The show tells a story of women through portraits that span a little more than two hundred years.
Among Women at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 245 Maine Street, Brunswick, Maine, through April 7, 2019.
By Kathleen Stone
A current exhibition titled Among Women, at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, tells a story of women in America. Not the whole story and not every woman, but in portraits that span a little more than two hundred years, there is a story.
An 1806 portrait of Sarah Bowdoin kicks off the show. Painted in Paris where her husband was a diplomat in the Thomas Jefferson administration, the picture shows her decked out in curls and frills, her Empire-waist dress le dernier cri. But she is no baby doll. Her eyes burrow deep, inviting conversation. Today she is remembered for her diary of current events and correspondence with the likes of Jefferson and John Adams; French artist Louis-Léopold Boilly shows her at ease in high circles even though, as a woman, she could have no official role.
Even more assertive is Phebe Upham, painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1823, when she was nineteen. There is a regal quality to her black and red clothing, but nothing detracts from her gaze — deep brown eyes mark the determination that would later propel her to advocate for the abolition of slavery, argue with her minister for a woman’s right to speak in church and, with her husband, adopt six children. She and Sarah Bowdoin represent a feisty start to the nineteenth century.
By the end of the century, women were harboring private doubts, if these portraits are to be believed. Elizabeth Nelson Fairchild, portrayed by John Singer Sargent in 1887, appears stern but also withdrawn. Seen in partial profile, she is perhaps plotting a way to continue writing poetry under a pseudonym in defiance of her husband, who disapproved of women doing such things. Anna Scott Fisher, captured in 1896 shortly before her marriage, is contemplative, not an all-together enthusiastic bride-to-be. The painter, Cecelia Beaux, knew that marriage was not a foregone conclusion for a female: she herself rejected several proposals in order to remain an unfettered artist. Literature, too, was stirring up questions about marriage. Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady appeared in the decade before Beaux’s portrait and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth soon followed. These, among others, dramatized how marriage could be stifling and ultimately destructive.
Arriving at this pinnacle of society portraiture, it is worth lingering over the nuanced artistic details. Both women are clothed in white, a color Sargent and Beaux render in complex combinations with pink, blue, yellow, and brown. Sargent’s brush strokes are bold and visible, Beaux’s subtle and deft, particularly on Anna Fisher’s silk organdy dress. These fine points justify why they were sought-after portraitists of their day.
Portraiture changed as the Gilded Age dissolved into the twentieth century. John Sloan, for instance, of the Ashcan school, painted a woman in profile staring out an apartment window. The somber colors and her posture convey a pensive mood, but the picture reveals little about her as an individual. Anonymous, she could be any one of the thousands of working class women who crowded into New York in the early years of the new century. A member of the Socialist party, Sloan was committed to working class uplift: he is interested in generalizing his subject’s condition, not delineating her personality.
When photography became a preferred medium, it encouraged artists to find their own subjects, rather than wait for a portrait commission. Like Sloan, many were drawn to women without fortunes behind them. Olive Pierce, for instance, spent a decade photographing families on the coast of Maine, and she shows a woman and her daughter making holiday wreathes, seasonal work to supplement the family income from lobstering. Latoya Ruby Frazier caught her grandmother and young daughter during the family’s morning routine but, because they live in the shadow of a declining steel plant, the pictured is layered with questions of economic insecurity.
More questions hover over Jocelyn Lee’s photograph of a woman at the Chelsea Hotel. Margie is her name, according to the wall label, but where she comes from, why she wears a ruffled nightgown, what fears she faces — all remain unknown. Increasingly, the viewer is left to invent a narrative from sparse clues. The Chelsea Hotel is a very particular place, and one speculates, without knowing, what hipsters Margie might have encountered in the lobby. In Frazier’s kitchen, the ramen noodles and maple syrup are standard issue, but leave us wondering what’s for breakfast.
Three other artists tackle the subject of motherhood by putting themselves in the picture. In a black and white photo, Sally Mann poses with her mother and her daughter Jessie, then ten. The wall text describes their expressions as intense and proud but I found them vulnerable, as though sensing that the romantic idyll of Mann’s work will not hold. The picture depicts a touching interlude in their lives.
Two other self-portraits are less personal, more conceptual. Elinor Carucci stages a photograph of herself running down the street in flowered dress and heels, one child in her arms, the other, who appears only as a shadow cast by the morning sunlight, trailing. Her shoes are significant — a Louis heel for a mother on the run, emblematic of the class of women who get to live out their ambitions, complete with the hassle of getting the kids to school on a Monday morning. Then there is Cindy Sherman, the indefatigable self-portraitist. Almost always in costume, here she plays the part of a pregnant woman. The fall of hair, the fake nails and the obviously strapped-on baby bump reinforce the idea that the picture is about the artist. There never was intent to have it be about anyone else. At the same time, one has to question whether the artist, coy inside someone else’s clothes and quirks, ever lets herself be seen.
Commissioned portraits are not entirely dead. The Obamas’ were recently unveiled in Washington, but that is an exception. More common are portraits of unknowns and little-knowns. We, the viewers, draw on what we see to piece together their lives and guess at their stories.
The museum has students curate shows and lead tours. This exhibition was curated by Eleanor Sapat, class of 2020. I caught up with her by email and asked what guided her selections for the show. Here’s some of what she told me:
The women on the wall around the Phebe Upham portrait really stare right back at you when you look at them, and I wanted visitors to feel that gaze…the gaze and power and beauty and intelligence that can be found among women. I wanted that gaze to be with the visitors as they looked at all the other women in their varied positions in life and society and power, so that they would consider them with the different kinds of strength and ability that women hold.
Consider the mission accomplished.
Kathleen Stone lives in Boston and writes critical reviews for The Arts Fuse. She co-hosts a literary salon known as Booklab and is at work on several long projects. She holds graduate degrees from the Bennington Writing Seminars and Boston University School of Law, and her website can be found here.