As we all are aware, women contribute to our arts and culture in many ways. As visual artists, they have enhanced books, painted portraits of people and landscapes, and developed abstract art forms. Let’s discover some of the earlier artists in U.S. history.
In 1824, artists and sisters Anna Claypoole Peale and Sarah Miriam Peale are the first women elected to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Anna is a miniaturist while Sarah is primarily a painter of portraits in oil. The Peale sisters are the first women to receive full professional standing and recognition as artists; the Peale’s had careers that lasted for a half-century. Anna sold her first two paintings when she was only 14. She specialized in portrait miniatures, which was a lucrative undertaking at the time. Over her career, she painted more than 200 portrait miniatures. Anna’s subjects included U.S. presidents, senators, ambassadors, writers and scientists and her works were exhibited periodically at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Sarah received many commissions for portraits of diplomats, congressmen and other eminent individuals and was considered the leading portrait painter in St. Louis and Baltimore during the mid-19th century. Her work is displayed in the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Maria Martin Bachman painted the plants, flowers, insects, and other details for the famous naturalist John James Audubon’s Birds of America. This four-volume set, printed between 1827 and 1838, for the first time characterized the many different birds in the U.S. Her paintings and watercolors were used in volumes two and four. The insects that she drew included butterflies, moths and caterpillars. Among the many varieties of woodpeckers is the Hairy Woodpecker. One Hairy Woodpecker, Picus martinae (Maria’s woodpecker), is named after her. When Audubon named Maria’s woodpecker in her honor, he said “In honouring this species with the name of Miss MARIA MARTIN . . . I feel bound to make some ornithological acknowledgment for the aid she has on several occasions afforded me in embellishing my drawings of birds, by adding to them beautiful and correct representations of plants and flowers.” Her work for Audubon has led to her being considered the most influential woman painter of American natural history during the nineteenth century.
Artist Cecilia Beaux was earning her living as a commercial artist in her late teens. By 1876, she was attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and she won the Mary Smith Prize at Academy exhibitions in 1885, 1887, 1891, and 1892. She traveled to Paris at age 32 but found that the artistic movement of impressionism, which was in full bloom at that time, did not suit her temperament. She would remain a realist painter for her entire career. Beaux became renowned for her portraits, the first of which was completed in 1884; the subjects of Beaux’s paintings were often writers, politicians and other artists. In 1895, she became the first woman to have a regular teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She would remain a teacher there in portrait drawing and instruction for the next twenty years. In 1933, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt presented her with Chi Omega fraternity’s gold medal for “the American woman who has made the greatest contribution to the culture of the world.”
Although she had no formal art training until she was 36 years old, Lilla Cabot Perry produced a significant body of work and influenced the U.S. and Japanese impressionists. Her first training came in Paris where her family lived during 1887-1889. After seeing a Monet painting in 1889, she sought his advice and during the next nine summers she benefited from his guidance. From 1898 to 1901, her family lived in Japan and Perry studied Japanese fabrics and prints; she incorporated them in the 80 paintings she produced while living there. Perry exhibited her works at important exhibitions of the time including the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and she won medals for her work in Boston, St. Louis, and San Francisco. She achieved international acclaim during 1894-1897 and had her works exhibited in a solo show, a tremendous accomplishment for any artist. At that time, to have a solo exhibition as a woman was quite an achievement. Over the course of her career she painted children, landscapes, and then portraits.
The first graduate of Howard University’s art department (in 1924), Alma Thomas developed her signature style of painting after her retirement as a junior high school teacher when she decided to pursue art full time. Her abstract style was very different from most of the artists who were profiled above. Thomas’s art features short brush strokes in brilliant colors and many in vertical stripes or circular compositions. The first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum, Thomas also exhibited her paintings three times at the White House; one of her paintings was hung in the White House dining room. Her solo exhibit occurred when she was 80 years old! The Smithsonian Institution had a major exhibition of her works three years after her death and another retrospective of her work began in February 2016. Thomas said she preferred to concentrate on beauty and happiness in her paintings. Her artwork today is displayed at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Women participate and contribute to every area of our lives including in the areas of arts and culture. These women and many others, almost all of whom we have not heard about nor learned about in school, across all fields of endeavor, are profiled in our book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. Help us by continuing to tell women’s stories. Write women back into history!
Jill S. Tietjen, PE, is an author, national speaker, and an electrical engineer. After 40 years in the electric utility industry, her professional focus is now on women’s advocacy, worldwide. She blogs for The Huffington Post, speaks nationally on the accomplishments of women, nominates women for awards, and continues to write books (8 published to date), following in the footsteps of her bestselling and award-winning book, Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America (written with Charlotte Waisman). She is a frequent keynote speaker as her positive energy and her ability to relate to the audience result in inspired and energized listeners. The recipient of many awards, her induction into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 remains one of her most treasured.
Charlotte S. Waisman, Ph.D. is a national champion and advocate for women as a professor and keynote speaker. A corporate leader, executive coach, and facilitator, she conducts leadership workshops nationally.