National Museum of Women in the Arts: An Extraordinary History

Esther Mahlangu, a member of Ndebele tribe of South Africa, arrived at NMWA to celebrate a display of the BMW she was commissioned to paint with tribal designs.
Image from A Museum of their Own, published by Abbeville Press

“In 1962, the major art history textbook by H.W. Janson did not include a single woman artist, not even Mary Cassatt or Georgia O’Keeffe,” Wilhelmina Cole Holladay observed, justifiably indignant, in her book A Museum of their Own, in which she tells the history of her founding of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She goes on, “I was eager to challenge Janson’s assumption that women’s contributions to the history of art were negligible.” Holladay’s vision, her energy, and her dedication ensured that the NMWA—a project that she began in the 1960s as a personal collection of art by women—grew first into a “museum without walls” in the early 1980s, in which visitors could schedule docent-led tours of the collection at the Holladays’ home, and then, after the museum purchased a landmark building (what used to be the Masonic Temple, a few blocks from the White House in Washington D.C.) and renovated it, in 1987 the National Museum of Women in the Arts finally opened to the public. Now, the NMWA carries on its mission statement, to “bring recognition to the achievements of women artists of all periods and nationalities.” And that’s just the beginning.

The NMWA’s core collection includes pieces by now-canonical artists—from a wide range of backgrounds, time periods, and styles—such as Sofonisba Anguissola, Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Lee Krasner, and Cindy Sherman. The collection also houses works from less well-known but no less visionary women, and includes many extraordinary pieces from contemporary artists. Abbeville’s A Museum of their Own includes 170 illustrations, representing the museum’s core collection as well as its momentous historical events and exhibitions, and Holladay’s stories and recollections provide a wonderful personal context for the museum’s history.

Holladay shares several extended anecdotes about the exhibition of a mural by South African artist Esther Mahlangu. In an unexpected pairing with BMW (Mahlangu was one of thirteen artists—and the only woman—invited to paint a series of cars), the NMWA hosted Mahlangu in Washington D.C. and asked her to paint a mural on the façade of a building annexed to the main museum. Holladay recounts how Mahlangu, as she painted the mural from the scaffolding, stopped traffic for hours. The exhibition attracted much attention, and Maya Angelou came to speak at Mahlangu’s opening. Even Nelson Mandela came to see the exhibition, a visit that Holladay recalls in detail:

The National Museum of Women in the Arts was the only museum he visited in Washington. I was preparing to take him on a tour of the exhibition when a member of his entourage pulled me aside and said, “Under no circumstances are you to take him up and down steps, on doctor’s orders.”

The show included some wonderful tapestries, handmade by the women of the Ndebele tribe, which had been hung at a lower level. As I was leading President Mandela through the exhibition he looked over the railing of our spiral stairway and spotted the tapestries. He became excited and said, “Come, Mrs. Holladay. I want to tell you about those tapestries.” He proceeded to march down the steps while telling me about the folktales that the tapestries depicted.

How could anyone stop Nelson Mandela from walking down the stairs when that’s what he wanted to do? Let alone when he was so eager to see the work and to share the folktales he knew? Holladay admitted there were a few gasps and looks at her, but that Mandela was just fine. What a relief—and an unforgettable story!


Click here for more information on A Museum of their Own: National Museum of Women in the Arts, published by Abbeville Press.

Botanica Magnifica: Celebrating Spring

Iris ‘Jean Marie’ German or Bearded Iris
Iridaceae, Iris Family
Rhizomatous perennial herb to 3ft. (1m) tall, flower to 8in. (20 cm) across
From Botanica Magnifica, by Jonathan Singer, published by Abbeville Press

Nothing says spring like the year’s first flowers pushing their way up in the sun—crocuses, daffodils, and irises (oh my!) are some of the early signs of the season to come, full of life and color. And no one has captured the energy and grace of flowers with such vitality as Jonathan Singer in his Botanica Magnifica, which has been praised by botanists and artists alike for its stunning presentation of detail and for the elegance and astonishing clarity of its images. Indeed, Singer captures the personality and poise of each flower he photographs, and the result is not merely a reproduction but a portrait, imbued with the spirit of its subject.

