National Museum of Women in the Arts, Hidden Gem in Downtown DC

National Museum of Women in the Arts
National Museum of Women in the Arts

In April, my daughter Rita and I took a trip to Washington DC. We’d received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. It was spring break, during her last and horribly trying year of public school, and we were itching to get out of the house. A day before we left, I made the sad discovery that all of the Smithsonian museums were indefinitely closed. Thanks to Google, however, I tracked down some private institutions that were accepting visitors by appointment only. We lucked out and snagged a timeslot at a gem of a museum that we might not have discovered under normal circumstances, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA).

When we arrived in our nation’s capital, we found the city in fine form. Trees were in bloom, flowerbeds were fresh and plentiful, hedges were trimmed, the streets were litter-free, and since most people were still working from home, traffic was low and the sidewalks only lightly salted with pedestrians.

On our second day, we walked to the NMWA, grabbing coffee and French pastries en route. It’s housed in a majestic 6-story building, and as we waited in the pandemic-spaced line to enter, I hoped that we wouldn’t regret spending time indoors on such a gorgeous spring morning. After a quick overview of the museum’s collection, delivered by an exuberant greeter as she pointed to a bottle of hand sanitizer and checked our temperatures, my concerns quickly evaporated.

Museum lobby
The lobby of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

A World-Class Collection

According to their website, “The National Museum of Women in the Arts brings recognition to the achievements of women artists of all periods and nationalities by exhibiting, preserving, acquiring, and researching art by women and by teaching the public about their accomplishments.” Walking through their galleries, it didn’t take long for us to appreciate the breadth of the collection. The museum truly represents women’s art from around the world and across the centuries.

After about an hour, Rita noted that unlike every other art museum that she’s ever visited, she had yet to see a canvas or sculpture that left her scratching her head, wondering, “how did this get in here?” I had to agree.

Inspired by the wonderful blog Equinoxio, I decided to take photos of some of the pieces to post on my blog. Given the francophone nature of this site, I only chose works by French artists, or that had been created by artists living in France. Unfortunately, my cellphone inserted plenty of unwanted glare, reflections, and angle distortions. Since most of the works exist in Wikimedia Commons or on the NMWA website, I decided to use some of those images in order to present the art in its best light. Except for photos of the sculptures, the pictures in this post were not taken by me.

Keep in mind, this is a minuscule sampling of what awaits if you ever have the chance to visit.

Museum visitors
Museum visitors, from NMWA website

Enjoy Your Visite Guidée

Rosa Bonheur

Sheep by the Sea
Sheep by the Sea, by Rosa Bonheur, 1865

Rosa Bonheur was born in Bordeaux, France in 1822. In 1829, she moved to Paris with her family. She was trained by her father, a minor landscape painter. While unconventional in her ambitions and personal conduct, Bonheur was traditional in her working method. She studied her subjects carefully and produced many preparatory sketches before she applied paint to canvas.

Enella Benedict

Brittany Children
Brittany Children, by Enella Benedict, 1892

Enella Benedict was born in Lake Forest, IL in 1858. Benedict attended Lake Forest University, where she studied painting and drawing. She also studied at the School of the Art Insitute of Chicago and the Art Students League of New York. She then traveled to Paris to study at the Académie Julian.

Despite her acceptance to this prestigious French academy, as a female student, she received less rigorous training and was charged more for tuition compared to male students. As a woman, she was often isolated from other students.

Louise Bourgeois

Spider III
Spider III, by Louise Bourgeois, 1995

Louise Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911. Bourgeois put her artistic talent to use at a young age by helping in her family’s tapestry restoration workshop. She received a degree in mathematics before turning her attention to formal art study, first at Paris’s Ecole des Beaux-Arts and later through private lessons. At 27, she married American art historian Robert Goldwater and moved with him to New York City.

