Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Three women create art and equality

By Guest Columnist Genet

Women's history is extraordinary. It is an adventure into creativity, and we should never take it for granted. Within living memory, women were considered so trivial that no research was really being done on their accomplishments. We may think things have changed, but if you carefully examine academic content these days, or even the T.V. news, you'll find men routinely dominating as always. Gloria Steinem once said that news about women in other countries is largely non-existent in the mainstream media, amazing as that sounds.

It is important that women recognize the contributions of women of the past and that we fully understand how creative living arrangements can be the fuel of incredible lives.

I look to the past for inspiration, because I know how cleverly women have navigated all the obstacles that men and patriarchal women have tossed in the way of not only straight women's achievement, but also lesbian self-determination.

I found a gem! It's a book called, The Red Rose Girls: An Uncommon Story of Art and Love, by Alice A. Carter. Jessie Willcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green and Violet Oakley were three extraordinary artists, all born in the late 19th century. They met at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the nation's oldest art institution.

All three became internationally famous illustrators and muralists. You can see examples of their incredible paintings throughout this fascinating book.

They made the decision to live as committed sisters on a wonderful estate, where they painted, and created an alternative to heterosexual society. A fourth woman, Henrietta Cozens, was not an artist, but she managed the household, freeing the other three women to create uninterrupted.

What makes this story so wonderful is that is reveals 19th and early 20th century lesbians as pioneers in every way for women of that era. They not only were brilliant artists, whose work graced the covers of Harper's and Colliers, but they were also the first women to break into art academies of that era. They studied under Howard Pyle and Thomas Eakins, and landed commissions that paid them amazing sums of money for that era. All three were economically self-supporting to the extent that they were able to support a fourth woman in their household.

It is the economic collaboration that most inspires and intrigues me, because all lesbians would flourish if we had more arrangements like this. Economic collaboration is something that is hard for lesbians to do. I've often advocated women banding together to buy property rather than renting apartments. In this day and age, we would do well to suspect the white picket fence heterosexual model of relationship.

The photos of the women in the book are extraordinary in that they reveal the power of lesbian love, friendship and achievement. These photos of women together are very rare in American history and the women themselves lived happily in this 19th century world of the Boston Marriage. It wasn't until the early 20th century that society started to frown on lesbian relationships. Women growing economic independence started to seriously threaten patriarchy.

Circumstances caused the group to separate, one woman married a man, and another drifted away. They maintained their greatness, painting murals in state capitals, illustrating children's books that are still in print, and they traveled and lived a creative life. But their artistic power diminished and they somehow failed to move forward into the 20th century. This bond of lesbian sisterhood was a creative ingredient as well as an engine of productivity for all of them.

Their Pre-Raphaelite sensibilities are amazing to see. Elizabeth Shippen Green was greatly inspired by William Penn's dream of a new world and each woman lived an inner and inspired life. Green was a devoted follower of Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science.

What can we learn about this extraordinary trio of the past? We can see that under the right circumstances, lesbian sensibility can fuel creativity and financial independence. You can see the power of poetry and the arts carrying each woman forward, and it is well worth the time to examine what these women did.

Their artistic downfall was modernism, which they never understood, and the world gradually forgot them. This book ensures that this extraordinary history of lesbian achievement will not be forgotten, and the power of lesbian friendship in a creative context, can be an example to us in the 21st century.

IMAGES, top to bottom:

  • The Red Rose Girls book cover from Amazon.com
  • Mother and Child, by Jessie Willcox Smith, 1908. Collection of Jane Sperry Eisenstat.
  • An exhibition poster from Auction House Records.
  • Photo of Elizabeth Shippen Green, Violet Oakley, Jessie Wilcox Smith and Henrietta Cozens
  • Self-Portrait: The Artist in Mourning for Her Father, 1900, by Violet Oakley
  • Student and Teacher on Horseback, 1902, by Elizabeth Shippen Green
The last three images are from NPR. Also at the NPR link, listen to the The Red Rose Girls segment by Linda Wertheimer and explore the photo gallery.