Artist Ellen Day Hale

BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts’ new exhibit, “A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston 1870-1940,” recalls a curious yet important incident in the 1860s, a tale of adamant women painters protesting prudish Victorian modesty.

The painter Edna Dow Cheney in 1862 openly protested the proposed “Mohammedan Solution” as a response to the growing demand by women artists for nude male models to improve their anatomical drawings.

The proposed solution would have required the female artists to wear veils during their drawing lessons to prevent the male model from ever recognizing them away from the studio.

Insultingly impractical, the Mohammedan Solution was immediately pooh-poohed by Cheney and her 50 colleagues in the anatomy classes of William Rimmer at Boston’s Lowell Institute. They insisted on and eventually won equal access with male artists to studies of the nude body for realistic rendering of musculature. The “solution” was ignored.

The 90 works by 40 artists on view at the Museum of Fine Arts span the bloom of female painters, sculptors, photographers and fine craftswomen who, for a time, placed Boston in the forefront of American art. The exhibit runs through Dec. 2.

1876 Art Critics: Women Sculptors Unable to Accurately Sculpt Men’s Legs

Among the women to clamor for male models was the Massachusetts sculptor Anne Whitney, who had already studied anatomy at a Brooklyn, N.Y., hospital, and whose work now belongs to the Museum’s permanent collection. Her bronze head of an elderly impoverished woman, “Le Modele,” appears in the current exhibit.

By 1873 Whitney had won a competition for a life-size marble statue of the Revolutionary Boston patriot Sam Adams intended for the Capitol Building in Washington. The marble statue was installed in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall in 1876 and a bronze replica later at Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

However, her success at the same time in another competition proved an empty victory. Her statue, commissioned for Boston’s Public Garden, depicted the anti-slavery U.S. senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, who had been thrashed by a Southerner on the Senate floor.

She submitted her entry anonymously, and it had been judged the best. But the award was withdrawn and given to Thomas Ball because the Boston Art Committee, after Whitney’s identity was disclosed, then publicly decreed that women could not accurately sculpt a man’s legs. The committee refused to release the original proceedings of the jury, but did award Whitney $500. In 1902, when Whitney was 81 years old, her statue of Charles Summer was installed in Cambridge’s Harvard Square.

The segregation of women in the art world was manifest in the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Male artists were invited to display their work in the Fine Arts pavilion. But women were only allowed to exhibit in the general Women’s Building.

Many female artists protested the division; they wished their works judged alongside those of their male colleagues. Many felt their paintings and sculpture were diminished by displays alongside handicrafts.

Many Early Women Artists Painted Sumptuous Self-Portraits of Confidence

Anne Whitney was among the most vociferous. She insisted her sculptures were not to be shown in proximity to “bed quilts, needlework and other rubbish.”

But by the end of the 19th century, women had been welcomed in every major Boston art institution: the Normal Art School, later the Massachusetts College of Art, founded in 1883; the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, founded in 1877; and the Society of Arts and Crafts, founded in 1897 as the first in the country. That same year the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris opened its doors to women.

Many of the exhibits in “A Studio of Her Own,” are bold, sumptuous self-portraits, such as the work rich in furs and feathers by the successful Ellen Day Hale, who stares insolently from her frame. She was the daughter of Edward Everett Hale, author of the story “The Man Without a Country.”

An added attraction in the Museum of Fine Arts show is live work by the contemporary artist Nan Freeman. Women visitors with elaborate hats are invited from Sept. 10 through Oct. 5 to drop into her museum studio on the second floor of the north gallery to be sketched individually in large charcoal drawings.

The show also offers symposia and a film series.

And for those willing to undertake their own walking tour of significant sites in the history of women artists in Boston, there is an illustrated color guide. Included is the Studio Building at the corner of Tremont and Boylston streets where the women artists’ greatest mentor, William Morris Hunt, raised their level of painting and their courage. Hunt gave them a sense of their own worth. He criticized them as roughly, made them work as strenuously and praised them as frankly as he did his male students.

Also on the walking tour are the former sites on Boylston Street of Sarah Wyman Whitman’s stained glass works and 158 Newbury Street, where women graduates of the Museum School founded America’s first nonprofit art association, the Copley Society, in 1901.

Mary Meier is a free-lance writer in Madison, N.H.

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