An Era of Empowerment

‘Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism’ Opens at the Speed

Story Janice Carter Levitch

Photos by Danny Alexander

The current exhibit at the Speed Art Museum, “Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism,” is one you should experience before it closes on May 13. On my recent visit to the Speed, I had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with Director Stephen Reily and Chief Curator Erika Holmquist-Wall.

Articulate and a wellspring of knowledge regarding this exhibit, Holmquist-Wall began our tour noting, “We have been open for a little over a year and a half since the renovation, and we’re still figuring out what we can do with our spaces as far as exhibition design and where we can really push things. This is the first time we have gone all out creating an immersive experience with the blow-up vinyl covering the exterior elevator walls and doors with an image of the facade of the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris, France, which was the art school closed to women until 1897. The idea is that the elevator doors are opening, you can go in and out, and you finally have access.”

As the elevator doors open visitors are greeted with another large-scale wall covering of the Eiffel Tower. The luminosity is palpable, and you are just beginning the experience.

“Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism” includes more than 80 paintings by 37 women artists from across Europe and America, all of which were created in Paris between 1850 and 1900. This was a time of great social, cultural and artistic change, and women migrated to the epicenter of art to further their careers. They ranged from well-known artists such as Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt and Rosa Bonheur to painters who are lesser known in the United States, including Anna Ancher and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Even though Paris was known as a cosmopolitan city, Parisian society was still very restrictive for women. They were not allowed to attend the École des Beaux-Arts, the country’s most important art academy, until 1897.

“The start of the show is actually talking about how these women got training because this was all closed to them,” Holmquist-Wall adds. “At the time, women couldn’t go out in public without an escort. You couldn’t have a bank account, custody of your own children or wear pants. It was so intensely restrictive, but here you’ve got women who want to be artists. How do you get that training and where do you seek that out? All of the schools are closed to you, and so what happens is they start banding together; they start networking to find ways they can exhibit their work together in support of each other.”

When the Speed began planning the show three years ago, they had no idea how timely it would be. “What I love about the show is that it’s very pro women at a time when we’re having national conversations about women, so it feels very timely and relevant,” Holmquist-Wall says.

The first section of the exhibit helps in understanding the obstacles that these artists had to overcome. Some began going to the smaller, private art academies opened for women, but they were charged more to attend than the men. Others would go to the Louvre Museum in Paris to copy great art. Holmquist-Wall says, “It’s very much a moment and a kind of behind-the-scenes of women working together and women painting other women.”

Reily, director of the Speed, explains the three techniques of impressionism employed by the artists: impasto (thick strokes of paint), en plein air (outdoors) and effets de soir (the shadowy effects of evening or twilight). “I find there is so much variety in this exhibit, and it’s not really about the style of art for me; it’s about the stories, and each one calls in a different way. The women who make the pictures in the show are really inviting.”

As the show unfolds for the visitor, you can see boundaries being broken as you move through the subject matter depicted. The show is laid out in an educational but accessible way. “The subject matter isn’t just women,” says Reily. “There are many things that broaden out, simply women having families, work, culture and all of these other experiences.”

“We chose to go with the show and call it ‘in the Age of Impressionism’ because it’s a time when it’s all exploding; kind of at the beginning of modern art as we think about it,” Holmquist-Wall reveals. “But there are also these women who are working in a variety of different artistic impulses, whether it’s realism, naturalism and then as we get later into the century, expressionism.”

The energy of the exhibit is exhilarating while offering an opportunity to gain knowledge about the boundaries and restrictions women artists encountered and overcame. To pay homage to this era – and reflect on the one we’re in now – is a gift you will want to savor. VT

Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism

Now through May 13

The Speed Art Museum