The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts is hosting the first exhibition of sculptures by Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872-1955) since 1930. Though well known in her day Vonnoh lived long enough to see her work, in fact her very aesthetic, fall out of favor with the art-going public. Organized by Cincinnati Art Museum curator Julie Aronson this show features over thirty of the artist’s works along with documentary photos and two oil portraits of Vonnoh by her husband Robert. The show’s title “Bessie Potter Vonnoh: Sculptor of Women” says as much about the mindset of the early twentieth century as it does about the work of the artist herself. Though extraordinarily gifted, Vonnoh’s subject matter of mothers and children proved palatable to her contemporaries and helped her achieve a level of commercial success that was unusual for a female sculptor at the time.
Feminist art criticism began in earnest in 1971 with the publication of Linda Nochlin’s essay “Why have there been No Great Women Artists.” The issues she raises seem rather obvious today but at the time they were revolutionary. Women have rarely been offered the same opportunities as men to create what has been traditionally considered “great art.” Could a woman have painted the Last Judgment on the on the alter wall of the Sistine Chapel? Today there are a number of large and complicated murals across the world painted by women that will never achieve the exalted status of Michelangelo’s fresco. Nochlin also notes that the canon of great artists has been compiled by a male power structure and goes so far as to disregard stories of innate genius as “obvious fairy tales” that no art historian would take seriously.
Though little known today Bessie Potter Vonnoh was lauded during her productive years. Her work is represented in the collections of many important museums, including the Metropolitan, the Chicago Art Institute and the U.S. Senate Art Collection. Numerous newspaper articles and exhibition catalogs from the era championing Vonnoh’s sculptures have been collected by the Smithsonian Institute and testify to how well she was respected in her day. Admittedly, she rarely strayed from what the market demanded and produced work that society deemed appropriate for a woman. But within these restricting guidelines Vonnoh managed to create sculptures that are emotionally moving and technically stunning.
The majority of Vonnoh’s work is small, “domestic in scale and purpose.” Her themes revolve around motherhood though she never had any children of her own. The three rooms of the exhibition are a celebration of bourgeois domestic bliss as idealized by the gilded age. But the artist seems to have led a relatively bohemian life traveling between an art colony in Connecticut and her artist-filled apartment building in New York City. Success gave Vonnoh the opportunity to visit Europe frequently where she managed to continue producing work and to visit the studio of Auguste Rodin, whose influence is apparent in her bronzes. The one piece in the exhibition representing a figure from the lower classes is the called Italian Mother and depicts a sad figure in a ragged shawl that seems to be burdened by the child she carries rather than blessed like the mothers in the other sculptures.
Vonnoh carved and molded her originals in terra cotta and then often had them bronzed in various foundries depending on her needs at the time. Many of the original terra cotta pieces have been lost due to their fragility. She sculpted beautiful children and contented mothers, themes that would have been deemed appropriate for a woman artist, while her male contemporaries tended to produce grandiose and monumental work. Still, she was respected enough by her peers to have been elected into the National Sculpture Society and the National Academy of Design—now the National Academy Museum. Bronzes of her Young Mother, featured in the exhibition, were bought by no less than nine museums and her clients included celebrities of the time and even President Woodrow Wilson. Young Mother is displayed in three different versions to highlight the creative process of Bronze casting. In one version, cast in 1906, Vonnoh totally reworked the wax mold of the main figure’s head making it much more subtle and detailed.
As the twentieth century progressed the art climate changed and demand for figurative sculpture declined. Later in her career Vonnoh began producing larger works to be displayed outdoors including the Burnett Memorial Fountain in Central Park. A number of fine examples of these larger works are included in the exhibition. With sculptures that are so striking for their combination of classical and modern sensibilities it is clear that fashion is the only explanation for Vonnoh’s fall from stature in the eyes of the art world. By 1935 her production had dropped off considerably due to lack of patrons. This exhibition is long overdue but would not have been possible until recently now that an appreciation for figurative art has returned after a three-quarter-century hiatus.