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  • Writer's pictureLynne Kornecki

For Women's History Month, Guest Columnist & Art Historian Shares a Glimpse into "Women Artists & the White City"...Enjoy!

The Women's Building at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, IL designed by Sophia Hayden -- first woman accepted into the MIT architecture program.

By Denise Laurin, Art BEAT Guest Columnist

As the planning for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 got underway, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Artistic Director of the Fair commented, “Look here, old fellow, do you realize that this is the greatest meeting of artists since the Fifteenth Century?" And for artists of the male persuasion, indeed it was. Daniel Burnham was Director of Works, all the buildings were designed by men, monumental sculptures were modeled by men, and the landscape design was by Frederick Law Olmstead. The Palace of Fine Arts (The Museum of Science and Industry today) was adorned with artwork from all over the world by men. Women were excluded not only from artistic recognition, but from the planning itself.


Accurately perceiving the slight, a group of civically minded, upper-class women pressured Exposition administrators for greater representation. As a result, Congress authorized and funded the Board of Lady Managers, the first of its kind in an official capacity at a world’s fair. Socialite Bertha Honoré Palmer served as the Board’s president. At the Exposition, women contributed to exhibits, spoke at events, and served in leadership roles. The Woman’s Building exclusively featured women’s accomplishments, including works of monumental art.


The large-scale public works decorating the Women’s Building were among the most unusual artistic features of the Fair. Customarily, architecture, large-scale murals and monumental sculpture were the domain of men, so it was newsworthy when the Board of Lady Managers commissioned Sophia Hayden to design the building, Alice Rideout to sculpt large scale statues for the exterior and Mary Cassatt to create murals for the building's grand hall, and many other women to make wall murals and stained-glass windows. These artists used this unique opportunity to re-imagine the visual history of women.


Sophia Hayden, the first woman accepted into the MIT architecture program, won the competition to design the Women’s Building, (see photo above). Hayden received a fee considerably less than the male architects who designed other buildings for the Fair. The Women’s building is the only structure of her design ever to be built. She was a trailblazer who, upon graduating with honors in 1890, could not find employment because of her gender. Sadly, after the Women’s Building was demolished, no further material evidence of her career as an architect exists.


Architectural sculpture for the Women's Building pediment designed by ALICE RIDEOUT.

At the age of nineteen, Alice Rideout won the competition to produce architectural sculpture for the pediment of the Women's Building. After the Fair, she returned to San Francisco to marry and abandoned her art career. After another move to New York, she disappeared from history.


Mary Cassatt was commissioned to paint the murals, now lost, in the Women's Building Grand Hall.

The theme of the central panel, Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science), most likely alludes to the recent access to college afforded to women for the first time. Cassatt herself felt that portraying women as independent from men was a very modern theme.


Even more radical, Cassatt's depiction of women passing the fruits of knowledge from one generation to the next can be seen as an affront to the negative framing of women in the story of Adam and Eve.


To our eye, the brilliant colors of the Impressionist palette are appealing, as shown in the reconstruction, of what the colors may have looked like. Cassatt’s intense yellows, greens, blues, and reds were thought of as unnatural by those accustomed to traditional painting. One protest accused her impudent greens and brutal blues of assaulting the eye.

The left side panel, Young Girls Pursuing Fame illustrates three girls chasing a flying figure who, according to Cassatt, personifies fame.

This panel attacked the characterization of young women as demure and deferential to men. In Cassatt's view, confident girls who sought renown could fulfill their dreams through education.


In the right panel, Arts, Music and Dancing, we see three self-assured mature women representing the artist, musician, and dancer. Rather than being the creative muses of men, they are accomplished individuals in their own right. Seen together the three panels represent a woman's life cycle: childhood, youth, and maturity, and the attainment of self-fulfillment, a reflection of Cassatt's own experience.


In another example of exclusion, African Americans were denied the opportunity to be involved in the Fair. Frederick Douglas and Ida B. Wells protested vehemently in the brochure, The Reason Why, but with none of the success the women achieved. Ironically, Ethel Worthington, a woman of color, exhibited her photography at the Fair, and is possibly the only African American given a dignified role at the World’s Columbian Exposition.


Even though Mary Cassatt is the only female artist to make a permanent mark on the art world, the World's Columbian Exposition, despite its initial reluctance to include women, served as a breakthrough moment in the history of women in art. ###

Denise Laurin is a fine artist and art historian who holds an M.A. in art history. Through her art practice, Denise Laurin Visual Art, she focuses on the universal idea of moving from darkness into light expressed through the human form and explores the duality between the physical body and the spiritual soul. She accepts portrait commissions and provides engaging presentations to organizations on a wide variety of art-related topics.




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