Editor's note: The following essay was published in Resource Library on January 13, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the New Britain Museum of American Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Collecting Women Artists and How Women Have Shaped the New Britain Museum of American Art

by Douglas K. S. Hyland


Over the last few decades, women have played an increasingly important role in the activities of the New Britain Museum of American Art. They have exerted considerable influence and provided key leadership, and our collection has grown in a relatively short period of time from a few dozen to more than six hundred works by more than three hundred women artists.

Because we now have such an outstanding collection, I decided it should be exhibited and interpreted by two seasoned art historians, Professors Sherry Buckberrough and Nancy Noble, of the University of Hartford. This scholarly publication will help bring its significance to a broader audience. Although the country's elite boarding schools and colleges became co-educational only after I had completed my years of study, I am aware that women now make up a majority of the students on college campuses and that for several decades more and more women have pursued advanced degrees in art. Today, they are represented by the leading art galleries from coast to coast. On a personal level, my mother, Patricia E. Hyland, was a sculptor, and my wife, Professor Alice R. M. Hyland, is an art historian teaching at Trinity College. I have been influenced strongly by them and have a greater understanding and appreciation of women artists as a result.

Before collecting works by women artists became a goal of the New Britain Museum, a more pressing consideration was persuading the Board of Trustees to even purchase American art. The founders of the Museum decided to seek advice from the staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When asked in 1907, Bryson Burroughs, then curator of painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, asked the founders to support the nation's artists. He lamented to the New Britain Museum's trustees that collectors and museums across the country were woefully neglecting American artists and favoring Europeans in a most shameful manner. Furthermore, the canny Burroughs pointed out that with the relatively meager funds earmarked by John Butler Talcott for acquisitions, it would have been impossible to compete on the world stage for choice Old Master paintings or even works by the French Impressionists and that Hudson River School paintings were being sold for almost nothing. This advice appealed to the thrifty Yankees. On a positive note, Burroughs also asserted that contemporary American art would educate the people of New Britain, mainly foreign-born factory workers, about the history of their newly adopted homeland. Thus, very early in the century, the New Britain Museum of American Art embarked on the then-unique mission to assemble the country's first collection of only American works of art and to champion the neglected painters, sculptors, watercolorists, and printmakers of the United States.

The first work by a woman did not enter the permanent holdings until 1937, when Gertrude S. Schell's Covered Bridge was purchased. By that time, the art room of the New Britain Institute, founded in 1853, had displayed the collection for decades in the gallery designed especially for that purpose in its splendid Beaux-Arts building on High Street, constructed in 1901. There were eleven works in the permanent collection. The founding trustees were all men, but several women had already exerted considerable influence on the institution. The art room's first curator was Fanny James Brown. She arranged the first loan show, in 1928, which showcased paintings by Edward H. Potthast, John Singer Sargent, John Sloan, and Anna Hyatt Huntington, believed to be the first woman artist to be included in a special exhibition. Even though the institution chose to collect only American art, the following year Brown ventured to display a daring group of European modernists, prominent among them Marie Laurencin. Brown persevered despite local criticism of her avant-garde selections, but the onslaught of the worldwide Depression curtailed her ambitions.

In 1934 Grace Judd Landers came to the rescue of the Museum, bequeathing more than one million dollars to expand the exhibition space at the New Britain Institute. She also left her twelve-thousand-square foot mansion at 56 Lexington Street as a memorial to her deceased husband and son. The stock-market crash prevented the construction of the planned museum, but the funds she gave were sufficient to renovate her home for the permanent collection and special exhibitions. Ultimately, a series of galleries was added to the Landers house. In 2004 the old galleries were razed and the much larger Chase Family Building (55,000 square feet), designed by Ann Beha and Associates of Boston, was constructed on the site. Ann Beha and her associate Steven Gerrard created an award-winning design worthy of the nationally renowned collection, which is now displayed to its best advantage. Rhoda Chase and her husband, David; Cheryl Chase and her husband, Stuart Bear; Elizabeth Webster; and Louise Willson were the four largest private donors to the $28 million campaign. The Landers House has been reserved for an educational gallery for children, a library, a studio, and offices.

