Woman in Art/Chapter 14 - Wikisource, the free online library

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Permitted by the artist


Elizabeth Nourse


Renaissance of American Womanhood In the Art of Painting. Woman's Building at the Columbian Fair in 1893. Sophia G. Hayden Architect of the Building. Artists of the Period.

The serious efforts of the American Woman in the art of painting were on this wise: Four hundred years after the New World had been discovered by the persistent will and energy of Columbus, another great wave of will and energy alighted on the shore of Lake Michigan and Presto! "A White City," like alabaster, arose to celebrate his deed. It was beautiful without and wonderful within. All the world was invited to the Columbian World's Fair in Chicago in 1893. The great adventure proved to be the Renaissance of American Womanhood to art in all its ramifications.

The invited art of the world came and was housed in the most perfect Greek structure the modern world has ever seen.

As the stars spangle the celestial world in clusters, constellations and pairs, so comes genius to this under world, scattering gifts of soul to brilliance the nebulous field of sentient beings, who share life here and immortality hereafter.

History gives this inspiration from the development of mind and soul recorded through the centuries. For us, such prodigality of gifts has formed epochs that have served to elevate and broaden the life and outlook of mankind, the passing of each millennium bringing the human soul nearer its goal. The forming of one of these epochs began with the seed-sowing at the Columbian Fair. It was notable because it saw the first attempt in America of woman as mural painter.

There were buildings representing each state in the Union, buildings housing every line of enterprise and industry—hence, "The Woman's Building," wherein were represented the arts and achievements of women of all nations.

In the first place, the building was designed by Sophia G. Hayden, a graduate of the School of Architecture of the Boston Institute of Technology, who proved herself eminently qualified for the arduous undertaking.

The blank walls of that enterprise proved to be the open door—the emprise of the American Woman in Art. It was her opportunity, and she entered in. Those walls must be decorated, and decorated by woman only. It meant mural painting.

Mrs. Candace Wheeler of New York was assigned the superintendence of interior decorations. Her daughter, Mrs. Dora Wheeler Keith, painted the ceiling of the library of the building, using a design resembling somewhat the decorations in a Venetian palace, but with a symbolism appropriate to our country and time.

On entering the vestibule, interest and pleasure stayed one's steps to enjoy the wall paintings. Not all were of equal interest or merit, but under the stress of time and inexperience they were remarkable, and thousands who were not art critics received real pleasure and a new view and impetus concerning art as something worth while in life.

In the main hall or Court of Honor, the two large tympanums, one at each end, were worthy—eminently worthy—to represent woman's first attempt in the field of mural painting. The subject dominating the North was "Primitive Woman," combining three views of her activities.

At the right a primitive man is clad in the skin of some wild beast that he has laid low. A plurality of wives and maids attend him, one taking from him the deer he has just brought in. The center of the panel represents motherhood caring in various ways for their little children. Continuing to the left, robust women are carrying water-jars, mostly on their heads, and beyond them other women are plowing with oxen, and despite the unpromising condition of soil other women are broadcasting seed for the next harvest.

This was the design and work of Mrs. Mary McMonnies, wife of the sculptor who worked out the beautiful Columbian Fountain that faced the Administration Building. These wedded artists brought their contributions from St. Louis.

Underneath the tympanum of the Primitive Woman, worked into the border, was the honorary legend: "Bertha H. Palmer, President of the Woman's Organization.

Miss Mary Cassatt portrayed her prophetic view of the "Modern Woman" on the corresponding space at the South end of the hall. Her center panel showed a bevy of girls enjoying the apple harvest in October. Another third of her space gave room for a dancing girl; and the last was full of action, a number of young girls seem running for the pure pleasure of it, or perhaps in a race with Time, were it not for the cloud-formed temple of Fame receiving almost to the point of vanishing.

Miss Cassatt has the gift of making a simple or every-day subject picturesque and attractive in her easel pictures, and no less did she command it in her fresco work. Beneath her mural was the honorary inscription: "Sophia G. Hayden, Architect of the Building."

Aside from the tympanums just described, four artists were happy in their choice of subjects for the large panels in the same hall.

Mrs. Amanda Brewster Sewell pictured "The Women of Acadia" in a manner that seemed an echo of Longfellow's word picture:

"When brightly the sunset lighted the village streets, and gilded the vanes on the chimneys,
Matrons and maidens sat in snow white caps and in kirtles
Scarlet and blue and green, with distaffs spinning the golden
Flax for the gossiping looms, whose noisy shuttles within doors,
Mingled their sound with whir of the wheels and the songs of the maidens."

Mrs Sewell was born in a beautiful part of the world, the heart of the Adirondacks, in 1860. The writer believes strongly in the influence of environment on the eager mind of a child. Amanda Brewster, child and woman, loved the woods, and her work in mature years has proved that the experience and knowledge gained in childhood have been a valuable asset in her art.

When she was twenty, assisted by Mrs. Candace Wheeler she was able to study in Paris in the Julian atelier, also with Fleury and Bouguereau. Her work in the Paris Salon gave her honorable mention, and from the Academy of Design in New York more than one substantial prize was the result of meritorious and attractive painting.

At the Fair Mrs. Sewell was a medal winner for her work in the Fine Arts Building. Among those representing her were "Pleasures of the Past," and "A Sylvan Festival," similar in treatment, representing the revelers seemingly in spirit dancing over the grassy field bordering the woods. Both are dainty in coloring and handling. "By the River" two small boys sat with overhanging rods, anxiously feeling for a bite,—a bit of real nature.

