many do not understand the behind-the-scenes work involved in the preservation of this grand painting. While interning in the office of the registrar this summer, I learned about the various ways in which the office safeguards and organizes nearly 5,000 works in the collection.

Cleaning-Madame-de-Saint-Huberty_webBelieve it or not, dusting is one of the most important preventive measures undertaken by the registrars. Dust hardens like cement, so these pesky particles can actually damage objects if ignored for too long. On one afternoon, I learned how to gently remove the dust that had accumulated within the intricate floral frame surrounding Madame de Saint-Huberty in the Role of Dido. With slow and careful strokes, I brushed the dust of the small crevices, guiding it into the hose of a special low-suction HEPA vacuum positioned a safe distance from the surface of the painting. My brush never actually touched the surface of the paint, though. You may notice that many works are framed with a layer of glass in front, which shields the art from damaging debris. Even small measures like these can ensure a work’s long-term safety.

The registrars also carefully control the environment of the museum, for changes in temperature and humidity can have harmful effects on art. While we removed Madame de Saint-Huberty and other works for routine cleaning, the museum’s chief preparator improved the insulation inside the walls of the gallery space, guaranteeing that the paintings would be in a more protective environment. In fact, a temperature-controlled storage vault houses the majority of the museum’s collection inside massive crates, ceiling-high filing systems, and cocoons of bubble wrap. Only three percent of the collection’s 4,800 works are actually on display!

After routine care, Anne Vallayer-Coster's painting was returned to its place on the gallery wall for visitors to enjoy; Photo Daniel Schwartz

After routine care, Anne Vallayer-Coster’s painting was returned to its place on the gallery wall for visitors to enjoy; Photo Daniel Schwartz

While working within the maze of art storage, I began to realize that keeping accurate records is equally as important as ensuring the physical safety of the collection. After all, how could we study a sculpture without knowing the basic information about it, or even where to locate it? For the past year, the office of the registrar has been working on a collections inventory to ensure the intellectual safety of the objects. Throughout the summer, I helped photograph, measure, and document hundreds of works on paper, knowing that all of this information would allow future scholars to better understand them.

Working behind the scenes these past few months has given me a greater appreciation for the importance of safeguarding the physical and intellectual well-being of the art. After all, without preservation, education would not be possible. Visitors walk through NMWA’s gallery spaces because they want to learn about the groundbreaking accomplishments of women artists. The dedicated efforts of registrars and collections managers ensure that this experience may happen.

—Amy Root was a summer 2014 intern in the registrar’s office at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Click here to learn more about interning at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Behind-the-Scenes: NMWA Joins the Google Art Project

We were so excited about our March 8 launch on the Google Art Project! A great deal of work went into posting the 59 artworks from NMWA’s collection and the virtual museum tour (and it was a great way to celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month!). Here is an insider’s glimpse of the process along with some behind-the-scenes pictures:

Photography of NMWA’s Collection:


Photographer Lee Stalsworth shooting NMWA’s collection; Photo credits: Laura Hoffman

For the Google Art Project, we photographed the selected artworks in extremely high resolution, since a unique facet of the project is its capability to showcase artworks online so that viewers are able to zoom in on hard-to-see details. While our preparator carefully unframed the pieces, art photographer Lee Stalsworth went to great lengths to capture the artworks perfectly, including using a new, state-of-the-art camera, testing the light and color balance with meters, and adjusting the photography environment with light reflectors.

Gigapixel Photo-shoot:


Google team captures “gigapixel” image (left), artwork detail (right); Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Google photographed one of the artworks, Rachel Ruysch’s Roses, Convolvulus, Poppies, and Other Flowers in an Urn on a Stone Ledge (ca. 1680s), using “gigapixel” photo-capturing technology. The image contains around 7 billion pixels, enabling users to become immersed in the artwork’s details, even those that are invisible to the naked eye. Even the smallest movements, vibrations, or light can throw off the complicated process of capturing the “gigapixel” photograph. Zoom in for yourself on the artwork to find all the insects, flora, and grains of pollen!

