Curated by The William Cary Hulsey Curator of American Art Katelyn D. Crawford, PhD
Women have made art since humanity’s earliest days, even if their artistic contributions haven’t always been recognized. We believe that caring for and exhibiting work by women artists must extend beyond the month of March—which is Women’s History Month—and should continue in the face of a global pandemic. So we’re bringing you this digital exhibition that centers the work of some of these makers in the BMA’s permanent collection.
#NotJustMarch highlights the art, lives, and careers of just a few of the women in the American collection. The work of researching, acquiring, exhibiting, and celebrating artwork by women artists is an ongoing, ever-present effort.
How did early American women become artists? Sarah Miriam Peale was trained for her career, but she also struck out on her own by skillfully courting powerful patrons.
Peale relocated to Baltimore (at a time when she wasn’t even allowed to travel alone) and later St. Louis, establishing studios in each city. She made her living painting portraits of men in public and political life, including Dixon Hall Lewis, the Alabama congressman represented in the Museum’s spontaneous, light-filled portrait from the early 1840s. She was among the most successful portraitists of her era, receiving more commissions than her famous male counterparts.
To learn more about Sarah Miriam Peale’s portrait of Dixon Hall Lewis, watch BMA Director Graham Boettcher’s “Director’s Cut” on this painting.
Creating as a Community
Art is a profession, but it is also an integral part of the life of many communities.
The makers of this quilt remain something of a mystery, but they were likely women from Mt. Hebron. Each block is signed. Of the 41 named blocks, 21 contain men’s names and 12 contain women’s. The men identified on the quilt probably didn’t stitch their blocks; it is likely that they gave money to the project in return for someone making their block.
The quilt is a portrait of the community’s location in the Deep South, picturing plants including pecan, pear, fig, sassafras, sweet gum, and watermelon.
In 1841, American landscape painter and founder of the Hudson River school Thomas Cole wrote of the American landscape:
“It is a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest; for whether he beholds the Hudson mingling its waters with the Atlantic, explores the central wilds of this vast continent, or stands on the margin of the distant Pacific, he is still in the midst of American scenery—it is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity, are all his…”
A leafy canopy becomes an arched entry to the forest in Josephine Walters’ In the Woods. In her technique, subject, and the vertical orientation of her canvas, Walters pays homage to her teacher, Hudson River school artist Asher B. Durand. This canvas even shares a title with Durand’s In the Woods. Yet Walters departs from the decaying trees in Durand’s canvas, emphasizing the vitality of the natural world.
There is no information about Josephine Chamberlain Ellis receiving formal artistic training, but her mother may have taught her. This clearly accomplished artist’s painting career was likely constrained by the demands of her daily life. Yet she had the chance to visit the Natural Bridge while living in Washington, DC, a visit that resulted in this light-filled painting of a towering natural wonder in the American landscape. This is her only known surviving work.
For both Mary Edmonia Lewis and Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, their experience of their gender and race influenced their selection of subjects. Both lived during moments of large-scale social change in the United States, where opportunities for women and people of color seemed to be perpetually on the horizon but never realized. These lived experiences influenced their sculptures, but these works are also much more than the biographies of their makers.
After training in Europe, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller returned to America in 1903 and, again facing the country’s oppression of African Americans, turned her attention to African American subjects. Water Boy was completed later, in 1930, after she had realized a series of large public commissions. Here she works on a more intimate scale, imagining the boy from the folk song after which the piece is named, representing him with both of his arms wrapped around the weight of a large water jug.
Both Lewis and Fuller created work informed by their gender and race, but this work has also suffered from being primarily considered through these lenses.
Read artist Wendy Red Star’s take on Edmonia Lewis’s Hiawatha and Minnehaha.
Listen to Rhiannon Giddens sing Waterboy, the song that inspired Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller.
Women created monumental, abstract works of art in painting and sculpture, though abstraction has often been regarded as the domain of white men.
While Mavis Pusey translated the movement of the city into two-dimensional space, Louise Nevelson assembled wooden boxes and found objects—often painted black, as in Open Zag X to simultaneously evoke architecture and nature. There is a tension between the manmade and natural worlds both in Nevelson’s materials—wood and Formica—and in her composition, with the cylinder and varied wood at the left evoking industry even as the undulating Formica cut outs at the right suggest the outdoors. This work also straddles the space between sculpture and painting, existing as a low relief mounted to a wall, protruding into space. Nevelson achieved great acclaim in the art world during her lifetime, countering sexism by proclaiming, “I’m an artist who happens to be a woman.”
Want more information on women in the art world?
Get the facts on women in the art world from the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Know the current experience of women in the art world.
Engage the history, starting with great feminist art historians like Linda Nochlin’s essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”