March is Women’s History Month, a month-long celebration honoring famous female heroines of the past, as well as recognizing the many women whom history has forgotten. Art has been one of the areas that historically favored men, but there is no shortage of works by and about strong females. The Museum has a number of these pieces across our collection; take a look at 5 works that can be found in the galleries now!
Sarasvati is the goddess of knowledge, poetry and learning from the Jain religion in west and central India. The hands of the four-armed goddess are now missing, but may have originally held lotus flowers and book, symbols traditionally associated with the goddess, or may have formed hand gestures such as the mudra for charity. // Sarasvati, About 1150. India, Gujarat. Marble and pigment. Gift of Eivor and Alston Callahan. 2003.21
Marguerite Gérard, the youngest of seven children, was born in 1761 in Grasses, France. When her mother died in 1775, she moved in with her sister in Paris. Her brother-in-law was renowned Rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and under his influence, Gérard began her life as an artist. Once the Salons were open to women in the 1790s, she had regular exhibitions of her art, which was immensely popular and won three medals. Her piece “The Clemency of Napoléon” was even purchased by the emperor himself. Although Gérard never married, her paintings often portrayed idyllic family life and casually posed portraits of patrons, intended for viewing only by the subject’s family and friends. The painting here is not only representative of a common theme of domesticity in her work, but also of her highly-detailed brushwork that was characteristic of her style. // “L’Heureux Ménage (The Happy Family)”, About 1795-1800, Marguerite Gérard, French (1761-1837), Oil on panel, Lent by Gerald G. Stiebel 20.2014.
Jane was the youngest daughter of painter Gilbert Stuart, best known for his portraits of George Washington. Jane was the only one of his daughters who inherited his skill, and she learned primarily by copying her father’s style. After Gilbert died in 1828, Jane supported the family through commissions to copy his paintings for other patrons. This portrait of Perry, an American naval officer commonly known as the “Hero of Lake Erie” for his role in defeating the British in a War of 1812 battle, is based upon an earlier bust-length version of the officer. The earlier portrait had been started by Gilbert, and then finished by Jane after his death. Jane never married, choosing instead to be a noted socialite and match-maker until her death in 1888. // “Portrait of Oliver Hazard Perry”, About 1857, Jane Stuart, American (1812-1888), Oil on canvas. Collection of the Art fund, Inc. at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Purchase with funds donated by Henry S. Lynn, Jr., in memory of his nephew, George Cambrill Lynn, Jr., a member of the Society of the Cincinnati. AF 181.2011
The Mende people live primarily in Sierra Leone, and the women form the Sande society, which is responsible for preparing girls to fulfill their roles as wives, mothers, and female community members. In most African cultures, masks are worn by men, but the mask here is used by the Sande women for their initiation ceremony. The Mende people don’t separate the ideas of physical beauty and strength from upstanding moral character, and so both are expected of the women, and it is another duty of the Sande society to foster these traits in girls. The Sowo (helmet) mask illustrates both of these qualities, created to resemble their ideal form of beauty as well as having signifiers of desired virtues, such as the high forehead conveying character and wisdom. // “Helmet mask (sowo)” 20th century, Mende people, Sande Women’s Society, Sierra Leone. Wood, raffia, pigment. Gift of Sol and Josephine Levitt 1990.165
This pair of tea canisters is an example of Godfrey’s skill as silversmith, though she was also a renowned goldsmith. Her first husband, Abraham Buteux, was a goldsmith from the French immigrant community, and she carried on his business after his death until she remarried in 1732 to Benjamin Godfrey. After his death, she registered for her second mark (used by smiths to “sign” a piece) under the name of Elizabeth Godfrey in 1741. Godfrey worked with both her father and two husbands during their careers to create high-quality silverware for the nobility of the time. During her two periods of independent work as widow, Godfrey continued to keep up a loyal clientele base and a steady business. // “Pair of Tea canisters” 1754/55, Elizabeth Godfrey, English (active about 1720-58), London, England. Silver. Eugenia Woodward Hitt Collection 1991.423.1-.2