Woman in a Green Coat, Betty Grisham, 1946
Betty Grisham’s life can be summed up in one word: extraordinary. A native of Athens, Alabama, Grisham has occupied many roles in the art world; from art teacher to museum advocate, she has nurtured countless arts organizations throughout her home state. She was on the first members’ board of the Birmingham Museum of Art, helped to establish the Huntsville Arts League, and supported the Huntsville Museum of Art. Along with her community work, Grisham is an accomplished artist and fashion designer.
Woman in a Green Coat, on view in the Museum’s exhibition Black Like Who? Exploring Race and Representation (July 11-November 1, 2015), features a woman dressed in a 1940s-style coat surrounded by flowers. The figure exudes elegance, confidence, and femininity. However, one unusual element in the painting stands out: the woman’s gaze. Women in artworks – and especially women of color – did not traditionally look directly at the viewer, as it was understood as immodest. By looking boldly out, this figure actively challenges the traditional role of the painted female as well as stereotypes of African-American women.
In the 20th century, artists typically represented black women in one of two roles: the domestic caretaker or the promiscuous femme fatale. This figure’s strong and confident expression therefore also confronts the viewer’s assumptions of an African-American woman’s role and appearance in society. She does not fit within preassigned social categories; instead, her gaze asks the viewer to consider her independently of a masculine presence or of a defining profession – as a woman who is more than just the color of her skin.
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