Miss Brewster became the wife of the painter, Robert V. V. Sewell, and together they made their home near Tangiers, Morocco, from whence many of their paintings have found their way to the French Salon and to numerous exhibitions in the United States.

"Fig Gatherers" was a strong and attractive painting at the St. Louis Fair of 1904, typical of scenes in her tropical home.

By the way, the four panels referred to measured five by nine feet, and the tympanums at the ends of the hall were fourteen feet high by fifty-eight feet long. The Hall itself had a floor space of sixty-seven by two hundred and fifty feet.

The next panel in order was of national import, and Mrs. Rosina Emmet Sherwood expressed in design and harmonious colors "The Republic's Welcome to Her Daughters."

Her sister, Miss Lydia Field Emmet, filled her space (literally) with art, science, and literature.

"The Women of Plymouth" was the title subject of the panel by Mrs. Lucia Fairchild Fuller,—a painting that serves well to illustrate the women whose character and courage began a new epoch in the entire civilized world. It is the spirit of those women of Plymouth that, for three hundred years, has advanced the new nation faster than the woodman's ax would fell the forests of

"Trees that looked at God all day,
And lifted leafy arms to pray."

There were paintings on the lower wall of the main hall as well as in the Art Building, showing the result of woman's art instinct and ability. To mention the names of a few artists will accent the fact of that instinct, and the beginning of their efforts through the last decade of the nineteenth century in the domain of art.

The beautiful Gothic dining room in that splendid building was made more beautiful by the mural paintings of Miss Agnes Pitman and the frieze by Ida J. Burgess which she painted in a delightful manner to represent "Youth."

There was a fine stained glass window in that room which revealed the genius of Miss Sears of Boston. Carved woodwork, elegantly embroidered portieres, fine pottery, choice books and their covers, were a few of the things that represented the art work of women from various parts of the world, making the whole a beautiful setting for the arts and industries practiced by women of all countries.

On the lower wall of that Hall of Honor was the portrait of a woman by Anna Elizabeth Klumpke, the friend and adopted daughter of Rosa Bonheur of By, in France. Miss Klumpke is an American artist born in California. Her portraits and figure pieces fairly scintillate with vitality. She seems not to pose her sitters but apparently paints them at their ease. She won her first gold medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1889, for the best figure painting of that year.

It is regrettable that more of her work is not seen in American exhibits in this twentieth century, but her art work has been shared with the absorbing work of writing a comprehensive and fascinating life of the great-souled woman and animal painter, Rosa Bonheur.

A few other painters exhibited on the historical walls of the Woman's Building: Enilda Q. Loomis had a portrait; K. A. Carl an "Oriental Figure," also a charming group of "Children Blowing Bubbles" that was natural and free in action, "A Female Figure" by Miss M. A. Carlisle, and "Eurydice Sinking Back to Hades" by Miss Hester Roe; "An Army Scene" and a fine "Female Figure" by Louise Jopling; "A Marine View" well painted by Elouise Lavilette, and another "Female Figure" by Louise Abbema; a softly brilliant showing of "Flowers" by Jennie Villebessyx, most attractive, also a "Girl With a Goat" well done by Euphemie Murciton; "Music" by Maximilienne Guyon, and a pleasing "Interior" by J. Buchet, all were adjudged fine.

On the wall of the staircase were a number of portraits, one of Miss Leftwich-Dodge, and one representing a personality of the Women's Rights group, Mrs. Lilly Devereaux-Blake. There was a group of fine dogs, "Watching and Waiting," painted by Lily I. Jackson. "The Mandolin Player" was drawn by one who understood the subject. Miss Florence Mackubin. An unusual subject was a strongly painted "Head of a Negra Woman," signed M. Kinkhead, and its neighbor was the "Portrait of a Boy," a real boy, by L. M. Stewart; and a portrait of Angelica Kaufman done by a masterly hand. Miss Matilda Brown had the only representation of "Cattle," showing careful study and a natural environment as their background. Her cattle and sheep are always in a fine landscape.

The very recital of painters and subjects represented at that time shows that the spirit of art had vivified the spirit of woman some years previous to 1893, but they lacked opportunity.

Many painters of that Columbian Fair epoch continued their work through intervening decades. The great World's Fairs that have followed—the Pan-American at Buffalo, the Louisiana-Purchase Exposition, the Jamestown Exposition, the Panama-Pacific at San Francisco—have all afforded opportunity for artists of advancing merit, such exhibits having been worldwide in their invitation and encouragement.

As we enter the second quarter of the twentieth century, which in its record of the arts will seemingly pass more rapidly than the first, we already have the consciousness of unprecedented progress in the fine arts, especially of woman's achievements in that progress and development. Subtract woman with her arts and influence, and progress would be materially retarded.

Primary art in public schools and advanced art-schools is annually graduating thousands of embryo artists. Art clubs are springing up almost like spring flowers; seen or unseen, they come in response to the innate desire for truth and beauty of expression in all things. It requires a whole generation, yes, two generations, to make a marked change in any line of art, and even then the new expression is influenced more or less by the thought that has dominated the passing epoch, by minds that have left color, form, and power to oncoming periods of art, in proportion as they have exerted a world influence. The thing that is strongest and truest in their art augments the fresh, the naive impulse, in the rising army of art. Time sifts the arts; not alone does it rest with the fancy of man, for truth and beauty, strength and majesty will outlive centuries—if man halts in his vandalism.

Of all the thousands that yearly enter the field of art in all its ramifications, a gifted few will overcarry the struggling majority. It is the law of nature: all the highways through the centuries prove it.

A few who helped toward the ultimate of the Women's Building, in so doing discovered themselves, and from that impetus have added to the growth of American Art.