The Perfect Ten

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The chief obstacle to a woman’s success is that she can never have a wife. Just reflect what a wife does for an artist: Darns the stockings; Keeps his house; Writes his letters; Visits for his benefit; Wards off intruders; Is personally suggestive of beautiful pictures; Is always an encouraging and partial critic … It is exceedingly difficult to be an artist without this time saving help. A husband would be quite useless. He would never do any of these disagreeable things… The characteristic virtues of women are the greatest obstacles to their success. Thriftiness, industry, altruism …
– Anna Lea Merritt, 1900

 

An exhibition of two hundred and forty-seven paintings, all by women artists, opened on Saturday, February 17, 1917, at the Art Club of Philadelphia, signaling the birth of The Philadelphia Ten. Included were mostly landscapes – views of Cape Cod, Ravello, Taos, Ireland – accented by a few floral still lifes and an occasional portrait. Eleven young women participated in this inaugural exhibition of a group that would eventually show together sixty-five times during the following twenty-eight years. This group, eventually including thirty women, called themselves “Ten Philadelphia Painters,” then “The Philadelphia Ten,” and, finally, “The Ten.” Before long their exhibitions became heralded annual events of consistently high quality work and variety.

Local and regional art clubs proliferated during the opening decades of the twentieth century, and women’s art organizations, such as the Plastic Club in Philadelphia and the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors in New York, sponsored exhibitions beginning in the late nineteenth century. The Philadelphia Ten, however, bears the distinction of being the all-women’s regional American artist group that exhibited longest and most widely.

Some have suggested that The Philadelphia Ten was formed in direct response to “The Eight” of the Ashcan school, so named for those artists’ gritty depictions of urban scenes. Others have propose a similarity to “The Ten,” men from New York and Boston who seceded from Society of American Artists in 1897. The women may not, in fact, have deliberately been echoing their brother painters. Their goal may have been more practical: to provide additional venues for their work, thereby enhancing their visibility locally and nationally. To that end, they certainly succeeded – they exhibited from the east coast to Texas, Milwaukee, Memphis, and beyond, receiving positive reviews and attracting eager new patrons.

Even before 1917, several had shown work in the annual Exhibitions of Works in Oils begun at the Art Club of Philadelphia in 1913 and in the Annual Colour Exhibitions and other group shows at the Plastic Club. Neither were all-women exhibitions a novelty in Philadelphia, where such events were commonplace at the Plastic Club, an all-women’s art organization founded in 1897. Furthermore, the number of exhibitors was limited to a relative­ly small group of artists who wanted to exhibit a large number of works at one time in a controlled situation. Their goal was “to show just the work they wished to present, in the most dignified and har­monious manner.”

What distinguished the 1917 exhibition was that all the participants had been trained in the art schools of Philadel­phia – nine at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (PSDW), now Moore College of Art and Design, and two at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAPA). The PSDW, the first art school for women in the United States, was founded in 1848 by Sarah Worthington King Peter (1800-1877). An Ohio-born philanthropist and the wife of Philadelphia’s British con­sul, Peter believed “a girl, no matter what her condition in life, should have some practical training which would fit her, should she so desire or the necessity arise, for well-paying self support.”

As the PSDW grew and flourished, its curriculum reflected the changing art market and the ongoing need for gradu­ates to be self-supporting. At the outset, jobs for alumnae were found primarily in the industrial sector, as designers of tex­tiles, wallpapers, and interior furnishings. By the last decade of the nineteenth cen­tury and during the first two decades of the twentieth, when most of the members of The Philadelphia Ten attended art school, the emphasis at the PSDW had shifted away from the design arts to the fine arts. Nonetheless, the school continued to encourage the concept of art as a career, not a hobby, with economic self-sufficiency a goal. This philosophy was echoed by Philadelphia Ten member and PSDW graduate, Nancy Maybin Ferguson (1872-1967), who recalled her decision to study painting. “I don’t think it was a nat­ural love for painting that made me first begin to study,” Ferguson wrote, “rather it was that I wanted to do some work in the world. I felt every one should … I remember first thinking of writing, but decided for painting.”

