Browse: Challenging Perceptions - Women Artists in Gilcrease Collection

Rarely before seen or discussed together, women artists are represented across time and culture in the Gilcrease collection. Because the work of women artists has largely been ignored in many art historical analyses, their work is often not well-known or appreciated. However, closer examinations of art created in recent centuries by today’s art historians has led to recognition of women artists and their importance in many different contexts throughout history. Notable women artists featured in the Gilcrease collections include Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, Maria Martinez, Ila Mae McAfee, Mary Nimmo Moran, Nampeyo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Margaret Tafoya, Kay Walkingstick, and Constance Whitney Warren.

The Gilcrease collection provides a strong cross-cultural sampling that demonstrates the contributions women artists have made to the evolution of art-making in their respective realms, in both Native American and Euro-American cultures.

Although popular for its large holdings of Thomas Moran’s work, Gilcrease Museum also houses a large collection of etchings, prints, drawings, ink washes, sketchbooks, and original copper plates produced by Thomas’s wife, Mary Nimmo Moran. Mary’s artwork is one of the largest bodies of work by a female artist in Gilcrease collections, and presents a remarkable comprehensive view of the artist’s process from inception to completion. Noted as a well-respected mid-19th century printmaker, she was the only woman to become a member of the original 65 fellows at London’s Royal Society of Painters and Etchers. In addition to accolades by English art critic John Ruskin, Mary Moran was also elected to membership in the Society of Painters and Etchers of New York.

Perhaps the most famous animalier artist of the 19th century was French realist painter, Rosa Bonheur. Popular for her depictions of wildlife and domestic animals, Bonheur is a product of the 19th-century realism movement in which artists portrayed subject matter based on live observations, often in rural settings. Bonheur’s painting Elk (GM 0176.1228) in the Gilcrease collection demonstrates her skill in portraying wildlife. Another work in the Gilcrease collection, Indian Encampment (GM 0176.1229), was inspired by the Lakota cast members in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, who performed in Paris in 1889. Bonheur’s work may also be found in the collections of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Buffalo Bill Center of the West in the United States.

In general, women artist who portrayed the American West often challenged the romantic, masculine stereotypes contained in the prevalent western imagery of American pop culture and cinema. By creating a surreal composition by juxtaposing a mountain silhouette and animal skull, Georgia O’Keefe’s painting Antelope Head with Pedernal (GM 01.2521) challenges viewers to reconsider their views of the western landscape. Constance Whitney Warren’s sculpture William S. Hart demonstrates that she understood the twisting, active lines of a bucking horse as well as Frederic Remington in his sculpture The Bronco Buster (GM 0827.34).

In addition to American and European female artists, Gilcrease has collected art by Native American women working with various media. By working with both traditional and contemporary art forms, Native women are important to the development of Native American art history and expand the overall horizons of American art.

Promoting Native American art has always been at the forefront of the museum’s mission. Thomas Gilcrease himself established one of the first Native American artist-in-residence programs in the 1940s. However, while these roles were filled by male artists, the works Gilcrease collected by their female contemporaries like Maria Martinez helped establish a stronger voice for Native women artists in the 20th century. Through their efforts, Native female artists expanded concepts of Native American art. The Gilcrease collection includes works by Ella May Blackbear, Kay Walkingstick, Pablita Velarde, Norma Howard, Pop Chalee, and Leah Qumaluk.

In an ever-changing worldview toward class and gender roles how do we go about telling the stories of these women and their innovative contributions? Rather than merely slotting women artists into the standard cannon of art history, museums and galleries should consider setting aside the narrow, outdated canon and offer new, inclusive perspectives on American art.

By Zachary Qualls, Graduate Student, Museum Science and Management Program, The University of Tulsa, 2016