Still Bucking the Tide

To celebrate the United Nations’ International Women’s Day, I asked our curatorial team to discuss some of their favorite artists in the collection (who just happen to be women). Here are their responses.

Mary Stevenson Cassatt, Portrait of Madame X Dressed for the Matinee, 1877—78, oil on canvas, 39 5/8 x 31 13/16 in., Gift of Charlotte Hanes in memory of her husband, R. Philip Hanes Jr., and gift of anonymous donors

DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR ART JOHN COFFEY: Of the many American artists swayed by French impressionism, only Mary Cassatt was accepted as a peer by Degas, Monet, and Renoir. Recently the NCMA received the gift of a beautiful early portrait by Cassatt. Painted when the artist was in her mid-30s, Portrait of Madame X Dressed for the Matin©e tells us much about this remarkable painter: her warm sympathy for her subjects, her openness to everyday experience, and her careful informality, all expressed with a disciplined exuberance.

Mickalene Thomas, Three Graces: Les Trois Femmes Noires, 2011, rhinestones, acrylic paint, and oil enamel on wood panel, 108 x 144 in., Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest)GLAXOSMITHKLINE CURATORIAL FELLOW LYLE HUMPHREY: I admire Mickalene Thomas for celebrating female self-empowerment through bodily adornment! Bold, glitzy, and exaggerated, her paintings reference 1970s-era popular culture, as well as a current celebrity culture that simultaneously romanticizes and stereotypes female beauty and power. In this work Thomas has re-created the traditional image of the Three Graces, usually presented in art-historical iconography as three women, representing conventional values of charm, beauty, and creativity. Here the Graces are updated as modern African American women, dressed up and ready for a night out on the town.

“All of my muses possess a profound sense of inner confidence and individuality. They are all in tune with their own audacity and beauty.” –Mickalene Thomas

Elisabeth Louise Vig©e-LeBrun, Self-Portrait, 1790, oil on canvas, 39 x 32 in.,Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Elisabeth Louise Vig©e Lebrun, Ivan Ivanovich Shuvalov (1727—1797), circa 1795—97, oil on canvas, 33 x 24 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North CarolinaCURATOR OF EUROPEAN ART DAVID STEEL: The favorite painter of Marie Antoinette and the first female full member of France’s Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, Elisabeth Vig©e Lebrun had to flee Paris in 1778, ahead of the mobs who despised her queen. Later exiled in St. Petersburg, Russia, she continued to take royal commissions, now from the court of Catherine the Great and aristocrats like Count Ivan Shuvalov, whose portrait in the NCMA’s collection is one of its crown jewels.

Vig©e Lebrun recalled that Shuvalov “combined obliging politeness with great urbanity, and as he was also the most convivial of men, he was sought out by the best society.”

Elizabeth Murray, Pigeon, 1991, oil on canvas on laminated wood construction, 95 3/4 x 62 5/8 x 13 5/16 in., Purchased with funds from gifts by Mr. and Mrs. Samuel J. Levin and William R. Valentiner, by exchangeJOHN COFFEY: I remember visiting the artist’s studio and seeing Pigeon leaning against the wall. Elizabeth Murray was at a loss to explain all the things that were going on in this “painting.” The amoebic shape, the imprinted clown feet, the torn dress, the clock hands snaking about. “It all just happened,” she said.

“Art is an epiphany in a coffee cup.” –Elizabeth Murray

Iris Tutnauer, Spice Container, designed 1998, fabricated 2014, silver; hammered, brushed, L. 6 5/8 x H. 2 3/8 in., Gift of Merri and Marc Robinson in honor of their familyJOHN COFFEY: This spice container by Iris Tutnauer, trained in the venerated Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem, was designed to hold sweet-scented spices and to be passed from hand-to-hand at the end of the Sabbath. It is one of the most alluring pieces in the Judaic Art Gallery, almost begging to be cradled in one’s palm.

Hayv Kahraman, Kawliya 1, 2014, oil on linen, 96 x 48 in., Purchased with funds from the bequest of Fannie and Alan Leslie, by exchangeASSOCIATE CURATOR OF CONTEMPORARY ART JEN DASAL: Hayv Kahraman‘s luminous paintings are all about the in-between: they reflect traditions from western art history and middle eastern aesthetics but belong fully to neither. As such, they are a metaphor for the artist’s own history. Originally from Iraq, Kahraman’s family left as refugees when the artist was a child, moving across Europe before settling in Sweden and Italy (Kahraman now lives in California). Kahraman’s unique figures, all based on the artist’s own body, are a mix-up of styles: Persian, Italian, Japanese, and others. They belong to nowhere in particular, just like the exiled artist herself. 

Jackie Nickerson, Elina 1, 2012, digital chromatic print, 48 x 38 1/2 in., Purchased with funds from the Friends of PhotographyJEN DASAL: I’m also taken with the work of photographer Jackie Nickerson. Elina 1, from her Terrain series, explores the relationships between work and the natural world. In Terrain Nickerson examines labor and workers in Eastern Africa, noting how these individuals, their environment, and their crops are inextricably linked.

“It is about us in the landscape, how we change the world we inhabit at every moment of our being human, and how, for better and for worse, the habitus that we make, in turn, changes who we are.” –Jackie Nickerson

Camille Claudel, Bust of Rodin, modeled 1888—92, date of cast unknown, bronze, H. 15 3/4 x W. 9 1/4 x D. 11 in., Gift of the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation

DAVID STEEL: Auguste Rodin’s student, mistress, muse, and collaborator, Camille Claudel pursued her own career as an artist after she broke away from the sculptor, later becoming obsessed with the idea that Rodin had sapped her artistic energies and fed on her genius. She became increasingly distraught and in 1913 was confined to an asylum, where she remained for the rest of her life. The NCMA’s Bust of Rodin, exhibited prominently at the Paris Salon of 1892, is the only sculpture she made of him. Hailed by critics of the day as “a marvel of powerful interpretation” and “a severe work, patient and reflective,” this sculpture was Rodin’s favorite likeness of himself.

iona rozeal brown, a³ blackface #62, acrylic on paper, 83 x 59 in., Purchased with funds from the North Carolina Museum of Art Foundation, Art Trust FundI’ll close with one of my favorite contemporary artists, iona rozeal brown, whose work is inspired in part by 18th-century Japanese ukiyo-e prints, noh and kabuki theater, mythology, comic books, and the fascinating, if fraught, mutual admiration of seemingly distinct cultures. Her a3 blackface series is both a response to the western enthusiasm for Asian pop culture (Japanese animation, martial arts, kung fu movies) and a reaction to practices of the ganguro, Japanese teenagers who idolize American hip-hop artists, darkening their skin, changing their hairstyles, and copying American fashions.

“I have to say that I find the ganguro obsession with blackness pretty weird, and a little offensive. My paintings [in this series] come out of trying to make sense of this appropriation.”–iona rozeal brown

Who are some of your favorite artists in the permanent collection at the NCMA? Feel free to share why you like them in the comment section below.

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