Canvassing for women

March 01, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Everywhere she goes, Wilhelmina Holladay asks people to name five women artists. Most can't. They name Georgia O'Keeffe and Mary Cassatt, then stop.

"Once in a while someone will come up with Grandma Moses," says Mrs. Holladay.

It isn't that people are biased; they just weren't taught female artists. "Even among very well-educated people in our country, even if they took a course in the history of art, there wasn't anybody in the textbooks," says Mrs. Holladay, who points out that the most popular art text in America -- H. W. Janson's "History of Art" -- didn't mention a single woman until its third edition of 1987. That was the year the National Museum of Women in the Arts, founded by Mrs. Holladay, opened in Washington.

Mrs. Holladay and her husband, real estate developer Wallace Holladay, have devoted 35 years to the study and collecting of female artists. They began in 1960, when they discovered a still life by the 17th-century Flemish painter Clara Peeters in a Vienna museum.

Over the next 20 years, they put to gether a collection of 300 works by women artists. In the 1980s, Mrs. Holladay led the drive for the women's museum, located at 1250 New York Ave. N.W. in Washington. The Holladays donated their collection and library, and the museum now has 80,000 members from all over the world.

In earlier eras, there were female artists, some well-known, says Mrs. Holladay. However, they were later overlooked by male art historians, so they quickly fell into obscurity.

"I don't think it was deliberate," she says. "Men wrote about what they knew, and men have always known men artists. There were no women writing on the subject that I've been able to find until 1897."

Among the artists Mrs. Holladay cites is the 17th-century Italian Lavinia Fontana. "She was the leading artist in Bologna, and the pope invited her to be the Vatican painter."

There was Sofonisba Anguissola, a mid-16th century Italian painter. "She was the first woman ever invited to be the court painter to the king of Spain," Mrs. Holladay says. "We're going to have an exhibition of her work opening in April, and the Prado is lending us seven works." The Walters Art Gallery is also lending its Anguissola, "Portrait of Marchese Massimiliano Stampa."

There was Judith Leyster. "She was a 17th-century Dutch painter and in her day she was very well-known." Later she became unknown: "A hundred years later, a painting of hers was sold as a Frans Hals. Later, X-ray equipment found her signature on it, and since then, there has been in-depth research on her, and there are now some 20 known works by her."

There also were Artemisia Gentileschi, Angelica Kauffmann, Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, Cecilia Beaux, Lilla Cabot Perry and many more. The museum's collection numbers 1,500 works by 536 artists.

After studying female artists for 35 years, Mrs. Holladay thinks there's a difference between masculine and feminine sensibilities, although she can't say what it is.

"I always want to say no and I always have to say yes," she says, "because I am able to spot work by women and I don't know how. I'll be walking through a museum and think, 'That's by a woman,' and go over and there it is. I am not clairvoyant, so I've got to think that maybe I sense something in it. But I have no idea what it is."

That's not to say either sex is better.

"I do not think men or women have an edge in creativity, but art, like everything else, requires a great deal of study and practice, and men had more opportunities than women and were more encouraged."

Mrs. Holladay believes things have improved for women, but not enough.

"To this day the work of women doesn't bring as much as men," she says. "Someone will say, 'Why, Jennifer Bartlett got a commission from Equitable Life for $160,000,' or something like that, but that's a drop in the bucket compared to de Kooning or Warhol or Jasper Johns."

So, Mrs. Holladay keeps going -- spreading the word on women artists through the National Museum of Women in the Arts and her own extensive travel and lectures.

ART LECTURE

What: "Our Hidden Heritage," lecture by Wilhelmina Holladay

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10:30 a.m. tomorrow, followed by lunch at 12:30 p.m.

Admission: $20 for the lecture ($15 BMA members), $30 lecture and lunch ($25 BMA members)

Call: (410) 396-6314

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