Museum View Virtual Tour:


Google team moving through the museum with the “trolley;” Photo credits: Laura Hoffman

NMWA staff also worked with a team at Google to create a virtual tour of the museum, called the Museum View. This feature allows people to explore our galleries online, select artworks that interest them, click to discover more, and dive into high-resolution images, where available. Google’s specially-designed Street View “trolley” took 360-degree images of selected galleries, which were then digitally stitched together to create smooth navigation within the museum.

We hope you enjoy our work in the Google Art Project—stay tuned as we add more artworks and galleries to the Google Art Project in the future!

—Laura Hoffman is the digital media specialist at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Louise Moillon: Still Lifes and Saint-Germain (Part 2 of 2)

Click here for Part 1 of 2!

Louise Moillon’s work became known to the public in 1629 when her stepfather, François Garnier, was invited to exhibit his work in Grenoble. Betraying her professional ambitions, Louise begged her stepfather to display one of her paintings alongside his. Garnier balked, but Moillon’s mother interceded on her daughter’s behalf, insisting that one painting depicting a bowl of peaches be shown in Grenoble. To Garnier’s shock, the painting sold immediately, and Moillon’s artistic star rose from then on. She produced more paintings, began selling them commercially, and earned a reputation as a talented, precise artist. Although the exact number of her paintings is unknown, she was prolific: an inventory of Moillon’s mother’s possessions at the time of her death in 1630 shows 13 paintings in her mother’s collection alone, when Louise was just 20 years old.

Louise Moillon, Cup of Cherries and Melon, 1633; Louvre Museum

Louise Moillon, Cup of Cherries and Melon, 1633; Louvre Museum

Moillon’s preferred medium was oil paint, usually on small wooden panels. However, she began working on a larger scale in the 1630s, incorporating human figures into her work. Having never received formal artistic training, Moillon became the pupil of Abraham Bosse (1604–1676), an artist and instructor at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Curiously, Bosse’s depictions of men and women have been characterized as stiff and awkward; a quick glance at many of Moillon’s still-lifes incorporating human figures—usually sturdy, strong women hauling baskets of fruit, like those seen in At the Market Stall, n.d.—suggests that Moillon’s portrayals were similarly rigid. This is perhaps also because, as a woman artist, she lacked access to live models. Nevertheless, Moillon successfully included depictions of people in her still-lifes without sacrificing the genre: the fruits and vegetables always take center stage as the subject of the paintings, with human figures of secondary visual interest.

Unlike many of her still-life predecessors, Moillon’s paintings do not appear to hint at the eventual decay of the fruit depicted. Prevalent in Dutch and Flemish painting, this expected subtlety lent moral undertones hinting at the fleeting nature of life. Such a technique was considered a viable alternative for Protestant artists to incorporate messages of morality, since they eschewed the overt, figural religious art commissioned for the Catholic Church. Moillon’s apparent lack of moral and metaphorical intent suggests that she abandoned this Protestant tradition in order to appeal to a largely Catholic French clientele, or, alternatively, that as a patriotic French woman grateful for religious freedom and aware of widespread religious persecutions, she wanted to produce paintings free from the trappings of religion. Moillon’s paintings appear soundly secular, intended to adorn homes and chateaux with naturalistic portrayals of nature.

Louise Moillon, A Market Stall, ca. 1630; NMWA Collection; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Louise Moillon, A Market Stall, ca. 1630; NMWA Collection; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Unthinkably for a woman of her time, Moillon became an artistic sensation in France, earning the support of prestigious clients at home and abroad. It is believed that King Louis XIII (1601–1643), upon hearing of Moillon’s popularity and her Grenoble peach painting, commissioned a painting depicting fruit and a candelabrum arranged on a table. Another royal to possess works by Moillon was England’s King Charles I, whose art collection in 1639 reportedly included five of her paintings. The artist’s most devoted public fan was likely Claude de Bullion (1569–1640), Louis XIII’s Minister of Finance, who bought many of Moillon’s paintings for himself and for the king. His personal collection included 12 of her paintings, one of which he commissioned for his private residence. In 1640, at age 30, Moillon married Etienne Girardot, a wealthy lumber merchant and devout Protestant. For the next three decades, Moillon dedicated herself to managing her household and raising their three children, producing only one painting dated 1641. In 1648, Girardot died, but Louise did not resume her artistic career until the 1670s, with known works from her last decades dating to 1674 and 1684.

