The Museum of Fine Arts exhibits works by women from its collection – cialisdfr
The Museum of Fine Arts exhibits works by women from its collection
The Museum of Fine Arts exhibits works by women from its collection

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In March, we celebrated Women’s History Month with an installation of some outstanding works from the museum’s collection of women artists working in the mid to late 20th century.

Building on a long legacy of collecting and exhibiting art by women, we are pleased to present a group of prints by Alice Neal (1900–1984), Faith Ringgold (b. 1930), Grace Hartigan (1922–2008), and Helen Frankenthaler (1928 –2011), all of whom have overcome significant challenges in their lives and careers.

Strong portraits reflect the emotional range

Upon entering the museum you will see Neal’s stunning portrait of her granddaughter, ‘Olivia’. Visitors noted that Neil brilliantly captured the look of a typical teenage girl, with body language and attitude that suggested the comfortable relationship of a friend who would “come down and talk”.

Neal, around 80 years old at the time she took this portrait, certainly clearly understood the changes in young women’s lives during her lifetime and strongly captured the sense of potential and anticipation in Olivia’s candid gaze and open lips.

Neil has built his career on unflinchingly honest and intense portraits of family, friends and fellow artists. Her subjects express universal human emotions of fear, strength, pain and defiance, revealing personalities and insecurities. Although she suffered a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide and was hospitalized earlier in her life, Neal nevertheless became one of the most powerful portrait painters of the 20th century. Some longtime locals may remember a retrospective of Neal’s work at the museum in 1977.

“Mama can Sing” and “Papa can Blow”

Nearby, you’ll see two very different prints by black artist Ringgold: “Mama can Sing” and “Papa can Blow.” A painter, writer, mixed media sculptor, performance artist, and activist, Ringgold (now 93!) creates works that comment on themes of race and gender and their relationship to the world of art, history, politics, and society.

In this pair of colorful prints, Ringgold depicts a jovial couple playing energetic music (most likely jazz or blues). She contrasts light blue and gold motifs and establishes a color relationship between the shiny brass finish of the saxophone and the texts that surround each figure.

Ringgold became one of the first artists to be recognized for making fine works of art from textiles, sewn fabrics, weaving, quilting and embroidery, media previously referred to as “women’s work” and “craft”. In the 1970s, she challenged these stereotypes and succeeded in elevating her work based on textiles and fabrics to the level of fine art.

Color sets the tone

Like Neal and Ringgold, Hartigan was intrigued by the human figure. Part of the ‘Great Queens and Empresses, Elizabeth Etched’ series, depicting Queen Elizabeth II. Using contrasts of red and brown, Hartigan creates the effect of sunlight shining on Elizabeth’s hair and filtering through the curtain in the background.

Hartigan was one of the few women associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement that flourished in New York from the late 1940s to the early 1950s.

A collaborator of artists Jackson Pollock, Frankenthaler, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Larry Rivers, and poet Frank O’Hara, Hartigan played an essential role in the artistic and literary awakening that repositioned New York as the center of the modern art world.

Moving to Baltimore in the 1960s, Hartigan became director of the Hofberger Graduate School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art. This print reflects Hartigan’s interest in strong women, a choice that coincided with challenges in her own life, including her struggle with alcoholism in the early 1980s, a suicide attempt, and her husband’s mental and physical decline.

Also nearby is Frankenthaler’s color lithograph, “Barcelona,” one of several Frankenthalers created from nine colors in a workshop of Ediciones Poligrafa, SA in Barcelona, ​​Spain.

In this print, a field of richly layered colors (shades of green contrasting with blues, reds and yellows) seem to compete for prominence. At the same time, the vertical strokes in the primary colors stabilize the earthy green shades dominating the composition. She uses color and gesture to suggest the evening bustle of the city. Here the artist creates a print that conveys the spontaneity of her paintings and achieves a similar transparency and brilliance of color.

Influenced by Pollock, Frankenthaler encouraged the paint or ink to go where it would when he applied it to unprimed canvases or matrices for his prints. The resulting works refer to the natural world, set against and in ethereal, seemingly fluid spaces; not unlike those found in Barcelona.

Often referred to as a color field artist, Frankenthaler was fascinated by the possibilities of pure color and its unpredictable relationships, inspiring artists such as Kenneth Noland, Sam Gilliam and Maurice Lewis to follow her example.

The works of these artists will remain on display until August. And be sure to look for works by other women artists in the museum—including Louise Nevelson, Sarah Miriam Peel, and Anna Hyatt Huntington—all responsible for iconic works in the collection.

And while you’re at it, look and think about the way women are represented by male artists in the collection.

Art is more than decor: It’s about gathering, preserving traditions, creating memories

Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., is the Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., closed on Mondays and most holidays, including Christmas, New Year’s Day, and New Year’s Day. Go to or call 301-739-5727. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and LinkedIn.

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