Monet. Cezanne. Degas. These artists are household names and even though their work is more than 100 years old, their names come tripping off the tongue.
But ask yourself: can you name a female contemporary of those painters?
In a new exhibit titled Breaking Down Barriers: 300 Years of Women in Art, the Gibbes Museum
uses its extensive collection to tell the story of a number of female artists who defied the odds.
The truth is that for hundreds of years, women faced substantial challenges in the pursuit of a career in the arts. Aside from the financial challenges that artists faced, female painters and sculptors were faced with social attitudes that made it difficult to find success. In addition to prejudiced opinions about the quality of their work, women had no access to formal arts training and the profession was deemed by many to be an undignified pursuit for a woman.
The exhibit begins, appropriately, in 1708 Charleston
(then Charles Town). A woman named Henrietta Johnston had just moved to the Holy City with her husband, Gideon, who had just been appointed as Commissary for South Carolina by the Church of England. But times in the colony were hard. There was a lack of supplies, illness was rampant and Gideon’s salary from the Church was often late.
So Henrietta began selling portraits to make some extra money. Gideon wrote in a letter that, “were it not for the assistance my wife gives by drawing of Pictures (which can last but a little time in a place so ill peopled) I should not be able to live.”
The Johnston family’s hardship earned Henrietta Johnston the title of the first female American painter.
The exhibit explores other contributions by female artists, particularly in Charleston and the South, from those influential artists who led the so-called “Charleston Renaissance” between the two World Wars to modern day masters like sweetgrass basket maker Mary Jackson and realist painter Jill Hooper.
There also is a wide variety of programming accompanying the exhibit: the Women in Art Lecture Series, a Curator-Led Tour, and The Diva’s Come Undone, a presentation of opera vignettes by the Charleston Chamber Opera on Sunday, Nov. 6.
Breaking Down Barriers will be on exhibit now through Jan. 8. The Gibbes Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is $9 for adults, $7 for seniors, students and the military, $5 for kids ages 6-12, and free for children 5 and younger.
for more information on the exhibit and a full schedule of programs.