Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on April 20, 2012 by permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact the author at http://iwa.bradley.edu/ If you have questions regarding the exhibition, please contact the Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences directly through either this phone number or web address:


Skirting Convention: Illinois Women Artists 1840 to 1940

by Channy Lyons


A unique and distinctive exhibition of artwork by early Illinois women artists owes its beauty and vitality to the sixty-three women who created paintings, drawings, sculpture, prints and photographs during a century that saw women's roles and lives change markedly.

Most of the artists in the exhibit were successful during their lifetimes. They were ambitious, self-disciplined, determined...they had to be in order to succeed in a male-dominated field. They used their creativity and ingenuity to overcome obstacles to learn to prepare and produce their work and then to market and sell it.

Many trained at leading art schools; their works were selected by juries to enter top exhibitions, and they won their good share of awards and medals. They organized art clubs, and created posters to support women's rights, using art as a tool to shape opinions. They opened galleries, ran art schools, joined the art union, initiated no-jury exhibitions, raised families, supported their husband's work...and they taught and inspired future generations of women artists. Yet, little is known about them today.

In 1840 Illinois was at the country's western frontier. Admitted to the union in 1818 with its capital at Kaskaskia, Illinois' first settlers entered through southern routes and spread north. They had full days, men breaking the fields for planting and building homes and other structures, women attending to household tasks, raising children and minding the pigs and chickens and the gardens. Little time was left for art making and other creative pursuits.

Yet in the 1840s Elizabeth Flower Ronalds, whose brother founded the town of Albion near the Indiana border, opened an art school. Women's education often included lessons in the drawing and watercolor painting of still-lifes and landscapes, a genteel practice intended to increase the young women's sensitivity and prepare them for intelligent motherhood. They were, after all, their family's cultural guardians, responsible for health, education, productivity and moral character.

To become career artists they needed rigorous professional training. Susan Hely St. John (1834 - 1913) was taught to paint by her father Hilliard Hely, a portraitist who noted his daughter's interest in drawing at an early age and encouraged her. Over time she became a recognized talent in Chicago. In 1863 she donated work to the Ladies' North-Western Fair to aid the Civil War's sick and wounded. The following year one of her paintings, along with only five other women artists' works, was included in the 200 art pieces shown at the first Chicago artists' exhibition.

The women's struggle to establish careers as professional artists paralleled the movement for suffrage rights. In the 1860s and 70s art schools opened to women, but excluded them from figure drawing classes with nude models. Instead, female students copied figure drawings and plaster casts and studied anatomy books. Within the next decade, the restrictions were lifted and women joined the men. Eager to participate in a career that offered the possibility of creative employment, they attended art schools throughout Illinois. By the turn of the century the Art Institute of Chicago classes averaged more women than men students.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871destroyed exhibition galleries, artists' studios and the Academy of Design's 300-piece painting collection. Cornelia Adele Fassett (1831 - 1898) shared a studio on Wabash Avenue with her husband Samuel, a photographer, where she painted portraits of prominent Chicagoans and hand-colored and touched up Samuel's photographs. Their studio and its contents were lost in the fire.

Fassett was one of the first Chicago women artists to study in Paris which she did in the mid-1850s and again in 1866 with her husband and three of their eight children. American women artists, emboldened by the feminine movement with a greater sense of freedom, crossed the Atlantic Ocean to study, believing as the men did that academic training in Europe was an essential part of their education. Pauline Dohn (1866 - 1934) studied at the Académie Julian in Paris and exhibited her work in the Salon of 1888. She roomed with three Chicago artists including Alice Kellogg Tyler (1880 - 1969), whose painting was accepted for the Paris Exposition of 1889.

Belle Emerson Keith (1865 - 1950) of Rockford studied first in Munich, where she learned to apply the somber, atmospheric tones of the German realists, and then in Paris. She returned to the Midwest in time to enter a painting in the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Her work was accepted and received an honorable mention.

Women artists continued to spend time studying European art, scenery and ambiance well into the 20th century. When they returned home the artists applied what they had learned to views of their own countryside, developing personalized styles as Pauline Palmer (1867 - 1938) did. Palmer became known as "Chicago's Painter Lady," praised for her American Impressionistic paintings of outdoor figures as well as intimate domestic scenes and portraits. In 1918 she became the first woman president of the Chicago Society of Artists.

