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Creating History: Indiana's Historic Women Artists

November 19, 2004 - February 20, 2005

As the Indiana Historical Society explains the exhibition Creating History: Indiana's Historic Women Artists: "During the second half of the 19th century, an unparalleled art movement emerged in Indiana that drew national acclaim for the men who were part of it. During the same period, scores of talented Indiana women also painted and sculpted and earned their own following."

The Swope Art Museum, the Indiana Historical Society and five partner museums, have created a unique collaboration featuring paintings, sculpture, ceramics and prints by Indiana's historical women artists.

Based on the new IHS Press book Skirting the Issue: Indiana's Historical Women Artists by Judith Vale Newton and Carol Ann Weiss, this exhibition features the work of more than three dozen women artists. The exhibition will travel throughout Indiana to select locations and will include paintings, sculptures, ceramics and other media, as well as a brief overview of the roles these women played in Indiana's early 20th century art movement. (right: Ruth Pratt Bobbs, The Spanish Shawl, 1911, Swope Art Museum. Gift of Mr. & Mrs. James Snodgrass)

In describing the accompanying 2004 book (ISBN: 0-87195-177-0), the IHS Press explains its focus as follows:

According to the ethos of the late 1800s and early 1900s, a woman's destiny was to be a wife, mother, and guardian of the virtues of hearth and home. Some women wanted more, however, and despite cultural expectations, chose to explore their creativity and seek training in art. Often, at considerable social cost, these women exchanged washboards, ovens, and mending baskets for the challenges of a piece of canvas or block of stone.
In Skirting the Issue, authors Judith Vale Newton and Carol Ann Weiss present dozens of women from Indiana who chose this route. The authors include a biographical dictionary detailing the lives of 100 of the state's historical women artists, and single out nearly 40 artists for further examination in detailed essays. They describe the challenges, the sacrifices, and the varying degrees of success they met. While this first-of-a-kind book focuses on Indiana women specifically, its stories offer excellent insights into the culture and values of the greater Midwest -- and the nation at large -- in the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century.

The tentative tour schedule for Creating History is:


Text from wall panels for the exhibition:



At the turn of the twentieth century, Indiana was a place of great economic growth and dominance. Not only did the state have one of the strongest economies in the Union, but also it was home to a unique creative culture that included authors, actors, and artists.
Women who dared to enter Indiana's art world experienced a spectrum of success and failure. Those with financial means and leisure time were generally more successful as full-time artists. Women who were not born or married into moneyed families either had to struggle for success or allow their aspirations to be subordinate to the needs of their children or the desire of their husbands. Of those women who did pursue careers in art, few did so exclusively. Women were expected to balance their artistic pursuits with their traditional role as wife and mother.
For any path a woman artist followed, the road to success was both difficult and fraught with obstacles. Creating History examines the art and careers of nearly sixty pioneering Hoosier women artists whose work helped define Indiana art, but whose story, until now, has largely remained untold.


A Woman's Art

The art of Indiana's historic women reflected their world. Their subject matter often evoked themes of domesticity such as the family, home, and garden. But, as women increasingly found a political voice and became advocates of social causes, so too did they reflect those concerns in their art. Olive Rush, one of the most notable women artists to hail from Indiana, spent a great deal of her life in the American Southwest where she depicted the lives of Native Americans and became a vocal advocate for indigenous culture.
Women artists used a variety of media in their artwork. While most chose lighter, "feminine" media such as watercolor, pastel, charcoal and pencil, some ventured into oil painting, a medium considered "masculine." Other artists excelled in works of sculpture and craft, an area regarded more appropriate for women artists. Works of garden statuary, pottery, metalwork, and textiles were elevated in stature through the development of arts and crafts societies that briefly flourished during the period.
Opportunities for women to exhibit their works or gather to discuss art were limited. Many of the state's wealthier, educated and more urban women connected by forming social clubs such as the Women's Department Club. By 1919, Indiana boasted more than 50 such organizations. These social groups focused on community enhancements, literature, music and the visual arts. In 1925, it was the Daughters of Indiana who organized the first Hoosier Salon -- the oldest juried exhibition in Indiana. The exhibit not only gave much deserved attention to Indiana artists, but also permitted women to participate equally with men.


Artist and Pupil

The notion that women could be trained as fine artists took decades to develop. For most women at the turn of the twentieth century, education ended at grammar school. Few women attended college and education in the arts was even more remote.
Even for those able to afford it, art education opportunities were limited, especially for rural women. An isolated individual generally sought instruction from an artistic family member or, in some cases, lessons from a nearby professional. For those who went to art college, women in northern Indiana gravitated toward schools in Chicago while those in southern Indiana traveled to Cincinnati. A few fortunate Hoosier women trained overseas in the public academies and private studios in France and Germany.
In 1902, the John Herron Art Institute opened its doors in Indianapolis. The Institute drew pupils from the city as well as rural central Indiana communities. Herron's progressive stance on women's education attracted many notable women artists. Those who didn't attend college often elected to study directly under a mentor such as the locally famed painter William Forsyth. Some traveled to New York to seek instruction from America's most famous artist of the era, William Merritt Chase. A native of Indiana, Chase was the first artist in the United States to offer professional art instruction to women.


RL editor's note: Additional source material for this article was provided by the Indiana Historical Society.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Swope Art Museum in Resource Library.

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Copyright 2003, 2004 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.