O'Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists in New York

February 18 - May 15, 2016



 

Zorach text panel and artwork labels

 

Zorach text panel:

Marguerite Thompson Zorach

1887-1968

In 1908 Marguerite Thompson traveled to Paris, where she saw work by Expressionist painters such as Henri Matisse, whose extreme color and abstracted form had caused critics to dub them Fauves, or "wild beasts." She also met the American art patron and writer Gertrude Stein, who introduced her to other avant-garde artists. As a result, Thompson became one of the first Americans to experiment with Fauvism.

In Paris, Thompson befriended American artist William Finkelstein, whom she encouraged to pursue modernism. He admired her intensely, writing, "You look at things in such a big original way." In 1912 they married, changed their surname to Zorach -- Finkelstein's given first name -- and moved to New York. When Marguerite's work was included in the 1913 Armory Show there, critics commented on its "extreme modernity."

Nevertheless, by mid-decade, Zorach's paintings began to be eclipsed by those of her husband. After the birth of her children in 1915 and 1917, she became frustrated by her lack of concentrated time to paint. She shifted her focus to batik, embroidery, and hooked rugs, since she could return to these techniques intermittently, accommodating the demands of motherhood. Zorach's textiles were widely admired, and she received embroidery commissions from many patrons. These became her family's major source of income into the 1930s.

Zorach continued to paint, combining an interest in pattern and decoration with real-world subject matter. In the early 1920s, she produced a series of radical nudes that she used to explore the nature of both art and gender. As her children grew, she showed her work more widely and served as a leader for a number of important artists' organizations.

Despite such efforts, Zorach's reputation diminished. Although her textiles sold well, these media were associated with women and thus seen as less important. By 1930 critic Marya Mannes described Zorach as "the most retreating of all humans," a far cry from the radical she had been earlier. Yet while her contemporaries did not fully appreciate her work, the paintings and textiles shown here demonstrate her important contributions to modernism.

 

Zorach labels:

 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Les Baux, 1910
Oil on panel
Portland Museum of Art, Maine. Museum purchase with support from the Friends of the Collection, the Scribner Acquisitions Fund, the Bernstein Acquisition Fund, and a gift from William D. Hamill, 2010.26
 
Les Baux was one of Marguerite Thompson's earliest experiments with Fauvism. Emulating French Expressionist painters such as Henri Matisse, she used vibrant, unmodulated color and abstracted form to convey the emotional impact of her subject rather than describe how it actually looked. In this case, she painted the distinctive craggy cliffs in the South of France. By flattening the landscape's forms to compress the pictorial space and juxtaposing complementary colors -- particularly reds and greens -- she suggested the vivid drama of this terrain. Such radical paintings amazed Thompson's future husband, artist William Finkelstein. He later recalled, "I just couldn't understand why such a nice girl would paint such wild pictures."
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Untitled, circa 1913
Watercolor on paper
Charles V. Murray
 
As she worked to formulate her own modernist style in the early 1910s, Zorach used watercolor as well as oil paint. In Untitled, she combined tree forms with a series of abstract circles and diagonal lines that cut across the composition. As in the contemporaneous work of the Italian Futurists, these non-objective elements suggest the dynamism of her subject. Zorach loved nature and was rejuvenated by it throughout her life. This watercolor conveys her sense of the trees' vibrant underlying energy. When the artist showed such radical works back in her native California, Los Angeles Times Antony Anderson described her as "the most modern of the moderns."
 
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Landscape with Figures, 1913
Gouache and watercolor on silk
Private collection, courtesy of the Gerald Peters Gallery
 
Zorach shared with French modernists like Henri Matisse an admiration for non-Western art, which seemed to offer an ideal model for the type of modern decorative painting she sought to create. She had many opportunities to see such objects on display in both Paris and New York, and on a trip around the world she took with her aunt in 1911 and 1912. In paintings such as Landscape with Figures, she experimented with brilliantly colored, detailed patterns reminiscent of those in Persian miniatures. Zorach's unusual choice to paint on silk may also reveal her interest in East Asian art, where such material was traditionally used as a support.
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Bathers, circa 1913-14
Oil on canvas
Norton Museum of Art, Purchase, R. H. Norton Trust, 2015.72
 
Although she became a lifelong New Yorker, Zorach found renewal in her family's trip into the countryside every summer. Like French Fauvist painters, in works such as Bathers, used the abstracted female nude to convey the freedom possible in such an escape. Here, women cavort in a brilliant, otherworldly space in which any sense of depth is replaced by a rhythmic repetition of form and color. Like many other modernists, Zorach believed that art ought to be decorative. By painting this landscape as a strongly graphic pattern, she conveyed the dynamism and joy underlying nature.
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
The Garden, 1914
Oil and charcoal on canvas
 
Portland Museum of Art, Maine, Museum purchase with a major gift from an anonymous donor and support from the Friends of the Collection, the Bernstein Acquisition Fund, the Peggy and Harold Osher Acquisition Fund, and Mrs. Alexander R. Fowler, Barbara M. Goodbody, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Konkel, David and Sandra Perloff, John and Gale Shonle, and Roger and Katherine Woodman, 1998.111
 
