Bakersfield Museum of Art

Photo by John Hazelltine

Bakersfield, CA



Opening the Door: Women in Art


Open an art history book published before the 1970s and you'll find mention of only a handful of women artists - and that's if you're lucky and the writer was extremely open-minded.

Even today, most of us probably can't name more than a few female artists. Oh sure, you've heard of Georgia O'Keeffe and Mary Cassatt. But what about Rosa Bonheur or Sonia Terk Delauney or Henrietta Shore? Unknowns, for the most part, to the majority of us.

Well, that's about to change. The Bakersfield Museum of Art is out to raise our cultural standards and change the way we think about women artists with an exhibit running through October 26, 1999. "Opening the Door: Women in Art" will feature the works of 22 well-known female artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.

"Women artists have faced the same obstacles as other professional women trying to launch careers in what were traditionally male fields," said Charles Meyer, Executive Director of the Bakersfield Museum of Art. "I learned early on how difficult it is because my wife is a professional. In my studies of art, I realized how similar her situation was to the many female artists trying to make a name for themselves."

"There was a tremendous controversy in the late 19th century when American artist Thomas Eakins allowed females to attend life drawings in Philadelphia," said Shelley Stone, Chairman of the Art Department at CSUB.. "Many people were outraged that girls could go. It was okay for men to draw naked women, but it was definitely not okay for women to draw naked men."

Rosa Bonheur caused quite a stir with her paintings of farm animals, of all things. She wore male clothing and smoked cigars, so she was already something of an outcast, Stone said.

"When I went to school, it was rare to even have a female artist mentioned," Stone said. "Unfortunately, for the most part it was justified sociologically. As long as women were marginalized and treated as unimportant, they didn't have much influence as artists." Stone will teach a class focusing on women artists in conjunction with the exhibit this fall.

The women's movement in the 1970s made it easier for female artists, but even today they face obstacles. More women than men hold master's degrees in fine arts, but most exhibits at major museums feature the work of male artists. "It's certainly better than it used to be, but it's not a walk in the park," said Chalita Brossett Robinson, who has been teaching art at Bakersfield College for 30 years. And even as she applauds the efforts of the Bakersfield Museum of Art, Robinson decries the need for exhibits that single out one group. "I have mixed emotions about exhibitions that single out any segment of a community," Robinson said. "I think you have to do that because you have to highlight a group and give them extra attention. But in a perfect world, what we'd like to see is that everyone gets their due in appropriate amounts."

Images from top to bottom: Lilla Cabot Perry, Self Portrait, 1892, Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches, Perlmutter Fine Arts, San Francisco; Dorothea Tanning, Girl on the Beach, c. 1935, Oil on canvas, 30 x 15 inches, Perlmutter Fine Arts, San Francisco; Henrietta Shore, From the Studio Window, c. 1917, Oil on canvas, 18 x 22 inches, Perlmutter Fine Arts, San Francisco; Georgia O'Keeffe, A Friend, Watercolor, 17 x 4 inches, Collection of Bill and Dorothy Harmsen, Harmsen Museum of Art, Golden, Colorado, © 1999 The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Rosa Bonheur, Trophies, Oil on canvas, 13 x 6 1/2 inches, Collection of Bill and Dorothy Harmsen, Harmsen Museum of Art, Golden, Colorado; Georgia O'Keeffe, Dead Cottonwood Tree, Abiquiu, New Mexico, 1943, Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gary Cooper, © 1999 The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Read more about the Bakersfield Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine

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

rev. 10/18/10

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2010 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.