Art Works Blog

Spotlight on the Strong Women of Crystal Bridges Museum

Text by Ann Waller Curtis All images courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Arts. Photo by Tim Hursley

Nestled in 120 acres of forest and nature trails in northern Arkansas, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art highlights some of the best of this country’s artistic talent. The museum opened its doors on November 11, 2011, following a Veteran’s Day celebration in downtown Bentonville, and plans to continue working closely with the town to create a cultural and artistic hub. The museum, a stunning building designed by architect Moshe Safdie, takes its name from a nearby natural spring, Crystal Spring, and the bridge elements of its architecture. Admission to the museum’s permanent collection, Celebrating the American Spirit, is free.

From the colonial to the contemporary, the museum’s collection covers the span of American history and offers something for everyone. Throughout the museum, the works are displayed in a roughly chronological fashion, making it easy to track key moments in both American art and history. The special exhibitions are a treat as well. Learn more about local history through The Arkansas Traveler or enter your very own Wonder World, an exhibit of more than thirty works organized around themes of perception and representation.

The museum has a special tour devoted to the women, both subjects and artists, in their collection. This "Strong Women” tour is offered to the public several times a week and includes six stops---the art works are presented in pairs---and takes less than an hour to complete. I spoke with Niki Ciccotelli Stewart, Crystal Bridges’ Director of Education, by e-mail about the tour and her thoughts on several pieces in the group.

NEA: How and why did you decide to create the "Strong Women" tour?

NIKI CICCOTELLI STEWART: The role of women in the art world, both as the creators of art and as the subject of artworks, is something that has always been important to Alice Walton, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s Board Chair. Her interest in artworks made by women artists was the impetus for the idea, and as the collection grew, more and more works featuring images of strong, vibrant women emerged. Because of this strength in our collection, it seemed a natural theme for one of our guided tours.

Mrs. Theodore Atkinson by John Singleton Copley. 1765, oil on canvas

NEA: I love the work of John Singleton Copley---what can you tell me about his portrait of Mrs. Theodore Atkinson, which is included on the tour?

STEWART: The painting of Mrs. Theodore Atkinson is a truly remarkable work of art. Copley, the most talented portraitist of his time, has rendered silk, pearls, and other difficult textures with great skill. For this reason, a portrait by Copley was highly prized, and spoke volumes about your standing in the community. The less apparent truth in this work is that it’s a statement about being in the colonies. Mrs. Atkinson holds a gold chain attached to a flying squirrel, a domesticated animal native to North America. This symbolizes her prescribed role as wife and mother and identifies her clearly as a colonist.

Jeanne by Alfred Henry Maurer. ca. 1904, oil on canvas

NEA: What is your favorite piece in the “Strong Women” group, and why?

STEWART: Alfred Maurer’s Jeanne is my very favorite for several reasons. The painting is of a model, Jeanne Blazy, who posed for this portrait. However, this is not supposed to be reflective of Jeanne’s real personality---she is portraying a character. Most full-length, salon-style portraits were made to capture a real person, so this work is a departure from that tradition. Additionally, at first, Jeanne appears to be somewhat challenging: she is turned away, snarling at the viewer, and does not seem to be at all happy about being caught in the act of smoking a cigarette. But the more I look at Jeanne, the more her character is revealed to me, and I find that to be very exciting. The painting that hangs beside Jeanne, also by Maurer, is another full-length portrait of a woman---a shop keeper. The model for this painting is also Jeanne Blazy, but that is not easily discernible upon first glance. The juxtaposition of these two paintings---one a bit racy, one very respectable---is brilliant, and truly showcases the talent of the model and the painter.

Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell. 1943, oil on canvas

NEA: Rosie the Riveter is an iconic American image. What are your thoughts on the piece?

STEWART: Norman Rockwell’s iconic cover for the Saturday Evening Post was meant to inspire patriotism and pride in the hearts of Americans. Rosie is a study in opposites. Her red lips and nails are very feminine, but her muscular arms are quite masculine. Her young and serene face balances the book beneath her feet by Adolf Hitler. And the halo above her head has two references. These women were, in many ways, angels to the men overseas, fighting the war; they created ammunition and machinery to keep the fight going. However, it’s also a reference to Rockwell’s inspiration for the painting. He modeled the pose on Michelangelo’s painting of the Prophet Isaiah that is a part of the Sistine Ceiling in the Vatican.