Bourgeois is considered one of the most inventive and influential sculptors of the 20th century for her use of unconventional materials and allusive psychological content. She associated the spider with maternal protectiveness and often remarked that her own mother exhibited many of the spider’s admirable qualities: patience, industriousness, and cleverness.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun

Portrait of Princess Belozersky
Portrait of Princess Belozersky, by Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, 1798

Élisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun was born in Paris in 1755. At the age of 15, Vigée-LeBrun was earning enough money from her portrait painting to support herself, her widowed mother, and her younger brother. Trained by her father, the portraitist Louis Vigée, she joined Paris’s Academy of Saint Luke at 19. Two years later, she married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre LeBrun, a painter and art dealer who helped her gain valuable access to the art world.

Vigée-LeBrun created some 660 portraits and 200 landscapes that hang in galleries and private collections all over the world. Her talent matches that of the great masters and was good enough to capture the attention of Marie Antoinette for whom she created more than 30 portraits.

When the French Revolution came, Vigée-LeBrun was forced to flee France with her nine-year-old daughter. During the following 12 years she created portraits of the most celebrated residents of Rome, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Berlin. After brief, highly successful stays in England and Switzerland, Vigée-LeBrun returned to France for good in 1809.

This is one of two canvasses by Vigée-LeBrun that I saw in the NMWA collection.

Joan Mitchell

Sale Neige
Sale Neige, by Joan Mitchell, 1980

Joan Mitchell was born in Chicago, Il in 1925. Influenced by her mother’s work as co-editor of Poetry magazine and by authors such as T.S. Eliot who came to visit, Mitchell first considered a career in writing. After studying English literature for a time, she focused instead on painting, earning her advanced degree from the School of The Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1950, she moved to New York and began exhibiting her work to considerable acclaim.  Mitchell is recognized as a principal figure—and one of the few female artists—in the second generation of American Abstract Expressionists.

Despite her burgeoning career in the United States, while still in her twenties, Mitchell began spending time in France and eventually settled there permanently.

Marianne Loir

Presumed Portrait of Madame Geoffrin
Presumed Portrait of Madame Geoffrin, by Marianne Loir, mid-18th century

Marianne Loir was born in Paris around 1715. Loir’s family members had been active Parisian silversmiths since the 17th century. Her brother was a highly regarded pastellist and sculptor, also specializing in portraiture.

Little is known about Loir’s life. She was trained by a distinguished French academic painter, Jean-François de Troy, and may have spent some time in Rome. That sojourn seems especially likely between the mid-1730s and 1740s, when there is no record of any artistic activity by her in Paris and when her teacher served as director of the Académie de France in Rome.

Scholars believe that Loir may also have lived for a time in the south of France. This theory is based on records of portraits she painted during the 1720s for patrons in Pau and her election to the Academy of Marseilles in 1762.

Niki de Saint-Phalle

Niki de Saint-Phalle was a French-American sculptor, painter, and filmaker, born in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, near Paris, in 1930. She spent most of her childhood and adolescence in New York City, and summers in Connecticut or Long Island. She frequently returned to France to visit relatives, becoming fluent in both French and English.

While attending a convent school in her youth, Saint-Phalle painted the fig leaves covering the classical sculptures on campus red, illustrating an early love of color and a disregard for following the rules. In her late teens, she married writer Harry Mathews, began a career as a fashion model, and also studied to become an actress. But in 1953, she was hospitalized for depression, and she began to delve into painting and collage.

Saint-Phalle was a self-taught artist who experimented with creative techniques that were distinctly her own. In the mid-1960s, Saint Phalle began to focus on figures of women. She called these sculptures “Nanas,” which translates to “broads” or “chicks” in English. These works epitomize Saint Phalle’s fascination with both conventional and progressive ideas about femininity.

Stay Tuned

In part II, you’ll find more examples of French-related works from the National Museum for Women in the Arts.

Before you leave, however, I’d love to hear what you thought of the pieces in this post or of the museum in general. Have you ever visited? Which pieces are your favorites? Are there any that you feel are unworthy? Let me know in the comments below.

Endnote

I’ve lifted and condensed most of the descriptions of the artists’ lives from pages on Wikipedia and the NMWA website.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

28 Comments

  1. I’m rather surprised that I haven’t previously heard of any of these artists — not that I have any expertise in the visual arts. But Vigée-Lebrun and Loir deserve to be household names — those paintings positively glow and they were clearly masters.