An important lesson that PSDW students took from Emily Sartain (1841-1927), principal from 1886 to 1919, was that women could and should expect success if they worked hard, were technically proficient, and aggressively mar­keted their work.

On the PSDW fac­ulty during this period were a number of artists associated with the Pennsylvania Acad­emy of the Fine Arts, including Rae Sloan Bredin (1881-1933), Elliott Daingerfield (1859-1932), Robert Henri (1865-1929), Peter Moran (1841-1914), Samuel Murray (1870-1941), Alice Barber Stephens (1858-1932), William Sartain (1843-1924), and Henry B. Snell (1858-1943). Of these teachers, Daingerfield and Snell most influenced the members of The Philadelphia Ten. Both painted in the American impressionist style and repre­sented the conservative tendencies of a group of artists in Bucks County who made up the New Hope School (see “You Can Go Home Again: An Interview with James Michener” by Michael J. O’Malley III, Winter 1993).

Not only did the painting styles of the Philadelphia Ten reflect the influence of Snell and Daingerfield, but they also favored the locales to which they had been introduced by them. Gloucester, Massachusetts, for example, became the summer home for Theresa Bernstein, Fern Coppedge, Susette Keast, Marian T. Mac­Intosh (1869-1936), and Emma Fordyce MacRae, while Cora S. Brooks and Helen Kiner McCarthy spent their summers at Boothbay Harbor, Maine. Likewise, Amal­fi, Ravello, Brittany, and Cornwall, desti­nations of Snell’s European art tours, were revisited by members of The Ten.

The specialty of the PSDW’s painting program was considered to be landscapes, although still-lifes and portraits were also emphasized. The three genres were regu­larly represented in exhibitions of The Philadelphia Ten, but landscapes predomi­nated. In an article in 1923, the Philadel­phia School of Design for Women, with its focus on landscapes, was compared with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where the figure played a more important role. Describing the “various painter groups at the Academy” as “con­sciously mannered,” the unidentified com­mentator wondered, “Who can say which is to be preferred? Or in what proportions they should merge? Without doubt both are needed, standards of beauty and amenity, and a youthful spirit of experi­ment and adventure seeking to prove the past by means of the present and not the present by means of the past.”

The choice of subject matter of The Philadelphia Ten in particular reflects another common theme of art reviews during the first half of the twentieth centu­ry: the issue of gender as reflected in a painter’s output, particularly if the artist was female. Subject to debate was the “feminine” nature of their work One glowing review, for example, stressed the inherent beauty in the work of the “ten Philadelphia artists, beautiful not only in execution but in conception.” In the words of an Atlantic City, New Jersey, art critic, “I am one of those who believe that art should be beautiful in every sense of the work. There is enough of ugliness and unhappiness, of sorrow and disappoint­ment in life for us all, and we need around us the inspiration and delight, the restful­ness and joy of life’s beautiful pleasures.”

By contrast, in commenting on the sub­jects chosen by members of the group, noting their variety, the focus on the out­doors, and the narrative quality of their work, reviewers avoided the issue of feminine versus masculine, highlighting instead the individuality of the painters and the diversity of their subjects. As one writer put it, “The Ten painters and sculptors have successfully exhibited together for several years, but they have consistently maintained their individual personalities in their work, and their can­vases and sculpture are as varied and different as the seasons and the places they choose to paint.”

