WOMEN’S WORK: Scholars researching female artists in early-20th-century California find links to Philadelphia

Posted by: Kevin Coyle

This post was curated from an article written by Alexandra Villareal for Philly.com

Helena Dunlap’s Nude Male shows a man stripped to the waist, his gaze distant and melancholy. His taut, ripped chest shines from distinct layers of pale, flaxen paint, and dark shadows emphasize the hollows at his neck and torso.

Below the scene sits a signature, H. Dunlap.

“A full nude would have been scandalous, but a semiclothed nude — it wouldn’t have been a problem,” said Joseph Morsman.

“We want more male nudes, actually, to tell you the truth,” interjected Maurine St. Gaudens.

She’s an art conservator and the author of Emerging from the Shadows: A Survey of Women Artists Working in California, 1860-1960, a massive, full-color, four-volume labor of love and scholarship. Morsman is her assistant. Together, they have compiled narratives of 320 female artists working in California over a century underscored with turmoil and change, from the Gilded Age to the World Wars to the Great Depression.

The two have a habit of finishing each other’s thoughts.

When Morsman spoke of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts — to which women were admitted beginning in the mid-1800s, well before their counterparts in other regions around the country — St. Gaudens added, “1844, that’s good.” And when he revealed that the famed Thomas Eakins was forced to resign from the Academy because he allowed female artists (such as Dunlap, between 1903 and 1905) to paint male models sans loincloth, she cried, “Oh, fabulous!”

Dunlap is not the only featured artist with a Philadelphia tie. Whether because they trained here or grew up nearby, 38 of St. Gaudens’ female vanguards have an explicit connection to Philadelphia, and an additional 13 link somehow to Pennsylvania.

One such painter is Sara Kolb Danner, who was born to a local banking family and studied at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art & Design) and PAFA. Her city scenes and landscapes focus on architecture.

Kolb Danner went to Indiana and then to California in the 1920s, but when her husband died, she moved between Santa Barbara and Philadelphia, and had studios in both cities. Deep reds, golds, and browns define her oeuvre.

“I think her color palette has a tendency to be a bit more East Coast than West Coast,” St. Gaudens says.

Una Gray is more of a mystery. While Kolb Danner covers eight pages of the four-volume encyclopedia, Gray gets only two. The researchers connected one Una Gray who worked in California to another Una Gray in Nova Scotia, but they’re not positive they’re the same artist.

“You wouldn’t think that Una Gray was a common name,” St. Gaudens said, “and yet we found thousands of them.”

They scoured ancestry records, newspaper clippings, and academic brochures and phoned museums for any information about Gray. Their search yielded some results: At the very least, the Canadian exhibited in Pennsylvania, and one of her paintings, Learning to Braid, is at the Reading Public Museum.

“It was a puzzle trying to put it together, and I’m still missing parts of that puzzle,” Morsman lamented.

He and St. Gaudens faced similar issues with many of the artists, especially because, like Kolb Dunlap, they often signed their works with only a first initial and a last name (which often changed when they married). This was a way to avoid discrimination: They entered their work in competitions with a genderless signature so judges wouldn’t downgrade them because of gender.

When women did well in contests, they went to pick up their medals and were told they must be mistaken — the winner couldn’t possibly be female. On the rare occasion that female artists were exhibited alongside their male counterparts, critics tended to concede that they were shocked by the quality.

“They were surprised that the women were competent,” Morsman said, “and they were surprised that the women could hold their own. As long as there’s been art, I think women have had to face this.”

As a conservator, St. Gaudens noted the genderless signatures — and the high caliber of art. It made her curious: “A lot of times, you didn’t know if they were by a male or a female, and that was intriguing.”

This, along with the lack of female art at modern-day exhibits on the West Coast, inspired her encyclopedias. She wanted to show the long history of excellence in female-made art, and prove that women could paint more than just “still lifes, children, puppies, kittens, and ducklings, and a random landscape.”

“We try to dispel the myth that these women are Sunday painters,” Morsman said. “These women were not just painting a couple of hours after church. They were serious. They were painting seven days a week.”

When women did well in contests, they went to pick up their medals and were told they must be mistaken — the winner couldn’t possibly be female.

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