Recovering the oeuvre of women forgotten

The Delaware Art Museum and Somerville Manning Gallery present Holly Trostle Brigham

4 minute read
A richly colored nighttime watercolor of a 19th-century woman with red hair sitting at a desk, lit by a bright white candle
Holly Trostle Brigham’s 2021 watercolor ‘Elizabeth Siddal as Mariana.’ (Image courtesy of the artist; © Holly T. Brigham.)

In an unusual confluence, accomplished Philadelphia artist Holly Trostle Brigham (b. 1965) has two concurrent exhibitions in Wilmington. They’re just a five-minute drive from one another (less than two miles apart) at the Delaware Art Museum on Kentmere Parkway and Somerville Manning Gallery on the banks of the Brandywine in historic Breck's Mill.

“I Wake Again”

The museum has mounted this recently opened exhibition in conversation with its renowned collection of British Pre-Raphaelite art. Through her practice, Brigham is committed to recovering the life work of accomplished women whose oeuvre and names have faded or disappeared. Here, this PAFA-trained figurative artist brings her considerable force and focus to consider the life work of Elizabeth Siddal (1829-1862).

Siddal is remembered (if at all) as muse and model for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and others of the male-dominated Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. But she was herself an artist and poet whose body of visual and written work is coming to the fore via new scholarship, including the fact that Siddal’s artistic ambitions pre-dated her association with the Pre-Raphaelites. Working as co-curator with the museum’s Margaretta Frederick, Brigham has visually investigated, interpreted, and illuminated Siddal’s body of work, creating a contemporary window on the Victorian artist’s short but productive life.

A new artist book

The exhibition arose from Brigham’s desire to create another artist book, her third. Here, this remarkable centerpiece work (in an edition of 10) has two original drawings and 14 lithographs, each image accompanied by Kim Bridgford’s text (the West Chester writer’s last poems before her 2020 death). Encased in a decorated wooden box, the book references a medieval style “casket” Siddal created as a wedding gift for her friend Jane Morris. On view, it’s encased in a vitrine open to one page, but an interactive video screen allows for virtual reading.

The beautiful volume is only part of this small, richly detailed exhibition. Brigham expanded her conception to include drawings and a large (60” x 40”) and vibrant watercolor, redolent with imagery and Victorian iconography, of Siddal posed at her desk. There are hand-cut red clay tiles, beautifully framed in an arts and crafts manner. And (evoking the William Morris workshops) Brigham painted a gothic revival screen with scenes from Spenser’s Faerie Queene and created a stunning textile—draping a gallery wall and puddling onto the floor—that interweaves Siddal’s initials with intricate organic patterns of lilacs and roses.

A handcrafted rectangular wooden box holds a book with a brown marbled cover and a small glass bottle in its black interior.
Holly Trostle Brigham’s 2020 artist book box. (Image courtesy of the artist; © Holly T. Brigham.)

Brigham at Sommerville Manning

This venerable commercial gallery is known for handling 20th- and 21st-century artists from (among others) the Wyeth family and the Brandywine school of illustration. Though her work is markedly different, Brigham sits comfortably in that world. When she began work on the Delaware Art Museum exhibition, the artist also approached the gallery about a collaboration, something they had done previously.

This show also includes ceramic tiles and several of Brigham’s artist books. (The gallery is handling sales of works on view in both locales.) But in this intimate 12-piece show (through Saturday, March 26, 2022 only) are also works that more clearly elucidate the artist’s engagement with underrepresented women.

Brigham paints extensively in watercolor, and here are several striking ones, including Tamara de Lempicka: On Autopilot (2009). There is also the very large (82” x 60”) mixed media titled Flora as Isabella Andreini as Harlequin (2020), an interactive work studded with magnets whose “window covers” fold back to reveal small paintings. Both pieces are based upon formerly famous women (an aviatrix and a commedia dell’arte performer) passed over by time and history.

Increasing intricacies

Brigham’s works are in the collections of 21 public institutions, including Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of Women in the Arts, and university collections such as Mount Holyoke, Smith, Penn State, and the George Washington University. Her output, at first glance forward-moving and easily comprehensible, becomes increasingly subtle, layered, and intricate (visually, emotionally, and intellectually) the more you engage with it. Both exhibitions are beautifully mounted, each revealing something different.

At the museum, the work is gathered inside a sheltering, intimate gallery that brings the viewer into both Brigham’s complexities and Siddal’s inner world. At nearby Somerville Manning, the room (though small) bursts with a light that mirrors the artist’s expansive vision. Though each installation is perfectly capable of standing alone, there’s a better understanding of this artist and her world when they’re seen in tandem.

What, When, Where

“I Wake Again:” Holly Trostle Brigham on Elizabeth Siddal. Through May 2, 2022, at the Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington, DE. (302) 571-9590 or

Check the museum website for current pandemic protocols.

Holly Trostle Brigham: Concurrent Exhibition to “I Wake Again.” Somerville Manning Gallery, Breck's Mill, 101 Stone Block Row, Wilmington, DE. On view through March 26, 2022. (302) 652-0271 or

Masking and Covid-19 vaccination check are not required.


Delaware Art Museum and Copeland Sculpture Garden are wheelchair accessible, with free parking and a barrier-free entrance. Wheelchairs are available; personal care attendants receive free admission.

Somerville Manning Gallery has wheelchair access from its small parking lot, and the gallery is accessible by elevator.

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