Although the Gibbes Museum of Art typically invites big-name Southern artists to exhibit in their upstairs gallery, they decided to pull from their extensive archives for a pair of enlightening exhibits this fall. With more than 10,000 works stored in the bowels of the Meeting Street museum, they had plenty to choose from. Both Breaking Down Barriers: 300 Years of Women in Art and Camera Works: Masters in Photography examine the progression of two very different but related types of artists.
In the main gallery, Gibbes Curator of Exhibitions Pam Wall gathered a collection of works by women artists from the past 300 years. The museum’s Women in Art lecture series has been a big draw for some time, so devoting an exhibition to female artists was a logical choice. The real impetus of the exhibit was the museum’s small collection of works by Henrietta Johnston, known as the first professional female artist in America.
“It’s a real point of pride in our collection,” Wall says. “So few museums even have works by female artists from that time period, from the early 1700s. So it’s really something to celebrate.”
Born in Europe, Johnston came to Charleston in 1705 with her husband, who’d been appointed rector at St. Philip’s Church. While her husband struggled at times to get paid by the Church of England, Johnston’s pastel portraits helped keep the family afloat financially. The Gibbes owns eight of Johnston’s paintings, five of which are featured in Women in Art.
While the exhibit also boasts some pieces from 18th-century miniature artist Mary Roberts, there are few other examples of female artists until nearly two centuries later. “It’s pretty sparse until you get to the 20th century, but that’s typical of any American art museum,” Wall says. “But once you hit 1900, our collection is pretty rich in female artists, and a lot of that is because of the Charleston Renaissance in that three of the four really key artists were women.”
Works from the Charleston Renaissance make up nearly a quarter of the Gibbes’ entire permanent collection. Spanning from 1915-1940, the period features art by painters like Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, Anna Heyward Taylor, and Alfred Hutty. They represented the cultural rebirth of the city following the devastation of the Civil War.
Women in Art includes works by Smith, Verner, and Taylor, and although all three played pivotal roles in the movement, as successful female artists, they still represented an exception to the rule, and Wall makes it a point to address this. “The exhibition sort of lays out the reasons why there aren’t many early female artists, because they weren’t given the opportunity,” Wall says. “They weren’t allowed to study like their male counterparts were. They weren’t allowed to go to schools and academies.” However, most had the benefit of coming from an upper-class household, one that typically included an artistic male family member willing to share their skills.
Moving into more modern times, the exhibit highlights artists like Berenice Abbot, Margaret Bourke-White, Sally Mann, and Carrie Mae Weems, all of whom made major contributions in the world of photography. It also includes a sweetgrass basket from Mary Jackson, folk art from Nellie Mae Rowe and Minnie Evans, and recent works from local realist painter Jill Hooper.
Wall admits that the incredibly diverse pool of material is a challenge to present, but a common thread runs among most of the artists. “They’re people that are kind of fighting to be artists and very passionate about what they do,” Wall says. “This isn’t something you just fall into — they’re very passionate and very driven, and that continues today.
“Men still dominate the art market, especially in terms of the top echelon,” she adds. “It’s evening out and there’s certainly women who are making their mark on the market as well, but it’s still a bit of a catch-up game.”
In the Rotunda Gallery, the Camera Works exhibit includes some influential female artists as well, although the focus (no pun intended) is completely different. The exhibit highlights iconic images from landmark photographers of the early 20th century.
“You get to see this progression in modern photography from the early period,” curator Sara Arnold says of the exhibition. Alfred Stieglitz, for example, started out as a pictoralist — an emphasized effort in the secondary process made his works look almost like paintings. “He really takes a page out of the book of modern artists and sort of simplifies that process,” Arnold says. Later photographers like Paul Strand introduced a more avant-garde aesthetic before photojournalism took precedence with photographers like Lewis Hine, who captured the process of constructing the Empire State Building.
“I think what this does well is talk about each of these photographers,” Arnold says, “what their goals artistically and otherwise were, and how they influenced each other in those time periods, and how that developed the photography field.”