MFA gives women artists a studio of their own

As students around Boston begin their fall semesters, a new exhibition from the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) serves to inspire, provoke, and encourage the continuing local tradition of women in the arts.

A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston 1870-1940, the MFA’s latest major exhibition, is dedicated exclusively to the work of local female artists of varied media. The featured time period saw the openings of both the MFA and the Museum School’s (SMFA). The former’s launch of the 1887 The Work of Women Etchers of America exhibit was the first of its kind in America, and established the foundation for a lasting relationship between female artists and the MFA.

The era also saw the easing of social restrictions on artistic training for women. While it was previously considered improper for women to practice life derivative techniques, female artists of the era were permitted or encouraged to pursue education in art.

The exhibition’s many portraits and objects allude to these constraints and inequities in their obvious foreign influences. “Roses-Souvenir de Viller le bel,” a small oil on panel painting by Sarah Wyman Whitman, is one of the first to greet visitors in the gallery. With her strikingly modernist palate, the painting reveals the French influences the artist gained while training abroad. Paris also provided critical opportunities for the portrait painter Lois Mailou Jones, whose “Portrait of Hudson” (1932) showcases her technical mastery. Jones thus became known as one of the most prominent black women artists of her day.

A Studio of Her Own endeavors to present a diverse picture through the collected objects and their respective creators. Two plaster casts – “Bust of a Woman” (1913), and “Head of a Man” (1913), by Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (both partial casts for the larger “Emancipation”) – provide a rare example of a black woman’s work which is on permanent display in Boston. Finally cast last year, “Emancipation” now stands in Harriet Tubman Square in Boston’s South End.

Anna Vaughn Hyatt, whose portrait by Marion Boyd Allen hangs in view at the exhibition’s entrance, is another of this small community. Her “Joan of Arc” (1915-1918) was commissioned for a Gloucester World War I memorial, a miniature of which she is seen at work on in Allen’s painting. The painting and the smaller of Hyatt’s sculptures, “Reaching Jaguar” (1906), illustrate the artist’s concentration and expertise. This smaller work appears compositionally radical in comparison to the larger, more traditional “Emancipation.”

Known for her expertise in the rendering of animals, Hyatt captures the movement of the jaguar in a manner achievable only through hours of careful observation.

The photographs of Mary Devens and Sarah Choate Sears also display this meticulousness, though they differ greatly in other respects. With her “Charcoal Effect (Portrait of Charles Hopkinson)” (1900), Devens celebrates the artist’s hand in its “hand drawn” aesthetic. Conversely, Sears employs stark contrast in her series of portraits, primarily of children.

Their innovations of photographic processes during the medium’s infancy display the technical mastery and daring break with tradition that attracted the attention of renowned photographer Alfred Steiglitz. Especially in light of their vast differences, that the work of these two artists was recognized in New York again exemplifies the proliferation of artwork by women in Boston during this era.

The show is dominated by paintings, however, featuring artists such as Polly (Ethel R.) Thager, Ellen Day Hale, and Gertrude Fiske. Female painters in Boston were instrumental in the establishment of tradition and the cultivation of the “Boston School” of art. This school subscribed to elegance, propriety, and refinement with a minimum of social commentaries or political content. This school of painting, which focused on domestic still-life paintings and portraits, used extensive color and, similar to the Dutch interior painters, often enshrouded the painting’s subject in the bright light of a window. Even those women who defied the conventions of the school, however, still left lingering remnants of this training in their work.

Although for some painters, succeeding within the conservatism of the era was the main key to the advancement of women in the Boston artistic community, the work of Gertrude Fiske insists otherwise. Her brilliant colors and images of powerful, self assured women decidedly break from social conventions – they are pictured without children, and on a formal level. Of her most unusual paintings, “Revere Beach, Winter” (1930) captures the desolate, surreal landscape of the abandoned amusement park during its off-season. The imagery is stark and foreboding, and captures the eerie carnavalesque aesthetic usually associated with more contemporary work.

“The Window” (1916), also creates a similar feeling of isolation and desolation despite its images of figures in a room bathed in light. The painting’s three women sit, in close proximity to each other, but in apparent silence and solitude. None of the three address the voyeur of each other. The colors are brilliant, yet the environment is dark and shadowy. As seems the reality for Boston women artists at the time, the mood of the work is mixed; there is the boldness and brilliance of the color and technique coupled with the isolation of the figures.

A Studio of Her Own is a small exhibition, and its lighting is comparatively intimate by today’s standards. But the work, varying infinitely in style and media, implies a plethora of women artists in nineteenth century Boston. Its timing is brilliant, as well. Many contemporary women artists are currently in Boston, or have recently put the city on their itineraries this fall, including Nan Goldin, Nancy Sperro, and Yoko Ono.

The MFA has obviously given some consideration to bridging their exhibition of nineteenth century art with the contemporary, and has still managed to keep it local by inviting the artist Nan Freeman to work in the MFA’s North Gallery concurrently with the exhibition.

A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston 1870-1940 is on view at the MFA until Dec. 2. The MFA is open Monday and Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 9:45p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. The MFA is located at 465 Huntington Avenue, or at the Museum/Ruggles stop on the Green Line. For general information call 617-267-9300, or visit