Today at the Abbeville Blog, we’re celebrating the official first day of spring, and along with it our release of the new Tiny Folio edition of Jonathan Singer’s Botanica Magnifica: Portraits of the World’s Most Extraordinary Flowers and Plants, published by Abbeville Press. This magnificent book was originally released in an edition of only ten copies, as a monumental Double Elephant Folio in five hand-bound volumes—a large-scale project proven worthy of its artistic predecessor, namely Audubon’s Birds of America. The original release of Botanica Magnifica has found its home in the Smithsonian, and Abbeville subsequently released the Baby Elephant Folio edition; now, the Tiny Folio preserves all 251 photographs from the original, but compacted into a palm-sized book—still full color, and still resplendent with Singer’s singular sense of sophistication and charm.

Singer expresses in light and near-incandescent color against shadow—a technique that prompted one ARTnews critic to comment on his flowers “emerging from the shadows in a manner evocative of Old Master paintings”—a buoyancy and luminosity rarely seen in botanical photography, which captures and conveys not only the physical qualities of the plant but also its living essence. Take, for example, how the Iris ‘Jean Marie’ above—with its tender stripes and its delicate pout—floats weightlessly over the dark background, with just a hint of green stem to anchor the bloom to the earth: the iris becomes an emblem of levity, of the immediate and overwhelming liveliness of spring.


Click here for more information on the new Tiny Folio edition of Botanica Magnifica, published by Abbeville Press.

Mary Cassatt: An Independent Woman

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)
Girl Arranging Her Hair, 1886
Oil, 29½ x 24½”
Chester Dale Collection, The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Image from Mary Cassatt: Paintings and Prints, published by Abbeville Press

This week at Abbeville we’re continuing to celebrate women’s history and women in the arts, and Mary Cassatt is one of our favorite figures. Cassatt spent much of her adult life living in Paris, where she exhibited alongside Degas and other impressionist painters in what she preferred to call the Independent movement in painting (she despised the term “Impressionism”), and she is especially well known for her compositions of women and women with children. Art critic and historian Frank Getlein, author of Mary Cassatt: Painting and Prints, sets Cassatt’s work in context, and each image from his generous selection—all of them splendidly reproduced in full-color—has a story of its own.

Cassatt became interested in painting at an early age, and when she was 16, she began her studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, considered at the time to be the most prestigious art academy in America. Eventually she left, frustrated by the limitations placed on her curriculum because of the fact that she was a woman—for example, she could not paint from live models, and instead was restricted to using plaster casts. When Cassatt went to Paris several years later in 1866 (not the first time she had gone there, as her family had lived in Paris and in Germany for several years during her youth) she was able to paint from life, she studied under several European painters, and developed her technique copying the old masters in the Louvre.

Cassatt is unmistakable for her ability to paint subjects and make them appear utterly natural in their world, seeming not posed but poised, unaware of the artist’s eye, self-composed and very much alive. Her paintings of women do not resort to idealization or fuzzy sentimentality, and Getlein comments: “Cassatt knew and painted women and their world from the inside. In contrast, almost the whole history of art presents women as objects; whether they are Venus, the Virgin Mary, a classical form of beauty, or a saucy baggage, they are they, people out there to be looked at for their surfaces. With Mary Cassatt, almost for the first time, women become subjects, they are we.”

In Girl Arranging Her Hair, above, Cassatt renders the young woman with a “raw-boned ungainliness,” but she becomes distinguished by the long S shape (together formed by her arms and her hair) that gives the composition a timeless elegance. Getlein recalls for us a charming and illuminating anecdote about the painting:

The story goes that Cassatt and Degas were having one of their regular quarrels over art that punctuated their close and enduring friendship. Degas, who was an unrepentant chauvinist, announced abruptly that women should not express opinions about style since they had, and could have, no idea of what style might be. Cassatt, infuriated as she often was by such sexist pronouncements from her friend and mentor, resolutely took to her studio to produce a painting that even Degas would admit had that elusive, hard-to-define quality.