Almira Burnham (1840 - 1932) was what they called a society lady, able to devote her time to civic and cultural interests, especially painting, which she attended to as her husband did his career. She had an art studio on the upper floor of her home in Bloomington, Illinois, where she worked daily. Her floral still-lifes -- were her most admired works. She had a distinctive way of putting dewdrops on the petals, something she studied while in Paris. In those days, art was meant to be beautiful.

Promoting their work was unseemly for women raised to be submissive. Patrons were not easily found. At first, many artists depended on their mother's friends. Throughout their careers, they staged exhibits in their homes and studios, serving tea and hanging their work from floor to ceiling. Some women artists formed societies for the sole purpose of exhibiting their work.

Harriet Blackstone (1864 - 1939), who was 38 years old when she gave up teaching elocution in Galesburg, Illinois to paint portraits full-time, returned from studying abroad to Glencoe, a suburb north of Chicago, and built a studio where on Sunday afternoons she entertained at congenial teas and displayed her artwork.

The women signed their paintings with their initials or their last names so the quality of their work would not be discounted as "women's" art. They chose styles, mediums and themes carefully to avoid direct competition with the men. Sculptor Bessie Vonnoh (1872 - 1955) created small statuettes of society women, friends and children which she called "Potterines." She supported herself and her mother with these creations. Magda Heuermann (1858 - 1962) and Martha Susan Baker (1871 - 1911) painted miniatures, usually in watercolor on ivory. Baker's works were said to be among the finest in the world, so prized that she was compelled to resign her teaching positions in order to spend more time painting.

Beginning in the 1870s, art associations devoted to the study, practice, exhibition and popularization of art were organized throughout Illinois, primarily by women. The Ladies Art Society of Peoria formed in 1878 expanded a decade later to become the city's Women's Club, which built a clubhouse in 1893 where art exhibits, and other cultural activities, were held. Some years later club member Dora Bourscheidt (1854 - 1933) entered her painting in the Peoria Society of Allied Arts' "Best of Illinois Oil Painters" exhibition. Bourscheidt later learned that her painting was selected because the judges thought it showed the strength and dynamism associated with men's artworks. Women's art was judged differently from men's and the finest compliment a critic could pay was to say that she painted like a man.

In Chicago, Alice Kellogg Tyler (1862 - 1900) founded the Bohemian Art Club in 1880 with her friend Marie Lusk. The club provided companionship and support. Members met on Saturdays in Lusk's studio to sketch from a live model and to critique each other's work. Annual sketching trips were held in July, and exhibits of members' works were arranged for viewing at the Art Institute. During the depression of the early 1890s, when artwork was difficult to sell, the club women painted smaller pictures in order to make them more affordable, a successful strategy.

Cecil Clark Davis (1877 - 1955) was 16 years old in 1893 when she attended the speeches given by women's rights leaders in the Woman's Pavilion at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. Despite the traditional Romantic style of her paintings, Davis was a woman ahead of her time, thoroughly modern. Throughout her life, she traveled the world freely, an independent, unconventional woman of the arts, devoting her life to her painting career. She painted more than 500 portraits. Her subjects ranged from friends and servants to luminaries, such as aviator Charles Lindbergh and inventor Alexander Graham Bell -- and included her thirty-five dogs.

Anna Lee Stacey (1871 - 1943) painted artistic figures, portraits and landscapes in a conservative American Impressionist style, like the one shown here of a young woman leaving Gloucester, Massachusetts at the end of a summer vacation. In the early 1900s, Anna and her husband John Stacey, a landscape painter, spent summers in the art colony of Gloucester, he painting meadows and farmhouses while Anna depicted wharves and seaside scenes. In Chicago the prolific couple lived in a two-room apartment-studio at the popular Tree Studio building on Chicago's near north side. Anna exhibited frequently in group and solo shows at the Art Institute.