The last 11 years of Moillon’s life were racked by religious strife reflecting the national political scene. In 1685, King Louis XV signed the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, effectively stripping Protestants in France of their religious freedom and threatening them with imprisonment or death. Still staunchly Protestant at age 75 at the time of the Revocation, Louise fled to London with her two daughters, where she learned of her son’s imprisonment in the Bastille for refusing to recant his beliefs (he eventually converted). Louise later returned to France, perhaps under threat of the confiscation of her paintings, where she was apparently compelled to adopt Catholicism: a Protestant bulletin of the time recounts that her son was present when she received the last rites of the Catholic Church on her deathbed. In 1696, Louise succumbed to heart failure.

Boasting one of the most stellar artistic careers in 17th-century France, Louise Moillon played a crucial role in raising the genre of still-life painting to one of the most popular art forms in France. With her minute attention to detail, clever incorporation of human figures, and secular style, Moillon contributed to one of France’s most important cultural peaks, the Grand Siècle of 17th-century art that propelled France to the forefront of European art.

—Raphael Fitzgerald is an art historian and researcher.

Works Consulted:

Museo Thyssen Bornemisza, n.d. Retrieved June 15, 2013, from www.museothyssen.org/en/thyssen/ficha_artista/409

Park, Rebecca (2010). From the Vault: Louise Moillon. Retrieved June 15, 2013, from http://womeninthearts.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/from-the-vault-louise-moillon/

Sowa, Helen (1998). Louise Moillon, Seventeenth Century Still-Life Artist. Chateau Publishing, Inc.

Movies, Masons, and More: The Peculiar Past of NMWA’s Building


PiP-1blueprintWith a history as varied as the museum’s collection, NMWA’s building is a work of art in itself. Designed in a Renaissance-revival style, the six-story structure embodies orderliness and civic grandeur. Constructed by one of D.C.’s most prominent architectural firms (and famed architect Waddy Wood), the building was received landmark status in 1984. Purchased by NMWA in 1983, the building opened as a museum in 1987 after extensive renovations.

Ironically, the building was originally constructed as a Masonic Temple—women were not allowed entry.  Masonic symbols, such as carved squares and compasses, can still be seen in the museum’s architecture. The clearest symbols are on the building’s façade, particularly those in a frieze above the fourth floor. Visitors may spot some vestiges within the walls as well.

BuildingDetailBefore showing art, the building showed movies. In 1916, a first-floor theater began showing silent films. In the 1940s and early 1950s the Pix Theater ran racy “exploitation films” until resulting controversies caused their lease not to be renewed. Seven years later, the Town Theatre opened and played blockbuster films like Hitchcock’s Psycho until its closing in 1983.

The wedge-shaped building was also home to several small offices and shops during its first 20 years. A dentist, an insurance agent, and a uniform supply outfitter all operated on the second floor above the movie theater. From 1910 through ’21, the upper floors contained George Washington University’s law library, and a USO canteen was housed in the basement during World War II.

NMWA today

NMWA today

In 1997, the museum incorporated an adjacent property to create the Elisabeth A. Kasser Wing. The space now houses NMWA’s gift shop and sculpture gallery—more palatable uses than its past function as the “D.C. Pleasure Parlor.”

Although visitors can’t take advantage of the building’s previous functions by watching movies or getting their teeth cleaned, they can enjoy NMWA’s collection of art by many of the world’s most significant women artists. The building itself is seen as an embodiment of the museum’s mission—it is a place for women artists—and funds for vital roof repairs will ensure the continued integrity of its structure.

