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Beautiful Things: Still Life Paintings by American Women 1880-1940

January 16 - February 14, 2014


The Olivet College Visual Arts Department will present its first exhibition of the new year, "Beautiful Things: Still Life Paintings by American Women 1880-1940," at the  Riethmiller Blackman Art Building January 16 through February 14, 2014.

Curated by Edward P. Bentley, the exhibition features still life paintings from more than 30 artists. Though highly accomplished, these women lived in a time when female artists were scarcely recognized. "In researching the lives of these artists, much of the known information only lists organizations with which these women were affiliated -- almost nothing is said about their work or abilities," Bentley said. "Even exhibited works were often disguised by changing the signatures of their paintings, thinking that initials implied a male artist, which would be advantageous in marketing when artwork by women did not bring comparable prices as works by men."

The work featured in the exhibition is on loan from private collectors and galleries nationwide. "Although many of the artists featured in this exhibition remain little studied, today their work is gaining wider recognition due, in part, to collectors and museums dusting off their archives and finding an appreciative audience," Bentley said. "These works are a testament to the enduring legacy of our American women."

An opening reception will be held Friday, January 17 from 4 to 6 p.m. inside the building's Kresge Art Gallery. Both events are free and open to the public.

The exhibit will travel to the Manistee Art Institute, Manistee, Michigan, March 7 - 22, to be the feature there for National Women's Month. 


Curator's Statement

Beautiful Things: Still Life by American Women Artists, 1880-1940

"In the future artwork will be judged by its intrinsic merit, irrespective of the artist's sex"
Sara Eddy, 1884 Rhode Island Historical Society

A still-life painting may be described as "a representation of objects that lack the ability to move and which are, for artistic purposes, grouped into a composition." This exhibit highlights a small measure of the type and style of artwork in the area of still life that was accepted and exhibited in the late nineteenth and into the early twentieth century by our American women artists.

To put women in the perspective of the 19th and early 20th century, Vicki Leigh Ingham, in her book Art of the New South: Women Artists of Birmingham 1890-1950 wrote: "It is important to understand the society in which these women lived to appreciate their work. In late nineteenth and early twentieth-century America, a woman's place was essentially in the home. The most conservative view held a woman's highest duties were to her husband and children, and her role in life was 'to uphold morality, instill virtue, and expend herself in nurturing, self-sacrificing maternal love.' A second view allowed women to extend their nurturing activities to charitable and philanthropic work outside the home. The most radical position declared that women were actually morally superior to men and therefore entitled to a leadership role in the world. As art came to be equated with high moral purpose, women could legitimately extend their activities into the public sphere of art galleries and museums in the name of moral education and cultural refinement. Art-making thus became an acceptable profession for women"

In researching the lives of these artists, much of the known information in even the major reference biographies only lists organizations with which these women were affiliated. Almost nothing is said about their work or abilities. Even exhibited works were often disguised by changing the signatures of paintings, thinking that initials implied a male artist, which would be advantageous in marketing when artwork by women did not bring comparable prices as works by men. Also, many promising careers were short-lived and almost completely undocumented due to the restraints of marriage. Yet all the artists shown here had belonged to prestigious arts organizations; many were National Academicians. Indeed, most had won awards in national and regional exhibitions. Some had works enter museum collections and almost all had attracted the attention of art critics and collectors. We find however, that even the obituaries of many of these women fail to mention their artistic interests and accomplishments. They have been so neglected through the years by art historians and people of responsibility connected with American museums and even private galleries.

Although many of the artists featured in this exhibition remain little studied, today their work is gaining wider recognition due, in part, to collectors and museums dusting off their archives and finding an appreciative audience. These works are a testament to the enduring legacy of our American women.

In assembling the works of art on display, the generosity of lenders, both public and private, was amazing, and each credit line should also be read as a note of thanks.

- Edward P. Bentley, Curator


Artists in the exhibition

Mae Bennett Brown
Della Flora Cleveland  
Charlotte Buell Coman
Blanche Helen McLane Cook  
Sarah Elizabeth Bender De Wolfe  
Frances Farrand Dodge 
Susie Willard Dugan (Dibble)
Lydia Dunham Fabian
Frances Wiley Faig
Ellen Burpee Farr   
Ethel Elizabeth Foster 
Marie Osthaus Griffith  
Nellie Ward (Scearce) Haller 
Addie Hartson   
Bessie Helstrom  
Sara (Sadie) Mae Hess
Christiana A. Hoerman   
Ellen Wales Hutchison   
Sister Mary Immaculata
Margaret Caroline Sawyer John  
Emma Fordyce MacRae
Francis M. Mumaugh  
Emma Alice "Polly" Nordell 
Ethel Paxson  
Marguerite Stuber Pearson  
Annie Pogson 
Belle Bogardus Robbins
Eleanor Roberts   
Alta West Salisbury 
Martha Brownlee (Forrest) Somerville  
Cora Bliss Taylor   
Alice Hagerman Thurber  
Gertrude Martin Tonsberg
Nina Belle Ward  
Millie L Burrall Wood


(above: Annie W. Pogson (1857-1931), Roses, oil on canvas,18 by 26 inches. Edward and Wendy Bentley Collection.

