by Patricia Phagan | March 29, 2021
Organized by the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, the current exhibition Women Picturing Women: From Personal Spaces to Public Ventures studies the key themes that emerged when selecting works by women depicting women. In different media, female artists from the seventeenth century to the 1960s—the eras studied—frequently communicated the idea of an intimate or sheltered enclosure such as a room, studio, or garden, even though these women participated in a more public arena to show or even make their work. In this exhibition from a collection of 22,000 objects, portraits and domestic scenes appeared often, with family, friends, colleagues, models, and oneself playing major roles. Home-centered settings and situations, including views of mothers and children, proliferated from the nineteenth century onwards. Idyllic, invented landscapes, mostly of the here and now, appeared, too, from the late 1700s where female artists placed their women (and sometimes men) in a harmonious or even fantastic natural world. On the other hand, some female artists relayed the idea of venturing into an outright public place such as a street or an office, or into the more public, intellectual world of a narrative found in religion, history, or social critique. These images appeared less often, while documentary photography spurred a veritable movement among women artists in the twentieth century.
Among the works featured in Women Picturing Women are paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures by alumnae of the Art Students League of New York, including Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin, Violet Oakley, Malvina Hoffman, Florine Stettheimer, Rosella Hartman, Marion Greenwood, Elizabeth Catlett, and Concetta Scaravaglione. This short essay highlights just a few of these artists.
Women could attend the student-funded League as soon as 1875, when it was founded. Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin (1850–1930) studied painting and drawing there from late 1878 to 1881 with William Merritt Chase and others, and she returned in 1888–89 and 1891 and was elected a life member in 1896 (see Margaret Moore Booker, Nantucket Spirit). In her Study of a Head (fig. 1) from around 1893 the unknown sitter peers out in a kind of daring close-up. She wears a diaphanous white scarf over a tight-fitting dark dress or blouse, while her face is youthful, with pronounced lips and a firm, cleft chin above an exposed neck. Her hair is styled like that of a Gibson Girl, the late nineteenth-century advertising icon that promoted the spunky spirit and casual fashions of the young, independent New Woman.
Coffin studied painting with Dutch artist Henry Van Ingen and art history and art theory at Vassar. Born in Brooklyn, she received a Quaker education in lower Manhattan that instilled in her a belief in equal education for the sexes. After graduating from Vassar in 1870 as president of her class, she entered the Academy of Fine Arts in the Hague in the Netherlands, staying almost three years. There Coffin was allowed to study anatomy, the antique, perspective, and the history of architecture in the “boys classes,” as she recalled in a statement for her exhibition at Vassar in 1920 in the Loeb’s files.
Coffin became a professional artist, teaching in Brooklyn and exhibiting and traveling frequently, and she never married, though she frequently cared for her niece and nephew. She also trained at the Brooklyn Art Guild, which she co-founded, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The artist exhibited mainly from 1884 to 1895, but much still is unknown about her work. For instance, the actual circumstances around the making of Study of a Head remain elusive. Coffin gave it directly to the Vassar art department, but the date and year of the gift are not recorded.
Sometimes the portraits in Women Picturing Women reveal a history that is well-documented but unexpected. In 1907, New York illustrator, cartoonist, and painter Hilda Belcher (1881–1963) exhibited The Checkered Dress (Portrait of O’Keeffe) (fig. 2) at the New York Water Color Club to great acclaim. She had trained with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri at the New York School of Art just a few years before. The work won Belcher membership into the club, and was reproduced and discussed in an exhibition review in the International Studio in January 1908. The watercolor features a young woman in a striking checked dress seated in a large chair against a bare wall, while a footstool and rug lend a hint of domesticity. Belcher’s sitter is plain and she wears a narrow-waisted but billowy gingham dress with no corset. Her eyes glance to our left, and a stray wisp escapes from her Gibson Girl hairstyle. As with Coffin, the rendering shows Belcher’s awareness of the New Woman.
Surprisingly, Belcher constructed this work from three sources and considered it “fake.” According to a letter she sent her mother postmarked November 1907, she used her memory of the sitting pose and dress of a Mrs. Hagan, and looked to her imagination for the hairstyle and sparse setting, though the face was that of her friend and the young art student Georgia O’Keeffe. The two roomed together at the Little Eva boarding house in New York. At the time, in 1907–8, the Wisconsin-born O’Keeffe studied with Chase and others at the Art Students League where she was often a model (fig. 3).
Finally, Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944) is another Art Students League alumna whose work is a highlight of Women Picturing Women. In her Natatorium Undine (fig. 4), this American artist, poet, and costume designer presents small-scale portraits of herself, her sister Ettie, and friends in a buoyant, artificial fantasy landscape. Stettheimer pictures herself with a parasol, while a bathing-suit-clad Ettie sits at the pool’s edge, and actress Fania Marinoff hunches over a table sipping a drink. This cheerful pool party straddles interior and external worlds and contains a Bosch-like mix of water cars with faux islands on either side decorated with greenery, dancers, and musicians.
While this painting and much of her art was private—this wealthy New Yorker did not need to sell her work for income—Stettheimer was at the same time a leading light among the city’s avant-garde. Born in Rochester, she did not marry but was devoted to her family, and after years of studying art she would develop and refine her unusual and original style of painting. Stettheimer lived much of her childhood and teenage years in Germany, studying drawing with Sophie von Prieser, director of a boarding school in Stuttgart. She continued her studies in Berlin and then attended the Art Students League in New York from 1892 to 1895, where she trained in drawing and painting.
Solo exhibitions of Stettheimer’s work were rare until after her death in 1944. Though she refrained from publicity, her work was known to good friends who recognized the intensity of her private vision and her deep personal vulnerabilities. In 1948, Kirk Askew at Durlacher Brothers in New York mounted the exhibition Flowers of Florine Stettheimer. The following year, her sister Ettie gave Natatorium Undine to Vassar College Art Gallery.
The Loeb is committed to acquiring works by women, escalating the steady focus of earlier efforts. Women Picturing Women is on view at the Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, through June 13. The museum is open to the public on weekends, Saturday from 10 to 5, and Sunday from 1 to 5. The college can be reached easily by car or Metro-North, and admission is free. See also Women Picturing Women: A 3D Virtual Exhibition.
PATRICIA PHAGAN is the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College.