Creating Solidarity for Women Artists


By Nancy Noble

(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Summer 2020

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Hartford art lovers have viewed with some misgivings preparations for the present exhibition. Doubts that the show would be successful have existed in many minds. Such doubts may be dispelled quickly by a visit to the exhibition.

So wrote The Hartford Courant critic H. Viggo Anderson in his review of the first exhibition of the Society of Women Painters and Sculptors of Hartford, held April 9 to 23, 1929 at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Organized by Jessie Goodwin Preston and Helen Townsend Stimpson, two Hartford-area artists, at the invitation of the recently appointed young director of the Atheneum, A. Everett “Chick” Austin Jr., the Society of Women Painters and Sculptors of Hartford was established to give women artists the opportunity to exhibit annually at Connecticut’s most renowned art museum.

Where Are the Women? Rediscovering the Origins of Connecticut Women Artists is a special exhibition on view at the University of St. Joseph this summer to celebrate this important women’s association and individual artists’ achievements. Featuring the work of 23 early exhibitors and founders, the exhibition highlights the significant role women artists played in early 20th-century Connecticut.

At the time of the society’s founding, several of Hartford’s women artists were well known in Connecticut’s art circles as governing board members of the Art Society of Hartford (now the Hartford Art School, University of Hartford). Many exhibited at the Connecticut Academy of Fine Arts’s annual juried exhibitions, also held at the Wadsworth Atheneum, but none held prominent leadership roles in the organization. Women were excluded from the city’s satellite art group of the noted New York Salmagundi Club, the Hartford Salmagundians Art Society founded in 1929, which also staged exhibitions at the Atheneum, notes Gary Knoble, a Hartford art collector and historian. In part at the suggestion of the Atheneum’s Austin, a group of women decided to create a professional art organization of their own the same year. The Society of Women Painters and Sculptors of Hartford’s successful inaugural exhibition and subsequent shows dispelled earlier skepticism. The society provided women not only the opportunity to professionally display and sell their work, but to form support networks and make prominent places for themselves in the art life of Connecticut.

The society’s founding members and early exhibitors trained professionally at the highest levels and many of the society’s early members distinguished themselves professionally beyond Connecticut. Renowned sculptor Evelyn Beatrice Longman Batchelder, the first woman to gain full membership in the National Academy of Design, completed commissions for public works throughout the U.S. and worked with Daniel Chester French on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Society members exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, National Academy of Design, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and other national art institutions. Batchelder, Mabel Bacon English, and Frances Hudson Storrs exhibited at the Connecticut pavilion of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Elinor Lathrop Sears published Pastel Painting, Step by Step (1947), an authoritative text used by artists today. 

Connected by training, family, and social relationships, membership in other civic organizations, and artistic interests, ongoing exhibition research shows most of the artists knew each other when the society was founded. Given these and other interconnections, it is not surprising that founding society members were relatively homogeneous, mostly middle and upper class, with no known women of color among the group’s earliest members. Numerous early society exhibitors were also founders of Hartford’s Town and County Club, formed in 1925 in response to women’s exclusion from membership in The Hartford Club, “to provide an organized center for women’s work, thought and action; to advance the interests of women, and to promote science, literature and art,” as the club’s website notes. Other society members showed their works at the club’s frequent art exhibitions.

Since 1929, the society—now known as Connecticut Women Artists, Inc.—has expanded and thrived. Today it creates professional and supportive opportunities for new generations of diverse women artists. Then as now, the group’s exhibitions embraced varieties of artistic styles, from the powerful realism of Ruth Rising Goldie and Ruth Merriam Cogswell to the Modernist aesthetic of Edith Briscoe Stevens, Edith Dale Monson, and Clara Mamre Norton. 

Nancy Noble is historian of American art, a faculty member in the department of the history of art and architecture, UMass Amherst, and organizer of Where Are the Women?


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