Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Boston, MA



A Studio of Her Own: Boston Women Artists, 1870 - 1940

August 15 - December 2, 2001


At the turn of the last century, Boston was a leading center for women artists. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) captures this exciting moment in the city's history in A Studio of Her Own: Boston Women Artists, 1870 - 1940. On view from August 15 through December 2, 2001, this exhibition will present 80 of the finest objects, from paintings and sculpture to stained glass and metalwork, by more than 40 exceptional women. (left: Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington, Young Diana, 1923, 94 1/4 x 26 /2 x 33 inches, Harriet Otis Cruft Fund and Gift of M. Virginia Burns, MFA 1979.121; right: Elizabeth Morse Walsh, A Maid of Dundee, 1918, oil on canvas, 19 1/4 x 11 inches, Collection of Remak Ramsey)

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 Boston women in the 1850s and a strong community of accomplished female artists soon formed.

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. Several of them went on to have successful careers, and their attainments, 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. These women were being 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 Westcott Hale, sculptor Katharine Lane Weems, and photographer and pastelist Sarah Choate Sears. (left: Gretchen Woodman Rogers, Woman in a Fur Hat, c. 1915, oil on canvas, unframed 30 x 25 1/4 inches, Gift of Miss Anne Winslow, MFA 1972.232; right: Ellen Day Hale, Self-Portrait, 1885, oil on canvas, unfamed, 28 1/2 x 39 inches, Gift of Nancy Hale Bowers, MFA 1986.645)

Works in A Studio of Her Own: Boston Women Artists, 1870 - 1940 are drawn equally from the MFA's permanent collection, other museums and institutions, and many private collections. (left: Laura Coombs Hills, The Nymph,,1908, watercolor on ivory, 5 3/4 x 4/ 1/2 inches, Purchased from the Abbott Lawrence Fund, MFA 26.30; right: Adelaide Cole Chase, The Violinist (John Murray), c. 1915, oil on canvas, unframed 35 1/8 x 24 1/4 inches, The Hayden Collection, MFA 16.97)

This exhibition is being organized by Erica Hirshler, the John Moors Cabot Curator of Paintings for the Art of the Americas, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.



A Studio of Her Own: Boston Women Artists, 1870 - 1940 includes paintings, watercolors, pastels, drawings, photographs, miniatures, sculpture, stained glass, ceramics, book covers and metalwork. Highlights include:



The 200-page illustrated catalogue, A Studio of Her Own: Boston Women Artists, 1870 - 1940, written by Hirshler, 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 will also include biographies on the artists and 70 color and black and white images of works in the exhibition.

Alphabetical listing of artists referenced in this article:


In July, 2001 the Museum generously sent to our magazine wall text (the text visitors see on panels as they circulate through the exhibition galleries) to augment the previously published information on the exhibition. Excerpts from that text follow below:


A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston 1870-1940

In the decades after the Civil War, a vibrant community of women artists arose in Boston. "There is nothing that men do," stated the magazine The Art Amateur in 1889, "that is not done by women now in Boston." Painters, sculptors, photographers, and designers all flourished in a city that largely encouraged their education and supported their achievements.

Since the Renaissance, art training had been based upon learning to depict the human figure by drawing from the nude model-lessons that conflicted with proper ladylike behavior. The first significant opportunities for aspiring female art students in Boston came in the 1860s and 1870s, when artists William Rimmer and William Morris Hunt offered classes for women that included life drawing. As Hunt's pupil Elizabeth Bartol recalled, students were "criticized as roughly, made to work as strenuously, [and] praised as frankly as men."

Like most artists of their day, these aspiring women painters and sculptors often polished their education abroad, usually in France. But they returned to Boston to become respected artists in a variety of media and to serve as role models for the next generation. With the establishment of institutions like the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) and the Massachusetts Normal Art School (now Massachusetts College of Art) in the mid-1870s, an art education became easily available. Within a supportive community, a professional career was possible. Yet no matter their generation, their social background, or their artistic choices, these women faced complicated issues that remain with us today, as they sought to balance their careers with society's expectations of women.

Boston supported an unusual number of women artists. This exhibition is not intended to include them all, but rather to display some of the finest work they created. Additional biographical information about each artist can be found in the catalogue, located in the gallery's reading area.


Women and the Arts and Crafts Movement

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, inspired by British theories of art, design, and social reform, American artists sought to enhance the beauty of everyday life. Craft was given new status as art, and even simple, handmade items were considered superior to poorly designed, machine-made goods. Boston's Society of Arts and Crafts, founded in 1897, was the nation's first.

Women played an integral role in the Arts and Crafts movement. Since much of the reform effort focused on the home, it was a natural fit. Women who provided an artistic home for their families were credited with improving their spiritual and moral character. But women were much more than caretakers and consumers. They were among the founders of the Society of Arts and Crafts, and women "craftsmen" formed roughly half of its membership. Moving beyond such traditionally feminine media as needlework and miniature painting, they also became successful metalworkers, wood-carvers, and stained-glass designers.

The Society of Arts and Crafts also supported new methods of making art. Posters, a fad imported from France, were included in its exhibitions, helping to establish Ethel Reed as one of Boston's most important graphic designers. Photographers such as Sarah Sears and Alice Austin showed at the society, seeking to establish their images as objects of art rather than products of a machine. The spirit of reform ennobled artistic production, allowing women to justify their art as a force for social improvement. The pottery produced by the Saturday Evening Girls' Club in the North End, for example, was valued as both art and good deed.

While the Arts and Crafts movement provided a creative outlet for many women, others were determined to make their way in the traditionally masculine arenas of painting and sculpture. One woman artist, when asked why she had abandoned her decorative pursuits, replied, "Because I must paint pictures or die."


The Boston School

By about 1900, art in Boston had taken on a distinct character. Under the leadership of such influential teachers as painters Edmund Tarbell, Frank Benson, and Joseph DeCamp and sculptors Bela Pratt and Cyrus Dallin, Boston artists admired beauty, elegance, and technical refinement. They favored portraits, impeccably arranged still lifes, and figure studies of women in tasteful interiors or sun-filled landscapes. Art that incorporated intense emotion, social realism, or political commentary was rare.

Boston women artists created images much in keeping with those of their male colleagues. They accepted the aesthetic and social conventions of their day, hoping to join the establishment as professionals. In a city that valued a genteel style, most women sought to prove their equality by working within the boundaries of established taste. They met with remarkable success, and such artists as Lilian Westcott Hale, Elizabeth Paxton, Gretchen Rogers, and Katharine Lane exhibited their work widely and won both popular and critical acclaim.

By 1920 these traditional standards met with new challenges from a younger generation of artists. "Let us look at all these pictures with an open mind," implored one writer on the subject of modern art, noting that "we have had one kind of painting in Boston for so long that many of these [new] pictures seem strange and acid and rude." Women artists found themselves on both sides of the argument. Margaret Fitzhugh Browne founded the local chapter of the Society for Sanity in Art, seeking to uphold traditional standards, while Gertrude Fiske, Margarett Sargent, and Polly Thayer all began to explore new ways of seeing. By 1940 women artists in Boston were numerous enough, confident enough, and strong enough to disagree with one another. Each had found a studio of her own.

rev. 7/27/01

Read more about the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in Resource Library Magazine

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11

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