Yes I am a free lover! ...I have an inalienable, constitutional, and natural right to love whom I may ... to change that love every day if I please.
--Victoria Woodhull, from a speech advocating free love, Nov. 22, 1871
Visiting The Frick Art Museum recently, mingling with the paintings and photographs in Off the Pedestal: New Women in the Art of Homer, Chase, and Sargent was like visiting some very cool woman friends.
The show has bold, sexy women; intellectual women; writing women; painting women; jocks (hiking, bicycling, croqueting, ice-skating women); free-love women; kissing women; boxing women; and -- my favorite -- manly women. It's refreshing and fun.
The exhibition, brainchild of curator Holly Pyne Connor of The Newark Museum, examines the age of The New Woman, which if you'd asked before I entered the show, I would've guessed existed in the 1920s. But no. This work was created in the mid- to late 1800s. These women set the table for those gin-swilling, Charleston-dancing, vote-casting flapper gals we all know and love.
They are not sleeping or floating downstream, boneless and anemic. Off the Pedestal sports women who wear pants and -- radical at the time --bangs!, who work, smoke cigars, ride bicycles, read newspapers, and look you, sir, in the eye.
Why don't we know more about these women, you ask? Well, it just wasn't that accepted to paint or photograph them at a time when most artwork by people like Homer, Chase and Sargent was commissioned by the elite, effete upper classes. Seeing this show is glimpsing a counterculture. Like, maybe, in the 1980s stumbling into a little bar to see Throwing Muses when all you've previously watched is Madonna singing "Like a Virgin" on MTV. As Frick exhibitions curator Sarah Hall suggests, "It's a sisterhood. The show examines what all these creative, smart women were doing at this time -- under the radar of mainstream society. You can see how they influenced the next wave of independence. They're the foremothers of the suffragettes."
The New Woman emerged partially through necessity. The Civil War left many widowed, and required others to take over responsibilities like carriage-driving when their spouses returned missing a limb.
As the mainstream press got word (and sight) of these crazy, bicycling, pantalooned women, it warned it was the end of patriarchy itself, that soon women wouldn't keep to their duties of continuing the race (it was the beginning of accessible birth control), cooking or cleaning. Caricatures of The New Woman are on display, too.
Highlights from women artists include the wonderfully powerful "Self-Portrait," by Lilly Martin Spencer; the piercing gaze of "Sarah Cowell LeMoyne," by Jane E. Bartlett; and the provocative "Trude and I Masked, Short Skirts, 11pm, August 6th, 1891" and "Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and Self Dressed Up as Men 4:40pm, Thursday October 15th, 1891," both by photographer Alice Austen.
Wonderful work by the big-name male artists includes the use of white highlighting in all of Winslow Homer's work and the exhibition's signature image, the feisty "Mrs. Charles Thursby," by John Singer Sargent.
At the Frick, and as a former employee, I value the guards' opinions. Most have been around since Helen Frick herself was alive, and thus have a formidable timeline of shows to compare. Consensus is that on a 1-to-10 scale, Off the Pedestal ranks a 7. "It's good. A good show," guard Lynn Cartwright said, nodding, hands clasped confidently before him.
I agree. See these pioneering women before they ride away on Jan. 14.
Off the Pedestal: New Women in the Art of Homer, Chase, and Sargent continues through Jan. 14. Frick Art & Historical Center, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze. 412-371-0600 or frickart.org
- You talking to me?: "Mrs. Charles Thursby" (ca. 1897--1898), by John Singer Sargent. Courtesy The Newark Museum.