In the 1910s, the Zorachs established a pattern of leaving New York for the summer in order to escape the city's bustle and heat. The Garden the fantastic vegetable patch of their holiday retreat in Chappaqua, New York, where they lived in 1913 and 1914. The generous scale of this work indicates Zorach's growing ambitions, as she continued to explore the use of abstraction, brilliant color, and compressed space to create a vision of people at one with nature. The highly formal composition, which resembles a decorative frieze, contrasts with the freedom of the suggestive lines, which evoke watercolor, a medium Zorach was also experimenting with in these years.
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Provincetown, Sunrise and Moonset, 1916
Oil on canvas
Sheldon Museum of Art, Sheldon Art Association, Nelle Cochrane Woods Memorial, N-229.1968
 
Zorach spent the summer of 1916 in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, where the atmosphere was heady with modernism: she and her husband painted alongside other avant-garde artists including Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and Abraham Walkowitz. In this powerful canvas, combined vivid Expressionist color with a Cubist and Futurist dissolution of form to convey the nearly apocalyptic look of a landscape suspended between night and day. The small figure at lower center seems to be dancing, celebrating the joy Zorach found in such scenes of nature's splendor.
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Justin Jason, 1916
Oil on canvas
Andrew Nelson
 
Here, depicted a shoemaker through his shop window, so that his name appears over his head. Modernist artists beginning with the French Impressionists had painted glass and mirrors as they investigated the nature of representation, and Zorach's canvas is in this tradition. There is no sense of depth: the letters, plants, man, sewing machine, and curtain are transformed into a two-dimensional pattern. Yet Zorach used this decorative style to portray a real-world subject whose rolled-up sleeves and intense gaze indicate that he is in the act of working. There is a tension between the picture's form and its content, between its function as a window -- literally and figuratively -- onto the world and its reality as paint on canvas.
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Autumn Hills, circa 1917
Oil on panel
Collection of the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, Mrs. A.E. Carlton Purchase Fund, FA1971.20
 
In modernist landscapes such as this canvas, created an interplay between two and three dimensions. Here, the painting suggests both the muted colors of the fall countryside receding into space and a flat pattern. Just at the time she created this work, the artist was beginning to execute more of her decorative compositions in embroidery and batik, since the demands of caring for two small children made the concentrated time needed for oil painting increasingly difficult to find.
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Scarf, circa 1917-18
Batik printed silk
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift from the collection of Tessim Zorach
 
When she began focusing more on textiles in the late 1910s, Zorach experimented with a number of media, including batik -- an Indonesian technique of wax-resist dying that she used to produce works such as this one. Batik yielded graphically strong designs that were ideal for Zorach as she continued her exploration of the decorative as a modernist impulse. She likely also favored this medium because of its origin. Zorach, like many modernists, believed that non-Western art provided particularly effective models for the decorative work they sought to create. Here, her use of motifs such as a tiger and the woman who is nude from the waist up was likely also inspired by non-Western art.
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Pegasus/Hand Bag, circa 1918
Wool embroidery on burlap or linen
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift from the collection of Tessim Zorach
 
After the birth of her children in 1915 and 1917, Zorach found that she had increasingly less time to concentrate on her painting, so she began creating textiles instead. As she later explained, embroideries were "very good things to do for an artist who has children to take care of. . . . [They] can be picked up or put down at will." Zorach used embroidery to create both pictures to hang on the wall and objects to be used, like this hand bag. As this work demonstrates, in such textiles she employed motifs that were similar to those in her early modernist paintings. Here, the mythological subject of Pegasus justified Zorach's creation of an otherworldly Fauvist landscape.
 
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Tree of Life Coverlet, circa 1918
Linen fiber: tabby weave with plied
wool yarn and chain stitch embroidery
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Helen Miller Obstler
 
A number of people commissioned textiles from Zorach after she first exhibited these works in 1917. This coverlet is one of two created for Linda R. Miller. Drawn from the Bible, the Tree of Life theme allowed Zorach to incorporate many of her favorite motifs, including nudes, mothers and children, and Near Eastern animals, as she used embroidery to create a distinctive decorative modernism. Although they persisted in seeing Zorach's textiles as less important than fine art, critics did admire them. The editor of Vanity Fair an article on this coverlet entitled "Modern Tapestry in Coloured Wools: A Bed-spread by Marguerite Zorach Which Achieves Something of the Importance of a Work of Art."
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Ella Madison and Dahlov, 1918
Oil on canvas
Williams College Museum of Art, Museum purchase, John B. Turner '24, Memorial Fund and Karl E. Weston Memorial Fund, 91.32
 
Zorach had two children: Tessim, a son, born in 1915, and Dahlov, a daughter, born in 1917. To help with childcare, she and her husband hired a nanny, Ella Madison, whom Zorach painted in this work holding Dahlov. Zorach's portrayal monumentalizes Madison; her calm presence dominates the pictorial space and conveys her importance in the household. Despite Madison's assistance, Zorach was frustrated by the lack of time she had for her art. Although her husband recognized her vexation, he did nothing to relieve her; but there is no evidence that she asked him to. The Zorachs accepted the traditional expectation that a wife cared for the children. Consequently, Zorach assumed more domestic responsibilities, whatever the impact on her art.
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Prohibition, 1920
Oil on canvas
Collection of Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences, Charleston, WV
 
