The Latest from American Women Artists

Carrie Waller Abundance

By Jann Haynes Gilmore, PhD, AWA Board Member

The New Woman Movement began in the last years of the 19th century and had a profound influence on empowering women’s lives in the early twentieth century. Ironically, Henry James popularized the term when he wrote about the educated, feminist careers of independent women from Europe and the United States.  This loss of societal restrictions for women not only resulted in independent thinking, but also physical changes occurred like clothing and hair styles and acts like driving an automobile and entering a culturally elevated world.  Women began to create cultural institutions and others gained entry into them as they also began to travel independently, advocate for women’s rights including Suffrage, and be admitted into formal educational institutions including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, founded in 1811, which hired its first woman professor, Cecilia Beaux. Academic art departments and public institutions such as the Art Students League in New York (est. 1875) began to open their doors to women artists. Gender-based societies for women artists were also formed like the Union of Women Painters & Sculptors in 1881, and were aimed at giving women exhibition exposure on a parity with men artists.

A look at three women’s colleges illustrates how “New” women educators had a significant influence on art curricula with bachelor degrees including the study of art:  Wellesley College outside Boston, Oberlin College in Ohio, and Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in southern Virginia.

Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts

Alice Van Vechten Brown (1862-1949) was a major force in art education at Wellesley College, established in 1870.  Brown believed that art should be central to college life and in 1897, she established what was originally called the “Laboratory Method” combining both art history study and studio art. This method spread to other colleges and has become known as the “Wellesley Method.” Wellesley College was the first woman’s college to offer art history as a major in 1900, having at the time its own art building, museum, and library. Brown was charged with redesigning the art history program.  She replaced the emphasis on studying photographs and textbooks to direct observation of art, believing that knowledge of art and cultural history were critical to the growth of women’s ability to “interpret, shape, and master their environments.” This laboratory method enabled women students to study firsthand and understand art techniques and methods directly in order to forge their own creative impulses.

Five women art professors succeeded Brown over the next decades, all trained in art-related fields such as architecture, art history, and fine art with each combining art and pedagogy.  In 1926 Brown hired young Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (1902-1981) an art historian, who would have a significant influence on the study of contemporary art in the Wellesley curriculum at a time when American was establishing its preeminence in modern art. Barr went on to head the Museum of Modern Art, established by three prominent women, when it opened in 1929. 1 Barr’s popular, well-known entrance quiz for his Wellesley art history classes had been published in Vanity Fair in August 1927.  Many women art historians who were introduced to  the study of contemporary art in academia emerged as leaders in the next decades in art institutions and museums across America. It is apparent that progressive administrators at these colleges supported mainstreaming innovative art study initiatives.  Agnes Abbot (1897-1992) held the same Van Vechten principles and was chair of the Wellesley art department for 43 years.

Eva Hesse (1936-1970) Archive, Oberlin College, Allen Art Collection,

Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio

Ellen Hulda Johnson (1910-1992) formed the art curriculum at Oberlin College in Ohio, an institution established in 1833 and still known for its progressive outlook and activist alumni.  Her parents were Swedish immigrants who believed in education and she studied at Columbia University and the Sorbonne.  She began her art career as a librarian at the Toledo Art Museum and came to Oberlin in 1939 to teach art history and she significantly broadened this study to include art since 1945. Johnson also became known internationally as an art critic.  She began an art rental program at Oberlin  in 1940 that allowed students to rent original works of art each semester.  That program continues today.  She also began to organize biennial exhibitions featuring the works of young American standouts like Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Mitchel, Chuck Close, and Eva Hesse.  She also established a contemporary art fund that enabled the college to purchase iconic modernists including Picasso, Cezanne, Gottlieb, Rothko and others for the permanent collection.

Johnson insisted that her students “investigate art of their own time” before they studied historical art, agreeing that it was sometimes shocking and obtuse, yet vital to digest modern art before public conclusions about contemporary art were normalized. Johnson stressed to her students: “This is your art.”

She lived what she taught and hired architect Robert Venturi to design a new Oberlin College Museum.  In private, she purchased and restored a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house (1949) located in the City of Oberlin. Many of the modernist works she personally collected hung in this landmark. Johnson donated the property and her art collection to Oberlin in 1992.2

Georgia O’Keeffe, Yellow Cactus, oil, 1940, Louise Jordan Smith Fund, 1944, Collection of Maier Museum, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College.

Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Lynchburg, VA

Louise Jordan Smith (1868-1928) known as “Miss Louise”, the college’s first art teacher (for 35 years), believed much like Johnson at Oberlin that art should be central to college life at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. With her provident vision, she believed that art should be studied first-hand and she established a European and American art collection, second to none.  Smith ignored the stereotype of the demure feminine character and ignored conservative views of women in her time.  Her college president described Smith’s “gift of generalship.” She had studied at the Académie Julian in Paris and continued while teaching to visit Paris in order to observe contemporary modernism.

