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Striving For Success

400 Years of Women in the Arts on view at the Chrysler

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Despite crinolines, parasols and gauzy skirts, women have been trying to forge ahead aggressively since the 17th century. The current exhibition at Norfolk's Chrysler Museum of Art points out that women artists were especially determined to pursue and succeed in their careers. "Women of the Chrysler: A 400 Year Celebration of the Arts" is a major part of Virginia's statewide initiative Minds Wide Open. It allows viewers to follow the evolution of women artists as they strove for success, pitted against the turbulence of their times.

More than 150 works spanning the centuries are on view. Paintings, sculpture, glass, photography and printmaking are in abundance, all coming from the Chrysler's own comprehensive collection.

The exhibition is divided into four chronological and sociological sections and it is interesting to see the progression on canvas from 18th and 19th century euphemism to the 20th century's more pessimistic view of life.

In the opening series, designated "Pioneers and Pathfinders" (1650-1850), we see the earliest painting in the show, a highly classical, religious landscape -- Poussin style -- called "The Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine." Claudine Bouzonnet-Stella (1636-1697) was the niece of artist Jacques Stella (1596-1657), whose work often was mistaken for Poussin's. After her uncle died, she promoted his work heavily, as well as her own. A century later, Hester Bateman boldly took over her deceased husband's business, creating beautifully crafted silver objects, all registered with her own silver mark of among London craftsmen.

By the 19th century women were struggling to attain equal rights to enter fine art schools and to exhibit publicly. "A Feminine Mystique" (1850-1910) reveals that Mary Cassatt and Norfolk artist Susan Watkins were only able to study in Paris because of the support of their wealthy families. Even then, they were not allowed to attend the life drawing classes utilizing nude male models. They both continued to paint scenes of feminine domesticity.

Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955), Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908) and Emma Stebbins (1815-1882) were making sculpture for public places around the turn of the century; they were nicknamed the White Rabbits. And important female designers were busy at the Tiffany Studios creating lamps, inkwells and candlesticks.

The third section of the exhibit, "Embracing the Modern (1910-1960)" looks at a period when women were poised on the cusp of modernism, caught in the maelstrom of political protest all around them. They took their cue from the avant-garde, first testing cubism and surrealism, then moving to abstract expressionism. Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) painted rustic portraits of impoverished women from her native Germany, while Dorothea Lange (1896-1965) documented the hardships of the Great Depression with her gelatin-silver prints.

The final chapter, "Here and Now" (1960-now) proves that women have come a long way, baby. Under the influence of feminist movements and literature and the push for equal pay, women can now take their place at the forefront of artistic innovation. The simultaneous complexities of contemporary life are evident as women explore ethnic, racial, political and artistic problems via their respective art forms. The brilliant photographer Mary Ellen Mark has traveled world wide to photograph people on the fringes of society for National Geographic and The New York Times. Esteemed, recently deceased Richmonder Nancy Witt (1930-2009) created works that are ideal studies in surrealism.

"Women of the Chrysler: A 400 Year Celebration of the Arts" will be at Norfolk's Chrysler Museum of Arts through July 28. Go to chrysler.org or call 757-664-6200 for information.

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