Notes from the Permanent Collection

Filed in Notes from the Permanent Collection by on March 22, 2017

Woodstock Women Artists: Celebrating New York’s Centennial for Women’s Suffrage, 1917-2017

By Pat Horner

Artist Doris Lee with painting of Cecile Forman in background, 1940-50, gelatin silver print by Konrad Cramer (1888-1963)

When they won the right to vote a century ago, our great, great-grandmothers began to change the world and the way society operated.  Whether they were artists, washerwomen or women of means, working side by side in studios, factories, shops or schools, they posed a challenge to their society, dominated by a male elite.

Many of the women artists featured in WAAM’s current exhibition, “Recent Acquisitions 2009-2016,” may have joined the fight for suffrage in 1917 – others may not have.  Yet, for women artists coming of age during the early 20th century, the very act of identifying themselves as artists was in fact an act of establishing or striving for equality in itself.

Peggy Bacon (b. 1895), Lucile Blanch (b. 1895), Doris Lee (b. 1905), Hannah Small (b. 1903), Georgina Klitgaard (b. 1893), Christine Martin (b. 1895), Sally Michel (b. 1902), and Andree Ruellan (b. 1905) were all born within ten years of each other and all achieved a certain national notoriety in the mostly male art world during their lifetimes. Working in small or makeshift studios during the hot summers and extremely cold winters, these women worked hard to become successful in their own careers. The suffrage movement and the liberation from nineteenth century mores and values must have empowered each to reach the position of ‘artist’, typically a man’s domain.

Peggy Bacon was born in 1895 in Connecticut and studied painting with John Sloan, George Bellows and others at the Art Students League. Her circle of friends included Katherine Schmidt (Kuniyoshi), Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Dorothy Varian and Andrew Dasburg. She reflected: “The years at the Art Students League were a very important chunk of life to me and very exhilarating. It was the first time in my life, of course, that I had met and gotten to know familiarly a group of young people who were all headed the same way with the same interests. In fact it was practically parochial.” In 1917, she exhibited two works in the First Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists.

In the summer of 1919 Bacon studied with Andrew Dasburg in Woodstock and married American painter Alexander
Brook a year later in 1920.   They lived in Greenwich Village and briefly in Woodstock.

Bacon was a prolific artist, illustrating over 60 books, 19 of which she also wrote. Her drawings appeared in magazines such as The New YorkerNew RepublicFortune, and Vanity Fair and she exhibited in galleries and museums frequently, including Alfred Stieglitz’s Intimate Gallery, and the Downtown Gallery.  In 1934 Bacon was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 1942 she was granted an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  In 1947, Bacon was elected into the National Academy of Design.

Lucile Blanch was  born in  Minnesota in 1895 and studied at the Minneapolis School of Art during World War I with her future husband Arnold Blanch, and other notable artists like Harry Gottlieb and Adolf Dehn. Winning a grant from the Art Students League of New York, she traveled to France and later moved to Woodstock where she and Arnold helped build the Woodstock Art Colony.

Blanch received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1933, and from that point on her art was collected and was shown in a number of important galleries, notably the Whitney Museum.  She was one of 162 women artists commissioned to paint murals for the WPA. In 1938 Lucile Blanch painted an oil on canvas titled Osceola Holding Informal Court with His Chiefs for the United States post office in Fort Pierce, Florida, that is currently on display at the Fort Pierce City Hall. Numerous other murals followed, as Blanch was one of the few artists who actually created the WPA murals in the same town for which the work was commissioned.  As part of her artistic process, she accepted input from local residents prior to the mural painting.

Doris Lee was born in Illinois and studied with the American Impressionist Ernest Lawson. She attended the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Exploring themes of Thanksgiving, rural customs, and family life, in a deliberately naïve, folk-art style had great appeal to a country still in the midst of the Great Depression.  Her career took off in 1935 when her painting Thanksgiving, a  bustling scene of women preparing a Thanksgiving feast, became the object of national headlines when it was first exhibited at the Chicago Art Institute and won the prestigious Logan Purchase Prize. Josephine Logan, the donor of the prize, objected to the award, condemning Lee’s broad, exaggerated style.  Logan subsequently founded the “Society for Sanity in Art” movement in response, which opposed all forms of modernism in art and promoted representational styles. This controversy only brought Lee fame, and Thanksgiving has been recognized as one of the most popular nostalgic views of this American ritual.

