Strong Impressions: Alison Saar’s Powerful Prints

Alison Saar (b. 1956) is primarily recognized for her sculptural works although her woodcuts, lithographs, and etchings are also a remarkable part of her oeuvre. Saar says that one key advantage to printmaking is that it is “accessible to many people.” NMWA’s exhibition Alison Saar In Print reveals the artist’s diverse use of media and techniques in her powerful exploration of race, gender, and identity.

Saar was exposed to art through her mother, acclaimed assemblagist Betye Saar, and her father Richard, a painter and art conservator. “My mother was a printmaker before she became an assemblagist,” Saar remembers, “so I was always around that process as a kid.” Saar often employs symbolism and descriptive titles to reference the African diaspora and obscured African-American histories.

Themes of domesticity and womanhood are woven throughout Alison Saar In Print. The woodcut Washtub Blues (2000) depicts an African American woman holding a washtub. The viewer can only glimpse the woman’s face through her reflection in the washtub. Washtub Blues emphasizes the household work that often goes underappreciated. “Housekeepers and nannies have a huge impact on people’s lives and they are rarely recognized. Often they’re invisible; you don’t even notice them. That’s why in this print of a laundress you see her from behind, with her face reflected in the tub of water,” the artist elaborates. The figure reminds viewers that the economic survival of a family or community is sometimes predicated on the work of a woman.

Alison Saar, Compton Nocturne, 2012; Color lithograph on paper, 19 1/4 x 25 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C., Promised gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Alison Saar; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Alison Saar, Compton Nocturne, 2012; Color lithograph on paper, 19 1/4 x 25 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C., Promised gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in Honor of the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; © Alison Saar; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Though the artist prefers woodcuts, she also creates prints using lithography and etching. Saar’s lithograph Compton Nocturne (2012) combines art historical references with an African spiritual tradition. The print portrays a nude woman laying horizontally across the length of the paper. In place of hair, a bottle tree appears to sprout from the figure’s head. Constructed from tying bottles to trees, the bottle tree has been used in the Congo, the Caribbean, and the southeastern United States to ward off unwanted spirits or people.

The history of the Western female nude also informs Compton Nocturne. Saar replaces the traditional subject of an odalisque with an African-American woman. The artist repositions her subject as a culture-bearing woman, rather than an exoticized object of desire. A common motif in Saar’s work, she depicts “powerful women who stare down those scrutinizing them.”

Alison Saar In Print is on view through October 2, 2016 in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Meet Alison Saar at the museum on September 6, 2016 for a special artist talk.

—Casey Betts was the summer 2016 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Art Fix Friday: August 19, 2016

Nan Goldin asks, “I’m not responsible for anything like social media, am I? Tell me I’m not.”

The New York Times draws parallels between Goldin’s signature work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, and the current culture of image sharing.

Front-Page Femmes

Hyperallergic writes, “We should all be inspired by Alma Thomas’s optimism.”

Niki de Saint Phalle’s sculpture garden in Tuscany contains 22 “massive, globular forms of divine goddesses and strange beasts.”

Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors, organized by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, will travel to four additional museums in North America. The Art Newspaper and artnet share the excitement.

Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo tours Bogotá and her studio for the Guardian.

Polixeni Papapetrou uses flowers from a cemetery to explore themes of mourning and remembrance.

The Brooklyn Museum will celebrate the tenth anniversary of its Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

The Art Newspaper explores Shirin Neshat’s two new video works.

Artsy profiles the Neo Naturists, a “body-painting trio of female flashers” that started an underground art movement in the 1980s.

The Huffington Post shares a list of ten exceptional women photographers.

In LACMA’s new video series, Catherine Opie discusses a painting by Thomas Eakins in the museum’s collection.

Alexandra Berg’s pencil drawings “would fool anyone into thinking they were black and white photographs.”

A new solo exhibition presents three recent bodies of work by Barbara Kasten.

Photographer Lisa Minogue creates stylized portraits of Australian women of color by using vibrant face paint.

In her “Reading Women” series, Carrie Schneider photographs and films women artists reading works by their favorite women authors.

artnet shares five interesting facts about Italian artist and activist Tina Modotti (1896–1942) on the anniversary of her birth.

