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Marking the 50th anniversary of a historic celebration of women artists

Woodmere Art Museum presents Through Her Eyes

5 minute read
Painting of a white woman with coiffed brown hair & puff-sleeved golden dress with fur-lined burgundy satin wrap.

Through Her Eyes is Woodmere Art Museum’s contribution to (re)FOCUS, the city’s 50th anniversary commemoration of FOCUS, Philadelphia’s 1974 celebration of women in the visual arts.

The small exhibition establishes the museum’s integral role in elevating art by women with local connections, whether by birth, education, or practice. Much credit is due painter and curator Edith Emerson, who directed Woodmere from 1940 to 1978. Emerson made a priority of collecting and exhibiting art by women, including that of her life partner Violet Oakley (1874-1961), who is well represented in the collection.

Through Her Eyes is full of artists who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia College of Arts (now University of the Arts), and Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art and Design). One, Alice Kent Stoddard (1883-1976), followed an unusual path, going to war with her sketchbook.

Embedding with soldiers in Europe during World War I, Stoddard recorded battlefield action, making images the US Army used to sustain public support for the conflict. During World War II, she was a drafting artist for the Budd Company, a defense contractor. The work on view, though, reveals none of this experience.

Women painting women

In My Housekeeper (1925), Stoddard depicted a sweet-faced Black maid in a crisp blue and white uniform, taking a break. It’s a sympathetic portrait, but exhibition notes call attention to the title’s possessive tone, and Stoddard’s failure to identify the sitter by name.

Sarah Miriam Peale (1880-1885) didn’t bother titling or dating Woman in a Gold Dress. Experts estimate the painting to have been made in the 1830s or ‘40s, based on the style of clothing and clues yielded by the original frame. Peale, a member of Philadelphia’s painting family, was niece to Charles Willson Peale. The portrait confirms her gift for capturing personality in addition to physicality.

Laudably, the Peales trained daughters and sons to paint. Sarah, a highly sought portraitist, and two sisters who were also noted artists, were taught by their father James. In 1824, Sarah and her sister, miniaturist Anna Claypoole Peale, became PAFA’s first female members.

“Raw material is not history”

That Peale received credit for her work is worth noting, explained art historian Patricia Likos Ricci in a wide-ranging talk at the exhibition’s opening. Ricci, of Elizabethtown College, summarized a confluence of societal forces that radicalized women artists in the 1960s and ‘70s and led to FOCUS, including the Vietnam War, civil rights, Native American rights, gay liberation, environmentalism, and feminism. “Social change happened through the mass efforts of people,” Ricci said. “Women belonged to all these other groups.”

Why was FOCUS necessary? Because, for the preceding two centuries, female artists had been ignored, overlooked, and otherwise diminished. Critic Linda Nochlin stated their case plainly in a 1971 essay in ARTnews: "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" It became an instant manifesto.

Painting described in story. A sitting Black woman rests forward, elbows on a table. She wears a blue dress with white collar
My Housekeeper (1925), by Alice Kent Stoddard. (Courtesy of Woodmere Art Museum.)

Referencing Nochlin, Ricci explained that whatever women’s art had been preserved was “in the basements of museums … in cardboard boxes … in private homes. They exist, but raw material is not history. Someone has to sort it … pull it together and put it in an accessible form.” FOCUS did that, presenting 80 artists at the now long-gone Philadelphia Civic Center Museum. This citywide festival also featured panels, lectures, and workshops, all curated by five women, including Anne d’Harnoncourt (1943-2008), who went on to lead the Philadelphia Museum of Art for 26 years.

The Ten and Tiberino

Though some, notably Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942), thought the classification “woman artist” marginalized painters and sculptors, others thought it useful, and recognized the benefit of working together to advance their careers.

The Philadelphia Ten anticipated FOCUS by decades, exhibiting and marketing local women’s art from 1917 to 1945, with its last exhibition presented at Woodmere. Tea in My Studio (undated), a self-portrait by Ten member Susette Inloes Schultz Keast (1892-1932), depicts her sitting in a sunlit room, wearing a Chinese silk gown, cradling a large red cup and saucer. Her head and eyes are lowered demurely.

Nearby, the young Black woman in Ellen Powell Tiberino’s Summer Harvest (1984) is Keast’s figure transformed: Positioned identically, she holds a bowl of apples in her lap, but she’s nude, and not at all bashful. Braids glide over her shoulders and her head is lifted. She looks off to one side joyously, a gesture that dares anyone to overlook her.

Tiberino (1937-1992), a multimedia artist, was known for expressive works probing the experience of Black women. In 1977, she was the first artist to present a solo exhibition at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, and she often collaborated with her husband, muralist Joseph Tiberino. Together they created a monumental and controversial sculpture interpreting the 1985 MOVE bombing, which killed 11 people and destroyed a West Philadelphia neighborhood.

The ongoing fight for inclusion

Like the Tiberinos, FOCUS confronted an uncomfortable truth: That by 1974, it was past time for the art world to remove biased blinders and recognize all of the creators in its midst. Fifty years on, inclusion is still a struggle, another purpose behind (re)FOCUS. In 2024 as in 1974, there’s value in challenging prevailing ideas about art and artists, so as not to diminish any creator, whoever they are.

At top: Woman in a Gold Dress (c 1830s-40s), Sarah Miriam Peale. (Courtesy of Woodmere Art Museum.)

What, When, Where

Through Her Eyes: Women Artists from Woodmere’s Collection. Through August 25, 2024 at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 247-0476 or woodmereartmuseum.org.

Accessibility

All Woodmere galleries are accessible, with the exception of the Dorothy del Bueno balcony. Accessible parking is available near the Widener Studio building, to the right of the museum. Wheelchairs are available on request. For information and additional assistance, call (215) 247-0476 prior to visiting.

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