Sanford B. D. Low, the Museum's first director, made the initial purchases of works by women artists. Married to the artist Virginia Hart Low, a native of New Britain, Low was, like Burroughs and many of the early twentieth-century museum professionals, a trained easel painter and illustrator. Between 1937 and his death in 1964, Low championed Connecticut artists and American illustrators, many of whom he knew personally. At the New Britain Art League, which Low founded, he gave instruction to many aspiring women. Beginning in 1930, the Museum annually showed the paintings of local artists, mostly members of the League, such as Fanny Brown, Margaret Miller Cooper, Virginia Hart Low, Ellen Moore (her cousin), and Grace Vibberts, along with other male and female members. While it is impossible to know exactly why Low was more receptive to supporting women, one possible factor was his native Hawaiian heritage. Traditionally, women have played a powerful role in Hawaiian society, which is matriarchal in nature.

Low continued the Museum's tradition of purchasing works from the leading New York and Boston dealers, and in the 1940s a series of spectacular purchases was made from the annual loan shows. In 1942 the New Britain industrialist Alix Welch Stanley established the Harriet Russell Stanley Fund in memory of his wife, and from then until 1953 Stanley paid for 284 major American paintings, many from the Macbeth, Grand Central, Kraushaar, and Vose Galleries. In addition to the Harriet Russell Memorial Collection, two astute women, Elizabeth Buchanan and Olga H. Knoepke, bequeathed their collections to the Museum.

During Low's tenure, the Museum acquired fifty works by women. At the time, there were seven hundred art objects in the permanent collection. The acquisition committee, dominated by men, did, however, include Helen Talcott Stanley, daughter of the founder of the museum. Other women became active on the committee from the 1960s to the present. It was not until 1985, however, that the very capable Elizabeth Chamberlain was elected Chairman of the Board of Trustees. Chamberlain successfully mounted the Museum's first capital campaign and added the 1988 wing. She was followed by Virginia McKernan (1992-1994) and Kathryn Cox (2008-present), both of whom were highly effective leaders of the institution. Over many decades the Women's Committee provided vitality and enthusiasm that brought life to the Museum. The first female director was Laurene Buckley, who served from 1994 to 1999. Other resourceful women who helped advance the Museum included Flora Bentley, Ann Chamberlain, Mel Ellis, Maura O'Shea, and Claudia Thesing.

Burroughs and, later, William Macbeth and his son Robert focused their recommendations on the proponents of the then-unpopular Hudson River School, the American Impressionists, the American Tonalists, The Eight, and other "contemporary" American artists. For the most part, the New York and Boston dealers displayed only male artists. The exceptions were Margaretta Angelica Peale (1968.08), Sarah Miriam Peale (1964.56), and Jane Stuart (1968.01), who were close relatives of well-known, established male artists. There were no prominent female members of the Hudson River School, The Eight, or The Ten. Only recently, with such exhibitions as "Remember the Ladies: Women of the Hudson River School" (May 2-October 31, 2010; Thomas Cole National Historic Site), have we become familiar with the women who specialized in nineteenth-century landscape painting. They, too, were the sisters or wives or daughters of leading lights of the genre. Of this group only Mary Nimmo Moran (2005.155), the successful etcher and wife of Thomas Moran, is represented in the Museum's collection. I gave it to the institution in memory of Ann Chamberlain, our Director of Development when we raised the funds to build the Chase Family Building.