In the early 1920s, Zorach produced a series of innovative treatments of the nude. Prohibition one of the most radical of these works. Through a Cubist fracturing of form, she compressed the pictorial space, bringing the three figures up against the picture plane and confronting the viewer with the strangeness of two clothed men juxtaposed with a nude woman. The role of this woman in the male space of the modern speakeasy is ambiguous in this painting, as indeed a woman's place was in the world in which Zorach lived.
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Two Sisters - Marguerite and Her Sister Edith, 1921
Oil on canvas
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond J. Harwood & Louise B. Cochrane Fund for American Art
 
In Two Sisters - Marguerite and Her Sister Edith, Zorach used a Cubist compression of pictorial space to emphasize the close relationship between her sister and herself. Indeed, it is difficult to determine where one figure breaks off and the other begins. This painting is one of Zorach's few self-portraits.
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
West 10th Street, circa 1922
Oil on canvas
Collection of Priscilla and John Richman
 
Here, Zorach painted her friends Bertram and Gusta Hartman in the Zorach home, which was a major gathering place for both visual artists and writers. She later recalled, "The young poets used to gather at our house. . . . Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams. . . . It was an exciting time. I don't quite know why we were a meeting place, but we were interested and our house was very exciting and beautiful - on no money, only paint and spirit!" In West 10th Street, tipped-up perspective and flattened planes of color create an overall sense of decorative pattern that suggests the energetic atmosphere of the Zorach household.
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Nude Reclining, 1922
Oil on canvas
On loan from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay, 1986.362
 
Symbolic portrayals of the eternal woman were popular in the 1920s, when women's achievement of suffrage made their increasing mobility more fraught. Zorach's reclining nude is the opposite: she shows off her real body, its hint of pubic hair preventing her from ever being seen as a classical nude. Her sexuality is front and center, but its nature is ambiguous. The flower alludes to women's traditional association with fertility, and the plant's curve echoes the figure's form. Yet that plant is a cactus, which suggests potential danger and also conjures images of the desert, an arid and seemingly infertile environment. Like many modernists, Zorach did not resolve these contradictions but left her meanings open-ended.
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Shore Leave, 1922
Oil on canvas
Andrew Nelson
 
As she frequently did, in Shore Leave Zorach compressed the pictorial space to achieve an expressive effect. In this case, the sailor's advances on the woman seem more insistent because the truncated perspective seems to connect his body to hers. However, she fends him off with her upright hand, demonstrating her control of the situation. The figure's evident strength was characteristic of increasing numbers of women in the 1920s, who continued to work for women's rights after they gained the vote.
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Family Supper, circa 1921-22
Embroidered tapestry
Private collection
 
Zorach used textile media to create not only objects that could be used, but also pictures like this, which were meant to hang on a wall. Embroidered tapestries were ideally suited to her modernist exploration of decoration, since their repetition of the same colors throughout give them an inherent graphic strength. The artist dyed her own yarn in order to achieve the hues she desired. In contrast to the more mythological figures on her earlier textiles, those in Family Supper grounded in everyday life. Through using the same sort of abstracted form, truncated space, and vibrantly unnaturalistic color that appears in her paintings, Zorach conveyed the liveliness of a family meal.
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Couple in a Cityscape, circa 1922
Watercolor on paper
Tom Veilleux Gallery, Portland, Maine
 
In contrast to the nudes in Zorach's paintings from the early 1910s, this pair stands out against their environment. By fracturing the buildings' forms in a Cubist manner, Zorach conveyed the energy of the industrializing city just as other modernists were doing at this time. Yet the figures' looming presence complicates the picture, contributing to an overall tension between the real and the otherworldly, the academic and the modern, and the traditional idealized nude and these more anatomically correct figures. Zorach may have been inspired to create this strange juxtaposition by contemporary Dada, which she would have been familiar with from practitioners such as Marcel Duchamp. As in Duchamp's work, such bizarreness calls into question the nature of art itself.
 
 
Marguerite Thompson Zorach
American, 1887-1968
Portrait of Florine Stettheimer, circa 1915
Pencil on paper
Art Properties, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University in the City of New York, Gift of Mr. Joseph Solomon, 1973, (1973.02.01)
 
Zorach likely met Florine Stettheimer through French expatriate artist Marcel Duchamp. Zorach attended the salon that Stettheimer and her sisters held in their Manhattan apartment, and the two painters became good friends. This one of two drawings of Stettheimer that Zorach produced. Stettheimer disliked her friend's insightful depictions of her in these works because they were too honest, free from the idealization that she used to portray herself in her own paintings (on display in a later gallery). Zorach inscribed these portraits to Joe Solomon, the Stettheimer family's lawyer, who was particularly supportive of artists.
 
 
 

Zorach quote for wall:

"When I became a painter, in the days when painters were reveling in color, I was fascinated by the brilliancy of color in wools and the extraordinary variety and life of these colors."
 
-- Marguerite Zorach, 1945


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