A rare letter by pioneering travel writer Mary Wortley Montagu goes up for sale.

Lisa Hannigan’s latest album “sneaks up and envelops listeners in cocoons of sound.”

The Guardian discusses revolutionary Australian feminist films of the ’90s.

After her directorial debut, Natalie Portman discusses the status of female directors in Hollywood.

Hyperallergic delves into Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film, Je tu il elle.

Shows We Want to See

Paola Pivi: Ma’am at Dallas Contemporary features Italian artist Paula Pivi’s “multicolored polar bears, an upside down plane, a giant inflatable ladder, and a film of live goldfish on an airplane.”

NPR finds “a brave sense of modernity and freedom” in The Art of Romaine Brooks at Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Eau de Cologne at Sprüth Magers gallery presents works by Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Rosemarie Trockel, and Louise Lawler. The exhibition is “rooted in an appreciation for these women who are rare in the field of contemporary art: strident and singular and commercially successful.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

“Puzzle de Brasil”: A Topographical Tourist Map

While the 2016 Rio Olympic Games encourage development in Brazil and bolster the country’s worldwide reputation, NMWA’s Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center (LRC) is showing a work that also revels in Brazilian pride. Priya Pereira’s artist book Puzzle de Brasil, originally published in 2001, is on view in Priya Pereira: Contemporary Artists’ Books from India. This moveable puzzle book celebrating Brazilian culture is on display in the LRC until November 18, 2016.

Book artist Priya Pereira

Book artist Priya Pereira

Pereira’s Puzzle de Brasil explores the country’s most notable cultural, political, and ecological wonders through interactive screen-printed and hand-sewn cardboard flaps. Printed on each flap is a boldfaced word or icon illuminating aspects of the Brazilian experience. In particular, Pereira references Brazil’s love of football (soccer) by including the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) logo. Viewers can detect mentions of Ipanema and the Metropolitan Cathedral, as well as illustrations of the samba and anacondas.

When handling the book, readers often devise their own methods of unfolding the complex, layered flaps. When lifted and manipulated in certain ways, Puzzle de Brasil’s moveable components can create a flat or three-dimensional artist’s book. With its cardboard base adorned with long strands of colored text and raised flaps, the book serves as a topographical tourist map—representative of Brazil’s complex geography. In this way, the work’s structure portrays the country as a mix of flatlands, jungles, mountains, and rivers.

Priya Pereira, Puzzle de Brazil, interior, 2001; Artist's book published by Pixie Bks

Puzzle de Brasil, interior, 2001; Artist’s book published by Pixie Bks

Pereira’s choice to embellish her work with blue, yellow, and green mirrors the colors of the Brazilian flag. Three overarching “tiers” each correspond with one of the flag’s three colors. The interactive book encourages readers to unfold the flaps in a blue-yellow-green order. Pereira says, “Open left to right, right to left, north to south, or vice-versa. One clue: follow the colors of Brazil—blue, yellow, and green to make it easy for you.” Pereira’s vibrant and complex book reveals some of Brazil’s cultural treasures and allows viewers to develop a deeper appreciation for the country.

Visit NMWA’s Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center to see a selection of Priya Pereira’s books. Located on the museum’s the fourth floor, the LRC is open Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1–5 p.m.

—Emily Benoff is the summer 2016 Library and Research Center intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Justine Kurland

Impress your friends with five fast facts about American photographer Justine Kurland (b. 1969), whose work is on view in NMWA’s third-floor galleries.

Justine Kurland (b. 1969)

1. The Runaways

After “imagining a story, a film…that I wanted to be real,” Kurland began photographing young girls in spectacular landscapes. While creating her narrative of a teenage runaway, she was particularly interested in photographing within small, fringe areas of wilderness that remained between suburban and urban areas.

Justine Kurland, Raft Expedition, 2001; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Justine Kurland, courtesy Mitchell-Innes + Nash

Justine Kurland, Raft Expedition, 2001; NMWA, Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Justine Kurland, courtesy Mitchell-Innes + Nash

2. Girls in Uniform

Kurland continued working with adolescent girls while completing an artist residency in New Zealand.

She learned that students there wore uniforms whether they were in public or private school, and had the girls wear them in her photographs.

