Enterprising Artists: The Professionalization of American Women

Posted by: National Museum of Women in the Arts

The following article appeared in the issue of Women in the Arts

Among the stories told in the exhibition Enterprising Women: 250 Years of American Business, striking similarities emerge. Although the 40 women featured come from three centuries, disparate backgrounds, and different regions of the country, each understood the value of a good idea, found the capital to finance it, assembled the team to implement it, launched the advertising to market it, and ultimately built a profitable business. Most important, they recognized that, at its core, entrepreneurship was a route to economic freedom and independence. The traveling exhibition, on view at National Museum for Women in the Arts through February 29, 2004, draws on these experiences to present an ever-changing model for women in business.

As a complement to the exhibition, a special permanent collection installation at NMWA entitled Enterprising Artists focuses on 10 American success stories in the fine arts. Located in the museum’s Great Hall, this display highlights the art and careers of Sarah Miriam Peale, Lilly Martin Spencer, Imogene Robinson Morrell, Mary Cassatt, Cecilia Beaux, Lilla Cabot Perry, Marguerite Thompson Zorach, Georgia O’Keeffe, Lois Mailou Jones, and Betty Parsons. From 1800 to 1990, these women pursued paths that led them to artistic fulfillment, professional standing, and financial well being. Like their business counterparts in Enterprising Women, they too charted a course that straddled the public and private spheres and, in the process, expanded traditional ideas about femininity and a woman’s proper place.

Professionalizing American Art: 1820-1900

Art in America began to gain social value during the Revolutionary period and achieved legitimacy by the Civil War era. Women artists played a role in building this cultural infrastructure. As early as the 1830s, a new pattern of professionalism emerged among American women artists. During this era, following the example of their male counter-parts, women painters and sculptors began to see themselves as artists rather than as artisans as they became part of an expanding middle class.

Sarah Miriam Peale (1800-1885), one of America’s first professional women artists, exemplified this trend. Part of America’s foremost artistic dynasty—the Peales of Philadelphia—she, like many women artists before her, learned her trade from her father, miniaturist and still-life painter James Peale. She also was encouraged by her famous uncle Charles Willson Peale and mentored by her cousin Rembrandt Peale.

When Peale began her career, portraiture enjoyed singular status as the first type of art accepted and valued by Americans, although painting in general was still considered more of a trade than a fine art. A decade later, as part of a larger societal shift in the 1820s and ’30s, she like other painters achieved a new professional status.

Her painting skills are evident in NMWA’s double portrait of Philadelphians Susan and Isaac Avery from 1821, who are portrayed as respectable, well-to-do, optimistic, and intelligent. Avery was an importer of European luxury goods—his wife wears a beautifully rendered tortoise shell comb and finely patterned shawl emblematic of his business as well as a heavy, well-wrought gold chain and ornament con-noting their wealth. This type of society portrait would become the mainstay of Peale’s career.

Peale was elected an academician of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1824 along with her sister Anna, the first women to have been so honored. A year later, she moved to Baltimore and, choosing to remain single, created an ebullient and self-confident public persona as an artist. For the next 21 years, she achieved unprecedented success painting portraits of politicians, soldiers, diplomats, and the social elite of Baltimore and Washington. Then, in 1847, fatigued by overwork, enervated by the stratified, conventional social scene, Peale moved to St. Louis where she became part of a small, elite group that represented East Coast culture in the rough, frontier town. Peale pursued a self-determined life in art, supporting and promoting herself with great success for the next 25 years.

In the generation that followed, women artists often incorporated aspects of womanhood into their self-image, relying upon femininity, gentility, domesticity, and respectability as vital elements of their reputation and success. Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902), for example, was well known for her humorous scenes of everyday life in which her family often served as subjects. She and husband Benjamin Rush Spencer had 13 children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. In their non-traditional, 46-year marriage, she was the bread-winner while he assisted with the household, helped in the studio, and co-managed her business affairs.

Spencer was at the height of her success when she created The Artist and Her Family at a Fourth of July Picnic (c. 1864). In this complex, multi-figure composition, she presents an idyllic scene of a well-dressed, middle-class family celebrating the country’s independence. On one level, it is a detailed portrait of amusements and relaxation. On another, it is an allegorical comment by a spirited abolitionist on the state of the nation during the Civil War. The depiction of her husband who has broken the swing, the uniformed Union soldier, the tall gentleman sporting the style of beard fashionable in the period, and the two African Americans who disregard their traditional duties as servants have been interpreted as signs of the country’s political and social upheaval wrought by Abraham Lincoln’s policies.

In the 1840s and ’50s, Spencer’s genre paintings sold for as much as $10,000 each. Her prices rivaled those paid to George Caleb Bingham, John J. Audubon, and Eastman Johnson, popular male artists with whom she exhibited at the American Art-Union in New York. Moreover, lithographic reproductions of her originals, created and sold by the Art-Union and Western Art Union, reached thousands and established her as a nationally known artist. From the mid-19th century onward, the link between education and professional work in art was key to an individual’s success. Whether attending classes specifically for women at art academies in America and abroad or enrolling in separate women’s art schools, education afforded the stature necessary to pursue an independent professional life as an artist. Students also began building support networks through women’s art associations and exhibition clubs. This enterprise reached its zenith in the Women’s Buildings at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Cecilia Beaux’s (1855-1942) academic credentials were impeccable. In 1884, she completed her first medal-winning portrait as well as NMWA’s portrait of Ethel Page. Initially Beaux worked in a rich, tonal style influenced by Thomas Eakins. Four years later, she made the all-important sojourn to Europe, and studied for 18 months in Paris and Brittany.