NMWA’s Nordic Cool

In honor of A World Apart: Anna Ancher and the Skagen Art Colony, on view through May 12, 2013, we’re researching other delightful, innovative, and interesting Danish women in the arts. Click here to learn more about NMWA’s current exhibition.

Some of the earliest seeds for NMWA’s current exhibition, A World Apart: Anna Ancher and the Skagen Art Colony, were planted nearly a decade ago when curatorial staff members visited Scandinavia to research Nordic Cool: Hot Women Designers. This exhibition, on view at NMWA during April–September 2004, was a hit, and although it was NMWA’s first-ever design exhibition, it opened the curators’ eyes to Scandinavian women artists such as fascinating Danish painter Anna Ancher.

Women in the Arts magazine cover, Spring 2004, with Nanna Ditzel's "Bench for Two," 1989

Women in the Arts magazine cover, Spring 2004, with Nanna Ditzel’s “Bench for Two,” 1989

Several of the Danish designers whose work was on view at NMWA were creating domestic-use products that addressed gender roles—such as Johnna Sølvsten Bak’s tablecloth with “iron burns incorporated into the design” as Jordana Pomeroy described in the spring 2004 issue of Women in the Arts magazine. Another example, “Danish industrial design team PAPCoRN (Lene Vad Jensen and Anne Bannick)…created compostable dinnerware from corn by-products.”

Of furniture by Nanna Ditzel—pieces with “curvilinear structures [that] would be as comfortable in a gallery as in a living room”—Pomeroy said, “Ultimately design is highly personal, often bearing traces of the artist’s hand, reflecting the proportions of the designer’s body, and deriving from the most intimate emotional memories. Ditzel’s designs flow with the human body while simultaneously drawing on other natural sources: seashells, coral, flowers, and butterflies.”

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

From the Archives: Catharina Baart Biddle

The Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts recently accepted an archival donation from the estate of artist Catharina Baart Biddle (1912–2005). The wealth of archival material includes correspondence, photographs, newspaper clippings, and many other artifacts that shed light on the life of this notable Washington arts supporter and female painter.

Catharina Baart Biddle (n.d.)

Catharina Baart Biddle (n.d.)

Born in the Netherlands, Biddle came to the U.S. at age 12 and grew up on Long Island. She had been influenced at an early age by famous Dutch artists such as Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Her work reveals their inspiration, featuring great emphasis on light, shadow, and color. After receiving an M.F.A. from The George Washington University, Biddle turned down a job offer from the school and decided to return to Europe. She spent several years traveling and painting, spending time in Greece, North Africa, and France—even learning from Picasso, Dufy, and Matisse.

Eventually missing the freedom of thought afforded by American life, Biddle returned to the U.S. at the start of World War II, where she received her second M.F.A. from American University. She went on to work in the education department at the National Gallery of Art and then taught in Washington, D.C., public schools for more than 20 years. Dedicated to her mission of furthering arts education, Biddle endowed a fund for undergraduates at American University in 2002. In 1973 she married Livingston Biddle, who drafted the legislation creating the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities. While her husband was serving as the third Chairman of the NEA under President Carter, Biddle was an avid NEA volunteer.

NMWA has significant ties to the Biddle family. The Biddles were members of the NMWA Foundation Board. In 2002, Biddles helped endow a gallery at NMWA called the International Gallery. The donation was intended as a tribute to her husband and their passion for the arts.

“But every artist has a special individuality,” she says, “and the artist’s work should be evolving. To do the very best you can at a given moment, and to learn from it, that is the essence of my work.”
—Catharina Baart Biddle

The LRC has begun processing this collection, and it is available for researcher use. The archival material dates throughout the entirety of Biddle’s life, especially her earlier years. Although there is a wide range of material, a majority of the collection consists of photographs and correspondence. There are a number of travel photographs in particular, including many from Poland, as well as letters to loved ones such as her sister, Mary, and Livingston Biddle. The collection provides fascinating insight into the life of this extraordinary woman.

