Women Only: Folk Art by Female Hands

April 6 - September 12, 2010


Selected wall texts from the exhibition


In 1870, the beloved author Louisa May Alcott gave shape to her dream of "the coming woman" in her novel An Old-Fashioned Girl. Fanny, a citified and primped "girl of the period" is introduced by her country friend, Polly, to a group of earnest young women artists, none of whom lie within Fanny's refined social orbit. In one corner of the room stands a larger-than-life clay figure conceived by one of the artists in response to a conversation about what women should strive to be. The artist reveals the symbols that she plans to lay at the figure's feet: "needle, pen, palette, and broom . . . to suggest the various talents she owns . . . and the ballot-box will show that she has earned the right to use them." When asked what she thinks of the sculpture, Fanny, disconcerted by this independent company of women, hesitantly replies, "I don't know whether it is meant for a saint or a muse, a goddess or a fate; but to me it is only a beautiful woman, bigger, lovelier, and more imposing than any woman I ever saw."

It is ironic to introduce this exhibition with the work of a male artisan, Samuel A. Robb, whose imposing Sultana nevertheless seems to embody the spirit of Alcott's vision of women as more fully realized and empowered versions of themselves. However, around 1880, when this figure was carved, female sculptors were still rare. Most of the works on view here were created before the advent of the coming woman and comfortably within the time-honored conventions of female expression. The few artworks that stepped outside carefully scripted boundaries still adhered to the strictures of post-Revolutionary Republican Motherhood and the Cult of Domesticity. Yet these graceful expressions from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were artful from conception to execution. Displayed in parlors and best rooms, they conferred status and taste upon both heads of household: male and female.

The aggressive presence of male artistry seems irrelevant to these artworks that operated almost entirely within a separate circle, possessing an authority that was judged primarily by female peers and important figures such as teachers and parents. Tellingly, the majority were made during years spent in the cultivation of skills and qualities that prepared a young woman to shoulder the many roles required of her in adulthood as a wife and a mother. Others demonstrate that women continued to nourish their creative selves by plying those skills throughout their lives. The very survival of these tender works of art speaks to the value in which they have been held by succeeding generations, even as the identities of some of the artists have faded into history.

- Stacy C. Hollander, senior curator



In Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 (1982), the renowned historian Laura Thatcher Ulrich considered married women as being simultaneously housewives, deputy husbands, consorts, mothers, mistresses, neighbors, Christians, and, sometimes, heroines. Ulrich suggested the ubiquitous pocket, that necessary carryall tied around a woman's waist, as a symbol of female skills, responsibilities, and expectations. The wider range of men's wallets and ladies' reticules on display is further emblematic of the diversity of roles that a woman played throughout her lifetime as both helpmate and ornament.



Whether consciously or not, self-taught female artists in the early decades of the twentieth century often assumed the guise of the grandmother. Painting nostalgic scenes of rural life or traditional feminine activities such as quiltmaking, these comforting images preserved and espoused an unthreatening archetype of women as agents of harmonious family life over the course of generations in a stable world. This stereotype was nurtured by the tenets of the Colonial Revival movement that associated an authentic American heritage, in part, with women's works, especially pieced cotton quilts. In the popular imagination, folk art quickly became the home where female creativity dwelled.

Grandma Moses was perhaps the first such artist to achieve widespread recognition. Her tight gray bun, wire-rim glasses, and black high-neck dresses became a carefully cultivated public persona that added immeasurably to her success in the art world. Significantly, this image was set against a backdrop of society-wide disruption as traditional roles were turned on their heads during World War II and the ensuing Cold War era. Rosie the Riveter, powerful, independent, competent, and sexual, challenged the status quo, while an artist such as Grandma Moses acted as a tonic, calming agitated Americans with her old-fashioned presence and representation of continuity and order.



Throughout the seventeenth and into the eighteenth centuries, art-related goods and services were produced primarily by male artists within a guild system that had survived from medieval Europe. The knowledge of paints, painting, and other aspects of artmaking were mysteries preserved and protected within this closed, male-dominated system. Women worked largely outside the province of this knowledge, using tools such as needle and thread that had long been available to them and that were highly prized by the societies in which they navigated. These needlework skills fulfilled most of the roles enumerated by the historian Laura Thatcher Ulrich: clothing the family, warming and covering the beds, and ornamenting the home. They could be further parlayed into monumental artistic expressions, such as quilts, that permitted a woman to showcase her individual creativity, her conversance with current aesthetic trends, and, in some cases, her independent thoughts. These last might be overlooked, though, as they were subsumed into the familiar -- and hence invisible -- landscape of the domestic female sphere.