Exposed to the art of Edouard Manet, John Singer Sargent, and the impressionists in Europe, Beaux lightened her palette considerably. She resisted any overpowering influence, however, selecting instead those qualities that seemed appropriate to her emerging style. Upon returning to Philadelphia in 1890, she continued to build her career. In 1895, she was offered the position of painting instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Beaux was the first woman to achieve this honor, which reflected her importance in the art world of late 19th-century America.

Along with Sargent, Beaux became the leading portrait painter of America’s social and intellectual elite at the turn of the 20th century. She exhibited in the Women’s Building at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In 1895, she was successfully represented by the famed impressionist gallery Durand-Ruel, which had opened a branch in New York. By her 1898 move to her studio to New York, she was an art celebrity, whose friends included novelist Henry James, actress Eleanora Duse, sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens, and patron Isabella Stewart Gardner. A fiercely independent woman, Beaux refused marriage to devote herself to portraiture and considered her art as serious, rigorous, difficult, and professional.

New Women and New Art: 1900-1950

The development of female professionalism—part of the larger women’s rights movement of the 19th century—laid the groundwork for the emergence of the artist as New Woman in the 20th century. A model of self-reliance, education, earning power, and urban living, the New Woman was a powerful symbol.

Just as women artists achieved greater visibility in the public sphere, modern art radically shifted the terms of artistic debate. For some women, the new culture that stressed individualism and expressive freedom was attractive and beneficial; for others used to a collective professional identity, it was barbarous and unwelcome. While the majority continued to work within conventional traditions, a select few flourished as disciples of the new art movements that sprang from the New York Armory Show of 1913 and continued through the 1940s.

Marguerite Thompson Zorach (1887-1968) was one of a handful of American artists who exhibited at the 1913 Armory Show. A pioneer of the 10th Street scene in Greenwich Village, she and her circle—which included Max Weber, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, and Marianne Moore—helped introduce the new fauvist and cubist art to the United States.

Marguerite Thompson arrived in Paris in time to see the first Salon d’Automne of 1908, and the fauvist and post-impressionist painting she saw there transformed her. She chose to study at the new post-impressionist school La Palette, and began to experiment with the strong, unmixed colors, direct energetic brushwork, and minimal modeling of forms that can be seen in Nude Reclining (1922). At La Palette, she met her future husband, sculptor and lithographer William Zorach.

First in Paris and then in New York, Marguerite and William Zorach continued their radical experimentation. From 1913 to 1920, they used their New York studio apartment as an exhibition space for their fauvist and cubist works. As she shifted from painting to tapestry-making after the birth of their second child, he assisted with the early pieces. He helped her gain access to galleries; she took on responsibility for the family and inspired many of his sculptures.

Understanding that these works were sometimes denigrated as a female craft, she consistently referred to them as “modernist pictures done in wool.” Throughout the 1920s, Zorach’s large, complex, and brilliantly colored tapestries were exhibited and fetched high prices. They were the main source of the family’s income, gave her a market niche, and brought major commissions from collectors including Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.

For modernist Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998), the terms of the debate were quite different as she sought to overcome racial and gender prejudices in pursuit of her art. Recognized as the first black female painter of importance in America, she studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, beginning in 1923. Throughout the 1920s, she made frequent trips to New York where she met many leaders of the Harlem Renaissance.

For African American artists working in the early 20th century, the question of how best to gain support for their work was a compelling one. Some argued they should incorporate their African heritage into their art production and choose themes that represented black experience. Others believed that artists of color should follow the prevailing styles of main-stream Europe and America in order to gain full acceptance in the art world. Howard University, in Washington, D.C., was a site of vigorous discussion on this issue. Jones entered the debate when the university’s art department hired her in 1930.

Challenged and enriched by the philosophy of Alain Leroy Locke, chair of Howard’s philosophy department and one of the Harlem Renaissance’s leading intellectuals of the 1920s, Jones began to explore her ancestral heritage in her paintings. From this point onward, Africa—a place both real and imagined—became an inspiration and a guide throughout a long and fulfilling career. Jones went on to teach at Howard for over 40 years, mentoring artists Elizabeth Catlett and Alma Thomas, among others.

Although the new members of the avant-garde often disavowed any connection to the past, their success was in no small part built upon the women’s culture of their 19th-century foremothers. All 10 women featured in Enterprising Artists enjoyed success and experienced rejection during their lifetimes. Courageous and inspiring, they influenced a changing model for professional artists, one that mirrored that of other successful women throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. By viewing the exhibition in context of Enterprising Women: 250 Years of American Business, one can draw important parallels and see the increasing influence of women artists in history.

Deputy Director for Art and Programs Susan Fisher Sterling is NMWA’s chief curator.

Note: The author wishes to acknowledge the following sources: Kirsten Swinth, Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern American Art, 1870-1930 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2001) and Laura R. Prieto, At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in America (Harvard University Press, 2001).


Sterling, Susan Fisher, ‘Enterprising Artists: The Professionalization of American Women,’ Women in the Arts (Holiday 2003): 8-15.

1. Cecilia Beaux’s Ethel Page (Mrs. James Large). Sterling, ‘Enterprising Artists,’ 12.
2. Sarah Miriam Peale’s Susan Avery. Sterling, ‘Enterprising Artists,’ 9.
3. Sarah Miriam Peale’s Isaac Avery. Sterling, ‘Enterprising Artists,’ 9.
4. Lilly Martin Spencer’s The Artist and Her Family at a Fourth of July Picnic. Sterling, ‘Enterprising Artists,’ 10.
5. Marguerite Thompson Zorach’s Nude Reclining. Sterling, ‘Enterprising Artists,’ 13.
6. Lois Mailou Jones’s Africa. Sterling, ‘Enterprising Artists,’ 14.

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