And as the story continues, when Degas finally saw the painting, he proclaimed, “What style!” and the argument was over. Cassatt had proven her point, and her style is unquestionably her own.


Click here for more information on Mary Cassatt, published by Abbeville Press.

Frida Kahlo: Framing “The Frame”

Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) The Frame (Le Cadre), or Portrait of the Artist, c. 1937–38
Oil on aluminum fixed under glass and painted wood, with frame 12 11⁄16 ✕ 9 5⁄8 in. (32.2 ✕ 24.4 cm)
Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou
Image from Artists’ Self-Portraits, published by Abbeville Press

Frida Kahlo has become an icon in twentieth century art, a figure to challenge the dominant, male trends and to refute classical notions of beauty, especially those of the stereotypically demure role that women are asked to play. Kahlo’s self-portrait above, “The Frame,” self-consciously reduces the artist to a traditional, flat icon in which the colorful frame calls to our attention and the image begins to dominate the actual woman. In Omar Calabrese’s insightful survey of the art of self-portraiture, Abbeville’s Artists’ Self-Portraits, he contextualizes Kahlo’s “ideology of the body” in order to show fully how her many self-portraits (55 of Kahlo’s paintings, out of a total of 143, are self-portraits) expressed her conception of herself as a woman and an artist, and her rebellion against sexist and elitist attitudes even within the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century. Calabrese notes:

Kahlo emphasized the representation of her body in provocative fashion, sometimes showing herself wounded, sometimes ugly, sometimes reduced to a popular icon, always accentuating certain identifying features.

Kahlo’s imagery of herself is often nightmarish, but when  André Breton called her a “spontaneous Surrealist,” Kahlo denied the title, maintaining she painted not dreams but her own reality. When asked why she made so many self-portraits, Kahlo famously replied, “Because I am so often alone…because I am the subject I know best.” Kahlo’s life is displayed in her art, and her focus on the physical body and on suffering stems from her biography, from a tragic bus accident that left her with severe spinal injuries, and with painful complications and repercussions for the rest of her life. It was during her recovery from this accident that Kahlo learned to paint, and she developed her own artistic identity through her use of traditional Mexican painting techniques and a strong—truly unmistakable—style of personal expression.


Click here for more information on Artists’ Self-Portraits, published by Abbeville Press.

Sofonisba Anguissola: A Renaissance Self-Portrait

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532–1625)
Self-portrait while Painting the Madonna and Child, 1556
Oil on canvas, 26 ✕ 22 7/16 in. (66 ✕ 57 cm)
Lancut, Muzeum Zamek
Image from Artists’ Self-Portraits, published by Abbeville Press

Self-portraiture reveals much more than the artist’s physical appearance: it weaves symbol and subtle narrative and captures a projected self-image within an historical moment. A self-portrait captures the conception of an artist as artist, her essential energy and style—not simply with the choice of posture and clothing and color but with aesthetic and motif and compositional tone. As we come full swing into March and Women’s History Month, we’ll be looking at the remarkable histories of a few exemplary artists, at women who overcame the difficulties of their position and helped to change the conception of women’s role in the art world.

In his illuminating study of self-portraiture, Artists’ Self-Portraits, published by Abbeville press— printed with 250 gorgeous full-color illustrations—Omar Calabrese explores the history of self-portraiture as a genre, with its all of its subtle complexities. In his insightful chapter on women and the self-portrait, Calabrese focuses on several Renaissance women who developed their identity and role as artists in a profession that at the time was not eager to accept women into its ranks. Among them, Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625, born into an aristocratic Italian family who ensured her education in the fine arts from a young age; she later studied with Michelangelo) developed a bold style with a strong sense of identity, and her successes helped to open the painting profession to women of future generations.