The narrative quality of the pictures in the 1929 exhibition was the subject of one review based on interviews with the artists who told stories of how they came to paint certain canvases. The article high­lighted the vigor, energy, and drama of the paintings on view. “Over here the sea dashes madly against a ledge of rock; over there an Indian stares at the world with a certain stoic calm; decorative pan­els of flowers gleam with a subdued gold­en light on the south wall; an old man with a net lifts a weather-worn face against the background of a quaint Cor­nish village. Here is a tall landscape of snow in the Pennsylvania hill country; a matter of fifteen feet away finds a Corpus Domini procession winding its gaily col­ored way between the stone house of Ravello, Italy, and not so far from that a turbulent Irish glen is a dark green jewel.” An article in the Chicago Evening Post described “the adventure on land and sea and in the wild fastnesses of high moun­tains and on arid deserts” that character­ized The Ten’s exhibition at the Philadel­phia Art Alliance.

One critic who saw the February 1929 exhibition used his review to explore “the subjects chosen by women artists as com­pared with those selected by men painters.” It was assumed that preferred topics for women artists were “sentimen­tal pieces depicting some aspect of infan­tile or maternal life, or still-life pictures that showed a predominance of floral dec­orativeness,” but this show was “altogeth­er forgetful of ‘mother pictures,’ with an emphasis instead on land- and seascapes, rugged outdoor pictures.” In summary, he wrote, “the doors of life and of their out­look as artists, too, have opened then together for women of our day.”

Ironically, the greatest compliment a woman painter in the period might have garnered was to have her work mistaken for a man’s. The member of The Philadel­phia Ten most frequently described as “masculine” was Theresa Ferber Bernstein (born 1890), who initially signed her work with only her surname to discourage gen­der identification. Of Elizabeth Went­worth Roberts (1871-1927), a short-term member of The Ten, American master portrait painter John Singer Sargent is reputed to have remarked she “painted like a man, slap, dab … fast and large … and it’s done.” Many in the group used broad, loose brush strokes and a heavy application of paint, and their work was often described as “masculine” – not an adjective to which any of these women aspired – but high praise from some reviewers.

Looking back on the sexism in the art world of the early twentieth century, Bern­stein summed up her experience. “People want to make comparisons between a woman’s work and the work of a man. Of course, I don’t think sex has much to do with it, except that few women in history were able to be outstanding …. Although many women have been capable and have done interesting work, they haven’t excelled in painting to the status men have achieved …. juries and scholars wouldn’t accept a woman on the same basis. One has to understand that there are limitations not in one’s expression, but in one’s status. The onus is there even when it isn’t elucidated or emphasized.”

While the age-old issue of style-mas­culine versus feminine-may have been on the minds of some who reviewed exhibitions of the period, for the women of The Philadelphia Ten this conversation most likely seemed irrelevant. For them, art was a means of financial support and of creative expression. Primarily from an upper middle class background and edu­cated in the best art schools, these women achieved economic independence and professional success in a field where neither was assured. Membership in The Philadelphia Ten provided “moral sup­port, friendly competition and good fel­lowship,” regardless of the sex of its par­ticipants. Since most of The Philadelphia Ten were educated before 1910, they rep­resent the first generation of “modern” art professionals, some of whom often felt compelled to choose art over a com­mitment to home and family. Of the five women who consistently participated in The Philadelphia Ten from its inception in 1917 until the group disbanded in 1945, two – Constance Cochrane (1888-1962) and M. Elizabeth Price (1877-1965) – never married, and Edith Lucile Howard (1885-1960) did not marry until she was fifty-three years old. Isabel Bran­son Cartwright (1885-1966) was widowed at the age of thirty-two. Of the core group, only Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton (1889-1971) was married for most of her adult life and had children.

To generalize about the members of The Philadelphia Ten, a larger proportion than in the general population never mar­ried, but their rate of marriage matches the standard for college women around 1910. Of those who married, few had chil­dren and several, including Bernstein, Howard, and Arrah Lee Gaul (1888-1980), opted to keep their maiden names profes­sionally. Except for three, Helen Kiner McCarthy (1884-1927), Cora S. Brooks (1885-1930), and Susette Schultz Keast (1892-1932), who died young, in their for­ties, most of The Philadelphia Ten lived long Lives, their average age at death being eighty-two.

