Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on September 28, 2009 by permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly through this Huntsville Museum of Art phone number or Web address:
The Sellars Collection: Art by American Women
by Jean Woods
The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts will exhibit more than one hundred paintings and drawings from the Sellars Collection this spring. These works, which span nearly a century beginning in 1850, give insight into the rich diversity of art created by American women.
J. Alan Sellars and his wife, Louise Smith Sellars, had a passion for art, and for the hunt. In twenty-five years of collecting American Art, the Sellarses realized the nation's women artists had received insufficient recognition. Thus, they determined to obtain works in all media by women throughout the United States, unearthing several artists who were on the brink of passing into oblivion. The primary focus of the couple's collection was concentrated on the years between 1850 and 1930, a period Alan termed "the most neglected in American women's art history."
Stories of the Sellarses' quests to locate and to learn more about women painters are legendary. They were indefatigable in their dedication to this project, amassing more than 600 paintings, drawings, and sculpture by more than 360 women.
After an in-depth study of museum exhibitions, shows by major American art galleries, and auction records, the Sellarses realized that -- with the exception of Mary Cassatt, Cecilia Beaux, and Georgia O'Keeffe -- art by American women had been blithely ignored. With further research, Alan Sellars estimated that about forty percent of all artists painting during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were women, and that most had excellent art training under some of the greatest teachers of the time.
The couple's analysis of exhibition records revealed some amazing statistics: At the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, slightly over ten percent of the art shown was by women. By 1915, at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, American women comprised more than thirty percent of the artists. Some of those who won these awards are featured in the current exhibition.
Not only did women show in the major exhibitions, but they won a good share of the medals for artistic output. But despite such credentials and honors, few were selected for the permanent collections of American museums.
It is noteworthy that it took a textile executive with a keen eye for art to compile these statistics and to realize the neglect American women artists had suffered. He and his wife instigated a resurgence of interest that is still taking place, spawning new holdings of feminine art by collectors across the country, and stiff competition among museum professionals to add fine works by women to their collections.
The strength of the Sellars Collection is its late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century holdings, when the majority of the women were working in representational styles. These are the pioneering artists who gained academic acceptance for women -- to be admitted to art academies, to paint from live models, and to exhibit their work with their male counterparts, rather then be segregated in separate galleries.
The Sellarses searched for women artists who were professionally trained, had established an exhibition record, and received awards for their work. The Sellars Collection is strong in a wide variety of works including portraits, landscape, still life and genre. For the most part, these works eschew modernism and are in the realist tradition of American painting. They show a wide variety of influences, but overall hold high standards in terms of technique, expressive vitality, and the desire for originality on the part of the female artists.
The Collection reveals the cosmopolitan spirit that infused American art in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as exemplified by the large Portrait of Emily Cadwalader painted in 1911 by Anna Massey Lea Merritt. Its expressive sensibility and pose reflect genteel society of the day and the painter's familiarity with the art of John Singer Sargent.
Anna Eliza Klumpke's Catinou Knitting is one of the exhibit's purely academic works, and its largest painting. Born in 1856, Klumpke trained abroad at the Académie Julian, just a few years after the famed school began admitting women. Klumpke remained at the Académie for ten years, receiving thorough technical training. The subject of Catinou Knitting reflects Klumpke's knowledge of Jules Breton's 1864 painting Gardeuse de Dindons, which was auctioned last fall in New York. Both are monumental works showing a peasant woman seated at work.
The pastoral mode of Catinou Knitting unites with its proud image to give the work a serene aura of grandeur. Exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1887, the canvas gave testimony to Klumpke's mastery of form and coloration; some of the studies she made for this work are still in existence.
Klumpke lived most of her life in France. According to one art historian, Klumpke's work "typifies the prevalent character of nineteenth-century French art and by extension, France itself."
By 1860, American art was rapidly diversifying. Those artists who could manage it flocked to Europe for instruction and inspiration. For women especially, study abroad offered new opportunities and training unavailable in the United States. They sought their art in Paris -- where they could study and copy the masters at the Louvre and enroll for private instruction -- and in the art colonies of Barbizon, Grezsur-Loing, Pont-Aven, Concarneau, and Giverny -- where they found contacts and developed artistic proficiency for success.
Sexual discrimination, however, remained the norm. Women were not permitted to enroll at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and while they were accepted at the private Academie Julian, tuition was double that for men and women's classes were not critiqued as often as the men's.
