Sunday, November 25, 2001

By Erica E. Hirshler
MFA Publications, a division of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, $40, 227 pages, illus.

In a Parisian art class in 1885, American Ellen Day Hale painted a striking self-portrait. She set herself against a backdrop of muted Japanese embroidery and cropped the picture to emphasize one of her hands and her upward-tilted face. Wearing short bangs and a small black hat, she meets the viewer with an expression of unaffected strength and confidence. The picture is reproduced in “A Studio of Her Own, Women Artists in Boston, 1870-1940” by Erica E. Hirshler, the catalogue for an exhibition of that name showing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston through the end of the year. The collective portrait that emerges from the lively text and 64 color plates is of a wonderfully idiosyncratic group of serious artists most of whom, like Ellen Day Hale, were also proper Bostonians.
Indeed, the tug of war in the lives of these women between artistic vocation and personal responsibilities is, along with their struggle for the right to be trained and to work alongside of men, one of the themes of this book. Another is simply the fact that Boston at the turn of the 19th century was extraordinarily hospitable to female artists. A smaller, more homogeneous community than New York, Boston was home to a widely shared conservative aesthetic sense.
Several fine schools of art operated there, in particular the School of the Museum of Fine Arts which, by 1880, was including women not just as students but as teachers and administrators. In the years that followed, a close-knit, intergenerational community of mutually supportive female artists emerged. Erica Hirshler, the John Moors Cabot Curator of Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts and the author of well received studies of Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent and the less well known American impressionist Dennis Miller Bunker, handles this material with sure knowledge and considerable style.
An exhibition held at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1901 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the museum’s school marked the emergence of the “Boston School,” a style of painting marked by “beauty, elegance, and refinement” and, as one critic wrote, removal from the “frippery and vulgarity” of urban life. The teachers and students of the Boston School favored “portraits, impeccably arranged still lives, and especially figure studies of elegant women or attractive children in tasteful interiors or in sun-filled landscapes.”
This conservative approach united artists, both male and female, who wanted to create beauty rather than realism. As the author writes, “… in a city that favored a distinctive, genteel style, women painters sought to prove their equality by working within the boundaries of established taste. They were rewarded with critical and financial praise, and in that way, achieved striking professional success.” That success paved the way for, a generation later, a vibrant community of artists working in a variety of different styles:
“[By 1940] There was no longer a need for women to band together, subverting their own artistic expression in favor of a single aesthetic that would win attention for all … for each had found a studio of her own.”
Women throve also in the Arts and Crafts movement which, in the latter quarter of the 19th century inspired a new approach to the design of everyday objects pottery, books, jewelry, furniture, posters. When Boston’s chapter of the Society of Arts and Crafts was founded in 1897, an original member was Sarah Wyman Whitman, the wife of a Boston wool merchant whose paintings were widely praised and who won even greater acclaim for her design work. She created stained glass windows for several churches in New England including chapels at Bowdoin College and Groton school as well as for Memorial Hall at Harvard. She went on to become “one of the most celebrated book cover designers in the United States,” producing about 300 designs.
The freedom to study drawing and painting as they wanted to had been hard won in Boston as elsewhere and the author brings to life in particular the women’s struggle to be allowed into life drawing classes. She quotes one father writing to William Rimmer, an important early teacher of art to women, that his daughter was anxious to study with him but “if this nude model promenading is permitted, I cannot consent to it.”
One suggestion was what a critic called the “Mohammedan solution” veiling female students during the class so that, should they encounter the model later, he would not recognize them and “their modesty would be protected.” The women rejected this idea.
Eventually, Helen Knowlton, who had studied with William Morris Hunt, for many years Boston’s leading artist and an early proponent of art education for women, began offering life drawing classes in her own studio and encouraging female artists in other ways as well, from sponsoring exhibitions of their work to encouraging them to travel and study in Europe.
The book profiles 40 artists and reproduces portraits of many of them. Elizabeth Boott is painted by Frank Duveneck, the artist she fell in love with despite her father’s disapproval. Her social status and proper upbringing show in her elegant outfit with fur cape and muff; her divided loyalties are apparent in her beautiful but strained expression.
She had exhibited her work in Boston to good reviews (15 paintings were purchased by collectors) and at the Paris Salon when, at the age of 40, she finally was able to marry Duveneck. She quickly had a son and died a year later of pneumonia having complained to her friend Henry James that she hadn’t been painting as she was “always much occupied with the baby.”
Also from a prominent Boston family was Margarett Sargent, fourth cousin of John Singer Sargent. After education at Miss Porter’s in Connecticut and finishing school abroad, she returned to Boston “crazy about Donatello” (in her brother’s words) and determined to become a sculptor. Despite marriage into a wealthy Boston family and four sons, she kept working, being drawn to modernism. The self-portrait she painted in 1930 shows her in a bright, skimpy dress, seeming to float on a transparent background with a dog, cat and bird. She is beautiful, with dark hair sleekly pulled back but with wide, troubled eyes.
Ellen Day Hale, of the bangs and black hat portrait, was one of the first Boston women to spend considerable time studying and painting in Europe where she became an enthusiast of the Impressionists and made the pilgrimage to study with Claude Monet at Giverny. Though she never married (she shared with another artist the intense, lifelong female friendship so common in that community that it was referred to as a “Boston marriage”), she took on considerable responsibility for her family. When her father, Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale, was named chaplain of the U.S. Senate in 1904, Ellen, then middle-aged, moved to Washington to run his household and care for her ailing mother.
But Ellen Day Hale always spent her summers on the Massachusetts coast in a studio she called “Folly Cove.” There she was surrounded by a community of female artists. Her niece described the scene thus: “Here at Aunt Nelly’s for the first time I saw art lived corporately a shared vocation to be embarked on daily with cries of joy … If a church decoration were underway … the old maids might all work on it … another year it might be etchings they worked on … afterward they all clustered around to examine critically the result achieved. The atmosphere [was] brisk, fresh and precise.”
A valuable contribution to the study of American art, this is also a fascinating examination of lives and careers more complex and richer for being female.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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