Editor's note: The Thomas Cole Historic Site and Hawthorne Fine Art provided source material to Resource Library for the following article and essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Thomas Cole Historic Site directly through either this phone number or web address:


Remember the Ladies: Women Artists of the Hudson River School

May 2 - October 31, 2010


In the course of the nineteenth century, American women became increasingly involved in the discovery and documentation of the vast and still largely unexplored terrain of the United States. Some of these adventuresome women recorded their impressions of the awe-inspiring landscape in paintings, which is the focus of an exhibition at Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Co-curated by Jennifer Krieger of Hawthorne Fine Art and Nancy Siegel, associate professor at Towson University, this exhibition seeks to increase awareness of these still under-recognized female landscape painters, whose daring curiosity and technical virtuosity led to artworks of great depth and beauty. (right: Julie Hart Beers (1835-1913), The Hudson as seen from Henry Villard's House-Tarrytown-Christmas, 1881, Oil on composition board, 12 inches diameter. Collection of Jack and Mary Ann Hollihan)

While artistically inclined women in the nineteenth century found some measure of support and encouragement at the newly established seminaries and schools devoted to educating young women in fine art, and from certain open-minded male colleagues, they were still forced to contend with a number of inequities. America's most prestigious art academies did not admit female students, and Victorian etiquette prevented women from engaging in life drawing, a fundamental component of artistic education. Female artists were also excluded from the prominent art clubs, which allowed their male counterparts to secure patrons. And of course, women's domestic duties interfered with their artistic aspirations, a conflict which did not set back male artists. Finally, in the realm of landscape painting, women were restricted by their customary mode of dress: corsets, bustles, long skirts, trains, and heels made it difficult to move freely through natural settings in pursuit of the perfect vantage point.

Women interested in touring the United States, in hiking and in painting en plein air began modifying their outfits, shortening their skirts to rest above the ankle, and even attaching hoop mechanisms that allowed them to lift their skirts for difficult climbs. By the middle of the century, department stores carried shorter skirts that would better suit female travelers. Two particularly ambitious adventurers, painters and close friends, Susie M. Barstow and Edith Wilkinson Cook are included in the present exhibition. They were both leading members of the Appalachian Mountain Club, and often went on excursions together. Barstow is said to have climbed one hundred and ten different mountain peaks in her lifetime. In Woodland Interior (1865), Barstow captures the sense of solitude and spiritual reflection that can be aroused by a forest enclosure, as light radiates through the cathedral-like vaults of trees overhead.

In some cases, the sense of independence these women must have felt when on outdoor expeditions came also to define the way they conducted their daily lives. After the death of her husband, Julie Hart Beers moved in with her brother, Hudson River School painter William Hart, but was determined to become financially independent. Supplementing proceeds from the sale of her artworks with income earned by leading sketching trips in Vermont and the Adirondacks, she was able to move into a studio in New York City with her two daughters, a lifestyle that would have been considered quite "bohemian" at the time. Her works such as Hudson Valley at Croton Point and Summer Landscape masterfully balance a Pre-Raphaelite attention to detail with a strong sense of overall composition. (left: Laura Woodward (1834-1926), Untitled (Clarendon, Vermont?), 1874, Oil on canvas, 15 3/4 x 23 1/2 inches. Collection of Edward and Deborah Pollack)

While many of the women included in the exhibition were connected in some way to celebrated male artists of the period -- Julie Hart Beers was the sister of James and William Hart, Harriet Cany Peale was the wife of Rembrandt Peale, Edith Wilkinson Cook's family was close to both Sanford Gifford and Jervis McEntee, Charlotte Buell Coman was friends with George Inness and Alexander Wyant, Mary Josephine Walters was a student of Asher B. Durand, and Mary Blood Mellen was a student of and collaborator with Fitz Henry Lane -- it would be a mistake to explain their artistic accomplishments through such connections alone. Each artist on view expresses her singular vision with exquisite skill, bringing forth the many dimensions of the American landscape, and combining spiritual transcendence with an immersion in the earthly.

Remember the Ladies: Women Artists of the Hudson River School features approximately 25 works including paintings, embroidered landscapes, photography, and drawing manuals by artists, such as Julia Hart Beers (sister to William and James Hart), Evelina Mount (niece to William Sidney Mount), Susie Barstow, Eliza Greatorex, Harriet Cany Peale, and Josephine Walters among others. The paintings of Thomas Cole's sister, Sara Cole, and her daughter Emily Cole will also be on view.

Jennifer Krieger comments, "This remarkable group of female artists was able to overcome all obstacles they faced. Their physical and lifestyle accomplishments (in pioneering an exploration of the outdoors and acquiring their subject matter directly from the landscape) was just as remarkable as their aesthetic and artistic achievements, particularly considering the social constraints imposed on their gender. We are proud to feature works of such high quality that speak to the outstanding and undaunted talents of their makers and which put them on par with their male counterparts." (left: Mary Josephine Walters (1837-1883), Hudson River Scene, n.d., Oil on canvas, 17 x 28 inches. Neville-Strass Collection)

"With all the attention that has been given to the 19th century landscape movement, it is certainly time that the names of these women become better known. The fact that there were women who were inspired by the landscape during the same years as Asher Durand and Frederic Church is a story that needs to be told, and we are so pleased to bring these women's fascinating stories to the public," said Betsy Jacks, Executive Director of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site.

Following its stay at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site the exhibition will travel to Hawthorne Fine Art in the fall of 2010. Plans are underway by Siegel and Krieger to develop a more extensive version of the exhibition to travel nationally. "The concept for this exhibition is to expand the discussion of Hudson River School painting beyond the celebrated male artists toward a more inclusive conversation that addresses the vast number of women who ventured in the American landscape with artistic ambition," explains Dr. Siegel.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 34-page printed catalogue with full-color illustrations co-written by Jennifer Krieger and Dr. Nancy Siegel. The title of the exhibition is taken from a letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams in 1776: "I desire you would Remember the Ladies if particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion."

To view the catalogue for the exhibition please click here.
To view the essay titled "Petticoats and Palettes:  Dress and Women Painters of the Hudson River School" by Olivia H. Good please click here.
To view additional images from the exhibition please click here.


Resource Library editors note:

The .pdf containing the exhibition catalogue was provided to Resource Library May 6, 2010, with permission of the Thomas Cole Historic Site and Hawthorne Fine Art. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Elizabeth Jacks of the Thomas Cole Historic Site and Marcia Clark of Shameless Promotions, LLC for their help concerning permissions for making available to Resource Library readers the viewing of the catalogue.

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

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