Those who wished to paint professionally had to persevere and demand equal rights in the art schools. Many of the women included in the Sellars Collection were in the first wave of females to enter these once solely male ateliers and schools.
Several of these paintings reflect the subdued palette of the Barbizon style. The Shepherdess by Anna C. Freeland is typical of the academic style then in vogue. The coloration of its figures evokes sentimentality in this traditional theme, which pays homage to the classicizing taste which dominated establishment art at the mid-point of the nineteenth century.
Later in the nineteenth century, many female artists, inspired by the French Impressionists, were painting with a more vibrant spectrum applied in short strokes, with close attention to the effects of sunlight and shadow. These women did not mimic their French counterparts, but developed individual styles.
Lilla Cabot Perry, born to an influential Boston family, is represented by a Japanese landscape which captures her interpretation of Impressionism. Perry began painting, taking her training with Robert Vonnoh, after she had already achieved success as a poet. She traveled to Europe and enrolled at the Julian. Later, Perry lived in Giverny and knew Claude Monet, from whom she received casual instruction.
Perry accompanied her husband to Japan, where she painted the oil in the Sellars Collection. Internationally known, Perry exhibited widely in Europe and the United States, and is celebrated for her Impressionistic landscapes.
American Impressionism is readily seen in Martha Walter's nostalgic watercolor At the Beach, with its splashy color to convey animation and the juxtaposition of figures and beach umbrellas.
A similar work by well-known, second-generation Impressionist artist Jane Peterson is Summer Holiday, an energetic, spontaneous beach scene. Famous for florals and landscapes she painted throughout the world, Peterson is recognized for an eclectic blending of Impressionism, Fauvism and early Expressionism.
By the turn of the century, still another revolution was waged in the art world: the emergence of "The Eight," dedicated to capturing conditions of modern urban experience. This realist attitude toward the concerns of everyday life is demonstrated in a portrait of the famous actress Lois Fuller by Theresa Bernstein, one of the "Philadelphia Ten," and in the Red Hat by Elizabeth Clay Fisher. A student of Robert Henri, Fisher imbued Red Hat, a portrait of a young girl, with the coloration and style of her mentor.
After the 1913 Armory Show, women began to explore its modernist aesthetics. Elizabeth Miller Lobingier's canvas Sailboats reveals such precisionist influences. A Washington, D.C. artist, Lobingier studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and under Walter Sargent and Hugh H. Breckenridge. She painted throughout the United States and lived in the Cape Ann area of Boston's North Shore, working her latter years for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
A portrait by Lizzie Boott is one of the Sellars Collection's most admired and best-known works; Boott's early death cut short a gifted career. Her portrait, entitled Little Lady Blanche, shows a proud little girl dressed in a white, lace-trimmed dress with a pink ribbon and a frilly white cap. The size of this canvas and its engaging subject demonstrate the skill of its artist, who was raised abroad in Italy and whose widowed father encouraged her artistic training.
Boott, "a serious painter intent on a professional career," studied throughout Europe and in the United States under William Morris Hunt. After a successful solo exhibition in Boston, she exhibited Little Lady Blanche at the Chase Gallery, National Academy of Design, and Associated Artists in New York City in 1884.
Two years later, Boott married talented painter Frank Duveneck in Paris. Tragically, in less than two years, she was buried near her childhood home at Bellosguardo, Italy.
The Sellars collection of portraits is significant and reveals unique composition as well as innovative color use. In Greta Allen's oil Evening Shadows, the impressionistic handling of the palette defines a young woman of regal bearing with the firelight or last rays of the sun reflecting in her face.
Allen alternated warm and cool hues to simulate flesh tones and a range of interplaying hues to form the figure. The Boston artist specialized in portraiture and studied under Joseph DeCamp and Frank W. Benson. Her use of light and shadow in creating this highly interesting portrait with its dappled background, is exceptional.
A more modern portrait by Jeanie Mottet, the White Fox has been a Sellars Collection favorite when it has been exhibited. The stark colors and direct gaze of the sitter make it memorable.
A portrait by Agnes Millen Richmond appears quite contemporary: Richmond used a subtle blending of tonalities to depict the self-assured, young woman wearing a white blouse. Set against a landscape background, the composition's horizon line, collar, and placement of the arms lead the viewer to the woman's demure, yet determined, face.
According to one curator, "Richmond was one of America's very gifted artists; one whose paintings reflect great artistic skill, a trained and sensitive eye and a particular empathy for her contemporaries."