—Eva Richardson is a former Library and Research Center intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Ask Heather Monthly Feature: Treasures of the Library and Research Center: exploring the Doris Lee Archive

Want to know more about a lesser-known woman artist? The history of NMWA? A history of fashion worn to NMWA Galas? Heather Slania, director of NMWA’s Library and Research Center, will dig through the NMWA Institutional Archives, the Archives of Women Artists, and the vast collection of books under her purview to answer your questions! Email your questions to hslania@nmwa.org and your question may turn up in a future blog post!

The Special Collections of the Library andResearch Center includes the personal papers of dozens of women artists and arts organizations. One such collection is the Doris Lee Collection.

Image of Doris Lee, 1905–1983

Doris Lee, 1905–1983

Doris Lee, née Doris Elizabeth Emrick, was born on February 1, 1905, in Aledo, Illinois.

In 1927, Lee graduated from Rockford College in Illinois, majoring in art and philosophy. Upon graduation, she married Russell Werner Lee, an engineer who later became a noted photographer with the Farm Security Administration. Lee studied painting during their honeymoon year abroad in Italy and France. She enrolled in the Kansas City Arts Institute in 1929 to study painting under Ernest Lawson. The following year, she studied under Arnold Blanch at the San Francisco School of Art. (Blanch would become Lee’s second husband after she divorced Russell Lee in 1939.)

During the 1930s, Lee worked in her New York studio on East 14th Street. She also spent time in Woodstock, New York, where she soon settled permanently. In 1935, her painting Thanksgiving won the prestigious Logan Prize at the Chicago Art Institute. The award brought immediate and controversial attention. While many critics found the painting’s subject provincial and cartoon-like, it was hugely popular with the public. A Depression-era audience responded to the work’s nostalgic depiction of simpler, happier times. (To view Doris Lee’s painting Thanksgiving, click here: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/21727).

Only days after receiving the Logan Prize, Lee was awarded a commission from the United States Department of the Treasury to paint two murals for the General Post Office in Washington, D.C. (now the Ariel Rios Federal Building, which houses the Environmental Protection Agency). As part of the Works Projects Administration, Lee also painted a mural for the Post Office in Summerville, Georgia. (To view Lee’s Georgia mural, click here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/auvet/469088213/ ). In the following years, Lee’s paintings of rural America were included in annual exhibitions at the Carnegie Institute. Her painting Catastrophe was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1937, and she also exhibited regularly at the Walker Gallery in New York.

Image of Doris Lee, Cherries in the Sun (Siesta)

Doris Lee, Cherries in the Sun (Siesta), ca. 1941; Oil on canvas, 27 x 36 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Honorable Clare Booth Luce

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lee undertook several commissions for Life magazine, including travel articles and illustrations that took her to such faraway locales as North Africa, Cuba, and Mexico. The sketchbooks from these trips are part of the collection in NMWA’s Library and Research Center. Lee’s trips to Hollywood in 1944 and 1945 for Life resulted in a series of paintings for two movies, The Harvey Girls and Oklahoma. Lee created illustrations for other magazines, including those published by Standard Oil and Abbott Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company, and she also undertook several book projects, including illustrating The Rodgers and Hart Songbook and children’s books such as James Thurber’s The Great Quillow. Greeting cards, calendars, menus, pottery, and fabric design also featured Lee’s work.

Images of Doris Lee's sketches for James Thurber's The Great Quillow

Images of Doris Lee’s sketches for James Thurber’s The Great Quillow

The Doris Lee Papers consist of a great variety of materials. Personal objects such as photographs, correspondence, awards, and financial and legal documents make up a large portion of the collection, which also includes ephemera such as periodicals, clippings, calendars, postcards, and exhibition catalogues. The collection also contains original work by Lee, which comprise figural sketches, sketchbooks, and drafts for commissioned work. A unique part of the collection is a series called Work Notes, which consists of clippings and photographs of people, animals, and places used by Lee as visual references.

