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Almost Forgotten: Delaware Women Artists of the Early 20th Century


The heart of a woman, it has been written, makes the world go 'round, bringing strength, joy, and compassion to the lives that she touches. Yet her art too long has been ignored, passed over in the annals of art history. Almost Forgotten, a thought-provoking exhibition of the work of Delaware women artists in the first half of the 20th century, adds to art history and treats the museum-going public to a remarkable body of work. The exhibition will place the works of both the women artists and arts patrons within the framework of national trends in women's advancements in all areas of American society during this period. The women's club movement, social reform, art education, and arts advocacy -- along with the artworks themselves -- are features of this significant exhibition and accompanying publication.

Almost Forgotten: Delaware Women Artists of the Early 20th Century opened at the Biggs Museum of American Art on March 8, 2002 and will close there May 26, 2002. It then will travel to the First USA Riverfront Arts Center in Wilmington from June 15, 2002 through August 25, 2002 and later will be shown in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, at the Rehoboth Art League from November 15, 2002 through January 26, 2003.

"The power and artistic gifts of Delaware women in the early part of the 20th century were enormous," commented Karol Schmiegel, BMAA Executive Director. "Such artists as Ethel P. B. Leach, Olive Rush, and Wuanita Smith now, 50 to 75 years later, are coming into their own. Beyond such art world superstars as Georgia O'Keefe or Lee Krasner, scores of women artists deserve recognition. The Biggs Museum is pleased to be able to present to the public the significant works of this almost forgotten talent."

The origins of the Biggs exhibition were developed by guest curator Dr. Jann Haynes Gilmore, who extensively has researched Ethel P. B. Leach, a student of noted illustrator Howard Pyle, and published her biography. Dr. Gilmore pursued references to other artists in Leach's "Tusculum Circle" of colleagues in the years before World War I that led to Wilmington's Studio Group, the Wilmington Academy of Art, the arts and crafts village of Arden. Her research, which continues, has uncovered outstanding paintings and other works by Delaware women in private and public collections.

Like other artists who were not major innovators changing the course of international art, the artists discovered by Gilmore have received little attention at the national level. Until lately regional art was not well studied nor published in text books on American art. Recent exhibitions of work by Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, and Maurice Sendak have proven that illustration is not only popular as a reflection of our culture but also is worthy of study as art. Many of the women artists in Almost Forgotten began their careers as illustrators, some studying with Howard Pyle or with his followers, and turned to easel painting, producing works with a variety of subjects. Others, Like Wuanita Smith, produced outstanding graphic arts.

According to Gilmore, "The history of art in the mid-Atlantic region, particularly in the State of Delaware, is rich with examples of women artists whose contributions are spectacular, but have been largely forgotten. The public deserves to know not only of their exemplary artwork but also of the service and support that they provided to cultural organizations throughout the State. Several important patrons such as Emily Bissell left their marks on the State, providing leadership equal to other more nationally known women. Indeed, several of these Delawareans contributed significantly to national advancements for women in political rights, social reform, and in the arts."

From the creative core of talented, independent women who lived in a time when women had few opportunities to succeed in careers, comes a remarkable array of illustrations, landscapes, portraits, sculpture, and architecture. During their lifetimes, these works were exhibited at important venues on the East Coast, in the mid-West and most: interestingly, in the Southwest, where several women artists associated with Delaware settled in or near the art colony of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Nearby, the artworks of these women are represented in the permanent collections of the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Free Library, Woodmere Art Museum, and Plastic Club of Philadelphia; Brandywine River Museum, Rehoboth Art League, Delaware Art Museum, State Portrait Collection in Dover; and the Biggs Museum, to name a few.

The 1998 exhibition, The Philadelphia Ten, A Women's Artist Group 1917-1945 and hook The Red Rose Girls (2000) are two recent examples of scholarship focusing on women artists in nearby Pennsylvania, some of whom were associates of the Delaware women represented in Almost Forgotten. They captured, brilliantly at times, the lives and times of a unique region, the beauty of everyday life, human character and relationships, and the focal point of a story. The works in the Delaware exhibition examine a breadth of subject matter and display a depth of technique in watercolor, oils, graphics, architecture, and sculpture.

"The study and celebration of women's history through art or other avenues is critical for the development of young women today and indeed, all people," commented a prominent Delawarean. "More role models are needed to inspire and educate women just starting out on their careers or looking to change careers. The Biggs exhibition shows us that there were women in such nontraditional careers as art who did succeed. We just haven't known about them because history books have left out most of them."

Each artist has her own story to tell. Wuanita Smith recalls that her father agreed to send her to a school of design in 1884 "...on condition that I become self-supporting in three years." She did, and her work is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library of Congress, Woodmere Art Museum, and other public and private collections.

Victorine duPont Homsey studied at the Cambridge School of Architecture but received her degree from Smith College, as the Cambridge School of Architecture did not then grant degrees to women. She designed such buildings as the home of the Delaware Art Center, now part of the Delaware Art Museum. Sculptor Clara Stat Finkelstein was associated with the Arden colony of artists and a founder of the Brandywine Arts Festival. Rachel Marshall Hawkes, known for her sculpture of children and fountains, exhibited at the Rehoboth Art League. Many of her works are now at "Biltmore," in Asheville, NC.

For all, it was a matter of perseverance, particularly as women's roles then were different from today. Young people today can learn from the struggles and triumphs of these artists. Today's artists may face other issues; but as in the previous century, the challenges include gender bias and competing priorities. These unsung role models teach about self-reliance, independence, self-expression and career choices. Their work affirms that learning is a lifelong process that can bring great pleasure, and what we accomplish in our own lives can inform the lives of generations to come.


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