Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

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New exhibit features founding Minnesota women artists

“Sails on Lake Minnetonka” is a graceful Impressionist painting. Large white and yellow sails float over a reflective lake while a group of women look over the water from the dock. This 1914 painting by Ada Wolfe of a peaceful, lakeside Minnesota day won First Prize in Painting in the Minnesota State Fair in 1914. To today’s viewer, there is nothing groundbreaking or even very surprising in this painting; for Wolfe, however, creating this work of art was an act of rebellion.

“I hate sentiment in art,” Wolfe said in a 1916 interview with the Minneapolis Tribune.
“ . . . art, above all else, needs absolute freedom for its growth . . . if you want to be a painter, then first be a rebel against anything which has a tendency to enslave you.”

Ada Wolfe is one of five pioneering painters whose work appears in a show jointly presented by the Minnesota Historical Society and the Minnesota Museum of American Art called “In Her Own Right: Minnesota’s First Generation of Women Artists.” The show features rarely seen works of art by Frances Cranmer Greenman, Alice Hugy, Clara Mairs, Josephine Lutz Rollins and Ada Wolfe and includes pieces drawn from private collections as well as the permanent collections of the Minnesota Historical Society and the Minnesota Museum of American Art.

For more information on this exhibit and upcoming activities and events related to it, visit the Minnesota Museum of American Art website at www.mmaa.org.

Brian Szott, Historical Society Curator of Art, acted as guest curator for the exhibit, which runs from July 20-October 28. Szott organized the exhibit to tell the story of Minnesota’s founding female painters in what he calls a “suffragette thematic.”

“It’s a great story,” says Szott. “The story of women and art in America is about success, determination, hard work and grit. It’s about beating all the odds. When it’s a success story, it’s like Rocky.”

The artists included in the exhibit did not start out to strike a blow for women in art. They worked hard as artists, teachers, and writers and were well received by audiences, many achieving commercial success. Their work, though, in confluence with the suffragist movement, had a significant impact in art. Theresa Downing, Associate Curator and Education Manger at the Minnesota Museum of American Art, says that this group of artists represents an important “first.”

“These women were the first generation of women artists because they could choose to be full-time artists,” Downing says. “This show is about celebrating that legacy that these women have left.”

For Szott, that legacy is tied to the suffrage movement in the United States, even though the artists themselves didn’t identify with the movement.

“I wanted to go back to the beginning,” says Szott. “I wanted to focus on women who were born before 1900 and that made them, if you do the math, that made them 21 years old when the 19th amendment was passed, in 1920. These women weren’t feminists or suffragettes in fact but they were in deed because of the career path they chose, how they chose it so successfully or how they achieved it.”

Those career paths led to the variety of styles and subjects on display in the exhibit. Alice Hugy’s bright floral paintings and landscapes grace one section of the museum, while Greenman’s grand portraits line another. Local landscapes like the Franklin Avenue Bridge or the Old St. Anthony District show up in paintings by Ada Wolfe and Josephine Lutz Rollins and provide local appeal. Circus prints and painted self-portraits by Clara Mairs are both elegant and mysterious. Several of the artists trained with masters like Robert Henri, William Merrit-Chase and Hans Hoffman and their styles reflect that training, but do not break new ground. Rather, what is striking about the collection is the obvious commitment with which these women approached their work and the quality that resulted.

“When we look backwards in art, contemporary art places a high degree of value on originality,” explains Szott. “And that wasn’t really the concept. These women came of age when your job was to paint well; you weren’t out to break new ground. They had to compete canvas to canvas with male artists.”

To compete, these five artists choose lives that were sometimes very different from their peers. Josephine Lutz Rollins, a painter and long-time teacher at the University of Minnesota, knew the obstacles women faced when choosing art as a career.

“Women have to fight harder for a place in the art world; households and families often fragment them,” she observed.

Though Rollins did eventually marry, she was only one of two artists in this exhibit that did so; only one artist had children. Rather than focusing on raising families, these women threw their energy into participating in what Szott calls the “very vibrant arts scene in Minnesota.” Bettye Olson, an artist who was a friend and colleague of Rollins’, remembers her as a prolific painter of “high energy” and “a fast worker.”

“She would just get whirling, almost,” Olson remembers.

That whirling energy propelled Rollins to help found the Stillwater Art Colony in 1933 and the West Lake Art Gallery, a women’s art collective, in 1965. She also taught art for nearly 40 years at the University of Minnesota, often as the only woman on staff, though Olson says, “she never thought of herself as a feminist.”

In fact, despite the important role these women would have on following generations of artists as teachers and role models, none were very involved in the suffragist and feminist movements. According to Szott, “they were too busy doing what they had to do; they left that to other people.”

Nonetheless, their work has far-reaching implications for women artists today. The five women in this exhibit produced art for over 65 years, helping to open doors even wider for the next generations to pursue painting as a legitimate, professional career. These women may be the giants that today’s female artists stand on, but their work also stands out as a testament to Minnesota’s rich tradition of fine art-making, illustrating how well Minnesota’s first generation of women painters did compete, canvas to canvas, with their male peers.

“I think they’ll be surprised by the strength of the work,” smiles Szott. “There’s 95 to 100 pieces in the exhibit and they’re all pretty damn good and I think that’s pretty impressive.”

Erin Wisness is a free-lance writer in the Twin Cities.

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