Women make their mark

Arcadia University’s Spruance Gallery presents Proto-Feminism in the Print Studio

5 minute read
Detailed black-&-white print of a large, low, run-down house by a tree in a barren landscape, & a tiny human figure outside
'Moor Lodge' (c. 1955) by Norma Morgan, courtesy Dolan/Maxwell, Philadelphia. (Image courtesy of Arcadia University.)

Engraver Anne Ryan got a late start, but compensated with skill and determination. At age 52 and without formal artistic training, Ryan (1889-1954) found herself at Atelier 17, an avant-garde print studio in which artists, particularly women, flourished. Though the art world did not take female artists seriously, the women of Atelier 17 advanced modernism, achieved professional recognition, and assembled collegial networks that propelled their creative identities and served the broader feminist movements of the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond. Their art is the subject of Arcadia University’s Proto-Feminism in the Print Studio.

Atelier 17 was founded in Paris in the 1930s by Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988). As World War II loomed, he relocated the studio to New York, and the exhibit focuses on this period. In a pre-opening talk, guest curator Christina Weyl explained that Hayter brought a modern perspective to print and is credited with reviving etching within the medium. During research for her 2019 book, The Women of Atelier 17: Modernist Printmaking in Midcentury New York, Weyl identified 97 women associated with the studio, 16 of whom are represented in 35 works on view at Arcadia. Among them is Ryan’s In the Meadow (1944), an abstract idyll of nude figures and a bull frolicking amid tall grass and wildflowers.

Freedom, equality, friendship

In Paris, the British Hayter had affiliated with expatriate and Surrealist artists. Echoes of that style can be seen in work produced at Atelier 17, which took its name from a street address. The studio welcomed anyone interested in experimentation in the print forms.

Exposure to Hayter’s sensibilities sometimes led artists to shift from a representational to abstract style. Minna Citron’s (1896-1991) evolution from urban realism to modernism is clear in Men Seldom Make Passes on Women with Glasses (1946), which depicts an elongated, well-coiffed, bespectacled woman with ghostly arms, working at a canvas.

Prints by Worden Day (1912-1986) reflect a similar transformation. Her 1944 etching A Seafaring Man is a clear, bold closeup of a sailor, his ship docked in the distance. A decade later, she produced Prismatic Presences (1956), a relief print pulled from a peeling plaster wall in her studio. It’s a crackled patchwork of aging color—rose, blue, tan, brown—and looks very much like a French cave painting.

A little help from a friend

Printmaking attracted women because it was less celebrated than painting and sculpture, making it easier to get a foot in the door. Entering print competitions and group exhibitions placed work before influential eyes. “I was able to enter the art world through the prints,” noted Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), “because the Brooklyn Museum organized this show of prints every year. So it was an easy beginning … I did it for the exposure.”

Through Atelier 17, women met, formed friendships, shared practical advice, and assisted one another professionally. The cooperative relationships of the 1940s and 1950s, Weyl proposes, seeded more expansive networks that fueled second-wave feminism. Gallery materials explain that Day, an advocate for women artists throughout her life, was a “key connector and proto-feminist agitator” fostering relationships and building communities that pressed for social change.

For Ryan, already an energetic self-marketer, Day provided geographic reach. As she traveled for teaching and residencies, Day carried work by others. “During this peripatetic period of her life,” gallery signage explains, “she also shared the work of fellow women artists … with curators and critics across the country, creating professional opportunities for her artist-colleagues.” In 1947, Ryan secured a solo show at Berea College, thanks to contacts Day made for her work.

Doubly marginalized

The exhibition includes Norma Morgan, one of only two known Black studio members. While her relationships with Atelier 17 participants were limited, Morgan made an important alliance with Camille Billops, a Black printmaker, sculptor, and filmmaker who held informal salons in SoHo. Billops would later establish the Hatch-Billops Collection, an archive of Black visual and performing art, with her husband, Black theater historian James Hatch.

Scotland and the British Isles often appear in Morgan’s work, as exemplified by Moor Lodge (c. 1955) and Moorland Haven, Scottish Highlands (1954). Moorland Haven is especially striking: a horizontal slice of low, billowing clouds melding with rolling hills. Long and narrow, it resembles an unfolding musical score.

In a third work, the beautiful woodcut Lovers (1951), Morgan reveals an embracing couple. They are joined at the lips, she reaching up, supported by his encircling arms.

Arcadia’s own

For more than four decades, Jean Francksen (1914-1996) was an art professor at Beaver College, as Arcadia was formerly known. Like Citron, Francksen’s style evolved. Weyl believes Francksen to have been influenced by exposure to noted lithographer Benton Spruance, who led the college art department, and by participation in a weekly workshop led by Hayter at the Philadelphia Print Club. Francksen was a frequent exhibitor at the club, the forerunner of what is now the Print Center.

Francksen’s Wind, Sand, and Spars (1962), a geometric seascape from Arcadia’s collection, demonstrates her late style. Perpendicular masts sprout from a flotilla of spherical hulls. Inverted curves create a mountain range of slack sails as a gentle sea ripples, curling around the resting navy.

Feminist facilitators

The career of Dorothy Dehner (1901-1994) embodied several common threads Weyl identified in her research. Exposure to engraving reignited an interest in three-dimensional art, inspiring Dehner to become a sculptor. She was also active in the feminist networks connected to Atelier 17 in the 1970s hosting salons Day organized.

The exhibition’s signature image is Dehner’s perfectly titled Bird Machine II (1953), a tangle of triangles and lines that resemble a pair of birds dancing a Gavotte, wings spread, talons tapping.

There are many things to appreciate in Proto-Feminism in the Print Studio, most notably the determination of artists persevering, exploring new aesthetic territory, and building careers in a less-than-welcoming environment. There’s also the contrast between Atelier 17’s egalitarian ethos and the larger art world, as well as the energy with which women printmakers forced gatekeepers to take note of their art. And the cohesion of female colleagues helping one another, and in using what they’d learned to elevate women across society.

What, When, Where

Proto-Feminism in the Print Studio. Through December 4, 2022, at Spruance Gallery, Arcadia University, 450 South Easton Road, Glenside. (215) 572-2131 or arcadia.edu.

Arcadia University welcomes, but does not require, the wearing of masks indoors.


Arcadia University’s Spruance Gallery is a single-level space accessible by steps and an ADA-compliant ramp.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation