The new special exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts does not announce itself loudly. Indeed, if you go to the second-floor galleries in PAFA’s iconic Frank Furness-designed building, it looks, at first glance, like business as usual.
The galleries are filled with technically accomplished 19th- and early-20th-century paintings and a few sculptures. There are still lifes, urban scenes, and many portraits of charming girls and sensitive young women. There are some oddball pieces — a monumental canvas of women washing clothes, a picnic on a yellow meadow with Marcel Duchamp. There are a handful of well-known artists, including two outstanding early Georgia O’Keeffe flower paintings. But overall, the walls full of prosperous faces are about what one expects in these galleries.
What is different is that every work in Women in Motion: 150 Years of Women’s Artistic Networks at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is by a woman. It will be on view for a year, ending July 24, 2022.
Usually, PAFA’s galleries, like those of most museums, are filled with work mostly by men. This is true even though PAFA has had women students throughout its long history, and Cecilia Beaux, whose work is almost always on display, was a pioneering teacher at the school.
But in recent years, PAFA has become an aggressive collector of work by women artists, and this show, along with Taking Space: Contemporary Women Artists and the Politics of Scale — a large, excellent exhibition of more recent art at PAFA’s other building which will run until Sept. 5 — are products of this effort.
Between the two shows, you can spend hours looking at art without encountering anything done by a man. The sneaky genius of the quiet installation of Women in Motion is to suggest that this gender reversal is no big deal. The paintings on display aren’t, as a group, any better than the default, male-dominated selection, but they aren’t any worse either.
“I do not believe that great painting or sculpture or surgery will ever be done by women,” says Thomas Eakins on one wall label, “yet good enough work is continually done by them to be well worth their doing.” This is more than a bit condescending, but perhaps Eakins also has one thing right. When you are an artist, doing the work is what’s paramount. Greatness, whatever that is, is beyond your control.
William Merritt Chase, who taught more than 500 female artists at PAFA, was unequivocal. “Genius has no sex,” he wrote. It’s easy to see his influence in the work of many of the women in the show: More of the women in the show seem to have been inspired by Chase’s brightness and sociability than by Eakins’ surgical eye.
The show takes its name from one of its most memorable, though uncharacteristic paintings, A Motion Picture (1912) by the Boston painter Margaret Foster Richardson. In this self-portrait, the artist, dressed in a smock and holding her brushes, is direct, honest, and busy. It strongly contrasts with Self-Portrait (1914) by Margaret Lesley Bush-Brown, in which the painter has posed herself with brush and palette in a green frock that is clearly too fancy to work in. The canvases show two visions of the artist: Richardson as a worker, and Bush-Brown as a lady who paints.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, respectable women lived in a smaller, more constrained world than their male counterparts, and these social limits make women’s work look different from men’s. Women have historically been much more likely to deal with domesticity, motherhood, and the intimate details of life. That does not mean that some of them weren’t working like mad.
The growth of magazines and other publications that appealed to women provided employment for several of the artists in the show. Lilly Martin Spencer, represented in the show by Mother and Child by the Hearth (1867), was one of the busiest artists employed by Currier and Ives, publisher of popular lithograph prints. According to the catalog, she was the chief breadwinner for her family; her husband stayed home full time to help raise their 13 children.
The premise of the show, as suggested in its subtitle, is that women needed to develop networks — which included family and teachers, but crucially, other woman artists — so that they could survive. Among the earliest artists represented are members of the Peale family, nieces of Charles Willson Peale, who carried on what was essentially the family business.
Emily Sartain, daughter of one of Philadelphia’s leading printmakers, became friends with Mary Cassatt after Cassatt had returned to Philadelphia during the Franco-Prussian War. They shared a studio and painted many of the same models. Two are shown side by side, and while they are very similar, Sartain’s is a study of contemplation while Cassatt’s shows a celebrant. Sartain went on to head Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art and Design.) Cassatt returned to Paris and became associated with the impressionists, a complete stylistic shift. A more characteristic Cassatt shows up in a later gallery.
Most of the works here depict women, perhaps because men were less likely to engage a woman artist to paint their portraits. Men of the time painted women, too, of course. But the female gaze, as we see it here, seems more understanding of the subject’s intelligence, and more respectful of her inwardness. I was particularly struck by Alice Kent Stoddard’s 1910 portrait of fellow painter Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones. It captures a lively mind, which is fully on display in Sparhawk-Jones’ 1908 canvas In Rittenhouse Square. This public scene of mother, babies, and nurse seems somehow to contain an entire novel of manners, communicated by the tilt of each character’s head.
It’s great to be able to see Women in Motion and Taking Space on the same visit. The modern and contemporary artists have great freedom in what they can depict and how they can behave. But some of the old questions remain. One of the first works seen in Taking Space is Joan Brown’s version of the artist self-portrait. She sits at her easel, painting a vase of flowers, wearing a hat, dress, and high heels. Her paint-spattered studio is clearly a place of work, but the artist still feels she has to look like a lady.
Women in Motion: 150 Years of Women’s Artistic Networks at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts through July 24, 2022, and Taking Space: Contemporary Women Artists and the Politics of Scale through Sept. 5, both at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thu.-Fri., closed Mon.-Wed. 215-972-7600, pafa.org/museum