Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on July 7, 2008 with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at the Indiana State Museum, 650 West Washington Street, Indianapolis, IN 46204 at either this phone number or Web address:


Indiana Women Artists: Then and Now

by Rachel Berenson Perry


To choose to be a woman artist is not for the irresolute, and at the turn of the last century American society's expectations were unambiguous. Since the 1870s, increasing numbers of women attended colleges and universities, and many had broken new ground in professions and the arts before 1900, but devotion to husbands and families was to be the top priority. For those who chose not to marry and were fortunate enough to afford education, the likely career choices were limited to teaching and nursing.

As June DuBois wrote in an essay for Indiana Artists George Jo and Evelynne Bernloeler Mess, "In those rare instances where a father recognized and encouraged talent in his daughter by sending her to college or an academy to perfect her skills in music or painting or writing, she was likely to have been so completely brainwashed by the society in which she lived that she would have had little faith in herself. Only a woman driven by some inexplicable inner force could transcend such limitations."[1]

One can only assume that the Indiana women artists, whose works have survived beyond their own existence, all possessed this "inexplicable inner force." Despite societal pressure to fulfill domestic roles, and often thrust into unacknowledged competition with their artist husbands, these women found ways to teach, advocate and create their own art.

In the early 1900s, formal training for aspiring Indiana women artists existed within and surrounding the state. The John Herron Art Institute, established in 1902 by the Art Association of Indianapolis, provided classes for residents of the capitol city, as well as proximate communities. The first head instructor's classes, taught by Hoosier Group artist J. Ottis Adams, initially attracted a high percentage of women.

Artistically inclined females living near the Ohio River took classes at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Known as the McMicken School of Design until 1887, the school boasted an impressive roster of instructors, including Vincent Nowottny, Clement J. Barnhorn, L. H. Meakin and eminent painter, Frank Duveneck.

A number of Indiana women, like noted printmaker Evelynne Bernloeler Mess Daily (1903 - 2003), painters Estelle Peele Izor (born 1841), Eleanor Brockenbrough (1880 - 1938), as well as sculptor Janet Scudder (1869 - 1040) took classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, a school with an early reputation for serving chiefly female students.[2] A few, who began their art training at the Art Institute, later became involved with the early Brown County art colony. Ada Walter Shulz (1878 - 1928) took an outdoor sketching class in Delavan, Wisconsin, taught by John Vanderpoel and Charles Boutwood, which eventually led to her marriage to artist Adolph Shulz (1869 - 1963) and the move to south-central Indiana. Landscapist Lucie Hartrath (1868 - 1962), who spent summers in Brown County, studied intermittently at the Art Institute after spending more than three years at the Academie Colarossi in Paris.

Several Hoosier females were lucky enough to attend the esteemed Eastern schools. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts was the choice for sculptor Carolyn Peddle Ball (1869 - 1938) and painters Lillie Fry Fisher (dates unknown) and Agnes Hamilton (1868 - 1961), while the Art Students League in New York City provided solid training and job opportunities for painters Ruth Pratt Bobbs (1884 - 1973), Virginia Keep Clark (born 1878 - death unknown), Anna Hasselman (1871 - 1966), Emma B. King (1857 - 1933), Mary Yandes Robinson (1864 - 1953), Olive Rush (1873 - 1966),[3] Julia Graydon Sharpe (1859 - 1939), Lucy Martha Taggart (1880 - 1960), and Helen Woodward Woods (1902 - 1981).

Marie Goth (1887 - 1975) spent ten years at the Art Students League before establishing herself as a portrait artist in Brown County. After winning a scholarship in 1909, she studied diligently with Frank Vincent Dumond, greatly influenced by his portraiture techniques and design.

William Merritt Chase, the flamboyant native-born Hoosier artist who taught at the Art Students League, opened his own school based on drawing and painting directly from life in 1896. Indiana women who took classes there included print-maker and painter Anna Hasselman (1871 - 1966), and painter Flora Lauter (1874 - 1952), as well as Julia Graydon Sharpe, Lucy Martha Taggart and Ruth Pratt Bobbs. Chase also escaped the city to paint en plein air at the Shinnecock Summer School near Southampton on Long Island, New York, and was joined there by painters Susan Merrill Ketcham (1841 - 1830) and Alice Newton Woods Ullman (1871 - 1959), among others.

In the minds of aspiring Indiana artists, the ultimate in art training belonged to the European schools. Although females were excluded from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts until 1897, and studies abroad were limited to the affluent and/or especially determined, some Indiana women studied in Paris at the Academie Vitti and Academie Colorossi, or the Academie Julian. Emma B. King, Margaret A. Rudisill (1843 - 1933), Janet Scudder and Ada Walter Shulz and Lucie Hartrath, all spent time studying overseas.

In the early 1940s, many women moved to a "biomorphic abstraction" in response to the earlier Surrealist belief that automatism (spontaneous, automatic mark-making) released the rich imagery of the unconscious mind. Since the Second World War, abstract and representational art have coexisted despite critical and curatorial attention directed toward the Abstract Expressionists and their successors after 1948. The two differing aspects of art have also been part of Indiana's legacy, evidenced by the history of the annual Hoosier Salon exhibitions.[4]

Today women artists work in a world that rewards their creative expression. There are increasing numbers of professional women art instructors and women are now curators, critics and patrons as well. Hierarchical distinctions between different kinds of subject matter, mediums and techniques have all but disappeared. A large number of contemporary women experiment with materials, techniques and subject matter, but traditional landscapes, portraits, still life and figure painting remain especially strong in Indiana.

