March is Women’s History Month and we can look back over the last decade where a mere 11 percent of all acquisitions and 14 percent of exhibitions at 26 prominent American museums included artworks by women artists. For this reason alone, the Vassar Lehman Loeb exhibit “Women Picturing Women” is a welcome show featuring the work of women from the seventeenth century to the 1960s drawn from their permanent collection. While the works vary according to the time the work was produced, visitors will observe how the culture and practices of the times influenced the artwork created by women.
Curator Patricia Phagan selected thirty-nine works organized by subject, including: Portraits: Intimate Appraisals; Idyllic Landscapes: Comfort and Security; Domestic Scenes: Private and Personal; Narratives: The Stimulus of Ideas; and Documentary Photographs: Into the Streets, including paintings, drawings, photography, sculpture, and textile in this show.
Included are portraits such as the etching, “Self Portrait at the Table” by Käthe Kollwitz, depicting herself momentarily looking up from her work to gaze directly at the viewer. In “Woman Resting Her Head on Her Hands,” Titina Maselli’s pen and ink drawing takes up the entire picture plane, making a powerful portrait with patterning and strong textural blocks. Alice Neel’s “Mother and Child” is a self-portrait holding her daughter; a bittersweet painting remembering Neel’s one-year-old child that died. Neel paints the park they are visiting with a bleak background in the dead of winter; two bare trees frame the figures seated on a park bench. Neel posed the mother holding the child in a way that is reminiscent of historical depictions of the virgin and child.
Women artists emerged as documentary photographers in the early twentieth century, allowing them to explore scenes beyond domesticity. Influenced by the philosophy of Robert Henri’s Ashcan School that elevated documentation of everyday life, photographers captured ordinary moments and made them extraordinary. Rosalie Thorne McKenna is well-known as a photographer and film-maker who captured literary giants, such as Dylan Thomas, and also focused on architecture in Europe and Latin America. The photographs in the exhibit show her talent at capturing informal moments. Photographer Diane Arbus’ work, “A Young Brooklyn Family Going for a Sunday Outing, N.Y.C.,” is a fine example of the artists’ keen eye in capturing the regular people we see on our daily business and shining a light on their individuality. Arbus was known to establish a strong rapport with her subjects, which comes through in the intimacy of the subject’s gaze in their portraits.
The exhibit includes a preliminary study that Marion Greenwood did for a mural in Mexico City. In 1935, she traveled to Mexico at the invitation of the Mexican government and was included in a team of artists that painted murals in a newly built Mexico City market. Her work is influenced by the Mexican Muralist movement that focused on the injustices done to workers by the ruling class. Through the historic lens, the mural work of an American woman is especially important during this time.
Women Picturing Women: From Personal Spaces to Public Ventures exhibition through June 13, 2021 at Vassar College’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.
This article was originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal Lifestyle section, March 7, 2021.