Remembering the Ladies

An exhibit rounds up Newport’s finest females from the first half of the twentieth century.


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Benjamin Curtis Porter's portrait of Maud Howe Elliott, 1877. Courtesy of Newport Art Museum.

How do you imagine Newport at the turn of the twentieth century? My mind’s eye conjures scenes of Newport’s earliest elite dressed in summer whites, ready for a match on the tennis court, an afternoon sail or a day lounging in the shade of their Gilded Age “summer cottage.”

But an exhibit at the Newport Art Museum demonstrates a different side of Newport during the early 1900s. Not just a hotbed for leisure, many part-time Newporters were actively creating works of art on their summer holiday.

Led by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and suffrage activist Maud Howe Elliott, a group of eight artists and intellectuals spent the summer of 1912 forming the Art Association of Newport, now the Newport Art Museum and Art Association.

The museum’s current exhibit,Remembering the Ladies: Women and the Art Association of Newport,” features historical photographs, documents, objects and artwork by significant regional and national female artists who showcased their work at the Newport Art Museum from the very beginning.

Works by founding members Helena and Louisa Sturtevant are on display, as well as works by other Newport artists like Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Emily Burling Waite and long-time Newport Art Museum instructor Marion Carry, to name a few. Portraits of Elliott and other prominent Newport women are also incorporated into the exhibit.

During our visit this past weekend, what struck my companion wasn’t one of Helena Sturtevant’s iconic local landscapes (Paradise, 1912, at right, courtesy of the Newport Art Museum) but Sturtevant's personal paint box on display. “It’s amazing how an old, beat-up paint box can become the art,” she said.

That paint box bore more weight than Sturtevant’s flaked oil tubes and palette knife. We learned from a curator card that prior to the turn of the century, women artists were primarily confined to portraiture and still-life, but by the early 1900s, they started venturing out to paint “en plein air, encouraged by the news that fresh air was a good thing, that they could indeed be unaccompanied and carry their own paint boxes.”

Not only does this exhibit gather up some of the greatest local art from the first half of the twentieth century, but it also takes the viewer en route through history, starting with a dark portrait of a young Elliott by Benjamin Curtis Porter and coursing through the area’s first female landscape artists, magical realists and modernist painters.

If you haven’t visited “Remembering the Ladies," you still have some time: The exhibit is scheduled to run through October 16. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, and $6 for students and active military personnel. Newport Art Museum members and children younger than five are admitted free.

Want to take the ladies home? The exhibit’s forty-page catalogue is also available for purchase.

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