Abigaill Levy-Franks, attributed to Gerardus Duyckinck, oil on canvas, ca. 1735

NEA: This portrait of Abigaill Levy-Franks is much older, dating back to the early 18th century. What’s the story behind it?

STEWART: The Levy-Franks family held a prominent place in New York's Jewish and mercantile communities. German-born Moses Levy and his family, including eldest daughter, Abigaill, immigrated to New York around 1704. Abigaill married Jacob Franks, scion of another important German-Jewish family. Abigaill and Jacob had nine children, five of whom are represented in the portraits. Like many mothers, Abigaill had a close connection with her children, and even when they moved far away, stayed close by writing letters. These letters survive---more than 30 of them---and are proof that while Moses was the head of the family, Abigaill was its heart.

NEA: The four images that we have discussed are all by male artists. Who are a few of the female artists included on the tour?

STEWART: Two of my favorites are Louise Nevelson’s Night Zag Wall and Joan Mitchell’s Untitled.

Louise Nevelson was born in Russia, and came to America with her family as a girl. Her father was a woodworker, who pieced together old furniture to make new pieces and sell them. Interestingly, Nevelson’s artworks are made of wooden scraps, carefully arranged and painted a unifying matte color---giving them a new life and purpose. Her works are very large, something normally seen as “masculine,” so she is challenging the role of the woman artist with every artwork.

Joan Mitchell lived and worked in New York City among the men of the abstract expressionist movement. She was never seen as a threat to them, because she was a woman. She was often told by gallery owners that it was a shame she was a woman, because the paintings were really good,but they were not confident they’d sell. Mitchell persisted and created incredible abstract works, heavily influenced by French Impressionism’s use of light and composition, and never stopped painting.

Both of these artists represent a time and place in America, and their personal experience of being American.

NEA: Historically, how have the depictions of women in art changed over time? Does it matter if the artist is male, or female?

STEWART: That is a broad question, with dozens of answers! Sometimes there is no difference. Sometimes there is a big difference. Rather than divide the collection in that way, I approach our collection from a different place---contextual relevance. And this sometimes includes gender issues, but is rarely the core meaning.

The depictions of women in art change as you move through time, because the world around these women is changing, too; like all things, understanding the context in which the work was made is key to its understanding. For instance, the portrait of Mrs. Theodore Atkinson was created by Copley to declare her position among Boston society. That would have been the social norm of the day, and of key importance to her new husband. In contrast, Maurer’s Jeanne is a woman scandalously smoking a cigarette at a time when doing so immediately put you in a particular class. We may not be able to relate to either of these women as modern viewers, but uncovering the story behind the moment can change the way you see the painting.

For me, the time and place in which the painting was created seems to be the driving force in how the subject is portrayed, rather than the gender of the artist.

NEA: Who is your favorite contemporary female artist, and why?

STEWART: I am very interested in the work of Kara Walker. She works with historical moments, stories, and time periods, and presents them in a modern way---to keep the past in our minds. Often, her works center on slavery and gender issues, and some of the images can be difficult to look at because they highlight violent times in our history. What I like about the work is that this young, modern woman is using art to challenge us. She often works in silhouette, which forces the viewer to actively sort out the narrative. I am a big fan of artwork that engages the viewer, and makes them look more closely to discern the story.

NEA: Any last thoughts on the evolution of the female artist in American art history?

STEWART: I think our history is always being rewritten as diverse voices are revealed. The history of my youth was very focused on white males and how they built our country. While that is certainly part of our history, it is not the whole story.  The voices of men and women of varying ethnicities are emerging more than ever through visual art, music, film, theater, and dance---and it is exciting to see how we are redefining our identity as Americans with a broader, more inclusive vision. I feel so lucky to be a part of the investigation into the many voices of the Americans through Crystal Bridges, and offerings like our Strong Women tour.

To learn more about the Strong Women tour and the Crystal Bridges collection, visit the museum's website.

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