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Beyond Isabella: Women at the MFA

Charles Sumner is watching you. You may never have noticed him, but he sits—day in and day out—spitting distance from Johnson Gate, ensuring that Harvard students—and numerous foreign tourists—are safe as they cross Massachusetts Avenue. During an anonymous public competition in 1875, the statue was nearly chosen to reside in Boston’s Public Garden as a memorial to honor Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner. After the judges learned that the identity of the Sumner sculptor was that of a woman (Anne Whitney), they declared that a man had won the contest.

Only 14 years after this gender-based decision, the magazine The Art Amateur would remark, “There is nothing that men do that is not done by women now in Boston.” The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston took this quotation as a cue to laud the woman artist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In its most recent exhibit, “A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston 1870-1940,” the MFA draws from its own collections, as well as private collections to show the Boston public that female artists of this period were a force with whom to be reckoned.

Located in one of the MFA’s smaller galleries, “A Studio of Her Own” winds through three rooms, separated chronologically into “Post-Civil War America,” “Arts and Crafts Movement,” and “The Boston School and Modernism” groupings. The small size of the gallery—significantly smaller than the galleries used for recent blockbuster exhibitions—only allows for a Cliffs Notes version of the work of Boston female artists during this period.

The MFA is quick to point out, in a move that comes across as making excuse for the lack of space devoted to “A Studio of Her Own,” that the exhibition is not intended to represent all female artists in Boston at the time, but merely to show some of the best individual pieces. The limited wall and floor space, coupled with the many diverse forms of art being displayed give the exhibition a disjointed feel.

For example, pottery from the Saturday Evening Girls’ Club (quite striking in the simplicity and resulting “cleanness” of the images borne into the ceramic) is displayed quite close to the intricate inlaid-leather book cover (crafted from more than 1,000 pieces of leather) of Celia Thaxter’s An Island Garden. In addition, the Phillips Brooks Memorial Window, an enormous stained glass work honoring the Phillips Brooks House Association namesake, blocks part of the exit to this room. The introductory text panels at the beginning of the exhibit offers a brief explanation of the disparate items in this room, but fails to establish a sense of continuity and thematic coherance within the exhibit as a whole.

A large emphasis is placed on the differences among the artists’ media and the varied works of these women. With so much emphasis on these differences, more should have been done to continually remind the viewers of the similarities of these works. While the text panels accompanying and introducing the exhibition explain that “[a]dditional biographical information about each artist can be found in the catalogue, located in the gallery’s reading area [located near the exit of the gallery],” increasing and interspersing the biographical information within the galleries would have had the beneficial effect of making the exhibit appear to be more coherant and less free-form. If the visitor had each woman’s personal history in front of them while examining the works, they could determine and discover—during viewing—the complex relationships of the various artists that the existing placards alone do not reveal.

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In acknowledging the flaws with “A Studio of Her Own,” however, one must not overlook the strong aspects of the exhibit. The small size of the exhibit also creates an intimacy not found in some of the larger exhibits that the MFA has recently housed. Likewise, gallery traffic is decidedly slower than usual, so that visitors to “A Studio of Her Own” do not have to jockey for position to see every painting.

With few exceptions, nearly every individual work of art in “A Studio of Her Own” is remarkable. Of special note is Anna Vaughn Hyatt’s statue, Young Diana, depicting the goddess balanced delicately upon the backs of three large fish, her bow and arrow pointed towards Zeus. Hyatt’s attention to detail is remarkable, and the fish appear so real that they might jump back into the sea. Also moving is Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller’s Bust of a Woman, a partial cast of her Emancipation that now resides in Harriet Tubman Square. A photograph of the entire statue—showing young slaves newly released from the terror of a young bird’s claw, representing slavery—accompanies the Bust. Fuller perfectly captures a combined look of hope, fear and pride on the Bust’s face.

With “A Studio of Her Own,” the MFA is doing its best to ensure that the Spice Girls-coined phrase of “Girl Power!” lingers in the minds of those who visit its exhibit. The small space and disjointed nature of the exhibit hinder such an enthusastic endorsement, and suggest that the MFA should perhaps invest more time and money into such projects. Nonetheless, the individual works of these women artists, independent of the exhibit, continue to shine.

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

at Museum of Fine Arts

August 15 to December 2

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