All too often women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were encouraged to paint genteel watercolors. They were denied access to leading art schools and thus prevented from admission to life classes, where the nude was studied. While the infamous Thomas Eakins scandal comes immediately to mind-he was dismissed by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for removing a loincloth in a coed life class-such taboos lingered throughout the country until well into the last century. If women could not participate in the rigorous curriculum that produced academic artists, then it follows that it was not until the 1913 Armory Exhibition that women artists were able to fully participate in the artistic freedom promulgated by that watershed event. In the 1920s and 1930s more women were admitted to art schools, both in this country and abroad, and they increasingly participated in the development of twentieth-century art movements and developments. With the exception of Lilly Martin Spencer, arguably the first acclaimed American woman artist not related to another more established male artist, Elizabeth Nourse, a somewhat later trailblazer and self-made success, and Mary Cassat, who had already completed a successful career in France by 1920, all the female artists in the Museum's collection flourished in the 1920s and after. Occasionally, as in the case of H. Dudley Murphy and Nellie Littlehale Murphy, the Museum mounted a show of oils by the husband and watercolors by the wife and acquired examples by both artists in 1946. The seminal 2001 exhibition "A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston, 1820-1940," which featured Polly Thayer's Circles (1960.08), provides a comprehensive look at the history of women artist in Boston. In many ways our female Connecticut artists experienced parallel lives.

Notable acquisitions by Low included Mary Cassatt's A Caress (1948.14); Yvonne Pene du Bois' The Balcony (1948.15), Third Avenue Elevated (1948.16), and Carmine Street (1953.14); Georgia O'Keeffe's East River from the 30th Story of the Shelton Hotel (1958.09); and Malvina Hoffman's Samoan Warrior (1950.01). Sarah Miriam Peale's Mrs. Charles Ridgely Carroll (1964.56) was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Vose in memory of Low. Because he was an artist married to an artist and because he was professionally close to numerous League students, Vose encouraged and supported the aspirations of women by purchasing many other artworks for the Museum. He was in the vanguard in this regard.

Significant purchases made during the directorship of Charles B. Ferguson (1965-85) were Margaretta Angelica Peale's Melons and Pears (1968.08), Elizabeth Nourse's Head of an Algerian (Moorish Prince; 1981.68), Kay Sage's Unusual Thursday (1978.09), Harriet Frishmuth's Peter Pan (1980.09), and Jane Stuart's Morning, Noon and Night (1968.01). Daniel DuBois, the Museum's third director (1984--93), purchased Lee Krasner's Nude Study (1985.09), Hedda Sterne's Untitled (1993.06), Elizabeth Catlett's Waving (1993.06), and Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Surrounded Islands (1984.01) (fig. 1). His preference was for works on paper, and he favored Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. During Laurene Buckley's directorship (1994-99), the Museum acquired Lilly Martin Spencer's This Little Pig Went to Market (1984.18), Esphyr Slobodkina's Abstraction with Red Circle (1994.02; acquired after it was agreed that it would never be hung next to Composition (1994.01) by Ilya Bolotowsky, Slobodkina's former husband), and Louise Nevelson's Untitled (1997.02) (fig.2).

Since October 1999, when I was appointed, we have acquired, through purchase and gift, forty-eight of the eighty works chosen by Professors Buckberrough and Noble for this exhibition. Prominent among them are many photographs, a medium thought worthy of collecting by the Acquisition and Loan Committee beginning only in 1999. Over the last decade the Museum has accessioned photographs by Ellen Carey, Harriet Casdin-Silver (a holograph), Lalla Essaydi, Dorothea Lange, Gertrude Kasebier, and Cindy Sherman, among others. With our expanded grounds, I have been able to create a sculpture garden in which works by Carol Kreeger Davidson and Nancy Graves may be enjoyed. The NEW/NOW exhibition series, which allows chosen artists to curate an exhibition of their own work, has been a lifeline to more daring, innovative artists of our day. Of the hundreds of annual applicants, the majority are women. Of the thirty-four exhibitions over the last ten years, eighteen have featured women. One of the exhibitions consisted of an installation by EAT, an artist collaborative composed of both men and women. A work of art from almost every NEW/NOW exhibition has entered the permanent collection. In this way we have accessioned examples by Sandra Allen, Nina Bentley, Kate Cheney Chappell, Amy Cohen, Mary Dwyer, Siona Benjamin Kruge, Fay Ku, and Irene Hardwicke Olivieri. In keeping with our increasingly diverse population the Museum has chosen women for NEW/NOW who are African American, Chinese American, Indian American, and Moroccan American, among other ethnicities. The Museum's motto is "Where Art Meets Life," and thus we aim to present a wide range of cultural, ethnic, political, religious, and sociological issues that confront us as American citizens living. While preference is not given to women, it is clear that there are many extraordinarily talented female artists whose works deserved to be purchased and shown at the Museum, now more than at any other time in our history.

