In Her Own Style: An Artist's Eye with Judith Shea

A view of the exhibition, In Her Own Style. Screengrab from NYC-Arts

You have until January 13 to get to the National Academy Museum on Fifth Avenue, across from the Met, to see this marvelous gem of a show: a selection of portraits of the women academicians of the institution. The exhibition takes place on the ground floor at the foot of the building's dramatic winding staircase, and in two galleries on an upper floor, including the lovely oval room which contains a self portrait of Cecilia Beaux, one of the most successful society painters of the late 19th century.
Self portrait: Cecilia Beaux, 1894. Image: National Academy via

Sculptor Judith Shea was invited by the National Academy to curate an exhibition at the museum. When she was brought into collection storage and saw the portraits of the women academicians from the late 1800s to now, she knew she had her show. The portraits, she explains in a video that runs during the exhibition, were given to the National Academy when a painter was accepted for membership. They are, then, each artist's vision of herself. In viewing over a century of work, Shea saw how the portraits paralleled the history of women in our society.
 Self Portrait: Ellen Emmet Rand, 1927. Image: National Academy Museum via
Long involved with the human form, which she has expressed in materials as varied as sewn industrial felt, carved wood, and cast bronze, Shea was intrigued by the ways these artists had chosen to present themselves. Her research into the women behind the portraits yielded some interesting stories. For instance, Ellen Emmet Rand, portrait above, meets the viewer's gaze in what Shea describes in the Arts-NYC video as "dead-on eye contact." She holds her palette "almost like a shield."  Shea learned that in 1930 Rand made $75,000, a fortune in those days (and still a welcome figure for an artist) as she supported her entire family from her work. Rand painted three portraits of FDR, one of which was his official White House portrait.
Gertrude Horsford Fiske, portrait below, painted herself in what is clearly her studio, wearing not her painting clothes but a good dress and hat. In the Twenties, explains Shea, a woman dressed this way was dressed for business. Fiske, then, made clear in her portrait that she was no dilettante. She was a business woman, and painting was her business.
Self portrait: Gertrude Horsford Fiske, 1922. Screengrab from NYC Arts
As the century progressed, portrait styles changed along with womens' lives. Marion Greenwood, a young beauty in the Fifties, "shows the influence of Hollywood" in her self portrait, suggests Shea. She depicts herself dramatically in closeup, and she's holding a cigarette, not a paintbrush. "'I don't have to prove I'm an artist,' she seems to say," says Shea.
Self Portrait: Marion Greenwood, 1954. Image: National Academy via 

In the absense of press material from the museum, I relied on notes I'd taken when visiting and followed links to videos on the museum's website. I hope what you see will pique your interest sufficiently to go see the show. If that's not possible, the links provided will allow you to trace the steps I took in researching this material. You will find a slideshow of images on the site and links to seven videos on the museum site of Shea discussing the show.(But if you can, go!)
Self portrait in a mirror: Jane Freilicher, 1971. Image: National Academy Museum via

Self portrait: Louisa Matthiasdottir, 1985. Image. National Academy Museum via

Judith Shea, from left: Portrait of Louise Bourgeois, 2012; self portrait, Still Standing, 2010-11; and Portrait of  Elizabeth Catlett, 2012. Click here to hear Shea talk about the making of her portrait, which she calls a "redemption piece" in the wake of 9/11
Below the artist/curator with her sculptures in the third gallery of the exhibition

 Click  here to hear Shea talk about the making of her Elizabeth Catlett sculpture
Portrait of Louise Bourgeois by Judith Shea,2012. Image: National Academy Museum via

Click here to hear Shea talk about Bourgeois
Click here for a full 30-minute episode of NYC-Arts in which Shea talks about the exhibition. (Start at the 4.5 minute mark.)


annell4 said...

Truely beautiful post! Wish I could see the show.

LXV said...

On your recommendation, I went and saw this show on Saturday. The strongest work was way way up at the top IMHO. They even had an Idelle Weber, an artist you don't see much of anymore, but who was obviously in love with her medium and her subject. Also, In a small gallery off the "Academician'" exhibit, there was a tiny show of pattern/decorative artists. Loved, loved, loved the Betty Woodman ceramic objects in the middle of that room. I don't want to call them vases, but perhaps they were.

And while you're in the neighborhood, go see the George Bellows down the street at the Met. What a surprise! It's up til Feb 18.