Hedda Sterne, Everyone, ca. 1970, Oil on unstretched canvas. (Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art)
In the 1850’s, Rosa Bonheur was officially granted permission by the French government to wear trousers. While permits were generally issued to those with medical issues, Bonheur, who spent much of her time in the countryside, in barns, the fields and even slaughterhouses to make drawings of the animal subjects for which she is so well-known, was given an exception. Wearing male attire, along with a pistol she sometimes carried, afforded her a freedom of movement as well as offering her a bit of protection as a solitary woman among men.
This permit was referenced, parodied and handed out to the guests at the opening of the exhibition, “(Women) Artists from the Collection 1800-2022” at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art in St. Joseph, as a subtle reminder of the many challenges both women and female artists have had to endure. The show’s theme also serendipitously pays homage to the women who helped found the museum.
The idea for the exhibition came about during conversations between Megan Benitz, the museum’s registrar, Soodie Beasley, an art appraiser for the IRS, and Megan Wyeth, a St. Joseph native and artist. While the Albrecht-Kemper can tout the fact that their permanent collection holds a higher percentage of female artists than the national average of 13%, some of the works selected for “(Women),” had never been exhibited before.
Works by blue-chip artists such as Lillian Westcott Hale and Mary Cassatt will be familiar to those who already know the permanent collection. But there are many surprises to admire or study. The earliest work is an elegantly simple sterling silver tea tray by Ann Bateman, whose first mark was registered the year her silversmith husband died in 1791, emphasizing how many women were dependent upon their husbands to learn an artistic skill (and perhaps only able to emerge from their shadow when alone).
The wall text for “Women’s Equality,” a double portrait of Elizabeth C. P. Stanton and Lucretia P. Mott by Marisol Escobar states that the artist’s work was often marginalized by fellow artists in the Pop Art movement, as they mocked its “feminine sentiments.” It is gratifying to see the lithograph by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith as well as it is to learn that she was the first Native American artist to have had a retrospective exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York earlier this year. The provocative “Metamorphosis (Eleanor Roosevelt),” by Tina Mion, is just one of the artist’s intriguing portraits of first ladies from her series “Ladies First.”
According to Benitz, “Museums have responsibility to the public to help preserve and share everyone’s story. Exhibitions like this one are one step in presenting the work of women who were active, influential, or innovative in their time, but may have been overshadowed due to cultural prejudices, art market biases, or simply bad luck. “
A lavishly illustrated catalogue with thoughtful essays by the co-curators discussing the presence of women in museums, at work and in the marketplace accompanies the exhibition. Quotes by or about each artist are featured with a reproduction of their art.
A charming lithograph of apple pickers by Doris Lee is presented with her astute assessment: “We cannot afford to neglect or discourage any talent because of the artificial barriers of race, class or sex.”
“(Women) Artists from the Collection, 1800-2022” continues at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, 2818 Frederick Ave., St. Joseph, through Sept. 17. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $7 for under 18 and students. For more information 816.233.7003 or albrecht-kemper.org.