Lee was married to photographer Russell Lee from 1927 to 1938. In 1939 she became romantically involved with the artist and teacher Arnold Blanch (who had divorced Lucile in 1935) and for many years they lived and worked in Woodstock, NY.

Andreé Ruellan was born to French parents in 1905 in New York and her first published work appeared in The Masses. Ruellan first exhibited work in St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery where Robert Henri and George Bellows also showed. She attended the Art Students League in 1920 before moving to Rome on an art scholarship, then Paris. Over the next five years she and her mother remained in Paris where Ruellan continued to work and study. During that time she obtained her first solo exhibition at the Sacre du Printemps Gallerie and in 1928 she was given her second one-woman show at the Weyhe Gallery in New York.  While in Paris she met and fell in love with the American artist John W. Taylor, “Jack.” They married three months later and moved to Shady (Woodstock, NY) in 1929 with Ruellan’s mother, Lucette, where she lived for over seventy five years.  Exhibiting in numerous galleries (such as the Kraushaar Galleries for several decades) and museums, Ruellan won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1950 and one of WAAM’s top prizes, the Sally Jacobs-Phoebe Towbin Award in 1981 and Yasuo Kuniyoshi Award in 1994.

We do not know if these woman were active participants in the suffrage movement.  Many were born outside of New York City, but then made that city their home after receiving grants from the Art Students League.  Some followed other artists east to New York, the center of the American art world.  Eventually, all of them made Woodstock a central place in their lives.  We do know that many women of their generation marched in corsets covered by long heavy dresses; they were ridiculed, spat on, beaten, and mocked.  Many spent days, weeks, and even months in jail, tortured and force-fed before their struggle culminated in winning the long generational war for the vote, which women achieved in New York State in 1917, three years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

All of us owe a debt to these women of every class who risked so much for us decades ago, making art not simply for fame or money but for the pleasure of bringing beauty into a world desperately needing a woman’s perspective.  We also owe a debt of gratitude to the women who began the permanent collection at the Woodstock Artists Association in the 1970s, and those who have had such a large part in the Woodstock Artists Association’s growth as we move towards WAAM’s own centennial in 2019.  Let’s take 2017 to focus on the women of Woodstock – artists who longed for independence, adventure and strength along with the Suffragettes who boldly and courageously fought for our freedom, a fight still alive and active today.

For further reading:

Colleen Adams, Women’s Suffrage: a Primary Source History of the Women’s Rights Movement in America (2003)

Dawn C. Adiletta , Elizabeth Cady Stanton : Women’s Suffrage and the First Vote (2011)

Sara Evans, Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America (1997)

Lillian Fortress and Tom Wolf, Woodstock’s Art Heritage, The Permanent Collection of the Woodstock Artists Association (1987)

Elizabeth Frost and Kathryn Cullen-DuPont, Women’s Suffrage in America : an Eyewitness History (2004)

Jules Heller and Nancy G. Heller, eds., North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary (1987)

Pat Horner, Maverick Women: Six Artists of the Maverick Art Colony (2003)

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens, Women’s Suffrage: Giving the Right to Vote to All Americans (2006)

Smithsonian Institution, Peggy Bacon: Personalities and Places (1975)

Eleanor Tufts, American Women Artists, 1830-1930 (1987)


National Museum of Women in the Arts

Smithsonian Archives of American Art – papers of Peggy Bacon , Lucile Blanch, and Doris Lee

Photo Credit: Konrad Cramer (1888-1963), Doris Lee, c. 1940-1950, gelatin silver print, Collection of the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum, Karl Fortess Purchase Fund, 1997-01-03

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