Five Women Artists: Vol. 1

Can you name five women artists? In honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, we are joining the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in their effort to showcase works of art made by women. Throughout the month of March we are highlighting five women artists whose works are part of our permanent collection.

Since its very beginning, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art has been shaped by the contributions of talented and inspired women. The museum itself was born when Bessie Vance Brooks, shown here in a portrait painted by artist Cecilia Beaux, donated $100,000 to the city of Memphis to build a museum to honor her deceased husband, Samuel Hamilton Brooks. That is where the dream of the Brooks Museum began.

Built for only $115,000, what was then called the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery opened to the public on May 26, 1916. Mrs. Brooks’ dedication speech was read by the Episcopal Bishop Thomas F. Failor: “I hereby give and donate this building to the public use as a repository, conservatory and museum of art – to be kept and maintained forever … for the free use and service of students of art and for the enjoyment, inspiration and instruction of our people.” The museum opened in 1916 with no collection, no staff, and no exhibition schedule. Fast forward to today, the museum now hosts a 10,000-piece permanent collection dating from antiquity to present, including ancient works from Greece, Rome and the ancient Americas; Renaissance masterpieces from Italy; English portraiture; American painting and decorative arts; contemporary art; and a survey of African art.

Housed in an 86,000-square-foot facility, the Brooks’ permanent collection is now the largest, oldest, and only major collection of world art in the state of Tennessee. We thank the women of Brooks history - women like Bessie Vance Brooks, Cecilia Beaux, Marisol, Florine Stettheimer, Elizabeth Murray and Georgia O’Keeffe - because the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art would not be the institution it is today without the passion and vision of the women who worked to create the museum and the works that define its collection.

Cecilia Beaux, American, 1855-1942, Portrait of Mrs. Samuel Hamilton Brooks, 1911, Oil on canvas, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art; Gift of Mrs. Samuel Hamilton Brooks 16.1.

Next we are remembering innovative sculptor Marisol, who passed in May 2016 at the age of 85.

According to our Chief Curator Marina Pacini, Marisol was among the most highly respected artists of the 1960s and as the decades passed, she was inappropriately written out of that history.

Pacini's aim during the Brooks Museum’s exhibition, “Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper,” was to return her to the prominence she so rightly deserves. Her inimitable sculptures and works on paper address some of the most compelling and topical issues of the last half century, from women’s roles and the disenfranchised, to a discussion of creativity and old age. Her works remain as important today as they were when she made them.

The 2014 exhibition brought together 34 of Marisol’s most important sculptures and works on paper and offered a comprehensive scholarly examination of Marisol’s life and career. Click here to learn more about the exhibition.

Marisol’s “The Family” is currently on view in the museum’s contemporary gallery.

Marisol, American (b. Paris), 1930-2016, The Family, 1969, Mixed media: Wood, plastic, neon, glass, Commissioned for Brooks Memorial Art Gallery through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and matching funds from the Memphis Arts Council, Brooks Fine Arts Foundation and Brooks Art Gallery League 69.5a-d.

Third on our list is Florine Stettheimer and her Still Life Number One with Flowers (Flowers Against Wallpaper), which is currently on view in our American gallery.

In 1914, the Stettheimer sisters – Carrie, Florine, and Ettie – and their mother, Rosetta Walter, established their salon in New York City after living as American expatriates in Europe for many years. Their soirees were frequented by such artists, intellectuals, and writers as Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, Virgil Thomson, Carl Van Vechten, Sherwood Anderson, and Alfred Stieglitz. Adorned with Florine’s artworks, their apartments provided a marvelous backdrop for their influential visitors, many of whom ended up as Florine’s subjects. Among her idiosyncratic paintings are portraits of Marcel Duchamp and art critic Henry McBride, images of family parties and picnics, and the fantastical series of Cathedrals of: Broadway, Fifth Avenue, Wall Street, and Art (1929-1944).

Still Life Number One with Flowers is an early work, completed soon after her return from Europe, and before she established her signature style. Stettheimer studied European Modernism in Berlin, Munich, and Paris, and then developed her personal style, one that appeared naïve, and utilized pattern and color to produce abstract and decorative canvases. Here, the thickly painted wallpaper serves as a backdrop for the vases, which declare their three-dimensionality through the shadow they cast. The riot of bird and floral patterns, however, is difficult to disentangle as the flowers in the vases slip into the wallpaper in a typical Modernist play with illusions of space. The stems, leaves, and buds snake through the canvas, creating a skein of color across the surface that seems to throb with life.

