Fine Art

The Bellagio’s ‘Painting Women’ exhibit can be an enlightening history lesson

Ellen Day Hale, Self Portrait, Gift of Nancy Hale Bowers, Photography©2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Dawn-Michelle Baude

Three stars

Painting Women: Works from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Through October 26; daily, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; $11-$16. Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, 693-7871.

First, it’s disappointing and dull. Then it’s poignant. Painting Women tells the fraught story of the first generations of female artists who tried to turn pro. No nice, little hobby paintings here—these girls wanted to be taken seriously as professionals, earning fees and recognition on a par with male peers. The 43 works on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—several of them exuding a stunted air—suggest they often didn’t succeed. How could they?

Women artists working in the 19th century rarely obtained training. They didn’t have studios or assistants. No way could these Victorians leave the house without fuss, let alone drag a large canvas outdoors to paint the elms. It’s impossible to haul equipment when the corset you’re wearing intentionally obstructs breathing. And once they got married, it was over. Back to the kitchen. The kids. Whatever promising works they did make usually ended up in the trash. They were amateurs, after all.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt, Mrs. Duffee Seated on a Striped Sofa, Reading, Bequest of John T. Spaulding, Photography 2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Or not. Ellen Day Hale’s “Self Portrait (1885)” suggests that a few women lucked into the talent/time/training combo long enough to produce paintings worthy of interest. Hale portrays herself as androgynous, with notable ears, dressed in unfashionable black and reclining in a shadowy chair—a radical departure from self-portraiture conventions of the time. The facial expression conveys the audacity and pain (or even tragedy) accompanying innovation, while the boyish hand, extending from a massive sleeve, suggests strength and know-how. Painted by an artist in full possession of her genius, Hale’s “Self Portrait” delivers magnitude.

And no wonder: Hale was fortunate to briefly study in Paris, where the revolution of Modernism was underway. Three interesting Impressionist paintings included in the exhibition—“Mrs. Duffee Seated on a Striped Sofa, Reading” (Mary Cassatt), “Three Creole Women” (Marie Laurencin), and “White Flowers in a Bowl” (Berthe Morisot)—were produced in France, where strictures on artistic style and women’s behavior were less rigid than in America. In France, too, there was precedent. Marie Antoinette’s painter of choice, Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun—whose exquisite 18th-century “Portrait of a Young Woman” is featured in Painting Women—blazed a trail.

While works by Elizabeth Paxton and Lilian Westcott Hale deserve mention, other canvases are mystifying. Maud Morgan’s “Scrutiny” would surely have been better left in the attic, along with Fannie Louise Hillsmith’s “Nocturne,” among others. The less-successful works project an immaturity that biography or Feminist Studies won’t ever surmount. That said, Painting Women successfully recounts an academic history of painting in which a few real gems shine.

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