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The Allen Sisters: Pictorial Photographs of New England, 1885 - 1920
September 17, 2005 - January 8, 2006
(above: Frances S. Allen, Bed by Day, 1901-1902, platinum print. Courtesy of Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield, MA)
Frances Stebbins Allen and Mary Electa Allen's photographs are among the greatest visual reminders of old New England. The exhibition, The Allen Sisters: Pictorial Photographs of New England, 1885 - 1920, on view at the Florence Griswold Museum from September 17, 2005 through January 8, 2006, is a tribute to the sisters' artistic legacy, which has been lost from view for most of a century. Although few people today have seen the depth and breadth of their work, in 1901 the Allen sisters were praised as being among "The Foremost Women Photographers in America." Organized by Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, Massachusetts, the fifty platinum prints offer idealized photographs of country scenes, figure and child studies, and landscapes of New England, California, and Great Britain. To complement the photographs, works drawn from the Florence Griswold Museum's expansive collection of Tonalist and Impressionist paintings will also be on view. The visual and thematic similarities between these works provide a provocative new context in which to consider the Allens' haunting compositions. (left: Ernest Lawson, Connecticut Landscape, c. 1902-04. Florence Griswold Museum)
Capturing New England Country Life
Beginning in the 1880s, Frances (1854-1941) and Mary (1858-1941) Allen of Deerfield, Massachusetts, joined other women drawn to the newly accessible field of photography after progressive hearing loss forced both to give up their chosen careers in teaching. The Allen sisters learned their craft through photography journals and photographers summering in Deerfield. Working within social and aesthetic reforms of the Arts and Crafts Movement, they found that Old Deerfield's eighteenth-century houses and furnishings offered an ideal environment for their colonial re-creations, and their family and neighbors further accommodated them by donning period clothes to complete the pictures. Book and magazine publishers, capitalizing on Colonial Revival interests, soon commissioned photographs of children, country life, and costumed figures.
The Pictorialist Movement
Although romanticized visions of the past are the Allens' best-known photographs, Frances and Mary Allen also mastered less descriptive images with evocative compositions, exquisite tonal values, and innovative use of light in the Pictorial style advocated by eminent photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. These "artistic" images were included in numerous exhibitions in North America and Europe. (left: Frances S. and Mary E. Allen, Constance, 1897, platinum print. Courtesy of Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield, MA)
A 1901 exhibition reviewer admiringly wrote of Frances and Mary Allen's artistic vision: "The Misses Allen use their camera in the same spirit with which a painter uses his brush, and their sense of composition, of the dramatic moment, is as eminent a qualification for their art as for his." To further this comparison, the Allen sisters' Pictorial photographs will be exhibited alongside a selection of works drawn from the Florence Griswold Museum's permanent collection. Works such as Childe Hassam's Summer Evening and Ernest Lawson's Connecticut Landscape will help the viewer connect the visual and ideological similarities between the media and provide a stimulating new context in which to consider them. Drawing from the art historian Michael Baxandall's concept of "The Period Eye," developed in the 1970s, it will be suggested that the moments of formal and thematic convergence witnessed in the exhibition reflect the broader concerns of American society between 1885 and 1920. "Rather than celebrating the progress of science and industry at the turn of the century," explains Dr. Emily M. Florentino, Curator of American Art at the Florence Griswold Museum, "these paintings and photographs consider their consequences. That they do so using the latest technological developments is a point of irony worth exploring."
Accompanying Catalogue and Programs
The exhibition is accompanied by The Allen Sisters: Pictorial Photographers 1885 1920, a meticulously researched book by Suzanne L. Flynt, curator at the Memorial Hall Museum. The 192-page hardbound publication is available on-line and at the Museum's Shop. An active schedule of lectures and educational programs, which follows this release and is also listed on-line, further illuminates the richly diverse themes of the exhibition.
Special Activities and Events held in conjunction with the Allen Sisters exhibition
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