At the dawn of the 20th century, a revolutionary American art teacher inspired a group of women artists to break from tradition and create art that reflected their lives. Nearly a century later, a new exhibition at the BYU Museum of Art will bring together, for the first time, the vibrant and diverse art of this group of women artists.
"Thoroughly Modern: The 'New Women' Art Students of Robert Henri" will open at the Museum of Art on Friday, Feb. 25, and will be on view through Saturday, Aug. 27.
The museum will host an opening reception for the exhibit Thursday, Feb. 24, at 7 p.m. Live period music by an all-woman jazz combo will be featured, and light refreshments will be served. The event is free.
This first-ever exhibition of the women art students of Robert Henri—widely regarded as the most important American art teacher of the era—will include paintings, prints, drawings, sculpture, textiles and furniture by 31 women artists who studied under Henri from the 1890s through the 1920s.
The art created by Henri's women students demonstrates the wide range of styles, subjects and attitudes that characterized modern art in the early 1900s. Since the 1950s, however, the term "modern art" has become synonymous with abstraction. This narrow definition of modernism excludes the artistic richness and diversity that reflected the dynamism of the early 20th century.
The works in this exhibition bring to light the energy and vigor of a group of modern artists who were essentially written out of the movement's history.
"This landmark exhibition provides a unique opportunity to see work by important American women artists of the early 20th century," says Janet Wolff, associate dean of the School of Arts at Columbia University. "In recent years, museums and art historians have been re-evaluating and rediscovering the work of figurative and realist artists, who were often sidelined by the dominance of abstract and modernist art since the 1950s. This exhibition of work by women students of Robert Henri, the pre-eminent American realist painter, makes it clear that it is not only male artists whose reinstatement is overdue."
Some of the better-known artists in this exhibition will include painter and printmaker Isabel Bishop, who was the first female teacher at the Art Students League in New York and was the first woman elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters; painter and illustrator Peggy Bacon, who contributed short stories, verse and illustrations to numerous magazines, and authored or illustrated more than 70 books; and muralist Minerva Teichert, who was urged by Henri to paint "the great Mormon Story" and who placed more than 60 murals in buildings in Utah and Wyoming during the 1930s.
This exhibition is the culmination of years of intense research initiated by Marian Wardle, curator of American art at the Museum of Art. Wardle and a host of BYU students spent four years uncovering the life stories and artworks of 441 women who studied under Henri—many of whom had never been studied before.
Wardle says she began her research expecting to find that most of Henri's women students were amateur dabblers, but the research told a different story. More than 200 of these women had successful professional art careers, exhibiting, teaching and founding and administering arts organizations across the country.
"The study began as a quest to learn what had become of Henri's numerous women students, to uncover their contributions and to add them to the account of American art history," Wardle says. "But during the years of research, it also became an examination of the accepted history of American modernist art that had excluded these women and many others."
As a result of the research effort, nearly 100 artworks will travel to the museum from 50 lenders scattered across the country. These lenders include such institutions as the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, as well as many private collectors.
Later in the year, Rutgers University Press will publish an exhibition catalog that will feature essays by prominent American art history scholars about the achievements and influence of Henri's women art students.
Writer: Christopher Wilson