Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 24, 2002
Kirsten Swinth Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern American Art, 1870–1930 Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. 328 pp.; 40 b/w ills. Paper $18.95 (0807849715)
Laura R. Prieto At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in America Harvard University Press, 2001. 292 pp.; 13 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (0674004868)

As the first comprehensive histories of women’s artistic production in the United States, these ambitious and well-researched books initiate an important dialogue about women, creativity, and the visual arts. Surprisingly, neither of these authors are art historians: Laura R. Prieto is assistant professor of history and women’s studies at Simmons College, and Kirsten Swinth is associate professor of history at Fordham University. In fact, Swinth makes a point in Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern American Art, 1870–1930 of distinguishing herself from art historians whose “concern…has been with art—with the development of styles and patterns of artistic influence—rather than with the history of women or even the history of art world institutions” (214 n. 8). Perhaps American art historians should take this gentle chiding to heart. Happily, Erica E. Hirshler, the John Moors Cabot Curator of American Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, offers a third important contribution to this newly minted history of American women artists in her book and exhibition, A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston 1870–1940 (Boston: MFA Publications, 2001). Given the limited scholarship on American women’s artistic production, these books are a welcomed contribution to American art history.

Prieto and Swinth offer complementary approaches to the history of American women in the visual arts. Though Prieto begins At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in America in the Federal era, I would argue that both she and Swinth address two seemingly contradictory, yet highly pragmatic, struggles of women artists: “to dismantle structural exclusions based on sex, and articulate a vision of feminine professionalism that connected or adapted the process of making art to ideologies of womanhood” (Prieto 2). In the first three chapters of her book, Prieto offers a careful study of women’s artistic production from the early part of the nineteenth century through the 1860s, asserting the importance of the ideology of domesticity in formulating definitions of middle-class “true womanhood” and the emerging identity of the female artist. The last three chapters of the book define a notion of “feminine professionalism” and address its application to both the “New Woman” and the culture of modernism. It is here that Prieto enters into a dialogue with Swinth, who argues for the central role of gender in the construction of art-world institutions between 1870 and 1930. Swinth traces two generations of female painters through three periods of change: women’s initial foray in large numbers into the Gilded Age art world of the 1870s and 1880s (Chapters 1 and 2), the cultural backlash against women’s art-world successes (Chapters 3 and 4), and modernism’s embrace of individualism and self-realization that allowed men to reclaim the domain of high art in the early part of the twentieth century (Chapters 5 and 6).

Prieto offers a much-needed study of the historical conditions that framed women’s artistic production in the first half of the nineteenth century. In her opening chapter, she traces the earliest examples of women’s visual culture, from genteel cultural production centered in the home to work performed in the public arena. The latter is demonstrated by a fascinating discussion of the work of Susanna Paine, an itinerant portraitist who traveled throughout New England. Importantly, Prieto is careful to articulate class as a determining factor of identity. She explains that middle-class women initially engaged in artistic practice as amateurs to ensure their proper femininity, that is, a life devoted to leisure rather than labor, and divorced from the concerns of the market and public life. Similarly, she traces Paine’s career from working-class artisan to middle-class respectability. Prieto then discusses Elizabeth Ellet, who, in her important book Women Artists in All Ages and Countries (1859), first introduced a “language of feminine professionalism.” Through this discourse, definitions of middle-class womanhood legitimated work that had otherwise appeared improper, even threatening to unsex women. Prieto asserts that Ellet was the first feminist writer “to make a nearly flawless case for the femininity, domesticity, and ‘honorable independence’ of women artists” (36). Interweaving artistic productivity with domestic tropes, artists such as Lilly Martin Spencer, Harriet Hosmer, and Anne Whitney were able to cultivate successful professional careers as painters and sculptors without marring their womanly reputations.

In her second and third chapters, Prieto argues persuasively that “domesticity became the most powerful strategy available to women to establish their identities as ‘feminine’ professional artists” in the 1850s and 1860s (41). She brings attention to the women neoclassical sculptors in Rome who, she asserts, were “the most productive and clearly professional group of women artists in mid-century” (43). To be sure, these women saw no conflict between their identification with “true womanhood” and their commitment to artistic production, and domesticity played a large role in helping them construct an acceptable professional identity for themselves. However, Prieto oversimplifies when she concludes that “women artists created a coherent identity, one that used ideas about womanhood to legitimate their position and work as artists” (7). It is true that Hosmer often referred to her sculptures as her children as a way of distancing them from the commodity culture of the art market, despite the fact that Puck, her most favored “child” and most popular sculpture, was marketed to eager American tourists to help her gain financial independence. Apart from domesticity, Hosmer used many strategies for negotiating her professional life. She took a vow of celibacy and renounced marriage while maintaining a “boyish appearance” with her small stature, short-cut hair, and studio garb of beret and trousers. Indeed, she cultivated a childlike—almost impish—demeanor, devoid of dangerous feminine wiles. In this way, she mitigated the challenges posed to masculine artistic hegemony by all but concealing her professional aspirations behind a childlike appearance. Rather than adopting a “coherent identity” defined by domesticity, female artists, I would argue, exercised many performative strategies in their quest for professional success.

