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From The Vault: RMAC’s Women artists

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Submitted Photo "Henriette Wyeth," self-portrait, 1940s, oil on canvas. Gift of John Meigs in Memory of Clinton Meigs.

By Aubrey Hobart

Roswell Museum and Art Center Curator of Collections and Exhibitions

In 1989, the Guerilla Girls, a group of feminist artists who wore gorilla masks to disguise their identities, put up a now-famous poster around New York City. The text read, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5 percent of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female.” Museums got the message, and over the following 30 years, more women were included in exhibitions. However, in most museums, the ratio of female artists to male artists remains quite small.

Fortunately, that is not so much the case at the Roswell Museum and Art Center. Although I haven’t done the math, a scan of our collection shows a wealth of excellent women artists from around the state and country. Female artists might make up as much as 25-30 percent of our collection, which is still significantly less than male artists, but since women have been discouraged from art-making careers for centuries, this disparity makes sense. Yet RMAC has a long history of collecting women’s art. In fact, the first artwork the museum ever collected was “Weird Land” by Olive Rush in 1937. The painting was exhibited at RMAC as part of a traveling show organized by the Federal Art Project, and it was purchased by Mrs. B.C. Mossman for the Roswell Museum for just $4.50. Right now, this delicate watercolor of three deer in a rocky landscape is on display in “Community-Minded,” our current show about the Works Progress Administration.

The most famous female artist of New Mexico is almost certainly Georgia O’Keeffe, and I could write an entire article about her contributions to modern art in America, but we only have one of her splendid works, “Ram’s Skull with Brown Leaves.” Maria Martinez, a ceramic artist out of San Ildefonso Pueblo, is a very well-known potter of the 20th century, and the museum is fortunate to have several of her works. Other women artists who are well represented in our collection include the avant-garde expressionist Doris Cross (14 pieces), printmaker and textile collage artist Martha Zelt (14 pieces), sheltered British painter Dorothy Brett (16 pieces), photographer Mary Peck (34 pieces), and one of the first Roswell Artists-in-Residence, Barbara Latham, who experimented with a number of different painting styles (59 pieces).

Yet, one artist’s mythology overshadows these other talented women. Henriette Wyeth (1907-1997) was part of an artistic dynasty spanning at least four generations. Many people, including her own father and brother, considered Henriette to be the best artist of them all, but she is always described in terms of her relationship to male artists. She is known as the daughter of N.C. Wyeth, sister of Andrew Wyeth, wife of Peter Hurd, mother of Michael Hurd and grandmother of Peter de la Fuente. Only once these links are established do scholars begin to discuss her magnificent still-life compositions and stunning portraits.

Why is this the case? Well, until very recently, women were defined by their relationships with men. In the early 20th century, most people assumed that the role of women was to take care of the home and raise children; an outside career was not expected. This was so deeply ingrained in society and internalized that working women would often feel shame for their desire to work outside the home, which Wyeth sometimes did, feeling that her art production was interfering with her family duties. I doubt her husband often felt the same way. However, I don’t blame Peter Hurd or any individual man for this. Instead, it’s more the case that a male-focused society emphasizes the actions of men to the detriment of both men and women. It places impossibly high expectations on men and ignores the work of women. That is why in 1987, March was designated Women’s History Month — not to elevate women above men, but simply to honor the contributions that women throughout history have made to the arts and sciences.

So from our perspective in the 21st century, let us accord Wyeth the same stature as her male relatives and speak of her as an artist first. She was an excellent and compelling painter who began drawing at a very young age and spent decades refining her craft. Her images are unflinchingly honest, as is evident in the self-portrait above which was made when she was probably in her late 30s or early 40s. It’s the face of a confident woman at the height of her artistic powers, and who is fully aware of her talent. The work actually looks quite similar to some of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, and that is surely deliberate. While her technique is more akin to the French Impressionists, Wyeth’s sensibilities are very much grounded in the 17th-century Baroque period, with dramatic asymmetrical compositions and a strong contrast between light and dark. She made significant contributions to the art scene in New Mexico and America during her lifetime, so we are happy to celebrate her achievements, as well as the rest of our extraordinary women artists, during Women’s History Month at RMAC.