Similarly, the Museum has continued to support and encourage our Connecticut artists. The 2001 exhibition organized by Lindsley Wellman and me, "Women Artists of New Britain" (May 30-July 15), allowed the Museum to display artworks by thirty-eight artists who were born here, lived here, or taught at Central Connecticut State University. The catalogue describes their contributions to the rich history of our city, once one of the most prosperous industrial centers in the nation. After the show, the Museum acquired Martha Graham (2001.83) (fig. 3) by Marian Kinsella, among other works. The "41st Annual Members Exhibition" was mounted in 2010, with entries coming from more than seventy-five cities and towns in New England and New York and female artists making up the majority of those included. Of the 102 artists selected for the 2008 "Member's Exhibition," 61 were women. Of the 117 artists in 2009, 73 were women. After the 2006 "Member's Exhibition," Gabriela Gonzales Dellosso gave her Three Sisters (2006.134) (fig, 4) to the Museum after it won the top prize.

I am especially proud of the fact that since 1999 we have accessioned hundreds of works by such luminaries as Negar Ahkami (fig. 5), Sarah Austin, Alice Baber, Jennifer Bartlett, Janet Briggs, Fidelia Bridges, Nancy Graves (fig. 6), Lisa Hoke, Judith Linhares, Hung Liu, and Elizabeth Murray -- the largest number in our 107 year collecting history. The former Chairman of the Acquisition and Loan Committee Linda Cheverton Wick, and the current Chairman, Linda P. Tomasso, in concert with the staff and the committees have decided to concentrate on acquiring by gift and purchase works by contemporary artists so that our future visitors will be able to better interpret and understand our present society. Fortunately, we have been able to acquire many eloquent works by both women and men to be cherished for generations to come.

Another development has been the increased number of special exhibitions of private collections formed and owned by women. Foremost among them are Rhoda and Cheryl Chase, Rita Heimann, Melinda Sullivan, and Barbara Spargo, all of whom are astute, knowledgeable connoisseurs who have elected to share their cherished art holdings with the general public. The Chase Family has shown their collection twice; Mrs. Heimann exhibited her collection of modernist works once; Mrs. Sullivan and her husband, Dr. Paul Sullivan, have loaned on three separate collections over the past five years; and Mrs. Spargo's collection will be on display in early 2012. The Museum is especially grateful to all of them.

Finally, it is important to realize that the New Britain Museum of American Art has made enormous strides so that today women and men are on an equal footing not only in terms of the artworks we display and house but also in the opportunities we provide artists to exhibit their works at our institution. At key periods in our history women such as Ann Beha, Flora Bentley, Fanny Brown, Elizabeth Buchanan, Sherry Buckberrough, Laurene Buckley, Cheryl Chase, Rhoda Chase, Ann Chamberlain, Elizabeth Chamberlain, Kathryn Cox, Mel Ellis, Rita Heimann, Olga H. Knoepke, Grace Judd Landers, Virginia McKernan, Nancy Noble, Maura O'Shea, Harriett Russell Stanley, Helen Talcott Stanley, Melinda Sullivan, Claudia Thesing, Louise Willson, Elizabeth Webster, and hundreds of other staff and volunteers contributed their funds, skills, and devotion to achieve the success the Museum has enjoyed. This catalogue is dedicated to them.


About the author

Douglas K. S. Hyland is Director of the New Britain Museum of American Art


Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published in Resource Library on January 13, 2011 with permission of the New Britain Museum of American Art, granted to TFAO on January 7, 2011.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Alexander J. Noelle of the New Britain Museum of American Art for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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and biographical information on artists cited in this article in America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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