The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition inspired many women, including Anita Willets Burnham (1880 - 1958) who toured the exhibition, noted the number of paintings shown by professional American women artists, and decided to become a painter. She trained and then showed her work at Chicago's Art Institute. In 1921 she persuaded her husband to leave his job and packed up her five children to spend a year in Europe, touring and sketching and painting every day. They stayed in third-class accommodations and learned to barter and trade paintings for food, new shoes, and other necessities. After a second family trip that began in the Far East in 1928, Burnham wrote the book Round the World on a Penny, a light-hearted tour guide for family travelers. The Burnham family's artwork illustrates the book.[1]

As consumer markets grew, many women artists supported themselves by preparing illustrations for advertising agencies, newspapers and books. They designed furniture and carvings, copper hinges and handles for the Krayle Company, a guild organized by muralist Ida Burgess and sculptor Julia Bracken-Wendt. Magda Heuermann (1858 - 1962) who worked in the Arts & Crafts tradition was an art restorer and illuminator, adding decoration and illustrations to book pages. Dulah Evans Krehbiel (1875 - 1951) designed covers for Ladies Home Journal and Harper's Bazaar, prepared advertisements for Marshall Field & Co., and illustrated a cookbook for the Armour Company.

Women artists taught at schools and societies throughout Illinois to support themselves and their families. In 1889 landscape and portrait painter Amy Kirkpatrick (1862 - 1935) began teaching art at the Union Academy, a private high school in her hometown of Anna, Illinois. The drawing class cost 12 1/2 cents. With Enella Benedict's (1858 - 1942) guidance, Hull House on Chicago's south side became a thriving center for experimentation in modernist art in the 1920s and '30s. Benedict, director of the studio arts programs for more than 40 years, lived at Hull House and maintained her studio there. She also taught at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Painter Natalie Henry (1907 - 1992), like Kirkpatrick and Benedict, chose career over marriage. She supported herself as a typist at the Art Institute's Ryerson Library and as bookkeeper for the Hubert Ropp School of Art. Photographer Clara Brian (1875 - 1970) made the same decision. She became the first Home Bureau adviser in Illinois, bringing new ideas about nutrition, health, education, and self-improvement to rural women in McLean County in the 1920s. Brian traveled the county with her folding camera, which produced 3" x 4" negatives. The women she instructed became the subjects of her striking photographs.

When Jean Crawford Adams (1884 - 1972) returned to Chicago in the late 1920s after several years of living in Paris and traveling in the American Southwest, she found a new way of expressing what she saw in the city where she'd grown up. Chicago had become America's industrial capital, the nation's second largest city, adding to the country's image of economic might and power. Jean wanted to capture that energy in her work, and she chose Precisionism as the style in which to do it. An American invention, Precisionism deals with form and is focused on industrial architecture. Jean was among the first of the Precisionist artists.

In 1926 painter Kathleen Blackshear (1897 - 1988) began her 35-year career teaching art history at the Art Institute of Chicago. She introduced her students to non-Western art, taking them to the Field Museum of Natural History and the Oriental Institute on the University of Chicago campus where they discovered African and Asian art forms, materials and processes that they could use in their own art making. These experiences influenced the next generation of Chicago artists, and the future developers of the unique art styles known as the Monster Roster and the Chicago Imagists.[2]

Blackshear's partner Ethel Spears (1903 - 1974) is best known for her detailed paintings that are layered with figures and visual narratives. She was a documentarian, a storyteller of everyday life, using art as autobiography. Her illustrational style had wit and originality. She taught at the Art Institute of Chicago, establishing the enamel classes toward the end of her tenure.

About 1912 Rifka Angel (1899 - 1986) immigrated to America from Calvaria, Russia. Like her father, who sketched and embroidered in his spare time, Rifka had an interest in art making, which he and others encouraged. Her Modernist paintings were spontaneous expressions that used vivid colors, rich textures and intricate patterns to describe a scene. In Art Appreciation Class, for example, she portrays a group of gaily dressed women visitors listening to Art Institute of Chicago director Daniel Catton Rich describe the museum's Matisse and Picasso paintings on the wall behind them, during the 1933-34 Century of Progress exhibition.

