How many women were professional artists in Minnesota in the first half of the 20th century? You might think there weren't too many, since women artists have had to fight hard since the 1950s to gain opportunities to exhibit and sell their work. Maybe you've heard of the Guerilla Girls, a spirited group of women artists who, since the 1970s, have given lectures (wearing gorilla masks to protect their identity) and published books to publicize the art world's discrimination.
In fact there were a number of very successful women artists in Minnesota as the 20th century got under way. A 2007 exhibition at the Minnesota Museum of American Art of five women artists-Frances Cranmer Greenman, Alice Hügy, Clara Mairs, Jo Lutz Rollins and Ada Augusta Wolfe-was a revelation to me. Here was a group of painters and printmakers who had begun their art education in Minnesota but, in most cases, had traveled the world to study, work and exhibit. Although not exactly a "group," since they never exhibited together or even shared the same style, they were nevertheless an identifiable cohort, all born before 1900, and all able to make a living as artists in Minnesota.
"Pioneer Modernists: Minnesota's First Generation of Women Artists," published by Afton Press, is an expansion on the exhibit with three more artists: Wanda Gág, Minnesota's most famous woman artist (even though she made her career in New York, her background was remarkably like these contemporaries); also Elsa Jemne and Evelyn Raymond, best known for their large-scale work (murals and monumental sculpture, respectively).
Research is like detective work (which is probably why I love to read mysteries). It was great fun to "sleuth" at the Minnesota Historical Society and other archives to find unpublished material. I loved interviewing people who had actually been close to these artists, including Mairs' nephew; one of Jemne's daughters and one of her grandsons; and Raymond's brother. I met some of their former students too, like the contemporary artist Bettye Olson, who with Jo Lutz Rollins and four others started the Lake Street Gallery in 1964-one of the first women's art collectives in the United States.
Very few people I've talked to, apart from dedicated collectors of Minnesota art, had ever heard of any of these artists, but I hope they will become better known. I believe there is a wide audience today for art in which strong skills, humanistic values, and a personal vision of beauty make themselves felt.
Julie L'Enfant is professor of Art History at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul. Her book, "Pioneer Modernists," won a Minnesota Book Award in 2011 as the best book about Minnesota.
BOOKSHELF: Julie L'Enfant recommends these books by women authors about women artists:
Berthe Morisot by Anne Higonnet Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier Open the Door! by Catherine Carswell Song of the Lark by Willa Cather To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
What's on your bookshelf? Send us 450 words about your booklife, plus your list of four to five related books by women authors, to firstname.lastname@example.org