Pensacola, Florida
Thursday December 14th 2017

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Rebel Impressionists

By Shelby Nalepa

With their newest exhibit, Pensacola Museum of Art (PMoA) is paying homage to women Impressionists who rebelled against the conventions of their day by exhibiting alongside men, receiving awards and clearing a path for future artists.

“Rebels With a Cause: American Impressionist Women” focuses on the strong influence that the radical movement of French Impressionism had on American women artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Impressionism developed in France in the late 19th century in opposition to the conservative traditions of the art academies.

PMA Assistant Curator Felicia Gail said that female artists sometimes faced adversity in trying to showcase their work alongside men in the mid-19th century and beyond. Some of her favorite pieces from the exhibition include portraits by Greta Dietz Allen and Agnes Millen Richmond, as well as a landscape of the Grand Canyon by Bertha Menzler Peyton.

“If we didn’t know it from historical reference, we can see it through their paintings and sculptures,” Gail said. “To see the Grand Canyon in large scale affects me in a more complex way depending on the time period it was painted and who painted it. I consider how Menzler traveled to the site and what it meant for her to exhibit a vivacity of color to an audience who regarded her sex as part of the work. I think of her rigor and choosing the Grand Canyon as subject and as a kind of metaphor for possibility and the vast undertaking it must have been.”

Gail said that she thinks these artists, even most posthumously, are still overcoming the adversity they faced during their time.

“As stewards, it is our job to extend the story and formal accomplishments of their works,” Gail said. “I think artists are constantly trying to overcome inherited histories, just as these artists did. To overcome the status quo is to always be in a state of becoming, a concept the PMoA knows all too well.”

Although women have always been making art, Gail said that they were not always as recognized within the art canon of Impressionist artists.

“Mary Cassatt is a name we read and consider quite often when learning about American Impressionism, but Cassatt’s work is frequently framed by her friendship with Degas,” she said. “Even now, scholarship surrounding women artists is being reconsidered from more inclusive points of view, but it has taken time for this to occur.”

Gail said that these Impressionist artists are part of a long history of people who have been marginalized.

“Their voices weren’t always heard by their contemporaries in the ways of immediate recognition,” she said. “Many rebelled against the convention of their day by exhibiting alongside their male counterparts. They received accolades and awards, paving the way for all of us. Still, some of their names remain unfamiliar.”

The desire of this exhibition, Gail said, is to reframe the American narrative in Art History, and include in equal fashion, names of all influential American Impressionist artists.

“What makes these artists so special was their tenacity to continue their work, continue making their voices heard, for no matter how long it took to have their legitimacy acknowledged,” she said. “Unfortunately, for some, this recognition will only come posthumously. We hope, by exhibiting such an exhibition, that we may highlight what it means to carry on when non-inclusive voices may tell us no. We must say yes by carrying on with the work we know to be important.”

Gail said that being temporary stewards of this collection of curated works by the Huntsville Museum of Art is quite special.

“I walk around the gallery, and consider what each of these artists’ processes were and how they navigated an avid practice of painting amid their daily lives,” she said. “Who did they read? When did they pick up a brush for the first time? Why did they select a specific color pallet? I believe part of experiencing art is about the questions that come from it. Why are those questions relevant to a particular time period in which they were made, and how does that translate to the present? Not only does exhibiting art show us something familiar and effective, it may also show us something unfamiliar and difficult.”

Gail said that as an arts institution, it is their job to highlight these questions by the exhibitions they bring inside its walls and consider what they may offer to their community.

“I’d like to think that these particular American Impressionist artists would appreciate their inclusion at the PMoA, a site that was an old jail from 1906 until the mid-fifties, then transformed into a space for art by a group of ambitious women,” she said. “To consider these details is to consider all voices that so desperately need to be included in the narrative of art.”

REBELS WITH A CAUSE
WHAT: A selection of works by American Impressionist women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries
WHEN: On display now-Dec. 31
WHERE: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St.
COST: $4-$7, free for museum members and children younger than 3
DETAILS: pensacolamuseum.org