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Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts opens Modern Women at PAFA. From Cassatt to O’Keeffe

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts presents Modern Women at PAFA. From Cassatt to O’Keeffe, on view January 12 through September 1, 2013.

Susan Macdowell Eakins (1851-1938), Girl in a Plaid Shawl, ca. 1880-85, Oil on canvas, 28 1/16 x 21 in., Charles Bregler’s Thomas Eakins Collection, purchased with the partial support of the Pew Memorial Trust and the Henry C. Gibson Fund, 1985.68.39.6

Featuring more than 40 works by modern artists ranging from Mary Cassatt to Georgia O’Keeffe who paved the way for future generations of professional women artists, Modern Women at PAFA presents paintings and sculptures by over 20 female artists whose works explore the following themes: motherhood and beauty; the natural landscape; self-portraiture; women in their community; women illustrators; and modern women in motion.

“Since PAFA’s first annual exhibition in 1811, when Anna Claypoole Peale, Margaretta Angelica Peale, and Sarah Miriam Peale exhibited their work, women artists have been integral to PAFA’s exhibition programs and educational mission. In this installation, we are thrilled to highlight the work of women artists from the turn of the 19th and 20th century, an era when women artists at PAFA were leading lights on the national art scene,” says Anna O. Marley, Curator of Historical American Art, and co-curator of the installation with Sarah Holloran, Manager of School and Teacher Programs.

By 1844, female students were welcomed into the “antique” – sculptural cast drawing – classes, and by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, PAFA distinguished itself as a leader in arts education for women. The first “life” classes – those dedicated to drawing from live models – were organized in the early 1860s by a dedicated group of female students who modeled for each other, including Mary Cassatt. Female artists competed alongside their male peers for the annual Temple Gold Medal for the best painting at the annual exhibition, including Cecilia Beaux who was invited to join PAFA’s faculty as the professor of portraiture, where she influenced generations of students, most notably Violet Oakley.

Painting was not the only medium in which PAFA’s modern women artists excelled. Bessie Potter Vonnoh exhibited her small bronze sculptures of women and children in more than 30 PAFA Annuals. Emily Clayton Bishop was one of PAFA’s most talented sculpture students of the first decade of the 20th century, and won multiple prizes. Upon her untimely death in 1912 at the age of 28, The New York Times declared her “one of the most promising of America’s young sculptors” for her expressionistic sculptures filled with motion and the spirit of modern dance.

The early 20th century ushered in the continued success of women artists. Artists such as Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, Hilda Belcher, Sara Carles, and Georgia O’Keeffe met with struggle and triumph as they sought to position themselves in the art world that drastically shifted with the Armory Show in 1913.

Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, a student of William Merritt Chase, began selling her works when she was still in her teens. In 1908, The New York Times declared Sparhawk-Jones the “find of the year.” Her early work focused on women engaged in everyday life, and she was praised for brushwork and observation of her subjects. In 1913, Sparhawk-Jones disappeared from the art world, suffering from mental illness. When the artists returned to her career two decades later, American Art Magazine declared that “a phenomenon” had returned, while critics lauded her modern style.

Nearly a century later, Modern Women at PAFA offers an opportunity to explore the history of women and American art—and a chance to ask if Beaux’s 1915 prediction about “Women in Art” has become a reality. –

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