Women Only: Folk Art by Female Hands
American Folk Art Museum
April 6 – September 12, 2010
The exhibition Women Only: Folk Art by Female Hands, on view from April 6 through September 12, 2010, highlights the wealth of female artistic expression from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These graceful works were largely made during years spent in the cultivation of skills that prepared a young woman to shoulder the many roles required of her in adulthood as a wife and a mother. Others demonstrate that women continued to nourish their creative selves by plying those skills throughout their lives. Most of the artworks were created within the prescribed conventions of female life. Yet these paintings, drawings, samplers, quilts, rugs, and other works were artful from conception to execution, were displayed in parlors and best rooms, and conferred status and taste upon both heads of household: male and female. Selected by senior curator Stacy C. Hollander, Women Only: Folk Art by Female Hands includes approximately 60 objects drawn from the museum’s collection, rich in this area.
Ironically, the exhibition is introduced with the work of a male sculptor, as female sculptors were rare. Samuel A. Robb’s imposing Sultana of c. 1880 embodies the ideal of female authority and self-possession. By the twentieth century, the discovery of Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses stimulated an interest in folk art by female hands. Grandma Moses set the tone for a nostalgic association of women’s art in the public imagination. Her paintings of rural life evoked an earlier time, and her grandmotherly presence had a calming effect during the turbulent early decades of the twentieth century. The emergence of Grandma Moses as a popular figure, a folk artist, and also as a woman artist played into the tenets of the Colonial Revival movement and the renewed interest in America’s colonial past. Women’s work, especially pieced cotton quilts, seemed to capture the romance of an American heritage and led to the notion of folk art as the home where female creativity dwelled. As the field of folk art began to develop, the female contribution to American folk art became increasingly apparent.
Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, artmaking activities were primarily the province of male artists, and women’s work operated almost entirely within a separate circle that was admired and judged by female peers and important figures such as teachers and parents. Needle and thread were the traditional tools used to fulfill women’s roles in society: clothing the family, warming and covering the beds, and ornamenting the home. The elegant Hannah Carter Canvaswork, one of the earliest works in the exhibition, is part of a group of related pastoral embroideries worked by young girls from some of the wealthiest colonial families while attending Boston boarding schools. The same set of skills could be parlayed into major artistic expressions, such as the stunning Crewel Bedcover that relates in material and technique to the schoolgirl needlework. Quilts showcased individual creativity and awareness of current aesthetic trends, and, in some cases, a woman’s independent thoughts. The unidentified maker of the Cleveland-Hendricks Crazy Quilt used the fashionable format of the Crazy quilt to make her political sentiments known. Incorporating political ribbons and other ephemera, the strutting rooster (an emblem used by the Democratic Party during the 1880s and 1890s) and portraits of Grover Cleveland and his running mate, Thomas A. Hendricks, the graphic, colorful quilt presents a strong statement of Democratic sympathies in a socially sanctioned format.
By the end of the eighteenth/ turn of the nineteenth century, a woman’s intellectual attainments were directly tied to her ability to raise educated and moral sons, and female literacy reached a new high. Historians now refer to this enlarged role of women as Republican Motherhood. According to Ms. Hollander the decades that followed in the early nineteenth century “have been among the least examined in women’s studies, with few female public figures or events of notable historical significance. Interestingly, they were years of unprecedented female artistic activity, much of it under the auspices of a talented schoolmistress.”
During this period, serious schools, such as the Litchfield Academy in Connecticut, offered ornamental arts including watercolor painting and pictorial needlework, but combined them with rigorous academic studies that “ornamented the mind” as well, such as Greek, Latin, botany, history, geography, philosophy, and religion. Mourning pieces that combined Christian values and neo-classical motifs were a uniquely female expression for this post-Revolutionary era. Ellen Ogden’s poignantly rendered Ogden Family Mourning Piece, a watercolor and ink on silk, is dated 1813 on the reverse-painted eglomise mat of its original frame. She pictured only herself and her parents, as it commemorates the deaths of her six siblings, one older sister and five younger brothers. An unusual Map of the Animal Kingdom, 1835, illustrates the introduction of geography into the curriculum. Probably based on a print source, the map with its charming depictions of animals native to each locale, is framed with delicate theorem painting of roses with thorny stems.
Portrait painting throughout the nineteenth century was largely produced by male artists. Not only was there a long history of men as portrait painters, it was also not deemed appropriate for a woman to participate in an itinerant lifestyle. One rare exception, represented by a small watercolor of a family group, Mr. and Mrs. Lyman Day and Daughter Cornelia, was Deborah Goldsmith, who painted to support herself and her “aged parents.” When she traveled in western New York State she was usually accompanied by a family member or trusted religious leader. Female artists through the mid-nineteenth century, however, created pastels, miniatures, or watercolors that were meant as tokens of friendship or as gifts for family and friends. Emily Eastman’s delicate Woman in Veil, a watercolor c. 1825, was probably inspired by a print source, possibly a fashion plate of the neo-classical period.
Home and church represented the two poles of a woman’s life. From samplers to sermons, a woman’s world provided many of the metaphors through which she visually conveyed her spirituality. The concept of “Virtue” expressed the values a girl should aspire to and that was inculcated into every aspect of female life. The Lucy Low Sampler, stitched in 1776 when she was 12 years old, is composed of alphabets and a religious sentiment at the top, over a pastoral scene with figures and a rose tree flanked by stubby trees at the bottom. As a 69-year-old woman, Maria Cadman Hubbard proudly signed her name and the date of 1848 on the front of her unique Pieties quilt. She combined the pieced-letter device of seven small, stacked blocks, with religious texts, highlighting her role as her family’s moral and religious center. In Shaker communities, founded by Mother Ann Lee, several Shaker sisters received messages from deceased Shaker elders during the period known as “woman’s work.” These visions were transcribed in intricate works that were gifted to specific Shakers. Six of these rare “gift drawings” are on view.
“Women worked with mediums that were culturally acceptable or innovated with unusual materials, such as tinsel and marbledust, that were outside the high-art canon of easel painting and sculpture. Within these parameters, as in life, lay the freedom for innumerable iterations and personal artistic satisfaction,” notes Ms. Hollander.
What did women look like in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? Visitors leaving the exhibition will pass a wall of faces of women, painted, of course, by men.
Women Only: Folk Art by Female Hands is sponsored in part by the Leir Charitable Foundations in memory of Henry J. & Erna D. Leir, the Gerard C. Wertkin Exhibition Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.