Last month, I went on a road trip to Washington DC with one of my daughters. It was our first significant outing together since early 2020. It felt great to be out of the house and DC was the perfect setting to spread our wings since we’re both interested in history and politics and we love museums. During our stay, we visited the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), which I wrote about last week.
The NMWA is the only major museum in the world solely dedicated to championing women through the arts. Founded in 1981, the breadth of the collection is impressive. The museum offers up a generous selection of women’s art from around the world and across the centuries.
There is much to see. I hope you’ll get a chance to visit. They’ll be closing in August for a 2-year renovation project so you may have to wait a while, but the place is well worth keeping in mind. To give you a taste of what’s in store, below are 7 more works (with ties to France) that I saw during my visit.
Visite Guidée continued
Berthe Morisot was born in 1841 into an affluent bourgeois family, living in Bourges, France. She and her two older sisters received art lessons as children. With strong support from her mother, Berthe’s passion for painting continued into adulthood. She eventually moved to Paris where she worked as a copyist at the Louvre. There, Morisot met and befriended other artists such as Manet and Monet.
In 1864, she began submitting works to the Paris Salon, the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. In 1874, Morisot was invited to exhibit with the Société Anonyme des Artistes-Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs—a landmark event that would become known as the first exhibition of the Impressionists. That same year, she married Eugène Manet (Edouard Manet’s brother) and the couple had one daughter, Julie who is featured in many of Morisot’s paintings.
While Morisot often used members of her own family as models, she did not intend her pictures to serve as portraits of them. Instead, she sought to capture the essence of modern life in more general and objective terms.
This piece was the biggest surprise for me. I had no idea that Sarah Bernhardt, the iconic French actress whose stage career spanned more than 60 years, was also an accomplished sculptor.
Born in Paris in 1841, Bernhardt was the daughter of a courtesan and an unknown father. She received her first training as an actor at the Comédie-Française and went on to eventually be recognized as the world’s greatest actress of the 19th century.
While acting, Bernhardt began studying sculpture with Mathieu Meusnier and Emilio Franchesci and became passionately devoted to the art. By 1874, she was exhibiting her work at the Paris Salon, which she continued to do until 1886.
Bernhardt reportedly witnessed the tragic scene depicted in the sculpture above. The composition is patterned after Michelangelo’s marble sculpture Pièta, in which the Virgin Mary cradles the body of the dead Christ. Here, a Breton grandmother holds her dying grandson who succumbed after becoming entangled in his fishing net.
Anne Vallayer-Coster was born into an artistic Parisian family in 1744. She apparently achieved fame early in her career and was admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture at the age of 26. Her father’s elevated status and aristocratic patronage may have helped the young Vallayer-Coster overcome some of the restraints that hindered most women artists.
Vallayer-Coster exhibited regularly in the Paris Salon between 1771 and 1817, showing still-life paintings of bowls of fruit, dead game, shells, and flowers. In 1780, Queen Marie Antoinette placed her in charge of the Cabinet de Peinture and engaged Vallayer-Coster as her personal art tutor. She continued painting a broad range of subjects and themes including animals, trompe-l’oeil bas reliefs, miniatures, and full-sized portraits, which mirrored the opulence of French aristocracy before the Revolution.
Vallayer-Coster was often compared to female contemporaries, including Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, who I covered in my earlier post. After a scathing review from critics at the Salon of 1785, Vallayer-Coster quit painting portraits and instead focused on still lives. Due to her close association with Marie Antoinette, her career suffered during the French Revolution but unlike Vigée-Lebrun, she managed to remain in France throughout the war and the years of turmoil that followed.
Joana Vasconcelos is a Portugese artist who happens to have been born in Paris, France in 1971 so I included this work in my guided tour.
Vasconcelos enjoys creating large-scale installations, often with performance components that encourage viewers to walk through and interact with them. She is also known for enveloping everyday objects—pianos, laptops, commercially produced decorative objects—in crocheted or knitted material. Through such works, Vasconelos contrasts the mass-produced with the handcrafted. Her work alludes to our values and associations with each of these mediums.
