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Introducing the Brutons

The three Bruton sisters, Margaret, Esther, and Helen, were prolific and inventive artists working in California from the 1920s through the 1970s. Together, and separately, they experimented with modernism in a wide variety of styles and mediums, collaborated with important artists and architects, were lauded by the press, and won countless art prizes, frequently besting male artists who went on to have more successful careers. Known as the “gifted sisters from Monterey” or the “three amazing Bruton sisters,” they were called “geniuses” who “impress by the intelligence of their art.”  They earned commissions for important public art projects funded by the WPA, culminating in their masterful execution of a bas relief mural for the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. The Brutons were paid $20,000 for the mural (more than $350,000 in today’s dollars), an astounding sum to earn in the final year of the Depression.   Despite their prominence in the early twentieth
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Can You Name Three Women Artists?

I just returned from Mexico City, where I visited the Museo Soumaya, an impressive art museum with a wide-ranging and eclectic collection. As I walked through its extensive galleries, I was thinking about a recent experiment undertaken by art historian Katy HesselHessel asked 2,000 people to name three women artists, and only 30% of the people she interviewed could do so. With this in mind, I decided that I would pay special attention to the works by women artists in this museum and then learn more about their stories. It turned out to be a fascinating exercise.  

The Museo Soumaya is a jaw-dropping modern building designed by Mexican architect Fernando Romero. Its shape is dramatic and dynamic; it seems to flow and twist, and it has -- ironically -- a somewhat feminine form. It's covered with hexagonal steel tiles that reflect the light and add to its sense of movement. Not everyone loves the architecture of this building, but I think it looks amazing.

Museo Soumaya, Mexico City

The next astonishing thing about this museum is that its 60,000 works of art are from the private collection of one man, Carlos Slim. Slim is a Mexican businessman who is one of the richest people in the world. The museum, which opened in 2011, is named after his wife, Soumaya, who died in 1999. The museum is open 7 days a week and admission is free.

Although there are no works by the Bruton sisters in the Museo Soumaya, there's a lot to appreciate. The building has 6 floors with galleries devoted to decorative arts, European Old Masters, Impressionist and Modernist Art, Mexican Art, and on the top floor, a huge collection of mostly Rodin sculptures. Although there's plenty of quantity in this museum, it's been criticized for the quality of its collection. I must admit that although most of "the greats" are represented, the pieces on display might not be the strongest examples of their work.   

Speaking of "the greats," you probably know something about the guys, but let's get back to the women. (The Museo Soumaya is named in honor of a woman, after all.) You won't believe these amazing stories. So let's go, girls!

Artemisia Gentileschi
(Italian, 1593 - ca. 1656)
Mary Magdalene as the Melancholy, ca. 1622-1625

Already a professional artist by age 15, Gentileschi was trained by her father. She was the only woman accepted into the prestigious Academy of Arts and Drawing in Florence. In 1611, she was raped by a friend of her father's, the artist Agostino Tassi. During the ensuing trial, Gentileschi was tortured with thumb screws to verify her testimony. Perhaps it's not surprising that she preferred to paint women. She was especially adept at capturing women's emotions, as she did in this beautiful painting of Mary Magdalene. Susan Vreeland wrote a great novel based on Gentileschi's life called The Passion of Artemisia.

Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigee, Madame Le Brun
(French, 1755-1842)
Portrait of Countess Urszula Potocka, 1776

Like Gentileschi, Vigee received her first art training from her father and was a successful portrait painter while still in her teens. Her work caught the attention of Marie Antoinette, and Vigee painted more than 30 portraits of the French queen and her family. Because of her close connection to Marie Antoinette, Vigee was forced to flee from Paris during the French Revolution. She lived, and continued to paint, in other parts of Europe. There is a documentary about her -- The Fabulous Life of Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun -- which I will be watching soon!

Elisabetta Sirani
(Italian, 1638-1665)
Young Saint John the Baptist, 1665

Sirani is yet another artist trained by her father. There seems to be a pattern here! Since women couldn't get the kind of formal art training available to men, they had to learn their craft from their fathers. (By the way, kudos to these enlightened dads who believed their daughters had the talent and drive to be professional artists!) When her father became seriously ill, Sirani took over his workshop and trained his art students. The stress of becoming the family's solo breadwinner might have contributed to Sirani's early death at age 27.

Berthe Morisot
(French, 1841-1895)
Houses under the Snow, 1886

Morisot was from an affluent French family, and like many young women of her class, she was given art lessons as a girl. Although art was only meant to be a hobby for Morisot, her instructor thought she was so gifted that she should train to become a professional artist, a revolutionary idea for a woman at that time. Because she painted what she knew -- mostly domestic scenes -- Morisot struggled to be taken seriously as an artist.  She befriended the acclaimed French artist Edouard Manet and became his muse -- he painted her numerous times. It's possible that the two were in love, although Morisot eventually married Edouard's brother, Eugene.

Eva Gonzales
(French, 1849-1883)
The Young Student, ca. 1871-1872

I hadn't heard of the French Impressionist Eva Gonzales until I saw this charming painting of -- how appropriate! -- a woman artist. Like Morisot, Gonzales was from an affluent and well connected family. She also had a close connection to Edouard Manet; she was his only formal student and also modeled for him. Like many women, Gonzales struggled to be taken seriously as an artist. She eventually married and died in childbirth at age 34, five days after the death of her mentor, Manet.

Yvonne Serruys
(French-Belgian, 1873 - 1953)
Seated Girl, ca. 1892-1894

Serruys was also from a well-to-do family. There's another pattern forming here! It seems that women artists benefitted if their fathers were artists and could train them, or if they were from wealthy families and had some degree of independence (like the Bruton sisters). Serruys had a lot of formal art training, and in 1920 she received the Legion of Honor -- the highest honor awarded in France -- for her work as a sculptor. I was struck by the style of this painting; Serruys was clearly an accomplished pointillist painter before she devoted herself to sculpture in 1898, when her career really took off.

Camille Claudel
(French, 1864-1943)
The Wave, 1897

And finally, this amazing sculpture by Camille Claudel. Claudel was trained by Auguste Rodin and became his model and lover. Her career suffered after she broke it off with him, and she died in obscurity. (There's a pretty good movie about her life that you might want to check out.) She created this work shortly after ending her relationship with Rodin. The three nude, vulnerable women grasp hands as they look up at a huge wave descending over their heads. 


To me, this work speaks volumes about the powerful and uncontrollable forces that threaten to crush women. Yet despite the impending doom, the women come together with a power of their own, perhaps sending the message that if they unite, they will survive what's coming for them.  

The next time you are in an art museum or gallery, I challenge you to seek out the work by women artists. Give their work a second and a third look.  Go home and google them. Learn their stories. Let's make sure we can all name at least three -- and hopefully more -- women artists!  

All photos by the author.




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