In addition to the five women who participated in all or most of The Ten’s exhibitions, additional stalwarts were Theresa Bernstein, Fern Isabel Coppedge (1883-1951), and Nancy Maybin Ferguson. Original exhibitors McCarthy and Brooks were replaced by two who became regu­lar participants, Sue May Gill (1887-1989) and Susan Gertrude Schell (1891-1970). After Coppedge dropped out in 1935, Emma Fordyce MacRae (1887-1974) became a regular exhibitor. Artists who exhibited occasionally with The Ten included Maude Drein Bryant (1880-1946), Margaret Ralston Gest (1900-1965), Katharine Hood McCormick (1882-1960), and Edith Longstreth Wood (1871-1967), all graduates of the Pennsylvania Academy. Beginning in 1926, seven sculptors also exhibited with Gladys Edgerly Bates (born 1896), Cornelia Van Auken Chapin (1893-1972), Beatrice Fenton (1887-1983), Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880-1980), Genevieve Karr Hamlin (1896-1989), Joan Hartley (1885-1960), and Mary Louise Lawser (1906-1985). Gill occasionally exhibited sculpture as well. While varied in style, their oeuvre was primarily traditional and figural, with an emphasis on garden sculpture and fountains.

The first exhibition mounted by “these enterprising young folks” warranted reviews in several Philadelphia newspapers, but it was 1922 before the group, somewhat reconstituted with eight members, exhibited again. They presented a much smaller exhibition than the first – ninety-nine works, ranging from small sketches to large canvases. They adopted this format for their future exhibitions. In 1923, the number of exhibitors in this coalescing group stabilized at ten. A year later the name “Ten Philadelphia Painters” was adopted. By then their presence on the Philadelphia art scene was firmly established. Described as “a unique and progressive group of women artists who have pooled their interests and created a club,” the group was praised for their “striking, effervescent exhibition … with ten varied expressions and reactions to life, giving you their emotions and feelings on canvas.” Coppedge, for instance, was described as “associated, as a rule, with pictures of snow”; McCarthy as “an open air painter, an interpreter of the big outdoor places”; Cochrane as preferring “chiefly vigorous depictions of scenes along the New Eng­land coast”; and Brooks as a painter of “flowers and of still-life compositions … who delights in beautiful surface tex­ture.” Instant recognition by style was, in fact, an ongoing goal of members. Vigor­ous self-promotion, aggressive market­ing, and creative outreach were compo­nents of their commercial success. Paint­ings at The Philadelphia Ten’s exhibitions were always for sale, with the exception of a small number of loaned pieces, and prices ranged from fifty to one thousand dollars, with most priced between three hundred and fifty and five hundred dol­lars. Hoping to attract the younger buyer or those new to the art market, however, members of the group tried to include lower priced paintings in every show and the variety of subjects and sizes of paint­ings also encouraged sales. The women’s business acumen was acknowledged in a review appearing in the Philadelphia Ledger in 1926. “The intelligence which obviously gathered under one roof so many individual types is apparent again in the selection of the canvases for dis­play. In every art exhibition the possibili­ty of sale must govern to some extent the choice of subject matter. The Ten, recog­nizing this need, have culled from their studios a balanced ration – canvases which have been made for the sheer joy of self-expression, canvases which, con­sciously or unconsciously; were wrought for the trade, and works which are com­missions. If one has followed the devel­opment of the Ten during the years of their joint display, one has been conscious of the deepening of the individual powers to see and to execute.”

One facet of The Ten’s marketing strat­egy coincided with their zealous belief in art education, bringing the fine arts to a broader segment of the American popula­tion, and encouraging women to explore their innate artistic talents. In the 1920s and 1930s, The Philadelphia Ten circulat­ed “rotary” exhibitions under the aus­pices of two important, yet divergent, organizations, the State Federation of Pennsylvania Women and the American Federation of the Arts.

