Women are on the rise. You can see it everywhere—politically, culturally and, to a subtler and perhaps less profound degree, artistically. Make no mistake, women have been creating art for millennia, as long as men, only in far fewer numbers than their male counterparts. That can be attributed in large part to a woman’s traditional role throughout history: that of mother, caregiver and family provider. Those important, although burdensome and time-consuming, duties left little time for pursuits like painting and sculpture—at least for most women.
But that was then and this is now, in the era of the Me Too Movement and women in politics. The point was driven home at John Moran Auctioneers’ inaugural Women in Art Auction, held Oct. 23 at their gallery in Monrovia, California. It was so successful that a second one is planned, probably in fall 2019. Comprising 93 women artists and 124 lots, the auction shed light on mostly California and American women artists from the 19th century to the present day. Prices were strong across the board, and new auction records were set for Susan Hertel, Ethel V. Ashton and Dora Gamble.
“There’s an absolute correlation between the events of today and the rise of women in art,” said Morgana Blackwelder, John Moran’s vice president and director of Fine Art. “Early this year, given our political and social climates, we felt it was a moment in time to conduct a sale that was topical and relevant, and the Women in Art Auction proved to be a perfect choice. We wanted to remove the bias that favors men and give women more of a voice so as to call attention to their mostly prewar artistic contributions. We didn’t know what to expect, but it was a huge success.”
Blackwelder said the auction enjoyed an 80 percent sell-through, with around 80 people in the gallery and hundreds more participating online. “We learned that the people who attended the sale were buying pieces they felt a connection with, and for the most part, that connection was with the female artist. Statistically, women have tremendous buying power and are able to make personal financial decisions more now than ever before.” She said it was no surprise most of the artists were California based. “The state has always been a magnet for culture and the fine arts.”
Mary Dowd of Myers Fine Art in Florida said she’s been conducting auctions since 1988 at their gallery in St. Petersburg, and has noticed more and more women being sprinkled into the mix. “I think women artists got a huge boost around 20 years ago with the opening of the Museum of Women Artists in Washington, D.C.,” Dowd said. That shined a spotlight not only on the more-established women artists, but the up-and-comers, as well. As for identifying trends and emerging talent, I find browsing Art Basel and the other fine art shows to be a great way to stay current.”
Myers Fine Art specializes in artworks from the Magical Realism Movement out of Chicago in the 1930s-1950s, one that spawned talents such as Julia Thecla and Gertrude Abercrombie. Both were featured in a Myers auction two years ago that did particularly well. “Magical Realism was a regional phenomenon, and the paintings remain very popular in Chicago,” Dowd pointed out.
A painting by Thecla, in fact, was in the John Moran auction just held. It was a Surrealist composition depicting an elephantesque tightrope walker and realized $7,500.
Some women artists have benefited from money and connections (often through marriage), which no doubt helped them attain the attention and respect they deserved. The celebrated American abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) was born into privilege but added to her cachet when she married the artist Robert Motherwell (American, 1915-1991). They both had wealthy parents (her father was a New York State Supreme Court judge) and were known as “the golden couple,” famous for their lavish entertaining. Career building is easier with no money worries.
Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887-1986), the grand dame of all female American artists, was the second of seven children born to Wisconsin dairy farmers, and struggled in her early years as an artist. But when she was introduced to Alfred Stieglitz, the successful New York City art dealer and photographer, in 1917, a professional working relationship eventually led to marriage and O’Keeffe’s emergence as the “Mother of American modernism.” She is acclaimed worldwide for her paintings of enlarged flowers, New York City skyscrapers and New Mexico landscapes.
Mary Cassatt (American, 1844-1926), whose mother-child renderings are hugely popular among collectors, never had to worry about money. Her father was a successful stockbroker and land speculator. Her mother, the former Katherine Kelso Johnston, came from a banking family. Katherine was educated and well read, and had a profound influence on her daughter. Mary grew up in an environment that viewed travel as integral to education. She was first exposed to the great French artists of the day at the Paris World’s Fair of 1855. Some would later become her colleagues.
While Elaine de Kooning (American, 1918-1989) never achieved the level of acclaim of her famous husband, Willem, she still enjoyed an enviable career as an Abstract Expressionist and Figurative Expressionist painter, plus she wrote extensively on art of the period and was an editorial associate for Art News magazine. Her talent emerged when she was quite young, but she was not a privileged child. Her father worked at a bread factory in Brooklyn, and her mother had psychiatric issues. Elaine made money as an art school model to help pay for her own art education.
Returning to privilege, Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) was a French impressionist who came from an eminent family, as the daughter of a government official and granddaughter of a famous Rococo artist, Jean-Honore Fragonard. Morisot met her longtime friend and colleague, Edouard Manet, in 1868, and married Manet’s brother Eugene Manet in 1874. The marriage produced a daughter, Julie who posed frequently for her mother and other Impressionist painters, including Renoir and her uncle Edouard, who exerted great influence on Berthe’s emergence as an artist.
It could be argued that Lee Krasner (American, 1908-1984) was a co-equal with her celebrated but self-destructive husband, Jackson Pollock. Lee knew from an early age she wanted to pursue a career in art and attended the Women’s Art School of Cooper Union, on an art scholarship. She struggled through the Great Depression, as a waitress and a teacher, and spent a good portion of the 1940s nurturing Pollock’s home life and career, at the expense of her own art. Still, Krasner is one of the few female artists ever to have a retrospective show at the Museum of Modern Art.
And let’s give a nod to the better-known female American self-taught folk artists, such as Ann Mary Robertson Moses (also known as Grandma Moses, 1860-1961), Clementine Hunter (another centenarian who’s often called the Black Grandma Moses, 1887-1988), and Sister Gertrude Morgan (1900-1980). All came from humble beginnings and overcame hardship to earn a place at the top of their craft—regardless of gender. Rich or poor, living or passed, women in art are a force to be reckoned with, and one that will only grow stronger as the playing field is leveled between women and men.