By 1850, professional interest in portraiture had declined. Many artists turned to scenic views reflecting pride in America by highlighting its landscapes -- the meadows, farmland, harbor views, gardens, and forests. Indicative of this trend are Laura Woodward's Summer -- New Hampshire and Sara Hess' autumn landscape Berkshires -- October.
However, the allure of Europe continued to pull American artists to France and Italy where they learned new techniques, expanded their knowledge, and painted in the great galleries. This is evident in Margaret Jordon Patterson's watercolor Dwarf Oaks, Sardinia, and Anne Rogers Minor's oil entitled Venice. These artists excelled in picturing the light of the sun, movement of clouds, reflection on water, and the breezes moving through the trees.
Many landscapes in the Sellars Collection depict New England, such as Marion Traver's winter sleigh scene and Mabel May Woodward's Fishing Fleet. The North Shore, where so many artists painted, is represented by Fern Coppedge, a member of the New Hope School of Pennsylvania Impressionism, in her oil painting Rockport.
Mississippi Farm, an oil by southerner Mary Dismukes, stands in geographic contrast. Dismukes received her training in New York under John Henry Twachtman and Kenyon Cox, before settling in Biloxi. Dismukes' paintings typify the coastal plains, fields and bayous of the Deep South.
Missouri-born artist Susan Brown Chase provides another polemic, a cityscape of Washington, D.C. Chase worked in the nation's Capitol creating watercolors of the picturesque buildings and historic sites in and around the city.
Still life is considered, by some, to be in the province of women, since such compositions could be arranged while tending to the demands of the household. Indeed, women have painted numerous still-life works. A good example is Julia Hart Beers' 1888 canvas of sunlit Oranges. An accomplished landscapist and regular exhibitor at the National Academy, Beers is mentioned, along with other Sellars Collection artists, as having her studio in the Dodworth's building in Broadway in 1868.
The collection has a large number of flower paintings and one show was organized to focus solely on these works. One colorful example is an oil by Gertrude Nason, depicting mixed flowers in a white pitcher. The work reveals Nason's early experiments with modernist painting concepts. She was married to a painter, like many successful women artists, and worked in New York and at the Lyme artist colony in Connecticut.
Roses by Anna Eliza Hardy is the epitome of a late Victorian still-life. Born in Maine in 1839, Hardy studied with Abbott Thayer, then went to Paris to sharpen her skills. Specializing in fruit pieces and later florals, Hardy preferred a dark background, similar to that of George Cochran Lambdin, to accentuate the flowers.
William Gerdts describes Hardy's floral work as "...rendered increasingly softly and sentimentally. Her colors became more and more pastel, the outlines blurred, and the paint thickened. She thus achieved a kind of impressionism mingled with a sort of provincial Renoir-like sweetness."
Queen Anne's Lace, painted in 1883 by artist Ida Pulis Lathrop, is yet another example of the Victorian taste for still life. Her sophisticated composition and technique belie the fact she was self taught. Lathrop and her two daughters, Gertrude and Dorothy, exhibited in 1937 at the Albany Institute of History and Art.
White peonies dominate a more modern canvas by Angelina V. Stevens, whose bold brushstrokes and strong composition impart her control over the medium.
Another artist known for lush still life works is Nan Greacen, the daughter of the Impressionist painter Edmund Greacen. Born in Giverny, she quickly gained recognition for her own painting style and stunning florals. She is represented by The White Bowl, a difficult choice since the Sellars Collection has several excellent examples of her work. The bowl that centers Greacen's composition is filled with pears and other fruit and shows the artist's mastery of the still-life field.
Marion Powers' arrangement of patterned textiles, a hat, and vessels becomes a study of textures, vibrant colors, and decorative devices. She excelled at this type of still life with interplay of disparate elements and exhibited regularly at the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and in England, winning frequent prizes for her works. Two strong paintings by Powers are in the Sellars Collection.
Use of rich fabrics, unusual objects, and antique ceramics in still life permitted artists to exhibit their talents of depiction on a wide variety of ornamental surfaces and textures.
Wharf at Volendam is an oil by Anna Mary Richards Brewster, daughter of landscape artist William Trost Richards. Its vertical posts, fence pickets, and roadway lead the eye to the figures and back again. This Dutch scene was painted in 1908, shortly after Brewster's marriage. She had lived abroad, and continued to travel and paint in Europe. Besides training with her illustrious father, Brewster studied under John LaFarge and William Merritt Chase in New York and Paris.
