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.

Artist Spotlight: Patricia Tobacco Forrester

Revel in the beauty of nature captured by Patricia Tobacco Forrester (1940–2011) in her large-scale watercolor works on view at NMWA. The artist’s work is characterized by expansive compositions filled with vibrant hues.

Forester’s affinity for nature began at a young age. A New England native, Forrester grew up on a small farm in Western Massachusetts. She received a Bachelor of Arts from Smith College in 1962. Originally a printmaker, Forrester studied under sculptor and graphic artist Leonard Baskin and later received a Master of Fine Arts from Yale University in 1965.

Patricia Tobacco Forrester, Bronzed Roses, 1991; Watercolor, 40 x 60 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Memory of the Artist; © The Estate of Patricia Tobacco Forrester

Patricia Tobacco Forrester, Bronzed Roses, 1991; Watercolor, 40 x 60 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Promised Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Memory of the Artist; © The Estate of Patricia Tobacco Forrester

Forrester produced some of her best known works in Washington, D.C, where she lived for nearly 30 years. She painted almost exclusively outdoors, finding inspiration in neighborhood parks and gardens around the city, including the National Arboretum. She once said, “I think I know almost every tree and flower there.” For Forrester’s artistic practice, working from photographs was not sufficient. She preferred painting en plein air, because of the wealth of visual information provided in nature. Light also played a key role in her work. When choosing a location to paint, the artist focused on areas with a dramatic interplay of light with surrounding trees and vegetation.

NMWA visitor gazes at Barbados (left) and Bronzed Roses (right); Photo: Madeline Barnes, NMWA

A visitor gazes at Patricia Tobacco Forrester’s Barbados (1995) at the left and Bronzed Roses (1991) at the right; Photo: Madeline Barnes, NMWA

Unconcerned with realistic depictions, Forrester enjoyed inconsistencies and distortions in her work. She often described her paintings as abstract and enjoyed the “accidental nature of watercolor” as a medium. She dove into each scene with little to no preparatory sketching. This technique allowed her pieces to evolve naturally, influenced both by the natural properties of her watercolors and by her personal response to her surroundings.

During the winter months, when D.C. weather was not conducive to working outside, Forrester often ventured to more tropical locales. One of her favorite destinations outside of the D.C. area was Costa Rica. Her work from abroad depicts lush and intricate rainforest scenes, integrating components from a multitude of sites. Forrester masterfully created vibrant, layered compositions.

Visit NMWA to see two of Forrester’s large-scale watercolors, Bronzed Roses (1991) and Barbados (1995), on view in the third floor galleries.

Caroline Cress was the spring 2017 development events intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Gallery Reboot: Body Language

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.

Male artists controlled the representation of the female body through most of Western art history. During the feminist art movement in the 1960s and ’70s, women artists claimed ownership over visualization of the body, and artists today explore the expressive potential of the female form. Artists Daniela Rossell, Mickalene Thomas, and Magdalena Abakanowicz use the human body to communicate powerful messages.

Daniela Rossell, Michelle Jacuzzi- Untitled (#7) (Ricas y Famosas), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 50 x 60 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC; © Daniela Rossell, Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

Daniela Rossell, Michelle Jacuzzi–Untitled (#7) (Ricas y Famosas), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 50 x 60 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC; © Daniela Rossell, Courtesy of the artist and Greene Naftali, New York

In Michelle Jacuzzi–Untitled (#7) (1999) from the series “Ricas y Famosas,” Daniela Rossell (b. 1973) delves into the lives of Mexico’s elite families by emphasizing the way popular culture creates and disseminates female stereotypes. From a wealthy family herself, Rossell had access to some of the most affluent women in Mexico. Each subject constructs her own image by choosing her clothing, pose, and setting. Compared to other subjects in this series, Michelle is dressed in more casual clothing while perched atop a rooftop hot tub. Rossell’s model suggests a duality, shown with an over-sized rosary and subtly visible underwear and tattoo. The model’s confident posture and luxurious setting underscore her wealth and high social standing. Rossell’s works explore notions of purity, sexuality, and power in relation to the female body.

Mickalene Thomas, A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y, 2009; Plastic rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on panel, 24 x 20 in.; Gift of Deborah Carstens; © 2009 Mickalene Thomas, Courtesy of the Artist and Lehmann Maupin

Mickalene Thomas, A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y, 2009; Plastic rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel on panel, 24 x 20 in.; Gift of Deborah Carstens; © 2009 Mickalene Thomas, Courtesy of the Artist and Lehmann Maupin

Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971) creates images of African American women as a way to scrutinize and disrupt popular notions of female beauty. Thomas pulls inspiration from art history as well as popular culture. Her works are as likely to reference 19th-century painting as 1970s Blaxploitation films. A-E-I-O-U and Sometimes Y (2009) re-creates a portrait of her model, Fran, from a photo booth picture. In Thomas’s work, Fran’s face materializes from carefully placed rhinestones against a flamingo-pink enamel background. Thomas compares her use of rhinestones to the lustrous lip gloss women wear as “another level of masking, of dressing up.” Her work challenges the perception of femininity.

Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017), a leader in the fiber arts movement, created a mold made from a real person, using burlap mixed with resin and glue for her work 4 Seated Figures (2002). Born in Poland, Abakanowicz witnessed her mother get shot after soldiers stormed into their home during World War II—an instant that that is reflected in these figures. The forms are presented as genderless, and they appear to have been stripped of revealing muscles, arteries, or cords suggestive of the nervous system. Although her figures were inspired from a personal event, the work encourages multiple interpretations and speaks broadly to the human experience. Abakanowicz said, “They are naked, exposed, and vulnerable, just as we all are.”

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Burlap, resin, and iron rods, 53 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 99 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Magdalena Abakanowicz

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 4 Seated Figures, 2002; Burlap, resin, and iron rods, 53 1/2 x 24 1/4 x 99 1/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Magdalena Abakanowicz

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.

Madeline Barnes was the spring 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.