Summer at the Clark Art Insitute

Now on exhibit: Winding works of iron and women artists who defied convention and studied in Paris
“Plowing in Vivernais,” 1850, Rose Bonheur, oil on canvas, at the Clark Art Institute.
“Plowing in Vivernais,” 1850, Rose Bonheur, oil on canvas, at the Clark Art Institute.

Women and iron are taking over the Clark Art Institute this summer.

With the recent opening of their two major exhibitions of the season: “The Art of Iron,” and “Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900,” the Clark is celebrating artists who have in some ways been made invisible.

In the Institute’s scintillant pavilion, twisted and winding works of heavy metal are mounted or set against all bright white walls. They were once as utilitarian as they are aesthetic, used for making balconies, lecterns, lock boxes, or marking the entrance to a nightclub or a fishmonger’s business. The 36 pieces, in “The Art of Iron,” made during the 19th century, were once viewed as trash. Something to be gotten rid of in favor of more modern signs and materials.

But one man saw a problem with this. Jean-Louis-Henri Le Secq saw not modernization, but a tossing out of weighty works of art. Le Secq, an artist himself, began to collect the ironworks from around the city of Paris as people began to throw them out. His family later founded a museum so that others could appreciate the designs.

Though the works of iron have been separated from their original context, they’re striking.

“Grilles used to be ubiquitous,” said Kathleen Morris, a curator with the Clark.

Think of the serpentine and sinuous lines and details in something like a garden trellis; now imagine that same detail in many fences, gates and balconies.

Though no artists’ names are attached to the grilles – nor were the creators considered artists at the time – the Clark makes the case that the works deserve to be thought of as art.

The collection of keys and lockboxes featured in the exhibition are certainly more artistic than any of their modern counterparts; with intricately feathered eagles and ornate crowns adorning them. The works are impressive and a unique use of the space; last year the pavilion’s floor-to-ceiling windows had to be blocked because the featured exhibition was light sensitive.

This time around, sunlight pours into the room, illuminating works that were once made invisible.

In the Clark’s other featured exhibition space hang works from a handful of women artists, both well-known and not so well-known. A Mary Cassatt painting is juxtaposed with a work from Paula Modersohn-Becker, a name with perhaps not as much cache in today’s world.

Yet, the Clark hopes to change that.

“Women Artists in Paris,” focuses on women from across the world who journeyed to the City of Light to study art. Paris was considered the art capital of the Western world during the 1800s and though it was known for being socially liberal, there were significant roadblocks to women who wanted to become artists. The Ecole des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts), which was the country’s most exclusive art academy, did not allow female students to attend until 1897. Many politicians, authors, and others believed that the act of creating, of working on art, would inhibit a woman’s ability to become a successful mother.

Despite all these sentiments, artists like Anna Ancher, Kitty Kielland, Rosa Bonheur, Lilla Cabot Perry, and Eva Gonzalez found other ways to not only study art but to become full-time artists. Many took their education back to their home countries and continued to paint, draw and sculpt.

“We hope [they] may regain the recognition they deserve,” said Olivier Meslay, the Felda and Dena Hardymon director of the Clark, “Given some of the issues around gender equality that are at the forefront of our current cultural discourse, this exhibition is both timely and long overdue.”

Much of the art is done in classic, traditional styles (impressionistic neo-classical, rococo, etc), which is juxtaposed by the unconventional lives of the artists themselves.

One work in particular, “Plowing in Nivernais,” is deceivingly unorthodox. It sweeps across nearly an entire wall of the exhibition, depicting farmers and cows plowing a field nestled at the base of rolling hills. Every detail seems to come alive; spit drips down from the mouth of one sleepy-looking ox, one ox looks out at the viewer as if in surprise. It’s a pleasant, if not stunning, pastoral scene that to the modern viewer looks tame.

Yet, the artist, Rosa Bonheur, was a trailblazer. In the 19th century, it was usual for women to depict what was thought of as “masculine” subject matter (like hunting and farming). But Bonheur went ahead and not only painted them, she became known for them. After getting special permission from the police to wear pants (yes, that was apparently necessary at that time), Bonheur went out and painted plein air.

Another artist responded differently to the pressure to paint feminine subjects.

Mary Cassatt, an American artist, became known for her paintings with children and sometimes mothers as subjects. Yet, instead of creating these emotionally charged, sweetly sentimental portraits, her works have a sense of down-to-earth realism. In “Child Picking Fruit,” a mother holding a small child lowers a branch so the child can reach a ripe apple. At first glance, some might think the apple represents sin. But according to guest curator Laurence Madeline, it symbolizes knowledge; a mother giving her child knowledge rather than sentimental love.

In contrast to many of the other striking history paintings, landscapes, and portraits, a large macabre painting sticks out. “Autopsy (Profesor Poirier, Paris),” by Annie Stebler-Hopf, depicts a (presumably) dead man being sliced open by a medical college professor. The intense detail of the eyes glazed over in the hollowed-looking face of the patient and the practiced concentration of the professor only intensifies this striking difference between the piece and others in the exhibition. But once again it points to the fact that these artists didn’t make sure to steer clear of subject matter that wasn’t “meant for them.”

There were plenty of philosophers, critics and even fellow artists who wanted to push these women artists out of the field (and indeed there are some that are still trying to do so, like Georg Baselitz). One exception can be seen with Anna Ancher.

Both Anna and her husband, Michael Ancher, were artists and supported one another creatively as well as financially. In Anna’s piece “Judgement of a Day’s Work,” the couple can be seen critically examining a blurry-looking canvas in a dimly lit room. It’s an interesting take on domestic life, rare not only among women but among artists of that era as well.

Though there are a number of stand-out pieces in “Women Artists in Paris,” perhaps none sum up the exhibition quite like “Echo,” by Ellen Thesleff. A young girl in the foreground, holding some sort of stick, screams, no doubt to hear the sound bounce back. It reflects the need to be heard and to hear, to see and to be seen.

“Women Artists in Paris, 1850-1900,” will be on view at the Clark until September 3. “The Art of Iron: Objects from the Musee Le Secq des Tournelles, Rouen, Normandy,” will be on view until September 13. For more information visit

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