3. On the Open Road 

Eschewing the traditional studio, Kurland travels the country to create her images. Whether on her own or with her son, she packs up her camera equipment, steps into her van (which has a bed in the back), and lives on the road for several months.

4. Mama Babies

When exhibiting her mother and child images, Kurland borrowed the title “Of Woman Born,” from the 1978 essay on motherhood by the feminist poet Adrienne Rich. For Kurland, the series was a way for her to reimagine the idea of motherhood.

5. Artistic Beginnings

At a young age, Kurland cut out Victorian artist Arthur Rackham’s illustration, Always Plenty to Eat or Drink, from a book. The fantastical artwork resonated with Kurland. Even today, Kurland keeps the page with her. She feels that the work represents her world view.

—Ashley Harris is assistant educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: August 12, 2016

While the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team makes headlines, so does Megan Abbott’s new novel, You Will Know Me, which plunges readers into the world of young female gymnasts and their parents.

Meg Abbott's novel

Detail of the cover of Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me

NPR interviews Abbott, who describes insular gymnastics communities, the “mind game” involved, and how gymnasts defy the laws of physics. Maureen Corrigan says the book “is itself worthy of the gold.” The New York Times describes Abbott as a “[maestro] of the heebie-jeebies” and the New Yorker says she “excels at writing fear into absence as well as into action.”

Front-Page Femmes

Deborah Kass says that, in the art world, “I don’t think there’s more space for women in general. In fact, I think there’s less than when I came [to New York City] in the ’70s.”

Through her large-scale portraits, Jordan Casteel shows her interest “in pushing the dialogue of blackness.”

Designer Sandy Chilewich’s woven vinyl place mat led her to create a $35 million design empire.

Female artists explore the origins of hysteria and seek to reclaim the word through artistic expression.

Mickalene Thomas “[wrestles] stereotypes, history, and the demands of the culture industry into loud but harmonious images.”

German artist Menja Stevenson designed clothes with fabric from bus and train interiors.

Macedonian artist Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva makes ambitious installations from “artistically manipulated animal viscera.”

Lisa Yuskavage’s work was censored on the cover of an Australian art magazine.

Artsy delves into two of Shirin Neshat’s newest film installations, Sara and Roja.

The Guardian studies Ella Kruglyanskaya’s Fruit Picnic (2011).

Hyperallergic publishes its long review of Women of Abstract Expressionism and ARTnews shares reviews from their archives that showcase female Abstract Expressionists.

Dirty Knees showcases work by five women artists who explore mixed-race identities.

In 1952, art critic Emily Genauer received a pair of rubber underpants with a crude note in the mail from Clyfford Still.

Pitchfork shares 33 feminist punk songs that have “crushed stereotypes.”

NPR and the New Yorker discuss Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep.

Hyperallergic reviews a performance by the Silver Spiders, an ensemble of women artists—all 60 years old or older.

#VisibleWomen helps amplify the voices and portfolios of women comic artists.

NPR shares stories about an overlooked Suicide Squad writer, Kimberly Yale.

Shows We Want to See

The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University (Broad MSU) will launch Fire Within: A New Generation of Chinese Women Artists, featuring work by 28 emerging artists.

The Female Gaze, Part Two: Women Look at Men displays works by women artists who paint, photograph, and sculpt the male body. ARTnews interviews the exhibition’s organizer. The Daily Beast calls the exhibition “the best kind of payback.”

Sixteen paintings by spiritualist artist Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) are on view in The Keeper at the New Museum. After weekly séances, af Klint created a series of paintings “to convey knowledge about the unity of all existence.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Material Deception: Honor Freeman and Lynda Benglis

Two sculptures on view in NMWA’s third-floor galleries have much in common despite strong visual differences. Eridanus (1984) by Lynda Benglis is a large metal work that appears twisted and hung like a piece of fabric. Honor Freeman’s Tupperware—Transforming a Chaotic Kitchen (2008) is a set of realistic porcelain replicas of early Tupperware products.