Both books offer an in-depth history of women’s artistic training in this country. Embedded within each author’s discussions is an attempt to reconcile or criticize, and even deconstruct, the classic feminist dichotomy of difference vs. equality. Prieto, on the one hand, seems to privilege difference while acknowledging the political necessity of equality. In discussing their life classes, for example, she states that “women recognized and even exploited the limitations placed on their art studies and work because of their sex. Women’s acceptance of, and even preference for, separate ladies’ life classes marks a significant compromise between the ideology of professionalism and the ideology of gender, and points to their self-identification as women and artists even as they began to imagine a genderless professional ideal.” (239–40 n. 58) Throughout her book, Prieto argues for a “feminine professionalism,” a career path that paralleled that of men but stood independent of it. Swinth, on the other hand, seems to argue for the preeminence of equality while acknowledging difference. She asserts that the professionalization of art schools after the Civil War served as one avenue toward this egalitarianism. For example, she quotes critic F. T. Palgrave, who when asked in 1865 whether genius in art was a matter of nature or education, concluded, “Women…could achieve artistic success if they were given the same education and public challenge offered to men” (Swinth 147). So, it is not surprising that she is suspicious of those women who chose separate life classes, demoting them to the status of amateur, thus bifurcating the field of women’s artistic production into “the expression of a lady’s cultivated refinement or the work of a disciplined professional” (33).

This debate continues in both authors’ analyses of the growth of women’s professional organizations. Prieto argues that their associations, exhibitions, and separate networks helped formulate their identities as artists. These separate institutions created “a protective female space” by shielding women from the notoriety of public exposure, as long as strict standards of excellence were maintained (Prieto 111). Similarly, Swinth traces the growth of professional organizations (both male and female) and the solidification of the gallery system, simultaneously charting the exclusion of women from membership and exhibition opportunities. She contends that this institutional reconfiguration refuted the egalitarianism of the professional ideal by segregating the “woman artist” into a separate, and unequal, category and was thus “an essential part of reorienting the hierarchies of the market to reflect women artists’ challenge to men’s dominance” (Swinth 116). But, she argues, women artists refused to acquiesce to these pressures, forming their own organizations, remaining active in the decorative-arts movement, and finding success wherever they could. One particularly popular genre was portraiture, where their feminine sensibilities and compassionate natures ostensibly gave them special insights.

At Home in the Studio and Painting Professionals raise important questions for feminist art historians in their attempt to address the equality vs. difference dilemma. In her groundbreaking book Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), Joan Scott argues that this dichotomy “puts feminists in an impossible position….The only alternative…is to refuse to oppose equality to difference and insist continually on difference” (Scott 174–75). Equality is not sameness; difference is, in fact, built into the very meaning of equality. Both authors help us puzzle through this binary opposition by putting into play, at least partially, a deconstructive political strategy. Prieto, for example, problematizes the gender-separate strategies at work at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial; and Swinth unearths the subversive potential of women’s participation in the decorative-arts movement.

These books offer a wealth of new information on the history of American women artists. Swinth examines the importance of Parisian ateliers to American woman artists, arguing that the new professional ideal they adopted in the 1870s and 1880s necessitated study abroad. This training allowed female artists to experience both a newfound freedom and self-confidence; however, it also subjected them to the stricter gender codes of the Parisian studio, a separatism that they would encounter again upon their return to the States. Prieto offers a fresh look at the emergence of the New Woman, who, she argues, was “a vital symbol and model of independence, professionalism, and public visibility around which women artists could rally” (Prieto 146). Visual culture played a significant role in the revitalization of women’s suffrage, and Prieto demonstrates that female artists changed the nature of the political debate by producing imagery of the suffragist as the New Woman—”brave, strong, and free”—in their cartoons and graphics (147).

Both authors conclude their studies with a discussion of the new culture of modernism that took hold in the first decades of the twentieth century. Swinth grapples with the emergence of modernism in more depth, outlining the shift from a culture of refinement to a new modernist framework in which the artist’s subjective vision became paramount. She explores the transformations in art criticism and its gendered language, particularly the obsessive use of such keywords as virility and individuality. This new masculine aesthetic ideology, Swinth argues, reasserted male control and checked thirty years of gains by female artists. Linked to an essentialist masculinity and the cult of self-expression, modernism excluded women because their expression was embodied—fundamentally linked to their own sexuality. To be sure, Theresa Bernstein, Marguerite Zorach, and Georgia O’Keeffe, among others, infiltrated these exclusive quarters and attempted to reconfigure the modernist project on their own terms. African American women, Prieto reminds us, also participated in the making of modernism. She argues that the Harlem Renaissance was not as exclusively a male terrain as was much of European modernism. Excluded from an essentially white middle-class feminism, professional African American women artists such as Augusta Savage, Nancy Prophet, and others found a comfortable home within modernist expression.

Before closing, I would like to enter a plea to authors and publishers committed to the expanding field of visual culture to assign more importance to the illustrations in their texts. Art historians, to be sure, are well versed in arguing for the maximum number of reproductions when publishing their scholarship; perhaps historians are not. Prieto, for example, opens her first chapter with a discussion of a self-portrait by Anna Claypoole Peale that she neither reproduces nor locates. She compares this self-portrait to one by Sarah Miriam Peale, which is illustrated. In this lengthy comparison, the reader is left somewhat adrift, unable to assess Prieto’s assertions about femininity and representation without access to the former artist’s painting. The dearth of illustrations (sixteen in total) is a liability for this book and does a disservice to this otherwise excellent study.

That said, these two important texts are a “must-read” for anyone interested in American art history. “By locating the rewriting of culture in the art world,” Swinth invites us “to understand the visual world as a major ground for cultural change” (Swinth 10). Both books have ambitious agendas. Prieto and Swinth bring our attention to the process by which art world institutions are gendered and the ways in which those institutions framed the artistic production of women. These comprehensive volumes provide a necessary feminist intervention into the history of American art.

Melissa Dabakis
Professor and Chair, Art History Department, Kenyon College