Yet, obstacles still exist for contemporary Indiana woman artists. The pressure to balance home life with a career has not gone away. The personal reasons for making art and for enduring despite the challenges of modern life are as varied as the resulting works. Indiana's well-known fiber artist Charlene Marsh lives and breathes the spirituality of her Sacred Space tapestries; Dixie Ferrer layers her collages in a dialogue with the process, thus discovering her own form of communication.

Despite the uniqueness of specific pieces, some observations can be made about general differences in historical and contemporary Indiana women's art. Art history honors impressive productivity and colossal scale over the selective and the intimate, but the artistic production of early Indiana women tends to be small in scale and few in number. Their drawings and paintings are dominated by acceptably feminine subjects. Idyllic renderings of mothers and children, floral still lifes and scenes of everyday home life prevail. These somewhat simple subjects carried the additional stigma of being considered inferior in scope and value to grand-scale compositions of mythology or history, portraits of powerful men, and the experimental landscapes more common in the work of their male counterparts.

Conversely, despite modern day demands on women artists' time and energy, their artwork is often large and bold. Indiana women are creating their own visions of the world. They explore our collective inner consciousness and respond to people and events. They express intimate emotions and they advance well-considered views of social, moral, spiritual and gender topics. The freedom to express opinions is one palpable way that contemporary art differs from that of historical women artists.

Indiana women artists today reflect the growing populations of minority artists throughout the United States. Works in the contemporary gallery of the Indiana

State Museum exhibition include African American, Asian, Hispanic and American Indian artwork. Not only is their work technically and artistically stunning, it often voices a social position unique to race. A Winnebago Indian raised in Indiana, Martha Gradolf's woven piece, Sitting Bull, spells in glass beads the following: "It is not necessary for eagles to be crows." The quote from the famous Sioux Chief is taken from his response to the forceful removal of his people to reservations.

The variety of mediums, subjects and styles now deemed to be "high art" is greatly expanded compared to those works that were considered worthy by critics and art historians a century ago. The American Arts and Crafts movement in the late 1800s provided many middle-class women with a socially respectable and civilized outlet for their creativity. Embroidery, needlework, large-scale tapestries, glass and china painting became associated with financial profit, and thus began to be regarded more significant. The simultaneous art pottery movement, including Cambridge City, Indiana's Overbeck sisters, represented a move by American middle-class women to professionalize the decorative arts.[5]

Many of the works in the contemporary exhibit use mixed media and "found objects" in collages and modern sculpture. Uninhibited by prior adherence to traditional methods and materials, these women artists teach themselves. Sculpture using steel as well as ceramics, textiles incorporating beads and small toys, and flat art integrating painted suede display the artists' spirit of independence and ingenuity.

Although the use of art for making social and political statements is certainly not new, for women artists this form of social commentary has become quite common. Mary Beth Edelson, who left Indiana for New York City in the late 1960s, helped introduce performance art to explore the lives of women from a feminist viewpoint, and Nancy Morgan Barnes' painting, Ignoring Botticelli, focuses on our society's dismissal of our own heritage.

Indiana is riding the crest of a surge in recent decades to correct history's dismissal of art by women. The isolation in which many women artists have worked, and their exclusion from major movements identified by art historians contrasts sharply with the community of women artists today and the healthy critical dialogue of their work. As the metamorphosis of art criticism has expanded the parameters of what is considered important, women will undoubtedly claim their place in the art history to come.

1 June Dubois, Indiana Artists George Jo and Evelynne Bernloeler Mess, Indiana Historical Society, 1985, p. 1.
2 Judith Vale Newton and Carol Ann Weiss, Skirting the Issue: Stories of Indiana's Historical Women Artists, Indiana Historical Society, 2004, p. 7.
3 Indiana still claims native Hoosier Olive Rush, although her career took her to New York City, Wilmington, Delaware, Boston, Massachusetts, England and France before making her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
4 An annual juried exhibition of work by Indiana artists, the Hoosier Salon, established in 1925, is the oldest and largest juried exhibit in Indiana.
5 Four sisters of the Cambridge City, Indiana, Overbeck family, Elizabeth Gray (1875 - 1936), Hannah Borger (1870 - 1931), Margaret (1863 - 1911) and Mary Frances (1878 - 1955) maintained the critically acclaimed and self-supporting Overbeck Pottery from 1911 to 1936. The last surviving sister, Mary Frances, continued to make figurines until her death in 1955.

About the author

Rachel Berenson Perry is the fine arts curator for the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis. She has written numerous articles for the American Art Review, Traces of Indiana and Midwest History, Outdoor Indiana, and Southwest Art Magazine. She provided the introductory essay for Painting Indiana II: The Changing Face of Agriculture and "An American Art Colony" in The Artists of Brown County, published by Indiana University Press. Her books include Children of the Hills: The Life and Work of Ada Walter Shulz, published by Artist Colony Inn and Press, and T. C. Steele and the Society of Western Artists 1896 - 1914, to be released by Indiana University Press in spring 2009.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on July 7, 2008, with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on March 24, 2008. Ms. Perry's essay pertains to an exhibition, Whispers to Shouts -- Indiana Women Who Create Art, which was on view at the Indiana State Museum February 5 - July 10, 2005. This essay was published in the January - February 2005 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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