By Paul Varnell
“Man works from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done,” goes the old housewife’s lament. However true that may have been, a new exhibit,
“Women’s Work” at Galleries Maurice Sternberg in the Hancock Center shows how interesting and varied “women’s work” could be.
The exhibit includes 20 paintings, most by American women, in widely different styles
and techniques ranging from almost photo-realism to cubism. What seems baffling is that while none of these women is really well-known—none are listed in Baigell’s “History of American Painting” and only one in the
“Yale Dictionary of Art and Artists”—their work seems in no way inferior to male artists working at the same time.
Or perhaps that’s not so baffling. Until recent years most women were judged not on the basis or
their talents and abilities, but on their gender. Women artists were not encouraged, or were tracked into genre work deemed appropriate for women artists. And many struggled to build careers, sometimes supported by
their families, sometimes not. The present exhibit shows, however, that at least a few women managed to break through the cultural restrictions and produce art of significant aesthetic merit. ...
At the other end
of the stylistic spectrum are three works by the Frenchwoman Jeanne Rij-Rousseau (1870-1956) that show in varying proportions the influences of Cezanne and of Braque’s cubism. “Coupe de Fruit” (piece of fruit) depicts a
decorated plate half-filled with fruits—a melon, a tomato—with other fruits immediately behind.
Rij-Rousseau’s “Femme Verte” (green woman), a possibly later pastel, is a semi-cubist depiction, painted mostly in
shades of green, of the head and torso of a puckishly smiling nude woman, wearing a necklace and holding her hands beyond her head. Rig-Rousseau’s third painting, “Paysage” (“Countryside”), features colorful flat
planes—one is surely a house, but the rest give the impression of Cezanne trying his hand at something more abstract than usual. ....
Anyone can pick up quite a bit of history about the changes in styles during
the revolutionary period of French and American art from this exhibition—and do so by simply looking at attractive pictures. These woman all have something to say, not least of which is a tacit assertion of equal talent
and skill to any of the men living contemporaneously.
“Women’s Work: Notable Women Artists: 1850-1950,” Galleries Maurice Sternberg, 875 N. Michigan Avenue (the John Hancock Center, Suite 2520). On view until
Nov. 30. 2008
Paul Varnell: American Women’s Painting. In Chicago Free Press 2008.