Name one important Renaissance painter like Michelangelo who was a woman. If you, like me, can’t think of one, the question becomes, “Why have female artists been ‘marginalized for centuries’? This 3-word-phrase was in a brochure called “Champion Women Through the Arts”. The first female artists were probably 16th century portrait painters like Lavinia Fontana. Ever heard of her? The sad fact is that until the 19th century cultural traditions and rigid gender roles kept woman from becoming artists. This is why the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, was necessary. It’s one of those museums, like the new and outrageously successful African American History and Culture Museum, that shouldn’t have to exist but does because an important story has not been told.
Wallace and Wilhelmina Cole Holladay began collecting art by women in the 1970s. They discovered that there was very little about females in reference books about art. This caused them to establish a museum dedicated to exhibiting only women artists. It opened in 1987 and Wilhelmina is still actively involved in its mission. It’s the only major museum in the world dedicated to female artists. Its collection has grown to more than 5,000 works by 16th through 21st century women.
This museum is, ironically, in a Renaissance Revival building completed in 1908 for Freemasons, a male-only fraternal organization. It’s in downtown Washington, DC, at New York Avenue & 13th Street NW. Inside today are a performance hall, a research library, and 3 floors exhibiting examples of its vast collection of women artists in every artistic field. The 2nd floor is dedicated to temporary shows. Ruth and I were there the day “Magnetic Fields” opened. This show that runs until January 21, 2018, features abstract works from 20 women of color and is part of the National Museum of Women in the Arts 30th anniversary celebration.
Among its collected works on current exhibit is a sculpture reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Pieta. It’s called “After the Storm” and is one of 50 sculptural works by Sarah Bernhardt. If you know that name, you’re probably saying, “I thought she was an actress.” Indeed, she was; but she also created sculptures like this. Only 20 are known to exist today. There are examples of the works of most well-known female artists, like Frida Kahlo and Lee Krasner, in the permanent collection and out to be viewed.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) is thriving. In spring, 2017, Madeleine Rast donated $9 million via her estate to this museum. This is the single largest cash gift NMWA has ever received. Rast was a successful businesswoman/investor who emigrated from Switzerland to the U. S. and settled in California.
PS Khalo’s self-portrait was dedicated to Leon Trotsky. The other portrait was by Sarah Peale, whose father James was a noted artist.