Modern Women at PAFA:
From Cassatt to O’Keeffe

January 12 - September 1, 2013

Historic Landmark Building

In conjunction with The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World, PAFA presents a companion installation in the Historic Landmark Building, featuring works by modern artists from Mary Cassatt to Georgia O’Keeffe who paved the way for future generations of professional women artists.

Modern Women at PAFA presents the work of over 20 female artists whose works explore the following themes: motherhood and beauty; the natural landscape; self-portraiture; women in their community; women illustrators; and modern women in motion.

Since PAFA’s first annual exhibition in 1811, when Anna Claypoole Peale, Margaretta Angelica Peale, and Sarah Miriam Peale exhibited their work, women artists have been integral to PAFA’s exhibition program and educational mission.

By 1844, female students were welcomed into the “antique” – sculptural cast drawing – classes, and by the late-19th and early 20th centuries, PAFA distinguished itself as a leader in arts education for women.  The first “life” classes – those dedicated to drawing from live models – were organized in the early 1860s by a dedicated group of female students who modeled for each other, including Mary Cassatt.  Female artists competed alongside their male peers for the annual Temple Gold Medal for the best painting at the annual exhibition, including Cecilia Beaux who was invited to join PAFA’s faculty as the professor of portraiture, where she influenced generations of students, most notably Violet Oakley.

Painting was not the only medium in which PAFA’s modern women artists excelled.  Bessie Potter Vonnoh exhibited her small bronze sculptures of women and children in more than 30 PAFA Annuals. Emily Clayton Bishop was one of PAFA’s most talented sculpture students of the first decade of the 20th century, and won multiple prizes.  Upon her untimely death in 1912 at the age of 28, the New York Times declared her “one of the most promising of America’s young sculptors” for her expressionistic sculptures filled with motion and the spirit of modern dance.

The early 20th century ushered in the continued success of women artists.  Artists such as Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, Hilda Belcher, Sara Carles, and Georgia O’Keeffe met with struggle and triumph as they sought to position themselves in the art world that drastically shifted with the Armory Show in 1913. 

Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, a student of William Merritt Chase, began selling her works when she was still in her teens. In 1908, the New York Times declared Sparhawk-Jones the “Find of the year.”  Her early work focused on women engaged in everyday life, and she was praised for brushwork and observation of her subjects.  In 1913, Sparhawk-Jones disappeared from the art world, suffering from mental illness. When the artist returned to her career two decades later, American Art Magazine declared that “a phenomenon” had returned, while critics lauded her modern style. 

Hilda Belcher, also a student of Chase, meanwhile, was praised for her vibrant colors, brushwork, and ability to capture modern life.  She exhibited alongside major male artists, taught at the Art Students League in New York, and in 1926 was elected to the National Academy of Design. 

In 1915, Cecilia Beaux declared: “I predict an hour when the term ‘Women in Art’ will be as strange sounding a topic as the title “Men in Art” would be now.”  Nearly a century later, it remains to be seen if Beaux’s prediction has become a reality, as we continue to explore the history of women and art.

Curators: Anna Marley, Curator of Historical American Art and Sarah Holloran, Manager of School and Teacher Programs


PAFA's special exhibitions in 2012-13 are supported by generous contributions from Max N. Berry, Donald and Linda Caldwell, Jonathan L. Cohen, and Lori Levine Ordover and Janusz Ordover.

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’ public programs are funded in part by a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency).





General operating support provided, in part, by