By Gail McCarthy Gloucester Daily Times, Mass.
In the early 19th century, aspiring American women artists who wanted to attend figure classes with a nude male model found themselves faced with the suggestion they should wear a veil so the model would not be embarrassed if they met afterward.
This was just one example of the hurdles created by the morality of the times for women who wanted to follow their creative ambitions.
In spite of such obstacles, dozens of women rose to the top ranks of their male counterparts to achieve both national and international success.
In recognition of women artists of ages past, the Rockport Art Association has curated an unprecedented exhibition, "Strokes of Genius: Women Artists of New England," which opens Saturday, Oct. 10. It gathers together more than 90 works from private and public collections.
"These women who fought for, and won recognition should be an inspiration today for those now following in their footsteps," said Judith Curtis, an art historian and writer whose 11-page article about the exhibition became the cover story for the latest issue of the American Art Review.
Once the Rockport Art Association envisioned the show of women artists of New England, the committee tracked down some impressive artists.
Who's on display "It's interesting to see the different regions represented here, from the traditional painters of New Hampshire's White Mountains, to the classic Boston School, from Cape Ann's plein air artists, through the daringly avant-garde Cape Cod painters, and then all points in between," said Curtis.
She talked about one of the earliest artists featured in the show; Ann Sophia Towne Darrah (1819-1881), born in Philadephia.
Darrah studied the harp before marrying Boston's Robert Darrah in 1845 when she changed her focus to painting. She studied in Boston and traveled to Europe to study the great masters. She died in Manchester-by-the-Sea, having made a name for herself in the art world as a landscape artist. Her canvases include scenes of Glass Head in Manchester, one which will be in the Rockport show. That same work was exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston when it hosted a memorial show of her works a year after her death.
"Strokes of Genius" features more than 90 works by 50 women artists from across New England. Other artists in the exhibition are Emma Fordyce MacRae (1887-1974), Marie Danforth Page (1869-1940), mother and daughter Martha Wood Belcher (1844-1930) and Hilda Belcher (1881-1963), Maria J. C. A'Becket (1839-1904), Lilla Cabot Perry (1848-1933), Rosina Emmet Sherwood (1854-1948), Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942), and Lilian Westcott Hale (1880-1963).
Some went on to teach. Beaux would become the first woman professor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Mary Brewster Hazelton (1868-1953) became an instructor at the Boston Museum School.
Modern twist This exhibition includes contemporary works by living members of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Women Artists (NAWA). This historic organization dates back more than a century, established in 1889 in New York City to support women in the visual arts. The Massachusetts chapter was formed only about two years ago because of the large number of women artists in the Commonwealth.
"Over the years, NAWA has counted some of the most influential women of the day as members, including Beaux, Anna Hyatt Huntington, Nell Blaine and Theresa Bernstein, all of whom had close associations with New England, and Cape Ann in particular, having made it their home at some point in their lives," according to a press release. "This exhibition seeks to explore how women artists overcame disparity in the art world of 19th-century America in order to rise to the top of their creative profession."
Even in the 21st century, headlines cry out about disparity between men and women in many professions but no one can argue that women of the past faced greater challenges to have their voices heard or talent placed on exhibition.
Overcoming obstacles Historically, women artists often would have to display an even greater talent than their male counterparts to even be noticed.
"They have more than met the challenge," said Jude Abbe, an artist and chair of the exhibition committee. "This is a ground-breaking show of work by women artists and sculptors in the New England area and every artist represented here, and many who we were not able to include, proved a valuable role model for those following in their footsteps."
Abbe, who proposed this exhibition, said the Rockport Art Association embraced the idea. The exhibition is primarily paintings but it also has more than a dozen works of sculpture.
Curtis suspects that there may be someone who will point out, despite the diverse pieces on display, that a prominent work may have been excluded. She explained that not everyone could be included because of space issues.
"But this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a collection of work by those women artists of the 19th and 20th centuries who had to work harder to compete with their male counterparts in what was a patriarchal art world," she said. "The work of these women brought them success in their own day and we usually find that, if their names have slipped into obscurity, it is because there was no one, either family or a dealer, able to perpetuate their legacy. The biggest drawback for a woman artist is that she doesn't have a wife to organize all the day-to-day details that keep her from painting -- men simply don't have that problem."
Nella Lush, a Rockport Art Association member and president of the Massachusetts chapter of NAWA, is thrilled that both historic and contemporary women artists are featured. The modern works were juried by a Boston gallery owner for this show. "It was like a marriage made in heaven," she said. "The idea is to bring forth awareness of women in the arts. We try hard but we are still not where we are supposed to be."
An extensive schedule of programs and events accompany the exhibition, including a closing Tea on Nov. 14. An illustrated catalog traces the history of women's contributions to the arts in New England.