The turn-of-the-century oil The Student is by little-known artist Maria R. Dixon. A painting with great appeal, The Student reflects the milieu of the day and the centuries old pattern of mothers assisting children with their schoolwork. It is thought Dixon exhibited this canvas in 1895 at the National Academy.
Eleanor Parke Custis who also achieved recognition for her photographic skills, is represented by a small, impressionistic watercolor of two ladies dressed in blue on a hillside. The medium lends itself to her quick, serendipitous sketches. Custis had a wonderful sense of composition that revealed itself in her drawings and photographic images.
In Wash Day, by Brown County artist Ada Walter Shulz, the harmonious blending of elements and hues, shadow and bright sunlight, reveals the dignity of work and Shulz's skill in rendering an ordinary task with a delicate softness.
In forming this collection, Mr. and Mrs. Sellars traveled to galleries and museums throughout the country in their quest to look at art by particular women artists. Conversely, they also donated paintings by American women to museums to help fill the gap in their holdings.
For years, the Sellarses encouraged museums to allot accessions funds to the purchase of art by women, and suggested that art historians provide space in the columns of art references for the most illustrious women artists, along with the already well-known male artists. The recent increase in exhibitions featuring art by women is testimony that their voices did not go unheeded.
Speaking of her late husband, Louise Sellars remembered the pride Alan took in acquiring each new collection piece:
The Sellars Collection runs the gamut from a naive portrait by Quaker artist Susan Waters to Klumpke's beautifully defined canvas. Likewise, the exhibition includes Iris, a delicate still life by Mary Jane Peale, part of the famous Peale painting dynasty, alongside a more expressive, outdoor Parisian market scene by Janet Reid Kellogg Hodges, whose name is little known outside Wisconsin and the Art League of Manatee County in Bradenton, Florida, though she travelled and painted throughout the world.
Alan and Louise Sellars' love of art gave them the foresight to bring these nearly forgotten women to the public's attention. Through their research and collecting, the Sellarses have helped launch a critical reappraisal of the complex tapestry of America's female artists, and new respect for these women -- so long denied.
1 Art by American Women, exhibition catalogue in association with Brenau College, April 20 - June 15, 1991, (Marietta: Sellars, 1991), p. 5.
2 19th Century European Paintings and Sculpture, auction catalogue, October 24, 1996, Lot #25, (New York: Sotheby's, 1996).
3 Anna Elizabeth Klumpke: Duty and the Dedicated Spirit, August 18 - November 17, 1993, (Tempe: Arizona State University Art Museum, 1993), p. 3.
4 Carol M. Osborne, Duveneck Exhibition Catalogue, February 12 - March 23, 1996. (New York: Owen Gallery, 1996), p. 7.
5 American Women of the Twenties: An Exhibition of Paintings by Agnes M. Richmond, (New York: Jeffrey Alan Gallery, 1964), p. 2.
6 "The Women Artists of New York and its Vicinity," The Evening Post, Monday, February 24, 1868, p. 2, col. 2. Thanks to Alfred C. Harrison, Jr. for calling this article to my attention.
7 Things of Beauty: Floral Still Lifes Selected from the Louise and Alan Sellars Collection, exhibition catalogue in association with Brenau Colllege, (Marietta: Sellars, 1992).
8 William H. Gerdts and Russell Burke, American Still-Life Painting, (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971), p. 98.
About the Author
Jean Woods is an independent researcher in the arts working for private collectors and museums. She curated two exhibitions from the Sellars Collection, one in 2001 for the Governor's home in Annapolis featuring thirty-four works, and another in 1997 for the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland featuring 110 works.
Resource Library editor's note
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on September 28, 2009, with permission of author, which was granted to TFAO on September 13, 2009.
This article appeared in the March - April 1997 issue of American Art Review It pertains to an exhibition, The Sellars Collection: Art by American Women, which was on view in the spring of 1997 at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in City Parle, Hagerstown, Maryland. The Sellars Collection is now part of the permanent collection of the Huntsville Museum of Art in Huntsville, Alabama. Currently a small portion of it is on view in that museum. A painting by Anna Mary Richards Brewster will be featured in the "Dutch Utopia" exhibition, which will open on October 1, 2009, at the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Donna Rastelli of the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
For biographical information on artists referenced in this essay please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists
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