Stettheimer and her work were not known widely during her lifetime. After her 1916 exhibition at M. Knoedler & Company received mixed reviews, she refused all invitations, including that of Stieglitz, for another solo display, although she participated in many group shows. She was greatly admired, however, by some of America’s most important artists and intellectuals. Upon her death, Duchamp organized a retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1946 that included Still Life Number One with Flowers.

This text taken from Collection Highlights: Brooks Museum of Art, 2004. Original article written by Brooks Chief Curator, Marina Pacini.

Florine Stettheimer, American, 1871 - 1944, Still Life Number One with Flowers (Flowers Against Wallpaper), ca. 1915, Oil on canvas, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art; Gift of the Estate of Miss Ettie Stettheimer 60.21. © Estate of the artist

Next on our list is Elizabeth Murray and her painting Tempest, 1979.

Murray's distinctively shaped canvases break the traditional boundaries of the two-dimensional picture plane. Her sculptural paintings playfully blur the line between the painting as an object and the painting as a space for depicting objects. Often her nonfigurative pieces suggest human characteristics, personalities, or emotions through an interaction of colors and shapes.

Inspired by Giorgione's The Tempest (1505), Murray was more interested in evoking a mood than depicting a clearly defined narrative. She, like the Italian Renaissance painter, created a feeling of unease by pairing disparate forms and colors. Through her use of complementary colors, she generates a sense of energy; the effect of the vibrant green on a red background and the orange over the blue is electrifying. Breaking through the rounded forms of orange and green, the yellow zigzag lines mimic lightning bolts while accentuating the sharp points of the canvas itself. The dynamic qualities of the storm are further emphasized through the juxtaposition of the large, round shapes with the angular forms in the composition and the multisided canvas. Through the dissonant union, the artist elicits palpable tension. Everything is electrified, in flux, and exploding.

Tempest represents an important turning point in the artist's career. It is one of her first "shaped" canvases, and one of her first paintings to be placed in a museum collection. Born in Chicago, Murray received her BFA degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and earned her MFA degree at Mills College in Oakland, California.

This text taken from Collection Highlights: Brooks Museum of Art, 2004. Original article written by Karleen Vincent Gardner, former Associate Curator of Education.

Elizabeth Murray, American, 1940 - 2007, Tempest, 1979, Oil on canvas, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art; Gift of Art Today, purchased with matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts 80.7. © Estate of Elizabeth Murray/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

We end our list this year with Georgia O’Keeffe and her Waterfall – No. 1 – Iao Valley – Maui, painted in 1939.

Along with the other artists in the circle of photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe was intent on developing a new American painting that was aware of European Modernism, but that reflected contemporary American culture. Through abstraction – the use of heightened and arbitrary color, simplification of form, and distortion – these artists explored industrialization, commerce, and the natural American landscape.

In 1929, O’Keeffe began painting New Mexico. It was an important moment that signaled a change in her subject matter, away from flowers and cityscapes, and toward an emphasis on the landscape of the Southwest. This change, however, was also an attempt to circumvent the Freudian readings of her images, and offered a larger framework for exploring Americanness. In Hawaii, O’Keeffe found many of the same features she admired in the desert landscapes of New Mexico.

Dole Pineapple Company hired O’Keeffe in 1939 to produce two images to be used for advertising. She spent more than two months traveling in Hawaii and completed twenty paintings. Some, including the two that were featured in Dole ads in Vogue and The Saturday Evening Post, were not completed until after her return to New York.* Waterfall – No. 1 is the first of three versions of the Iao Valley, Maui, a place sacred to Hawaiians. The image continues her interest in indigenous religions, evidenced in her earlier works of pueblo churches. The smoky cloud hanging in the upper valley evokes an ethereal quality suggesting a primeval and holy place. As is typical of her style, O’Keeffe brings the landscape to the surface of the canvas, filling the space. Nature is transformed – smoothed out, monumentalized, and flattened into large simplified forms painting in a reduced palette. The light green to the sides frames the darker green of the center, pulling one’s eye into the verdant distance. The waterfall is evoked through a simplified gray white line of paint that appears and reappears as it moves through the valley. More than a subjective interpretation of objects and nature, O’Keeffe’s landscape evokes a timelessness that transcends actual location or objects depicted.

* Jennifer Saville, Georgia O’Keeffe: Paintings of Hawaii (Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 1990), pp. 17-18.

This text taken from Collection Highlights: Brooks Museum of Art, 2004. Original article written by Brooks Chief Curator, Marina Pacini.

Georgia O’Keeffe, American, 1887 - 1986, Waterfall – No. 1 – Iao Valley – Maui, 1939, Oil on canvas, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art; Gift of Art Today 76.7. © The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Posted by Andria Lisle at 3:23 PM
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