Long ignored, early women artists get 'studio of their own'

at first, an exhibition on women artists in Boston seems conventional - jewelry sits in a glass case on one side of the first room. Books sit in another case. Pictures of women and children line the walls.

But then, a bronze sculpture of a jaguar ("Reaching Jaguar," by artist Anna Vaughn Hyatt) jumps out. And later, an exquisite bronze-and-marble statue of a whippet ("Narcisse Noir," by Katherine Lane) pleasantly surprises.

"It's very important to show that women weren't only making tabletop bookends [during the late-19th century]," says exhibition curator Erica Hirshler.

"A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston 1870-1940," at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through Dec. 2, displays the work of 40 women artists. The nearly 90 works include paintings, photographs, stained glass, pottery, wood carvings, and posters.

The exhibition's intent is to show that women weren't just needlepointing, baking pies, and cleaning linens. In fact, some of these talented and active women never married or had children.

"Women did not restrict themselves," Ms. Hirshler says. "They took advantage of all opportunities that came their way."

During the post-Civil War and pre-World War II period, many women studied art, some more seriously than others. A majority of the students in Boston were women - not men - in the late-19th century.

While none of these artists zoomed into the Georgia O'Keeffe-like stratosphere, many left a significant imprint on the Boston arts scene with creative book-cover designs, ornate jewelry, artistic photography, and strongly detailed sculptures.

Sarah Wyman Whitman painted pastoral landscapes early in her career, but later become famous for her stained glass and book-cover designs.

"Her paintings have all the marks of masculine art, and none of the feminine feeling we would desire to see," says Parisian writer S.C. de Soissons, as quoted in Hirshler's book that accompanies the exhibition. Gender-based commentary was common in the late-19th century. Critics often dismissed women's art as being either too feminine or too masculine.

Ellen Day Hale's self-portrait certainly embodies masculine traits. "An art critic once remarked that it displays a man's strength." She was known for her boyish hair and mannerisms, and for a penetrating stare, Hirshler says. But Hale had a feminine side, too. She also painted very feminine-looking works, such as one of a beautiful woman with her hair swept up in a loose bun reading a newspaper ("Morning News").

Other women artists like Gretchen Rogers and Lilian Hale, Hirshler says, were tremendously talented. They favored figure painting, still lifes, and landscapes in the traditional style of the time.

Many of these women artists came from middle-to-upper-class families. Some struggled for acceptance into art clubs.

Such is the case of African-American artist Meta Fuller, famous for her sculptures ("Head of a Man" and "Bust of a Woman"), who was shut out of most of the artistic establishments. It was only when the Boston Art Club finally admitted women in 1930s that Fuller started participating in women's organizations. When she married Solomon Fuller, he expected her to devote herself fully to their home and their three children.

"[Meta] Fuller built a secret studio with her own money and only told her husband about it after it was complete," Hirshler says, "giving her literally, a studio of her own."

Polly Thayer is the only living artist in the exhibition. In Ms. Thayer's self-portrait, Hirshler says, "she's holding her brush; she's not looking demurely behind her hat. She's actively engaged in the world of creativity."

The final room of the exhibition is less ladylike, more masculine in appearance.

"Some of these pictures demonstrate that there were artists in town who were interested in showing the modern world," Hirshler says. For instance, Gertrude Fiske painted a "very surreal image of Revere Beach."

Sculptor Bashka Paeff, who was born in Russia and eventually settled in Cambridge, Mass., sold tokens in the subway station to pay for classes at the MFA school. She designed garden statuary - including "Boy and Bird Fountain" in the Boston Public Garden - war memorials.

Says Hirshler: "There were enough women artists to support a wide variety of points of views."

On Sept. 29, guest speakers at Boston's MFA will discuss the lives and careers of women in politics, literature, and the arts. Walking tours around the Back Bay, where female artists lived and exhibited work, are also available. For more information, log on to mfa.org.

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