'Off the Pedestal'

By Shaw, Kurt | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 2, 2006 | Go to article overview

'Off the Pedestal'


Shaw, Kurt, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


She's as American as apple pie -- the Gibson Girl. With her hair piled atop her head and a waist so narrow as to defy belief, she was the embodiment of all that was feminine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: beauty, grace, an uncompromising spirit and strength.

She wasn't real, but she was the ideal. The creation of illustrator Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944), she represented a serene self-confidence that could surmount any problem, and a physical beauty enhanced by an elegant S-curve silhouette shape from bouffant to bustle that real women everywhere emulated into the fashion of the times.

But more than anything, she came to symbolize the "New Woman," a feminist ideal that emerged in the decades following the Civil War.

"'New Woman' was a term of the period used to describe the kind of women who were educated, who had interests and careers outside of the home, and who were competent and capable of accomplishing many things," says Sarah Hall, registrar at The Frick Art & Historical Center, Point Breeze.

That's where this weekend, an exhibition of artworks, depicting 19th-century women as they emerged from the traditional roles of wife and mother, opens at The Frick Art Museum.

Titled "Off the Pedestal: New Women in the Art of Homer, Chase, and Sargent," this unprecedented exhibition organized by The Newark Museum, Newark, N.J., is the first of its kind to examine how American painters, photographers, and illustrators, such as Gibson, Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), Winslow Homer (1836-1910), and William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), interpreted the newly emancipated women who emerged in America in the post-Civil War era.

Including more than 100 works that were drawn from the collections of The Newark Museum and other leading American museums and private collections, the exhibition also includes a variety of vintage dresses and a selection of archival materials from Chatham College, founded in 1869, that highlight the importance of education in shaping the New Woman and provide a local context for appreciating the role of higher education in furthering women's accomplishments.

"This is a really fun show, because while we have some great paintings, it's not really a fine art exhibition in the way that people are used to seeing them here," Hall says. "It's a slice of social history."

Pictures of women portrayed as intelligent, confident, professional and athletic are common today, but images of strong, self-reliant women were a rarity in fine art and popular culture until the second half of the 19th century.

Take for example "The Sportsman's Last Visit" (1835), by William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), one of the first paintings visitors will come to when visiting the exhibition. …

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