The exhibitions sponsored by the State Federation of Pennsylvania Women were generally shown in women’s clubhouses, community centers, and civic buildings. Visitors to the exhibitions in Lancaster, Bedford, Coatesville, and other semi-rural Pennsylvania communities were not of the traditional art-viewing audience. By contrast, the rotaries circulated by the American Federation of the Arts drew an educated, upper class audience more used to attending art exhibitions and were frequently shown in museums and art galleries. The 1926 rotary, consisting of forty canvases and sponsored by the Mid­west American Federation of the Arts, traveled to Tennessee, Mississippi, Ohio, New Hampshire, and New York. In 1928, a traveling exhibition of forty-three paint­ings toured Texas, stopping in San Anto­nio, Beaumont, Houston, and Dallas. Isabel B. Cartwright was frequently a guest of honor at the openings. Cartwright once lived in the Lone Star State and regularly visited these communities where she painted portraits of prominent citizens.

While the exhibitions at the Art Club and the Art Alliance attracted a local fol­lowing, the rotary shows led to national exposure for the group as a whole and for the artists individually. “From the annual exhibition many rotary shows were invited to proceed from one muse­um or art gallery to another, but most important were the invitations to have
‘One-man Shows,'” wrote Elizabeth Lull Cochrane, Constance Cochrane’s mother.

By 1924, four members the Ten Philadelphia Painters lived in New York-a fact not overlooked by several critics-but their association continued, owing to a “common interest existing since many of them were art students.” Even after artists not associated with Philadelphia, among them Harriet Frish­muth, Emma Fordyce MacRae, and Joan Hartley, had joined the ranks of the group, the annual exhibition was held either at the Art Club or the Art Alliance in Philadelphia. Most of The Ten exhibit­ed regularly in both New York and Philadelphia, in exhibitions organized by women’s organizations, in commercial galleries (such as Milch and Ferargil in New York and McClees in Philadelphia), and in traditional venues such as the Pennsylvania Academy. The exhibitions of The Ten were supplementary to these other opportunities, not alternatives to them. And because their exhibitions were clearly an invitation to critical discussion of their work, these artists were not accused of seeking “the immunity of fem­inine fragility,” as were the members of the New York Society of Women Painters.

Two founding members of The Philadelphia Ten, Eleanor Abrams (1885-1967) and Katherine Marie Barker (1890-1984) demonstrated their individuality, which refutes any suggestion of identity conceived in “club” conformity. Abrams shared a studio in New York with Howard and Price before moving to But­ler, Pennsylvania, where she often exhib­ited in Pittsburgh, sometimes in one-­woman shows. Barker, a life-long friend of Edith Longstreth Wood, is best remem­bered today as a teacher until the age of eighty-five at the Woodmere Art Gallery, Wayne Art Center, and barn studio in Wyola, all in Delaware County.

The remarkable stability of The Philadelphia Ten, despite changes in membership, is noteworthy considering the political, economic, and social upheaval that occurred during the group’s existence. While each world­-shattering event profoundly impacted the individual lives (as well as the collec­tive story) of these women, the fact remains that they were able to continue to produce and sell their art throughout this period.

By 1945, most members were approaching sixty years of age and may no longer have wished to take the time or make the effort to organize exhibitions. During World War II, the group had decided to not mount an exhibition-sev­eral enlisted in military service, including Constance Cochrane, whose work for the Navy included camouflaging destroy­ers – despite encouragement by Walter A. Newman, owner of Philadelphia’s New­man Galleries where the group had staged its 1941 exhibition. According to minutes recorded by Cochrane, “A meet­ing of the Ten was held on December 13th [1941] following the Declaration of War. The group decided against holding the exhibition at the Neuman [sic] Galleries in March because of the many demands on each for service.”

