Art Work: Women Artists and Democracy in Mid-Nineteenth-Century New York

Art Work: Women Artists and Democracy in Mid-Nineteenth-Century New York

Art Work: Women Artists and Democracy in Mid-Nineteenth-Century New York

Art Work: Women Artists and Democracy in Mid-Nineteenth-Century New York

Synopsis

"I was in high spirits all through my unwise teens, considerably puffed up, after my drawings began to sell, with that pride of independence which was a new thing to daughters of that period."--"The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote" Mary Hallock made what seems like an audacious move for a nineteenth-century young woman. She became an artist. She was not alone. Forced to become self-supporting by financial panics and civil war, thousands of young women moved to New York City between 1850 and 1880 to pursue careers as professional artists. Many of them trained with masters at the Cooper Union School of Design for Women, where they were imbued with the Unity of Art ideal, an aesthetic ideology that made no distinction between fine and applied arts or male and female abilities. These women became painters, designers, illustrators, engravers, colorists, and art teachers. They were encouraged by some of the era's best-known figures, among them "Tribune" editor Horace Greeley and mechanic/philanthropist Peter Cooper, who blamed the poverty and dependence of both women and workers on the separation of mental and manual labor in industrial society. The most acclaimed artists among them owed their success to New York's conspicuously egalitarian art institutions and the rise of the illustrated press. Yet within a generation their names, accomplishments, and the aesthetic ideal that guided them virtually disappeared from the history of American art. "Art Work: Women Artists and Democracy in Mid-Nineteenth-Century New York" recaptures the unfamiliar cultural landscape in which spirited young women, daring social reformers, and radical artisans succeeded in reuniting art and industry. In this interdisciplinary study, April F. Masten situates the aspirations and experience of these forgotten women artists, and the value of art work itself, at the heart of the capitalist transformation of American society.

Excerpt

Probably on a morning in 1856, a little wisp of a girl holding a pasteboard folder walked up Broadway’s brick-paved sidewalk beside a bespectacled gentleman with a fringe of beard. The wide avenue was already bustling with vendors pulling handcarts, wagons toting barrels, and horsedrawn streetcars loading passengers. Brushing past the pair, men and women walked intently or strolled along in and out of the many-storied buildings where shopkeepers and artisans marketed their wares. On the corner a group of boys tussled with one another, vying for a good place to hawk the daily news and illustrated weeklies. The child and man turned in at 436 Broadway, ascended a dark stairway, and entered a large bright studio filled with women and girls. Seated on benches at tables pushed up against windows, each of them was absorbed in the work of her hands. Pencils scratched paper, while pens inked and gravers scored the surfaces of small blocks of wood.

The purpose of the pair’s expedition was to meet the school’s director, Henry Herrick, a formidable looking man with long hair who strode forward to greet his visitors. Standing respectfully still, the child looked up at the face of her companion, Horace Greeley, as he shook the director’s hand and began to make her case. At ten she was very young, Greeley granted, and he realized the age of acceptance was set at fourteen. Mr. Herrick nodded, his lips pressed into a straight line. But hadn’t she already begun her training with her father, an engraver and inventor, and hadn’t boys apprenticed at just this age not long ago? The poor girl’s mother was deceased. Why wait until she was a woman and destitute to offer her an art education? “Mr. Greeley had a winning smile and real coaxing, compelling eyes when he chose to exert an influence.” He did not believe the school’s lady managers would find her age a problem once they saw her drawings and noticed the wee girl’s fierce determination. Glancing down over the top of his spectacles, Greeley smiled at the child, who opened her folder and held up a picture. Herrick looked, and then turned without a word to find her a place at the bench. And so Alice Donlevy was admitted under age to the New York School of Design for Women.

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