Much of Vasconcelos’s art confronts feminist concerns and societal conventions. She often presents such subjects using of artistic techniques typically categorized as handicraft and associated with women, such as crochet and sewing.
Mary Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania in 1844. Her father, Robert Simpson Cassat (later Cassatt), was a successful stockbroker and land speculator. However, Cassatt’s lifelong friend Louisine Havemeyer wrote in her memoirs: “Anyone who had the privilege of knowing Mary Cassatt’s mother would know at once that it was from her and her alone that [Mary] inherited her ability.”
In 1865, Cassatt took her first trip to Europe, where she remained for the next four years, traveling and studying in Paris, Rome, and Madrid. In 1874, she made Paris her official home. Cassatt saw that works by female artists were often dismissed with contempt unless the artist had a friend or protector on the jury, but she refused to flirt with jurors to curry favor.
In 1868, her painting The Mandolin Player had been her first piece to be accepted by the Paris Salon. There, Edgar Degas noticed Cassatt’s work and in 1877, just when Cassatt was reaching a low point in her career, he asked her to present at the first exhibition of the Impressionists.
Shortly thereafter, Cassatt and other artists, including Degas, Félix Braquemond, and Camille Pissarro, experimented with various printmaking techniques in the hopes of creating a new print journal. Throughout the latter half of the 1880s, Cassatt produced many etchings of family members. Her failing eyesight prevented her from working for the last 15 years of her life, but because she had been an exceptionally prolific printmaker, she produced more than 220 prints during the course of her career.
Marguerite Gérard was born in Grasse France, in 1761. She was the daughter of Marie Gilette and perfume-maker Claude Gérard. When she was 8 years old, her sister married the famous painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard. After her mother’s death, at the age of 14, Gérard went to live with the couple who resided in the Louvre. Gérard became Fragonard’s pupil and studied painting, drawing and printmaking under his tutelage.
By 1785, she had established a reputation for being a gifted genre painter—the first French woman to do so. Of particular interest to Gérard were the scenes of everyday life depicted in paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, which she emulated in her own work. Gérard was denied membership to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture due to its rules limiting the number of female artists to 4 at any one time.
However, Gérard received three medals for work she exhibited at the Paris Salons once they were opened to women in the 1790s. Her tableaux were acquired by luminaries such as Napoleon and King Louis XVII, and she amassed considerable wealth and real estate—a rare accomplishment for women of her day who remained unmarried.
Loïs Mailou Jones
Loïs Mailou Jones was born in Boston in 1905 to working-class parents who emphasized the importance of education and hard work. Her father was a building superintendent who later became a lawyer after becoming the first African-American to earn a law degree from Suffolk Law School. Her mother worked as a cosmetologist.
After graduating from Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Jones began designing textiles for several New York firms. In 1928 she took a teaching position at Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina after the director of the Boston Museum School refused to hire her, telling her to find a job in the South where “her people” lived.
At Palmer, Jones founded the art department, coached basketball, taught folk dancing, and played the piano for Sunday services. Two years later, she was recruited by the art department of Howard University in Washington, D.C. There, Jones trained several generations of African American artists, including David Driskell, Elisabeth Catlett, and Sylvia Snowden.
In 1937, Jones received a fellowship to study at the Académie Julian, in Paris. In total, she completed approximately 40 paintings during her time at the Académie, employing the en plein air method of painting that she used throughout her career. Two paintings were accepted at the annual Salon de Printemps exhibition at the Société des Artists Français.
After her sabbatical year in France, Jones began introducing African tribal art into her canvases. This motif proved enormously popular in Parisian galleries. Jones was profoundly impacted by Paris, exhilarated by a country where race seemed irrelevant. Her 1953 marriage to the Haitian graphic designer Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noël influenced her further as she saw the bright colors and bold patterns of Haitian art on annual trips to her husband’s home.
Hope You’ve Enjoyed the Show
Thanks for taking part in my mini preview of what awaits at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. As always, I’d love to hear what you thought of the pieces in this post or of the museum in general. Let me know in the comments below.
I’ve lifted and condensed most of the descriptions of the artists’ lives from pages on Wikipedia and the NMWA website.