#NotJustMarch: Women Artists from the American Collection

/ Art Shots

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.

Painting Power

Sarah Miriam Peale, The Honorable Dixon Hall Lewis, about 1841–43. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Gift from the collection of Dr. and Mrs. David A. Skier, AFI.78.2014

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.

Creating as a Community

Mt. Hebron Community, Greene County, Alabama, Album Quilt, 1858. Appliqued solid cottons on muslin backing. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Gift of Helen and Robert Cargo, AFI.56.2006

Art is a profession, but it is also an integral part of the life of many communities.

Shaping Ideals

Image 1: Mary Josephine Walters, Into the Woods, about 1865. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Harold and Regina Simon Fund, 2008.14.   Image 2: Josephine Chamberlain Ellis, Natural Bridge, Virginia, 1884. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Art Fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Purchase with funds provided by the Friends of American Art.

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…”

Resisting Categorization

Image 1: Mary Edmonia Lewis, Minnehaha and Hiawatha, 1858. Marble. Museum purchase with funds provided by Harold and Regina Simon, 2013.2.1 and 2013.2.2 Image 2: Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Water Boy, 1930. Bronze. Museum purchase, 2018.3

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.

Pioneering Abstraction

Image 1: Mavis Pusey, Dejygea, 1970. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase, 2019.14 Image 2: Louise Nevelson, Open Zag X, 1974. Painted wood, Formica. Museum purchase with funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and Friends of the Museum, 1976.42

Women created monumental, abstract works of art in painting and sculpture, though abstraction has often been regarded as the domain of white men.

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?”