Julia Thecla (1896 - 1973), a shy farm girl from Delavan in central Illinois, became one of Chicago's best-known fantasy painters in the 1930s. Her works are personal visions applied to canvas and paper with technical skill and a colorist's sentiment. Not surprisingly in her continuous search for herself, Thecla appears frequently in her own paintings. Surrealist painter Gertrude Abercrombie's images were equally idiosyncratic. Sparse -- and, as she suggested -- "a little strange," her pictures include objects that function as personal symbols.[3] The solitary female figure she painted was always her.

Marginalized as Midwesterners and as women, Chicago modernists like Abercrombie and Thecla, Macena Barton and Fritzi Brod saw the world differently, art historian Susan Weininger points out. "They didn't have to meet the expectations of the art capital (New York)" which gave them the freedom to experiment. "They were able to find their own way of speaking," and created intriguing, exceptionally original works.[4]

Abercrombie would tell you if she could that the Great Depression was a good thing for her. In 1934, she was hired by the WPA's Illinois Arts Project (IAP), a federal relief program for artists, from which she received a monthly wage, art materials and the freedom to develop the themes and art style she would pursue for the rest of her life. She was 26 years old and finally able to rent her own apartment in Chicago.

Hundreds of women artists benefited from the IAP federal relief programs: Frances Badger painted regionalist-style murals of Treasure Island at the Robert Louis Stevenson Playground; Maude Craig from Creal Springs, not far from Carbondale Illinois, took to painting in her fifties when she joined the art classes organized by the IAP and went on to capture charming hometown scenes at a time when the community -- the country -- welcomed reminders of happier days.

The IAP's married persons clause restricted couples from employment in the project, so Frances Foy (married to artist Gustaf Dahlstrom) competed for mural assignments from the Treasury Department's art program, which commissioned artists to decorate newly constructed federal buildings. She received commissions for five murals.

Ruth Van Sickle Ford was not an active WPA painter, but she did something very bold in the middle of the Great Depression. She bought the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, an important progressive school that featured training in commercial art. An astute manager, she kept costs low, making classes available to those who truly wanted to learn to make art. Under her leadership, the Academy prospered. It prepared graduates to take a business-like approach to their art-making career. She said once, "If a woman has the desire to do something, she should do it."[5] Ruth and many other Illinois women artists certainly proved that was possible.



1. Two families of women artists are included in the Skirting Convention exhibition. Works by five generations of Anita Burnham's and Clara Park Cahill's families are shown.

2. Carole Tormollan, "Blackshear, Kathleen," Women Building Chicago 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary, ed. Rima Schultz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 85.

3. Gertrude Abercrombie, Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the University of Illinois (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1951), 157, quoted in Susan Weininger, Gertrude Abercrombie (Springfield: Illinois State Museum, 1991), 12.

4. Bonnie McLaughlin, "On Exhibit: 'New Women' of Prewar Chicago," Chicago Reader, February 17, 1994.

5. Edward Barry, "Old Town Remembers Frances Foy; Holds Exhibition of Her Paintings," Chicago Tribune, January 12, 1964, G2.

About the author

Channy Lyons is guest curator of the Skirting Convention: Illinois Women Artists 1840-1940 exhibition and director of the Illinois Women Artists Project, which gathers information about early Illinois women artists and provides an appreciation of their work and experiences. Lyons researches and writes magazine and newspaper articles and books, curates exhibits and arranges programs that focus on Illinois women in history, especially women artists and arts organizers. Her book, Hedley Waycott, Peoria's Premier Artist, received the Superior Achievement Award from the Illinois Association of Museums. She also writes and records features about local art for her program "Hidden Treasures" on NPR station WCBU. Currently she is writing a book about the art and experiences of Illinois' early women artists.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on April 20, 2012, with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on April 17, 2012.

This article previously appeared in the September - October 2003 issue of American Art Review.

Skirting Convention: Illinois Women Artists 1840 to 1940 was organized by the Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences, Peoria, IL. The guest curator is Channy Lyons, director of the Illinois Women Artists Project. The schedule for the exhibition is:

Learn more about early Illinois women artists and see images of the exhibition artwork at the Illinois Women Artists Project website.

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

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