“A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston 1870-1940,” presents over eighty of the finest paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts created by women at the turn of the last century. Drawn equally from the MFA’s holdings, other museums and institutions, and private collections, the exhibition includes works by over forty artists. While some of them are well known, like Lilian Hale and Anna Vaughn Hyatt, many others remain uncelebrated. No matter the level of their fame, their art represents an aesthetic achievement of great significance and beauty.
As one art critic reported in 1889, “there is nothing that men do that is not done by women now in Boston.” The city was a conspicuous leader in the emergence of women professionals in all disciplines, including the fine arts. The cornerstone of an artistic education, drawing from life, was made available to local women in the 1850s and there soon formed a strong community of accomplished female artists.
The first generation, including Ellen Day Hale, Elizabeth Boott Duveneck, Anne Whitney, and Sarah Wyman Whitman, studied in the 1860s with William Morris Hunt and William Rimmer, two of the city’s leading artists. Hale and Duveneck continued their education is Paris, and both shared their experiences with their colleagues in Boston through the letters and articles they sent home. Whitney, a sculptor, and Whitman, a designer, each received important public commissions in the city. Their success, along with their involvement in such organizations as the Society of Arts and Crafts and the Copley Society, made them mentors for a younger generation of women artists trained at Boston’s new art schools, including the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and the Massachusetts College of Art, both founded in the 1870s.
Many of the city’s best known artists were alumnae of those programs, including painter Lilian Hale, sculptor Katharine Lane Weems, and photographer and pastelist Sarah Choate Sears. As the critic William Howe Downes remarked in 1896, “every year we see these sisters of the brush and palette coming forward as doughty competitors to the men, and nowhere do they threaten more serious rivalry than in Boston.” During the early twentieth century, these women earned national reputations as professional artists in a variety of media. Some chose a traditional academic style while others experimented with modernism, but no matter which aesthetic choices they made, each of them worked to balance their careers with the roles society expected them to play as daughters, wives, and mothers.
“A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston 1870-1940” includes paintings, watercolors, pastels, drawings, photographs, miniatures, sculpture, stained glass, ceramics, book covers, and metalwork. The illustrated catalogue traces the history of women’s contributions to the arts in Boston and explores women’s choices of medium, subject matter, and domestic arrangements, comparing them to their male counterparts. The catalogue also serves as an important and lasting reference with artists’ biographies.
The organizer of this project is Erica E. Hirshler, Croll Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts. Dr. Hirshler has a special interest in art of the Boston area and in women artists, and she has written extensively on both subjects.