Smith also kept ties with New York City as the seat of modern American art and fostered her students to seek additional life study at the Art Students League, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Académie Julian in Paris where they frequently received scholarships.  Smith selected William Merritt Chase in 1907 to paint the portrait of Randolph-Macon’s first president.

Building a stellar art collection, however, was her greatest legacy. She initiated an annual art exhibition in 1920 that included works by Henri, Hassam, Glackens, and Malvina Hoffman.  The 1936 annual exhibition included the works of Renoir, Degas, Picasso, Modigliani and Jean Metzenger. A portrait of Anna Vaughan Hyatt Huntington purchased by the college, subject of AWA’s #17 Blog on Forgotten Women Artists, was painted by portraitist Marion Boyd Allen (1862-1941) and was exhibited in the 1922 Annual Exhibition.  Smith also encouraged the college to annually buy an important American painting and in 1926 a levy of $5 was charged to each student to help build that fund.  The first American painting to be purchased was Men of the Docks by George Bellows that was bold and big; Smith visiting Bellows in his New York studio in order to purchase it.  It has been said that Bellows was “pleased by its placement” in rural Virginia. Upon her death, Smith donated her estate to this acquisition fund.

Smith kept close ties to well-known New York art dealers including Kraushaar, Stieglitz, and Robert McIntyre at Macbeth. These houses supplied Hopper, O’Keeffe, Marin, Ryder, Whistler and Theodore Robinson works to the Randolph-Macon collection, to name but a few. Alfred Stieglitz owned O‘Keeffe’s 1940 Yellow Cactus and while he would not reduce the price, he agreed to hold the work for a year in order to give Randolph-Macon the time to raise the purchase money.  Stieglitz understood O’Keeffe’s connection to the state of Virginia and wanted the work to enter the college collection.

Succeeding Smith were other important women art professors including Beatrice von Keller (1884-1975) who continued building the collection to a total of 100 iconic works from 1928 to 1952.  A work by Edward Hopper was purchased during her tenure. Later, another addition to the collection on Keller’s watch was a donation of 41 works by NY turn-of-the-century artist, Arthur B. Davies, given by Mrs. Cornelius N. Bliss, one of three women founders of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929.

Marion Boyd Allen (1862-1941), Portrait of Anna Hyatt Huntington, oil, 1915, Collection of Maier Museum, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College.

Mary Frances Williams (b. 1905) succeeded von Keller and kept close contacts with NY dealers enlarging the collection to include Thomas Hart Benton, Arthur Dove, Morris Graves, Philip Pearlstein, and James McNeill Whistler, to name just a few.  Williams also continued to carry on the principles of Louise Jordan Smith by bringing a higher profile to contemporary American women artists at mid-century including Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Agnes Martin, Alice Neel (subject of AWA Blog #14, Forgotten Women Artists), Janet Fish, and Georgia O’Keeffe.   Williams provided a clever list in 1961 to the college community of the “artists on our want list” in order to fill gaps in the collection with the best works available. Williams also invited comments from living artists in the college’s collection and Benton wrote an account of his 1934 painting.  Jo Hopper, artist wife of Edward Hopper also sent this comment on her husband’s work: “We love having one of the specially prized Hopper creations snug and serene among you.” 3

Randolph-Macon Woman’s College became co-ed in 2007 and struggled to maintain this “snug and serene” collection because of costs related to conservation, security and museum operations, similar to many small colleges’ collections across America. In 2014 the college sold its first art purchase, George Bellow’s painting, for $25.5 million dollars in order to increase the college’s endowment.    Men of the Locks sold to the National Gallery in London as its first-owned Bellows painting. Needless to say, the deaccession sale received press worldwide and such sales continue as museums across the world struggle with pecuniary shortfalls. 4

Leadership taken by these prescient women art professors benefit us today, while their legacies of brilliant fundraising, art selections, and community support have been almost totally ignored in the art world. As I look back on my own art major degree from a small, then recently turned co-ed college in the 1960s, I, too, had an art teacher who taught us both fine art and studio using the “Wellesley Method.”  I didn’t realize this at the time, but Miss Irene Cullis was incorporating this same method in the art curriculum.  I speculate that similar stories exist among early 20th century women art academicians and it would be a revelation “to teach” the public more about these women’s contributions.


  1., Wellesley College, Article Talk: Alice Van Vechten Brown.
  2. (Allen Memorial Museum at Oberlin College) Frank Lloyd Wright House, Allen Memorial Museum at Oberlin College,
  1. Quotes and general history are included in American Art: American Vision, Maier Museum of Art, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. Lynchburg, VA, 1990.
  1. The American Alliance of Museums, our U.S. museums organization, has recently eased its long-held principle that a museum should not sell a work from its collection unless it is for a better work. Monetary costs today are forcing small academic art collections, as well as small and major museums, to re-evaluate their collections management policies.