Gallery Reboot: Natural Women

The museum’s newly reinstalled collection emphasizes connections between historical and contemporary art. Organized by the themes of the body, nature, domesticity, fabrication, and herstory, each gallery delves into a topic explored by women artists through time and around the world.

The natural world often serves as a source of inspiration for artists. Because of their purported powers of observation, women artists historically were encouraged to render the natural world. Still-life painting was deemed appropriate since it did not require the training needed to render the human body. NMWA’s collection galleries feature women artists from the 17th and 18th centuries who produced precise and imaginative flower paintings, as well as modern and contemporary artists who continue to draw inspiration from the natural world.

Dutch flower painter Rachel Ruysch (1664–1750) gained renown for her meticulous attention to detail and scientific accuracy. Because her father was a botanist she studied his collection from an early age. Ruysch’s education allowed her to put her own spin on the genre of still-life painting. She employed her scientific knowledge in her paintings by including insects and signs of decay. Although each flower is depicted with scientific accuracy, her compositions are imaginative. Ruysch combined blooms from different seasons and locations. In reality, these particular flowers would not have existed in the same arrangement.

Contemporary artist Sharon Core (b. 1965) often uses photography to mirror still-life paintings by well-known male artists and trick the viewer’s eye when presenting them with natural subjects. Core looks beyond traditional standards of beauty. At first glance, Single Rose (1997) appears lovely and delicate, but its velvety petals seem to be constructed from thin slices of meat. The work confronts the expectations of what is and is not considered beautiful in nature—and challenges the traditional subjects depicted by women artists.

Sale Neige (1980) by Joan Mitchell (1925–1992) serves as an abstracted interpretation of nature. The monumental painting’s title translates to “dirty snow” in French. Snow, often romanticized as pure and fresh—not unlike qualities often attributed to women—appears grittier and less pristine in Sale Neige. Vigorous brushstrokes of pale color at the top of the canvas seem to melt onto the more vividly colored lower third. Like many of her works, Sale Neige signifies Mitchell’s memories of or feelings for the landscape. Mitchell extended the scope of Abstract Expressionist painting by applying it to the subject of nature.

Works by these innovative women transcend simple, pleasing depictions of the natural world. See these works online or by visiting NMWA!

Meghan Masius was the spring 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Gallery Reboot: Domestic Affairs

Beatrice Wood, Gold Chalice, 1985; Earthenware, 12 x 8 7/8 x 8 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; Gift of John Deardourff and Elisabeth Griffith; © Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts/Happy Valley Foundation

Beatrice Wood, Gold Chalice, 1985; Earthenware, 12 x 8 7/8 x 8 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; Gift of John Deardourff and Elisabeth Griffith; © Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts/Happy Valley Foundation

The museum’s newly reinstalled collection emphasizes connections between historical and contemporary art. Organized by the themes of the body, nature, domesticity, fabrication, and herstory, each gallery delves into a topic explored by women artists through time and around the world.

The domestic sphere, with its daily activities and feminine associations, serves as a rich source of inspiration for many women artists. They draw subjects and materials from the domestic realm in order to uphold—or upend—cultural traditions, gender roles, and boundaries between art and craft.

Beatrice Wood (1893–1998), known as the “Mama of Dada,” gained renown for her luminous luster-glaze ceramics. Wood discovered pottery classes in the 1930s, when she wanted a matching teapot for a set of teacups from the Netherlands. Her work in ceramics and in creating a signature luster glaze earned her acclaim. Her works were featured in many solo museum exhibitions and fetched high prices at auction. Wood crafted Gold Chalice (1985) when she was 92 years old.

Angela Strassheim, Untitled (Prayer), 2005; Chromogenic color print, 30 x 40 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of The Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Angela Strassheim

Angela Strassheim, Untitled (Prayer), 2005; Chromogenic color print, 30 x 40 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of The Heather and Tony Podesta Collection; © Angela Strassheim

American photographer Angela Strassheim (b. 1969) portrays suburban life in the American Midwest, while making references to religion and art history. Strassheim was raised in Iowa to a born-again Christian family, whose beliefs she denounced as a teenager. Her photographs’ Christian undertones are presented matter-of-factly, but there is often an unsettling quality to the work. Strassheim’s background in forensic photography also informs her calculated compositions. Her works display recognizable scenes from daily life, but suggest that there is more than meets the eye in family life.

Ursula von Rydingsvard, Apron, 1997; Cedar, stain, and graphite, 46 x 28 x 12 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of the Tony Podesta Collection; © Ursula von Rydingsvard

Sculptures by Ursula von Rydingsvard (b. 1942) often take the form of domestic objects, such as Apron (1997). The artist’s medium of choice has been cedar for more than 35 years. Apron represents a traditionally feminine object wrought in a traditionally masculine medium. Like Strassheim, von Rydingsvard uses her family history as inspiration. The subject matter and medium are all carefully chosen. Household objects became dear to the artist when she moved around refugee camps with her family in Europe during and after World War II. In addition, aprons are a symbol of domesticity and comfort in many cultures. 

Women artists explore the theme of domestic affairs in various, unexpected ways. Visit the museum to see these works in the third floor galleries. Can’t visit in person? Browse #GalleryReboot on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more collection highlights.

—Meghan Masius was the spring 2017 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.