An artist noted for her landscapes and floral still life's, Annie L. Willfong was born in the Hawaiian Islands around 1860, the daughter of George Washington and Mary (Crosby) Willfong. She married Robert Pogson in 1890 -- her second marriage -- and the couple settled in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles. Her artistic education is unknown but seems to have been more than adequate preparation for self expression. She exhibited sporadically on the West Coast, although she was a member of the California Art Club. Several exhibits included the Alaska-Yukon Pacific Exposition, 1909, the Hawaii Society of Artists, 1917, their inaugural exhibit, and the Woman's Club of Hollywood, 1919. She is also noted as being an exhibiting member of the West Coast Arts Incorporated, an organization composed entirely of women painters and sculptors, inaugurated in 1920 in Los Angeles.)


(above: Alice Hagerman Thurber (1871-1952), Early Summer Hibiscus, Oil on board, 16 x 20 inches. Edward and Wendy Bentley Collection.

Known for her paintings and etchings, Alice Hagerman Thurber was born in Birmingham, Michigan and was a lifetime resident of that city. She attended both Oberlin College, where she studied piano, and Michigan University, graduating in 1895. Her artistic education included being a pupil of Joseph Gies at the Detroit Fine Arts Academy, attending the Detroit Commercial Art School and the Chicago Art Institute. She also studied for a number of years at the Saugatuck, Michigan Summer School with Frederick Fursman and Albert Krehbeil.

Mrs Thurber joined the Detroit Society of Women Painters and Sculptors in 1923 and for more than twenty-five years served in the different offices and on the executive board; she was voted a life member in 1949. Later in life she continued her classes, studying with Sarkis Sarkisian with the Birmingham Society of Women Painters.)


Julia A. Collins Stohr (1866 -1947), Roses, Oil on canvas, 18 x12 inches. Edward and Wendy Bentley Collection.

A landscape and still life painter of note, Julia Collins was the daughter of Jasper P. and Mary A. Collins. Raised in Toledo, she left there in 1884 to study in New York at the Cooper Union Art School. Established in 1859, the women's art school operated during the day, separate from the men's school. She also studied at the Art Students League of New York, under instructors James Carroll Beckwith, William Merritt Chase, Frederick Warren Freer, privately with J. Alden Weir and William Lathrop, and in Paris, France.

In 1890 she married Peter C. Stohr of the Harriman Railway lines. In 1905 he began development of the Stohr Arcade, a train station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright on the Chicago Elevated. In 1912 however, just a few short years after it was completed, he passed away after a short illness.

In "Seasons of A Maine Childhood," Elizabeth (Davey) Velen wrote of Julia Collins Stohr: "My grandmother had lived in many homes ­ in Carmel, California, New Hope Pennsylvania, St. Paul, Minnesota, in a house modeled on a Venetian palace on the North Shore of Chicago, in New York City and in southern France. Grandmother exposed us to art by means of a simple ruse. She owned an extraordinary collection of postcards from her travel abroad. As the widow of an official of the Union Pacific railroad, she had a lifetime pass for railroad and steamship lines worldwide and this she made ample use of every fall, winter and spring.

When grandmother died at the age of eighty-four in a tiny Greenwich Village apartment she was still surrounded by her paintings, postcards and art books, and had not a penny left to pay the funeral expenses."

(above: Ella K. (Baldwin) Carpenter (1877 - ), Smoking Supplies, Oil on canvas, 11 x 14 inches. Edward and Wendy Bentley Collection.

The only child of Aaron H. and Elizabeth Baldwin, Ella Kay was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey. Her father was a physician of note. She married Melville Carpenter, a purchasing agent for a novelty company, in 1898. They settled in Newark where she was to live for the remainder of her life. They were divorced in 1928. According to the 1930 Census, she owned a rooming house with five members of the Allan family as renters. In her later years she was a member of the Newark chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. She also wrote several patriotic poems, one of which, "Mistress Mary Williams," was awarded a prize by the State Historical Contest, DAR, Trenton, New Jersey. According to Revolutionary War Records, Mary Williams gave freely of her supplies to Washington and his troops, while her husband and two sons were with the British, a Revolutionary tragedy.

The discovery of the painter of this work was purely accidental. Initially purchased as a work by a very early male artist, conservation of the work revealed the signature of Ella K. Carpenter, 1901. The painting was purchased several years ago from a family that had lived in an old farm house outside of Newark, New Jersey since the mid-1920's. It had been found in the attic, likely left by the previous owners and it had been in their family since. Quite typically, research has revealed literally nothing of her artistic career. Currently, this is her only "known" work.


About Olivet College

Established in 1844, Olivet College is a private, liberal arts institution located in south central Michigan. The college remains dedicated to its academic vision of Education for Individual and Social Responsibility by providing a quality higher education to all, regardless of gender, race or financial means. The college is home to more than 1,100 students, who study under The Olivet Plan. In this unique educational experience, students engage in both curricular and co-curricular programs that combine real world experiences with lectures and service learning. For Kresge Art Gallery hours and fees please contact the Olivet College Visual Arts Department.

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For further biographical information on certain artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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