PORTLAND, Maine — It’s an interesting time in America to be thinking about women coming out from under the shadows of their husbands. A revealing, sweet-and-sour show at the Portland Museum of Art — the finest there in almost a decade — reminds us of the impediments faced by talented women artists in the first half of the 20th century.
In some respects those impediments — gender stereotyping, condescension, lack of support, undermined self-confidence, and simply different social mores — constitute the show’s underlying theme. But what makes it more than just an edifying exercise is the high quality of the work.
“O’Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists In New York” comes to Portland from the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., where it was organized by Ellen E. Roberts, curator of American art. It’s a beautiful show, filled with distinctive, sly, and assured work from a period — the aftermath of the watershed Armory Show, in 1913 — when modernist ideas about painting in this country were still in their infancy.
It focuses on four pioneering modernists, all of whom knew and to some degree admired one another. One of the four, Georgia O’Keeffe, needs no introduction. Two more, Florine Stettheimer and Marguerite Zorach, have works sprinkled through American museum collections, but they are not especially well known. The fourth, Helen Torr, is almost entirely unknown — except, perhaps, as the wife of the retiring modernist trailblazer Arthur Dove.
All four were linked, professionally and socially, in Manhattan’s fledgling avant-garde art circles. O’Keeffe married Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer, gallery owner, and all-round impresario. He showed her work in his New York gallery. He also showed works by O’Keeffe’s friend Dove and, briefly, Torr. Zorach mingled at various salons with O’Keeffe, Stieglitz, and Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp introduced Zorach to Stettheimer.
Stettheimer was born into a wealthy family. She was the only one of the show’s four artists who didn’t marry. Solely in this way did she avoid the risk, faced by all the others, of being overshadowed by an artist husband.
Stettheimer was independent-minded. “I objected to being classed with the woman who is a mystery,” she wrote after an exchange with one male admirer — “I tried to make clear to him that she has become obsolete.” And yet her pictures actually are mysterious; they look as outré, foxy, and out of time today as they must have when they were made.
They combine busy decorative effects with wanly fashionable figures, odd shifts in scale, thick paint and high-keyed color. She particularly favored yellow, but also flaming reds, pinks, and oranges set against large expanses of off-white.
I don’t exactly love Stettheimer’s work, but somehow I am always delighted to see it. I like it for its persistent oddity. I admire her willingness to embrace gaucheness and good humor even in ambitiously conceived compositions, and the feeling I get from her work that there is nothing she wouldn’t dare try.
It’s hard to say where this audacity came from. But, beyond declining to marry, Stettheimer made a key decision. She chose not to show her work publicly after 1916. That was the year a show of her work at New York’s Knoedler Gallery failed to meet with her expectations. She was patronized by Mr. Knoedler in the run-up, and let down by the lack of sales.
Wealth allowed her to sail above the commercial fray (“I wish you would become ordinary like the rest of us and show your paintings this year!” wrote O’Keeffe in a 1929 letter), but it came at a cost. By the time Stettheimer died, her work was mostly forgotten.
Whether the pressure to sell would have brought about changes, regrettable or otherwise, to Stettheimer’s singular manner is impossible to say. But it’s easy to see why chauvinistic assumptions about her, based on her sex, fed into her decision not to. In that stubbornness, or fear, or haughtiness, she may have discovered an enviable freedom.
Unlike Stettheimer, her friend Marguerite Zorach had no academic training. She was born Marguerite Thompson. She traveled to Paris with an aunt who introduced her to Gertrude Stein, and through Stein she met Picasso immediately prior to the invention of Cubism.
At this point, the Fauvism of Matisse and Derain held sway over the avant-garde in Paris, and Zorach’s early work was heavily influenced by it. One man impressed by her audacity was William Finkelstein. They later married and adopted a new name together, Zorach, to advertise their shared commitment to new beginnings.
For many years they painted side by side, occasionally collaborating, and regularly showing their work in joint exhibitions. The evidence suggests that Marguerite was the bolder of the two, but for a woman artist of her time it was advantageous, she felt, to be linked to her husband in this way: “I doubt very much if I would have got far alone,” she wrote.
Her work after about 1910, which includes fractured landscapes like “Provincetown, Sunrise and Moonset” and sophisticated, patterned compositions like “Justin Jason,” is quite superb: sensitively colored, boldly designed, full of poetic yet unsentimental feeling.
Before the war was over, however, Zorach had largely abandoned painting and shifted instead to making textiles. It’s a familiar story: Increased duties at home meant that she couldn’t find uninterrupted time to paint. Her textiles were not lacking in ambition and they were widely praised. But in the long run, they were not taken seriously and they played into the hands of those who wished to classify her as “feminine” and unserious.
Later forays into painting, in the 1920s, produced impressive results. “Prohibition,” for instance, is a terrific painting, all sensuous curves, jutting angles, and psychological intrigue. Zorach later formed the New York Society of Women Artists, becoming its first president. But she was growing disillusioned. She told one interviewer: “As far as art dealers are concerned, only a dead artist is any good, but as for women, they don’t think them good, even dead.”
Over time, her husband’s work gradually came to receive more attention than her own. Their marriage was progressive for the time. But conditions at home did little to reverse the shift in their reputations. Zorach, in the familiar phrase (used in the catalog by Roberts), “put her family and her husband’s career before her own.”
Stieglitz played a crucial role not only in O’Keeffe’s career but in Torr’s. In O’Keeffe’s case, his influence was, on balance, positive; in Torr’s, it was not.
Stieglitz’s championing of O’Keeffe was full-throated and effective. It’s true, he used spuriously gendered, Freudian terms that arguably distorted her work’s reception. O’Keeffe came to resent the critical cliches: “They make me seem like some strange unearthly sort of creature floating in the air — breathing in clouds for nourishment — when the truth is that I like beef steak — and like it rare at that.”
But Stieglitz was an influential tastemaker, and his support for his lover and, later, wife counted for a lot. Torr, who met O’Keeffe’s friend, the brilliant Dove, in 1919, was not so lucky.
She lived with Dove for many years on a houseboat, in the company of an O’Keeffe painting they purchased in 1923. If Dove was not inclined to self-promotion, Torr was even less so. She failed to date her pictures, she doubted herself constantly, and she habitually subordinated her own work to Dove’s. Dove tried hard to interest Stieglitz in his wife’s work, but with limited success.
O’Keeffe, for one, felt Stieglitz had erred: “I thought they were very good,” she said of the paintings he rejected. “I think she [Torr] was a person who would have flowered considerably if she had been given attention.”
Torr respected Stieglitz and was crushed by his lack of interest. She became depressed, and gradually withdrew from painting. Then, the inevitable: “Torr’s health,” writes Roberts, “suffered as she spent all her energy taking care of her husband, and her work ceased.”
And yet, how good her things look here! What a sophisticated, almost secretive feeling for color, tone, and rhythm she reveals in paintings like “Oyster Stakes.” And what a superb eye for surprising particularity she displays in “Corrugated Building,” “Shell, Stone, Feather, and Bark” and the beautiful “Along the Shore.”
The two plainspoken self-portraits Torr painted in 1934 and ’35 come near the end of the show. They both suggest the psychological problems she was having as her self-belief petered out. They are brutally honest, but in no way maudlin.
Torr, for me, is the big discovery of this stimulating show. Her case — talent squandered and snuffed out for want of a level of support that was withheld because of her sex — is typical, but not in a way anyone, surely, could want.
O’Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists In New York
At Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine, through Sept. 18. 207-775-6148, www.portlandmuseum.orgSebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.