Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Thoroughly Modern: Henri’s Women

Exhibition Profile: Provo
Thoroughly Modern: Henri’s Women

by Christopher Wilson

At the dawn of the 20th century, a revolutionary American art teacher inspired a group of women artists to break from tradition and create art that reflected their lives. Nearly a century later, a new exhibition at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art will bring together, for the first time, the vibrant and diverse art of this group of women artists.

“Thoroughly Modern: The ‘New Women’ Art Students of Robert Henri” , the first-ever exhibition of the women art students of Robert Henri — widely regarded as the most important American art teacher of the era — includes paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture, textiles and furniture by 31 women artists who studied under Henri from the 1890s through the 1920s.

The art created by Henri’s women students demonstrates the wide range of styles, subjects and attitudes that characterized modern art in the early 1900s. Since the 1950s, however, the term “modern art” has become synonymous with abstraction. This narrow definition of modernism excludes the artistic richness and diversity that reflected the dynamism of the early 20th century. The works in this exhibition bring to light the energy and vigor of a group of modern artists who were essentially written out of the movement’s history.

“This landmark exhibition provides a unique opportunity to see work by important American women artists of the early 20th century,” says Janet Wolff, associate dean of the School of Arts at Columbia University. “In recent years, museums and art historians have been reevaluating and rediscovering the work of figurative and realist artists, who were often side-lined by the dominance of abstract and modernist art since the 1950s. This exhibition of work by women students of Robert Henri, the pre-eminent American realist painter, makes clear that it is not only male artists whose reinstatement is overdue.”

Some of the better known artists in this exhibition will include painter and printmaker Isabel Bishop, the first female teacher at the Art Students League in New York and the first woman elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters; painter and illustrator Peggy Bacon, who authored or illustrated more than 70 books; and muralist Minerva Teichert, who was urged by Henri to paint “the great Mormon Story” and placed more than 60 murals in public buildings in Utah and Wyoming during the 1930s alone.

This exhibition is the culmination of years of intense research initiated by Marian Wardle, curator of American art at the Museum of Art. Wardle and a host of BYU students spent four years uncovering the life stories and artworks of 441 women who studied under Henri.

Wardle says she began her research expecting to find that most of Henri’s women students were amateur dabblers, but the research told a different story. More than 200 of these women had successful professional art careers, exhibiting, teaching, and founding and administering arts organizations across the country.

“The study began as a quest to learn what had become of Henri’s numerous women students, to uncover their contributions, and to add them to the account of American art history,” Wardle says. “But during the years of research, it also became an examination of the accepted history of American modernist art that had excluded these women and many others.”

As a result of the research effort, nearly 100 artworks have travelled to the museum from 50 lenders scattered across the country.

Robert Henri is best known as the leader of a group of free-spirited artists who rebelled against the traditional artistic conventions of the early 1900s. Henri inspired this group of male artists, who were later known as the “Ashcan School,” to capture the living presence of what they saw around them, to replace the beautiful, polite subjects of the past with the grit of real life. Despite his influence as the group’s mentor, Henri stressed the importance of self-reliance and individuality in creating works of art.

In addition to his contributions with the “Ashcan School,” Henri influenced generations of art students as a teacher. Thousands of men and women studied under Henri in various art schools and numerous private classes. As a teacher, Henri instilled the same passion for individualism and self-expression in his students that he had encouraged among his “Ashcan School” colleagues.

Henri taught many aspiring women artists during his teaching career, encouraging them to free themselves from stylistic and social restrictions. He taught them to create art from what they knew, what they felt and what they experienced. This artistic philosophy had a powerful impact on Henri’s women students that resulted in the production of a remarkable variety of artistic expression. Some students followed Henri’s naturalistic painting style while others experimented in varying forms of abstraction. Still others found the best avenue for their artistic expression through sculpture, printmaking and drawing. A few students even ventured into the realm of costume, set and furniture design. Following the ideals espoused by their mentor, these “New Women” pushed the envelope of traditional gender roles and created opportunities for themselves that were unimaginable only a few years earlier.

In fact, 14 of Henri’s women students exhibited their work at the 1913 Armory Show, which many art historians regard as the most significant art exhibition in the United States during the 20th century.

In addition to participating in the important exhibitions of the day, Henri’s women students also played a significant role in spreading his modern art philosophy. After studying with Henri, his women students engaged in professional art careers in every region of the United States, and in foreign countries such as Canada and France. Many of these women became art teachers themselves and transmitted their modern ideals to a new generation of artists.

New Subjects, New Styles, New Attitudes

The early 1900s were marked by monumental change. Modern inventions — electricity, the automobile, assembly line production, sleek airplanes and skyscrapers — revolutionized the American way of life. Social developments, such as the women’s suffrage movement, had a significant impact on American society. Changes also extended to the very make-up of the nation’s population. The arrival of 15 million immigrants between 1890 and 1915 changed the complexion of the country’s demographics.

These technological and social changes provided new subjects for artists of the era. Domestic scenes, like Ada Gilmore’s watercolor of quilts hanging on laundry lines, were revolutionary when compared to the subjects portrayed by the male artist majority. Margaret Law, Elizabeth Olds and Henrietta Shore’s paintings of racial minorities are evidence of the modern democratic philosophy of breaking down class, race and gender barriers. Self-portraits, like the paintings by Florine Stettheimer and Kathleen McEnery, show strong, confident women.

In addition to exploring new subjects, Henri’s women students experimented with an amazing variety of media and styles. They experimented with bold colors, angular forms and, new or revived techniques. Margaret Bruton’s “Helen at Sargent House Studio” is an example of the use of striking, bold colors. Helen Loggie who originally studied painting with Henri also experimented in drawing and etching. Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux’s “Tapestry Rug with Indian Motif” is an example of the many decorative arts produced by Henri’s women students.

The art of Henri’s students also demonstrated their new, modern attitudes. Minerva Teichert’s “Zion Ho! (Handcart Pioneers)” portrays the pioneer woman as a central figure in the westward expansion. And Hilda Belcher’s “Go Down Moses” illustrates the humanity of African Americans at a time when segregation was still a part of the nation’s culture.

I hope visitors will have a memorable experience interacting with the remarkable works in this exhibition,” Wardle says. “And I hope they learn that more American women artists participated in the creation of modern art than just Georgia O’Keeffe.”

Thoroughly Modern: The ‘New Women’ Art Students of Robert Henri” is free and open to the public during regular museum hours. The exhibition continues through August 27, 2005. Click here for more info.

This article originally appeared in the March 2005 edition of 15 Bytes.

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