Materials and Meaning

A visitor gazes at Lynda Benglis’s Eridanus at NMWA

A visitor gazes at Lynda Benglis’s Eridanus at NMWA

Both sculptures highlight conflicts between material, appearance, and subject to create meaning. Benglis’s use of metal evokes Minimalist sculpture, a genre strongly associated with male artists. The hardness and heaviness of metal contrasts with the work’s soft, fabric-like appearance. By manipulating metal to look like fabric, the artist combats the frequent stereotyping of female artists’ work as soft, feminine, and delicate—whereas even similar work by men is viewed differently.

Freeman’s work also juxtaposes material and appearance. The use of porcelain, a fine art material, to create 59 representations of common household Tupperware plays with traditional distinctions between gender, quality, and craft. The elevation of Tupperware to display-worthy status mirrors the elevation of ceramics and other craft works to the status of fine art.

Beauty and Artifice

These works also share themes of artifice and beautification. In Eridanus, the illusion of shimmering silver fabric is disrupted by one rust-colored piece of metal that juts out instead of hanging gracefully. This disruption draws attention to both the material and the artifice of the rest of sculpture, which is styled to look soft and pretty.

Installation view of Honor Freeman’s work; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Installation view of Honor Freeman’s work; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Described by the artist as a “ghost” or “memory of a past form,” Tupperware—Transforming a Chaotic Kitchen creates a sense of nostalgia for a domestic ideal of past eras. However, the knowledge that this is a reconstruction in porcelain rather than the authentic plastic containers reminds viewers that they are not seeing—or remembering—things exactly as they are. This frames the idealized version of the past as a false memory, a beautification of historical reality.

Gender and Opportunity

Both sculptures deal with the social status of women as artists and workers. By drawing parallels with a celebrated but male-dominated art movement, Eridanus reminds viewers that women artists face professional inequities. The sculpture references issues of gender, interpretation, and sexism that significantly impact the careers of female artists.

Freeman’s sculpture deals with the shifting status of women more broadly. Historically, selling Tupperware gave women new opportunities. The choice of this subject highlights the tension between nostalgia for the “better days” of the past and the less-than-ideal historical reality of many women’s lives. The elevation of domestic objects and “craft” techniques to the status of fine art may also celebrate the many economic and social advances women have made in recent history.

Visit NMWA to see Eridanus and Tupperware—Transforming a Chaotic Kitchen together in one third-floor gallery.

—Kait Gilioli is the summer 2016 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: August 5, 2016

Alma Thomas at the Studio Museum in Harlem continues to make headlines. A painting in NMWA’s collection, Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, is on view in the exhibition.

Thomas had “one of the great, late-blooming careers in American art during the post-World War II era,” writes the New York Times. At the age of 80, Alma Thomas became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Front-Page Femmes

Photographer Kathy Shorr documents the scars of survivors of gun violence.

Lucy Sparrow’s first installation in New York will be a corner shop where people can browse 8,000 items—all hand-sewn from felt and available for purchase.

Rebecca Louise Law re-creates Dutch still-life paintings as 3-D sculptures and photographs their decay over time.

Mariko Mori discusses her translucent ring sculpture, sponsored by the Olympics and mounted above a waterfall in Rio de Janerio.

Juxtapoz shares South African artist Barbara Wildenboer’s book sculptures.

Turkish painter and journalist Zehra Doğan was detained in Turkey after the failed military coup.

Feminist Avant Garde of the 1970s comprises over 150 works by 48 international female artists.

artnet shares seven facts about Abstract Expressionist painter Hedda Sterne (1910–2011).

Artsy discusses the forgotten legacy of Beatrice Wood.

Ten paintings of Brandi Twilley’s childhood home in Oklahoma, which burnt down in 1999, comprise the exhibition The Living Room.

ArtInfo shares Marina Abramović’s 1975 film Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful.

This summer, New York-based painter Nicole Eisenman will occupy a workshop on the Greek island of Hydra.

Comedian Ali Wong discusses her first comedy special, filming while pregnant, and female comics.

Hyperallergic asks Elizabeth Sackler about the Sackler Center First Award, Angela Davis, and mass incarceration.

Heather Headley returns to Broadway after 15 years in a revival of The Color Purple.

A new book about Agnes Martin emphasizes the importance of the artist’s early works.