Newman strongly disagreed with the decision but his advice went unheeded. “I feel that the Ten are going over-timid in their decision to postpone their Exhi­bition,” he advised. “We have had, and are having, with the excep­tion of a few days after the declaration of war, the biggest season since 1928. Also I feel you are making a mistake in not being consistent with your shows. One of the impor­tant features of an exhibi­tion such as yours, is the repetition of it at a certain time every year, and I felt that a good start had been made last year and should warrant its continuation.” The possibility of exhibiting the following year was left open “if things are better instead of worse,” but ultimately none was held until the final show at the Woodmere Gallery in April 1945.

While some critics and art historians fault The Philadelphia Ten for their resis­tance to modernism, The Ten did suc­ceed in achieving their goals of financial security and professional recognition. Not avant-garde or feminist, their exhibi­tions were an important vehicle for “bringing high quality art work done by women to the attention of the public.” As such they represent an important step towards the fuller participation of women in the art community as a whole. According to a critic writing in the Public Ledger in 1924, the names of the Ten Philadelphia Painters “stand out as among the foremost women in their line of expression and each one has so creat­ed her own atmosphere that her work is suggested with the mention of her name.” A recent traveling exhibition suc­ceeded in ensuring that the mention of the names of these outstanding women artists should once again bring recogni­tion and appreciation.

 

For Further Reading

Broude, Norma, and Mary D. Garrard, eds. The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

Conner, Janis, and Joel Rosencranz. Redis­coveries in American Sculpture: Studio Works, 1893-1939. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989.

Gadzinski, Susan James, and Mary Mullen Cunningham. American Sculpture in the Museum of American Art of the Pennsyl­vania Academy of the Fine Arts. Seattle: Museum of American Art of the Pennsylva­nia Academy of the Fine Arts in association with the University of Washington Press, 1997.

Garb, Tamar. Sisters of the Brush: Artistic Culture in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Gerdts, William. American Impressionism. New York: Artabras Publishers, 1984.

Huber, Christine Jones. The Pennsylvania Academy and Its Women, 1850-1920. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1974.

Knauff, Theodore C. An Experiment in Training for the Useful and the Beauti­ful, A History. Philadelphia: Philadelphia School of Design for Women, 1922.

Petteys, Chris. Dictionary of Women Artists: An International Dictionary of Women Artists Born before 1900. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1985.

Pisano, Ronald G. One Hundred Years: A Centennial Celebration of the National Association of Women Artists. Roslyn, N.Y: Nassau County Museum of Fine Art, 1988.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists from Early Indian Times to the Present. Boston: G.K. Hall/Avon Books, 1982.

____. American Women Sculptors. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1990.

Talbott, Page, and Patricia Tanis Sydney. The Philadelphia Ten: A Women’s Artist Group, 1917-1945. Kansas City: Galleries at Moore and American Art Review Press, 1998.

 

This article is based on The Philadelphia Ten: A Women’s Artist Group, 1917-1945, by Page Talbott and Patricia Tanis Sydney, published in 1998 by the Galleries at Moore, Philadelphia, and the American Art Review Press, Kansas City, Missouri. The book accompanied the exhibition by the same name that opened in Philadelphia and traveled to Greensburg, Westmoreland County; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Albany, Texas; Concord, Massachusetts; and Doylestown, Bucks County.

 

Page Talbott, of Bala Cynwyd, is an inde­pendent curator and fine and decorative arts consultant for museums, historical organizations, and historic house museums, as well as a historic fur­nishings consultant for a number of historic sites. With Katharine Mar­tinez, she co-edited and contributed to the criti­cally acclaimed and award­-winning Philadelphia’s Cul­tural Landscape: The Sar­tain Family Legacy (Temple University Press, 2000). In 1998, site co-curated, with Patricia Tanis Sydney, The Philadelphia Ten: A Women’s Artist Group, 1917-1945. She currently serves on the boards of trustees of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, and the Cen­ter for Conservation of Art and Historical Artifacts. She writes and lectures on a wide variety of topics.