How many of you are always surprised when you read a museum label and discover that a given work was, in fact, painted by a woman? Many of us do, and this reaction is partly due to our embedded cultural beliefs of the “male artist” trumping female artists in quality of work. I do not aim to ruffle feathers here, as the Guerilla Girls have already successfully made strong awareness to other Museums about their lack of female artists on their walls. But the fact remains; we expect most paintings and sculptures before the Modernism period to have been created by men.
What might equally surprise you is to know that our very first accessioned work at the Worcester Art Museum (1896.1) was by a woman, Ms. Helen Mary Knowlton. She donated to the museum a portrait of William Morris Hunt, who was her teacher for many years.
I enjoy this painting as Mr. Morris, rather later on in his life, contemplatively gazes at something to the left—what is out of view for us. I also enjoy his beard, which greatly exceeds the lack of hair on his head! Knowlton’s painting encapsulates Morris’ years of gained wisdom and his achieved status in life with a subtly muted paint pallet. It’s warm, inviting. One almost wants to sit and enjoy a cup of a coffee with Mr. Morris and listen to his stories.
Knowlton was a successful woman during the 19th century, actively painting and teaching, as well as being a critic of local shows for a Boston newspaper. A native of Worcester, the acquisition of Knowlton’s work as the first into an early encyclopedic art museum evokes much profound symbolism and meaning. This acquisition emulates the respect for local Worcester artists that the museum has always had, as well as the disregard for gender in defining what is considered “high” art.
- Sarah Gillis, Assistant Registrar, Image Management