Jesmyn Ward invited prominent writers and thinkers to reflect on black life in America and contribute to her essay collection The Fire This Time.

Cate Blanchett will perform 13 separate roles in German cinematographer and video artist Julian Rosefeldt’s film installation Manifesto.

Ava DuVernay will direct the film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time—making her the first woman of color to direct a film with a $100 million budget.

Alice in Black and White explores the life of photographer Alice Austen (1866–1952), including her relationship with Gertrude Tate.

Shows We Want to See

Anicka Yi, whose work will be on view in NO MAN’S LAND: Women Artists from the Rubell Family Collection, presents new work in Germany.

She: International Women Artists Exhibition, on view at the Long Museum in Shanghai, features 108 works by 100 female artists from 13 countries. The Art Newspaper reports that the exhibition’s four sections span ten centuries.

Nancy Mitchnick’s exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit features oil paintings of landscapes and post-industrial Detroit that Hyperallergic says “ricochet out into the real world, conveying a sense of how a place looks based on how it feels.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

5 Fast Facts: Hellen van Meene

5Impress your friends with five fast facts about Hellen van Meene (b. 1972), whose work is on view in NMWA’s third-floor galleries.


Hellen van Meene, Untitled (151), 2002; Chromogenic color print, 15 3/8 in. x 15 3/8 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

1. Dutch Sensibilities

Van Meene’s depictions of spare domestic interiors and her dramatic use of light are often compared with the compositions of 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. She says, “I never work…with a flash…or other artificial light and it brings me to use the same kind of ‘ingredients’ as a painter.”


Hellen van Meene, Untitled (30), 1998; Chromogenic color print, 11 3/4 in. x 11 3/4 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

2. Not Snap Happy 

“What I do is really like a painter working on a painting—looking, making decisions,” says van Meene.

Her process includes spending considerable time observing and getting to know her models before photographing them. “This approach is far from just taking out your camera and snapping, snapping, snapping away.”

3. Notable Alums

From 1992 to 1996, van Meene studied photography at Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. Rineke Dijkstra (b. 1959), fellow Dutch photographer and NMWA artist, studied there ten years prior.

Both artists are known for their tender photographs of adolescent girls that reveal the sometimes precious—and sometimes awkward—moments of puberty.

Hellen van Meene, Untitled (75b), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 15 1/4 in. x 15 1/4 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

Hellen van Meene, Untitled (75b), 1999; Chromogenic color print, 15 1/4 in. x 15 1/4 in.; Gift of Heather and Tony Podesta Collection, Washington, DC

4. Animal Whisperer

The artist’s recent works feature poignant portraits of animals that seem to capture her sitters’ souls and personalities, sharing affinities with the paintings of French animalier artist Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899).

5. Homegirls

Lorena Kloosterboer, contemporary trompe-l’œil and photorealistic painter, and Anna Louisa Geertruida Bosboom-Toussaint, 19th-century novelist, were born in Hellen van Meene’s hometown of Alkmaar, the Netherlands.

—Adrienne L. Gayoso is associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: July 29, 2016

Broadly interviews Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman, whose work will be featured at NMWA this fall in the exhibition NO MAN’S LAND: Women Artists from the Rubell Family Collection.

Kahraman’s works integrate themes of trauma and war with art forms adopted from Persian miniatures and Renaissance painting. Kahraman’s semi-autobiographical work also “speaks to the notion of commodities” where “the female figure becomes this object that’s being sold and traded within the art market.”

Front-Page Femmes

ArtInfo shares ecological artist Mary Mattingly’s “floating food project.”

“I’m interested in the transfer of knowledge between women,” says Simone Leigh.

The Guardian explores American portraitist Alice Neel’s famous pastel work, Alice and José.

Chiharu Shiota creates a large-scale installation interweaving yarn with keys collected from around the world.

Documentary photographer Carol Highsmith filed a one billion dollar copyright infringement suit for “gross misuse” of 18,755 of her photographs.

A Tamara de Lempicka painting, which was stolen from the Netherlands in 2009, was recovered this week.

Pao Houa Her discusses her project combining her mother’s collection of silk flowers with pictures used by Hmong women on dating sites.

ARTnews shares art reviews written by Laure Anderson in the early 1970s.

