Georgia O’Keeffe. Mary Cassatt. Frida Kahlo. You recognize these names, right?
These women and the images they created—the macro views of flowers and skulls, the tender moments between mother and child, the bold, revealing self-portraits—are very familiar to us, almost iconic.
Georgia O’Keefe is my favorite artist, especially her New Mexican landscapes. But I didn’t learn about her until I was an adult. When I was in college, H.W. Janson’s History of Art: A Survey of Major Visual Arts from the Dawn of History to the Present Day was the definitive art history textbook. With the book as our guide, we worked our way through Prehistoric, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Islamic, and Gothic art.
But just as we entered the early Renaissance in Europe, student unrest over the Vietnam War brought strikes and demonstrations to college campuses. On May 4, 1970, a confrontation between the National Guard and students at Kent State University resulted in four student deaths. My college closed at 2:30 a.m. the next morning and we packed up and went home for the year. It was a tumultuous time.
If the semester had continued, we still would not have learned about Georgia, nor Mary, or Frida. Janson’s History of Art, with 553 pages, 80 color plates, 848 black and white images, contained no female artists.
Not a one.
Apparently, since the Dawn of History, women hadn’t been a part of the History of Art.
In the late 60’s, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and her husband, architect Wallace F. Holladay, were surprised to find the same gaping omission. They had traveled abroad and admired a 17th century still life by Flemish painter Clara Peeters. When they returned to the U.S. and sought information about Peeters, they also discovered that History of Art made no reference to Peeters or any other woman. It was then that the Holladays began collecting works by women.
Clara Peeters, Still Life of Fish and Cat, National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C. Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay
As the collection grew, so did Mrs. Holliday’s vision of creating a museum of women’s art. Coincidentally, the modern women’s movement in the 70’s was picking up steam and demanded a revisionist look at art history that included women and multicultural contributors.
In 1981, Mrs. Holladay incorporated the National Museum of Women in the Arts as a private, nonprofit museum, residing in her house. The NMWA eventually found a home in a renovated, former Masonic Temple and opened its doors in 1987 in Washington, D.C. The Holladay Collection became the core of the museum’s collection. As a charter member, I attended the members’ preview. I’ve never forgotten the grandeur of the Great Hall and the galleries that finally gave women’s art a home.
The NMWA Great Hall
Photograph courtesy of Tom Field
Today, the NMWA has a collection of over 4,500 objects by women, which includes not only paintings starting in the 16th century, but works on paper, photography, sculpture, Native American pottery, and contemporary art books. Beyond the visual arts, the Museum also celebrates the performing arts and the written arts. The museum describes their mission this way: “By bringing to light remarkable women artists of the past while also promoting the best women artists working today, the museum directly addresses the gender imbalance in the presentation of art in the U.S. and abroad, thus assuring great women artists a place of honor now and into the future.”
And what about the absence of women in Janson’s History of Art? Oh, that was finally rectified in 1986—23 years after the first edition! See if you can find Frida now.
Thank you, Mrs. Holladay! Your vision assures that generations of girls will see talented female role models celebrated in museums. With that kind of inspiration, they will confidently follow their artistic dreams the way Georgia, Mary, and Frida did.
If you can’t visit the National Museum of Women in the Arts in person, learn more at www.nmwa.org.
Teachers will find resources and outreach programs at http://www.nmwa.org/learn/educators.
Who is your favorite female artist?