The arts practiced by girls and women suggest to some degree the prescribed nature of female lives. Samplers were executed in counted threadwork and often relied on demarcated compositions with strong borders; mourning pieces were strictly codified in their symbolism and visual content; theorem paintings used cut stencils to build imagery; quilts were based on multiple borders or block construction. Women worked with mediums that were culturally acceptable or innovated with unusual materials, such as tinsel and marbledust, that were outside the high-art canon of easel painting and sculpture. Within these parameters, as in life, lay the freedom for innumerable iterations and personal artistic satisfaction.



"Women are destined by nature to preside over domestic affairs." So wrote Rebecca Carter in her school copybook in 1794. Female education in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries focused on basic reading, mathematics, and needlework skills, with finer ornamental arts at a premium. In addition to needlework, girls might learn to draw and to paint with watercolors, the kind of painting "most convenient for ladies," according to one educator in the 1830s. It was in this early national period that female literacy reached a new high, as a woman's intellectual attainments were directly tied to her ability to raise educated sons. These decades after the Revolution are among the least examined in American women's studies, with few public figures or events of notable historical significance. Interestingly, they were years of unprecedented female artistic activity, much of it under the auspices of a talented schoolmistress.

Serious schools, such as the Litchfield Academy in Connecticut, offered ornamental arts but combined them with rigorous academic studies that "ornamented the mind" as well, such as Greek, Latin, botany, history, geography, philosophy, and religion. The Litchfield Academy broke new ground in its aspiration for its female students to excel academically, receive a thorough religious grounding, and engage in charitable and benevolent activities. It was one of a handful of schools led by dynamic women that paved the way for succeeding generations of strong, moral women who -- without questioning traditional roles -- led the groundswell to augment female participation in domestic and national life with greater rights, freedoms, responsibilities, and influence.



Portrait painting throughout the nineteenth century was largely the province of male artists. In addition to the long history of men as practitioners of this genre, the itinerant lifestyle often attendant upon the activity was deemed not appropriate for most women. A few female artists from the colonial period through the nineteenth century defied this division. Their efforts were mostly pastels, miniatures, or watercolors on paper rather than oil on canvas, and more often than not were meant as tokens of friendship or gifts for family and friends and not as an essential means of income. Deborah Goldsmith was one rare exception, a young woman who painted to support herself and her "aged parents," as suggested by a family history. When she traveled in western New York State during the 1820s and early 1830s, Goldsmith was usually accompanied by a family member or trusted religious leader. Once they married, most women ceased their professional artistic activities. But many further explored techniques and mediums they had mastered as schoolgirls, drawing, painting, and stitching for their own enjoyment, for the care of their households, and for the beautification of their homes.



In broad strokes, home and church represented the two poles of a woman's life. Women were not innately more susceptible to religion than men. Rather, they were trained from infancy to be the keepers of the flame of faith, ultimately providing the moral and religious center for those within their purview -- most importantly, their children, and especially their sons. Girls were educated with the aim of becoming women capable of raising sons whose religious character and higher education fitted them to contribute materially to society. "Virtue" was their touchstone, a laden word that expressed the values a girl should aspire to and that was inculcated into every aspect of female life, from samplers to sermons. Religion pervaded every aspect of education at the Litchfield Academy in Connecticut, and it was hoped that students would find salvation before the end of their tenures at the school. In 1836, Mrs. Almira Phelps, former vice-principal of the Troy Female Seminary in New York, recalled the educational goals she had outlined in an earlier address to the students: "I endeavored to impress upon their intellects the truths of science, and upon their hearts, the love of virtue and the sentiments of religion."

A woman's world provided many of the metaphors through which she visually expressed her spirituality. Gardens, in particular, took on a duality of the heavenly bower and heaven on earth, expressed in visions as diverse as needlework samplers and Shaker gift drawings.

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