Marina Abramović says having children would have been “a disaster for my work.”

Robin F. Williams “switches up the gender roles typically found in great historical painting.”

Patricia Piccinini collaborated with a trauma surgeon and a road safety engineer to create Graham.

Kate Just knits portraits of feminist artists and their work.

Tanya Barson, Tate Modern’s Georgia O’Keeffe curator, discusses efforts to “rectify a severe unfamiliarity with [O’Keeffe’s] work.”

Hyperallergic asks, “Why were the women largely left out of the history books on Abstract Expressionism?”

Roxane Gay is writing a Black Panther companion, making her the first black woman to write for Marvel Comics.

The 2016 Eisner Awards for comic books breaks records with 61 nominations for female creators.

Singer Marni Nixon, who dubbed the voices for some of Hollywood’s biggest musicals, died at the age of 86.

NPR interviews soul singer Sharon Jones about her return to the stage.

Meera Menon and Sarah Megan discuss their new film, Equity, about a powerful female investment banker.

Shows We Want to See

Marking the Infinite, a major exhibition of work by nine Australian Aboriginal women painters will debut at Tulane University’s Newcomb Art Museum.

Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt, currently on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art, “[argues] just as much for Hesse’s impact on LeWitt as the other way around.”

Qatari-American artist Sophia Al-Maria talks to the Guardian about her first solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami hosts a retrospective of Susan Te Kahurangi King with works dating from 1958—when the artist was seven years old—to her complex compositions from the 1970s and ’80s.

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Double Take: Rosa Bonheur in the Eulabee Dix Gallery

NMWA staff recently reinstalled the Eulabee Dix Gallery “salon style” to display more of the museum’s collection. The gallery, now featuring more than 30 works, includes two paintings by the French Realist artist Rosa Bonheur—largely considered the most famous female painter of the 19th century.


The recently reinstalled Eulabee Dix Gallery at NMWA includes two works by Rosa Bonheur; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Defying Convention

Born in Bordeaux to minor landscape painter Raymond Bonheur and piano teacher Sophie Bonheur, Rosa Bonheur had an unusual upbringing. As an adult, she refused to marry, wore men’s clothing, studied animal anatomy in slaughterhouses, smoked cigars, and cut her hair short. She became a subject of public scrutiny—and sometimes ridicule.

Her remarkable career included many honors—she became the first woman to be awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour in 1865—as well as financial success, an impressive feat for an unmarried woman. Bonheur was able to earn enough as an artist to buy an estate near the Forest of Fontainebleau, where she resided first with her life-long companion, Nathalie Micas, and, after Micas’s death, American painter Anna Klumpke.

Rosa Bonheur, Untitled, n.d.; Gift of Roma Crocker in honor of her children. Conservation funds generously provided by the Mississippi State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Rosa Bonheur, Untitled, n.d.; Gift of Roma Crocker in honor of her children. Conservation funds generously provided by the Mississippi State Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts

Animals Abound

One work by Bonheur currently on view in the Eulabee Dix Gallery is an untitled oil sketch of horses on a green background. Bonheur’s artistic process involved carefully working on form and composition in multiple sketches before beginning to paint. This work on paper shows the same beauty and commitment to realistic animal anatomy as the artist’s larger paintings, and gives a fascinating look into a less visible stage of her creative process.

Another work, Sheep by the Sea (1865), is a small oil painting depicting a flock of sheep reclining peacefully beside a body of water. The brightly lit scene shows no sign of human encroachment, instead offering an image of the animals in a pristine natural habitat.

A closer look reveals Bonheur’s incredible skill and attention to detail, evident in the tactile quality of the sheep’s wooly coats as well as their believably-rendered bodies—the product of detailed anatomical studies and careful planning. Sheep by the Sea was originally commissioned by Empress Eugénie of France and became part of her collection after being exhibited at the Salon of 1867.

Rosa Bonheur is fascinating both as an artist and a figure in women’s history. Visit NMWA during weekday hours to see some of her work, and more art by women, in the Eulabee Dix Gallery.

The Eulabee Dix Gallery is located on the fourth floor of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, open to visitors Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

—Kait Gilioli is the summer 2016 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.