Detail image of a handkerchief in Doris Lee's Work Notes series, for personal or reference use

Detail image of a handkerchief in Doris Lee’s Work Notes series, for personal or reference use

The Work Notes series consists of over 1700 clippings, postcards, photographs, and textiles Lee gathered for reference in her work. Her clippings of people, animals, and places were taken from many sources, including popular magazines, specialized journals for livestock, and hundreds of postcards. Also included in the Work Notes are twenty-two handkerchiefs. Although when the collection was reprocessed the handkerchiefs found among Work Notes, several of the handkerchiefs are embroidered with “Doris Lee,” suggesting these were used as the personal handkerchiefs of Doris Lee and not necessarily used for reference. This collection, like many in NMWA’s Library and Research Center, provides insight into the work, artistic process, and time of a significant woman artist.

—Heather Slania is the director of the Library and Research Center at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

From the Vault: Louise Moillon

Louise Moillon, A Market Stall with a Young Woman Giving a Basket of Grapes to an Older Woman, c. 1630, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Louise Moillon is an enigma. Born in 1609 or 1610 in France to a Protestant family, her works reflect a distinct Flemish influence, yet at the same time reject the vanitas symbolism that so often marks Northern still-lifes of the 17th century. She painted finely crafted tableaux as a precociously talented young woman, yet mysteriously appears to have stopped in the 1640s. Her life and career represent a crossroads: the inspired moment when French still-life begins to emerge as an independent tradition meeting the quotidian reality of a 17th century Protestant woman’s life.

From birth, Moillon inherited a rich artistic heritage. Both her father and stepfather were painters and picture dealers, while her brother Isaac was one of the earliest members of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. Living in the neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, known at the time for its community of Protestants fleeing persecution in the Netherlands, she was introduced at an early age to the Northern traditions of still-life painting. Surviving business contracts reveal that as early as age 11 she was showing promise as a professional artist. However, her last clearly dated work is from 1641, suggesting that she stopped working long before she passed away in 1696. Art historians generally believe that this cessation is due to her marriage in 1640 to Calvinist wood merchant Etienne Girardot de Chancourt. The duties of wife and, later, mother prevented her from pursuing her painting career, while conservative Calvinist theology discouraged women from working independently from their husbands and families.

Louise Moillon, Bowl of Lemons and Oranges on a Box of Wood Shavings and Pomegranates, n.d., Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Yet Moillon’s works are far from puritanical. Her lush and luminescent palette calls to mind sensuality, not severity. Absent of the strict morality often associated with still-lifes of the period, her fruit baskets shine as symbols of abundance and prosperity. No hint of decay is found, suggesting the present moment, intimately shared, instead of warning against future drama on a monumental scale. Later in her career, she incorporated large-scale human figures in her paintings, one of the first French still-life artists to do so. Enlivening her canvases, these figures place her overflowing baskets in a specific context, one in which the array of fruit is matched by the diversity of figures and experience.

A Market Stall with a Young Woman Giving a Basket of Grapes to an Older Woman, c. 1630, is currently on display in NMWA’s Great Hall. The two female figures, contrasting significantly in age, suggest the cycle of life, but one in which signs of rot and decomposition are not present. Multiple baskets frame the composition, each one overflowing with round, luscious fruits, whether they are plums, apricots, apples, or pears. Both young and old are found in this world of delicious abundance. Comparing this painting to a Flemish still-life indicates how Moillon set out to work in a specifically French idiom. Clara Peeters’s Still Life of Fish and Cat, hanging on the same wall in the Great Hall, more overtly portrays a moral tale; in this case, the transitory nature of the world, where the vivid fish becomes vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the food chain cat and man dominate. Its dark palette suggests a more somber tone than the bright oranges, purples, and greens illuminating Moillon’s work.

Despite the few facts available about her life and limited surviving canvases, we can construct an image of Louise Moillon. She was traditional in the dominance her personal life had over her public image as an artist, yet trailblazing in her brief career as a painter, contributing to a new national style of still-life.

-Rebecca Park is editorial intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.