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Zeit bites: Gender on canvas

Gender on Canvas

The audio guide describes Painting Women (through Oct. 26, Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, bellagio.com) as displaying work from a time “when talent was assigned to gender.” Changing “was” to “is” might better describe this show. While it often successfully highlights the struggle of women artists to gain equal recognition, aspects of it actually perpetuate the problem.

Walking the exhibit clockwise, the first two works you encounter are by men. George Peter Alexander Healy portrays friend Anna Chadbourne posing, with easel and brushes, as the wife of art historian Charles Morey. Although she’s dressed for the part, no information affirms whether she was an artist. The work by Edwin White depicts an anonymous woman “lost in thought as she ponders her canvas.” It’s not just that these are men painting women, or that the women are unknown artistically — it’s the information not included on the placards that’s telling. There are no relationship specifics or revealing personal details about the male artists, which wouldn't be striking except that those details are provided about most female artists.

For instance, the first thing you learn about Adèle Romany’s opulent portrait of an 18th-century man is that she was the illegitimate daughter of the Marquis de Romance; that colors your viewing. Audio on Doris Lee says she married Russell Lee, then later studied with Arnold Blanche and married him. That implies an affair — how is that relevant to Lee’s work? Torrid details in the exhibit scholarship detract from these otherwise inspiring stories of women persevering in the arts.

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Nonetheless, Painting Women showcases many talented, underappreciated artists. “Scrutiny” by Maud Morgan brings attention to an abstract expressionist whom critics often chided for the lack of feminine qualities in her work. A cubist piece by Marie Laurencin, soft pastel tones and doll-like figures, responds to the “arrogant masculinity of cubism.” The assertive self-portrait of Ellen Day Hale nonchalantly dismisses timid female posturing.

In the text by her large-scale portrait of two figures in riding garb, artist Cecilia Beaux says she looks “forward to a time when ‘the term Women in Art’ will be as strange sounding as … ‘Men in Art’ is now.” More than 100 years later, that remains a challenge.

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