    It’s bizarre that Benedict was charged more money for less rigorous training, but I suppose prejudice is inherently irrational. I wonder if any of the people responsible for those policies later saw her work and felt ashamed of their earlier disrespect.

    I see what you mean about Saint-Phalle’s love of color and disregard for conventional rules. It’s an arresting piece, though.

    I’ve never been to Washington DC, but this place will certainly be on my to-do list if I ever go there. Thank goodness they have all these works in a place where they’ll be properly taken care of.

    • Thanks for your comment Infidel. Vigée-LeBrun was a clear stand out.

      I’m glad to see that these women managed to achieve some level of notoriety during their lifetimes. Probably, not at the level they deserved but at least none went the way of van Gogh, only becoming known after their deaths, which I find even more impressive.

      Glad to hear you plan to visit if you get the chance.

  2. Wow, when did this museum open? I don’t recall it from my tour guiding days (although I will admit that I was much more focused on neighborhood history than on museums)! Sounds interesting, and thank you, Carol, for telling us about your trip!
    -Shira

    • It only opened in 1981. I find it amazing that they’ve amassed such an impressive collection since. They had/have two special exhibits underway, that alone, are well worth the trip.

      One features the work of Sonya Clark, “renowned for her mixed-media works that address race and visibility, explore Blackness, and redress history.” Through June 27.

      And my favorite was the work of photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, who captured “candid portraits of subjects living outside of mainstream society.” Through August 8.

  3. I love Joan Mitchell’s art…

  4. Thanks, I didn’t know that such a museum existed, and you chose gorgeous examples

  5. I love the Louise Borgeois and Joan Mitchell, I want to see more of theirs! What an amazing find. I can’t count how many times I’ve been through DC museums and never heard of this place! So glad to know about it now. Thanks for sharing this!

  6. Glad to have this virtual visit. I’ve heard about this place for years.

  7. Great post! Very informative. I have never been to Washington DC and its museums, and some day I hope to visit. Louise Bourgeois will definitely be my highlight. I know one of her spiders is also at Tate in London.

    • DC, Chicago, and Seattle are my favorite U.S. cities. Hope you get a chance to visit Diana. Do you live in the UK?

      • I do! I know little of Chicago or Seattle, but I know the former feels like NY and I would love it, and the latter looks amazing on all the photos. I also would love to explore both San Francisco & New Orleans some day!

        • Those are both excellent choices—also in my top 10. Very different cultures in each of these cities. Chicago is also very different from New York, in my opinion. But coming from the other side of the ocean, they might have more in common than I realize.

  8. Your title was spot on, Carol. NMWA is a hidden gem. I’ve heard of it, but never had the opportunity to visit. Unfortunately, it will soon be closing for two years of renovations. Fortunately, it will be even better after that than before.

    I’ve always enjoyed Rosa Bonheur and Louise Bourgeois’ work, but several of the artists you featured were delightful surprises: Benedict, Loir, and Vigee-Lebrun. Breathtaking artistry! And the fact that the museum features such diversity in terms of cultures, times, and places is a definite plus.

    I look forward to Part Two.

    • You’ve hit upon the most amazing aspect of the place, Annie–the breadth of the collection. I look forward to returning when they’ve completed their renovations.

  9. Vigée-Lebrun of course. And Nikki de Saint-Phalle. She had a difficult life. But a great artist.

    • I agree that Vigée-Lebrun is outstanding. Saint-Phalle is a lot of fun and it’s impressive that she’s self-taught. I don’t know much about her but being hospitalized for depression sounds pretty grim. You’d never guess given the joy and playfulness in so much of her work.

  10. (You seem to be getting many comments. very glad.) Bon week-end Carole.

  11. I live about ten miles outside of D.C. and I have to recommend the Hirshorn. The permanent collects has some Francis Bacon’s that I like and, in the basement, they mix it up with some multi-media sometimes.

    • Thanks for sharing. I’ve been to the Hirshorn but it’s been a few years. I’m looking forward to revisiting since one of my daughters will be going to college in DC in the fall. I’ve traveled there many times over the course of my life. It’s an amazing place and I’m glad to have an excuse to get to know it better in the coming years.

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