In her self-portrait above, Sofonisba expresses her sprezzatura—an intricate display of elegance and wit—with a bold flourish. Calabrese explains:

One of Sofonisba’s self-portraits where she is shown painting the Madonna and Child, contains an indicative inscription: “I, Sofonisba Anguissola, unmarried, am the equal of the Muses and Apelles in playing my songs and handling my paints.” In other words, Anguissola compares herself to the most renowned (male) painter in antiquity, thereby following a rhetorical scheme that had become common in the late Renaissance.

Sofonisba was one of the few Renaissance women to paint self-portraits in her later years, and she painted herself even at the age of seventy-eight, aged but with a clear, fearless expression—a self-portrait in direct opposition to the stereotypes of the canon, which coveted youth and idealized beauty. Her courage is self-evident in her paintings, and through the strength of her vision and her dedication, she remains one of the great champions and innovators of her time, invaluable to us four centuries after her work first gripped audiences of the European Renaissance.


Click here for more information on Artists’ Self-Portraits, published by Abbeville Press.

Nothing But the Blues: Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith is seen here as a young woman at the outset of her career. Image from Nothing But the Blues.

“The story of the blues is inseparable from the story of the phonograph record,” Richard K. Spottswood writes in his chapter women and the blues, from Abbeville’s captivating survey of blues music and blues musicians, Nothing But the Blues. The phonograph meant that music became accessible to new audiences, and thanks to Columbia Records’ contract with Western Electric to license new recording techniques starting in 1925, the recordings we have of singers such as Bessie Smith capture far more accurately her deep, earthy, commanding voice.

Mamie Smith held the distinction of recording what is officially known as the first blues recording in 1920, of her “Crazy Blues,” and soon after many more women followed suit—the decade that followed proved extraordinary in the history of women’s voices in the blues. One seemingly impossible story from those years is the legend that Bessie Smith was turned down after auditioning with several recording companies, perhaps because her powerful, sensual voice could have overpowered any instrumentation. Still, how Thomas Edison (the same Edison who invented the phonograph) could have written in young Bessie Smith’s talent file that her voice was “no good” is almost beyond belief. In 1923, Frank Walker heard her sing and recognized immediately her talent, and she signed a contract with Columbia Records.

Bessie Smith and other blueswomen of her generation wrote and sang bravely about hard times and difficult—and often taboo—subjects. Through the candor and the passion of their expression, they have now reached audiences worldwide, and their recordings continue to move listeners and to bring people together. In his information chapter, contributing author of Nothing But the Blues, David Evans discusses the trailblazing importance of these women:

Their songs combined elements of the cabaret-vaudeville style with the toughness of country blues, as they sang in an unaffected manner of violence, cheating men, the drudgery of their workaday lives, lovemaking, nightmare images, escape, and a whole host of other subjects. Many of their recordings displayed songwriting skills of a high order that deserve greater recognition and exposure.



Click here for more information on Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press.

Gospel Voices of Hope: Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson

Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Image from Nothing But the Blues.

Today is International Women’s Day, and to honor and celebrate the occasion, for our final installation of our week looking at women in the blues, we’re focusing on two iconic women, renowned for the strength of their spirits and beliefs, and for their astounding music. “There’s something about the gospel blues,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe expressed, “that’s so deep the world can’t stand it.” We understand what she meant, though of course we certainly can stand Tharpe’s swinging spirituals, her rhythm and her unforgettably passionate voice. Tharpe was one of the first stars to bring gospel to a national audience, and she was stunning the crowds in the late 1930s with her “holy roller” sound.

Tharpe’s contemporary Mahalia Jackson, who started recording in 1937, had a fairly limited (but very devoted) audience until she was discovered by jazz enthusiasts in the 1950s, and she then ascended to high fame after her debut on the Ed Sullivan show in 1958. When the gospel tradition came to its height in the 1960s, Mahalia Jackson became synonymous with the music and its message, which became an integral part of the civil rights movement.

In Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press, author Jim O’Neal writes a chapter on the blues revival of the 1960s, and he talks about the importance of blues and gospel for the civil rights movement, from freedom songs to spirituals and gospel. At the time, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) coordinator Worth Long sought musicians for the cause, to bring people together and raise community spirit. Long recalled:

The freedom singers would sing spirituals, gospel, and then they had some work song and blues element. The fact that it happened in jail for your freedom meant that it became sacred in a sense, no matter how you sang it. In jail, people sang a lot of blues, man, a lot of blues.

For International Women’s Day, we could all use some of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s and Mahalia Jackson’s open inspiration in confronting the continuing challenges women face. As Mahalia wrote in her 1966 autobiography: “Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing them you are delivered of your burden. You have a feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong.” Thank you for spreading that hope, Mahalia—today we celebrate your memory and your legacy.


Click here for more information on Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press.

Memphis Minnie and Her Mean Guitar

This studio glamour shot of Memphis Minnie hardly conveys her powerful approach to the blues. She was among the greatest blues artists of all time. Image from Nothing But the Blues.

As we mentioned last time, blues in the early 1920s was distinguished by the powerful performances and recordings of a number of women blues singers—Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox, and Bessie Smith each contributed her voice to the still-developing sound of the blues. Among them, Memphis Minnie made a name for herself, not only for her gritty, expressive voice but also for her hard-driving guitar. In her teens, she played guitar and sang on the streets in Memphis, and by the 1920s she had earned a name for herself and regularly performed at clubs, parties, and juke joints. She began recording in 1929, after a Columbia Records talent scout discovered her playing at a Beale street barbershop.

Minnie was one of the few early blues women with continued success all the way through into the 1950s. This was perhaps, in part, because she adapted fluidly to changing tastes and trends—she shifted her style from early down-home country blues to urban blues without losing her distinctive sound. That time of transition was hard on female blues musicians, and after the 1930s women were encouraged to take up popular music and show tunes. In Abbeville’s Nothing But the Blues, Mary Katherine Aldin describes the difficulties women faced in the blues industry:

They were “kept in their place” both personally and professionally, and with rare exceptions stayed that way until the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Memphis Minnie and Sister Rosetta Tharpe make it okay for their sisters to be tough, outspoken, and play a mean lead guitar.

Memphis Minnie broke away from gender stereotypes, and she kept women’s role in the blues alive long after men came to control the genre; she also paved the way for future generations of women blues artists and set an example for women working in any male-dominated industry. Her life and work serve as a challenge and an inspiration to us today.


Click here for more information on Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press.

“Ma” Rainey, Mother of the Blues

“Ma” Rainey, one of the most important and influential of all female blues artists, seen with her Georgia Band, Georgia Tom Dorsey, piano. Image from Nothing But the Blues.

“Ain’t nobody in the world been able to holler ‘Hey Bo-weavil’ like her. Not like Ma. Nobody,” claimed fellow blueswoman Victoria Spivey about Gertrude Pridgett “Ma” Rainey. In “Bo-Weavil Blues,” one of her most popular songs, Ma Rainey sang—or bellowed, really, in her powerful, smoky contralto—lyrics such as “I don’t want no man to put no sugar in my tea.” Her performances have left a legacy of glamour, and recollections of Ma Rainey on stage include legends of her opening act of hiding inside an empty Victrola box and then emerging—decked out in sequins and a necklace made of gold twenty-dollar coins—singing “Moonshine Blues” to wild applause.

March is Women’s History Month, and at the Abbeville Blog we’re kicking things off this week with a closer look at some of the remarkable histories of women in the blues. Starting in the 1930s and 40s, blues music came to be dominated by men and their guitars, but decades earlier women played a formative role in the genre. In Nothing But the Blues, one of our authors, Richard Spottswood, reconstructs a timeline that begins at the turn of the twentieth century, when blues queen Ma Rainey, who was often billed as Mother of the Blues, may have been one of the very first people to hear and to sing the blues. Spottswood reports how, according to an interview by folksong scholar John W. Work, Ma Rainey first heard the blues when she was touring her tent-show in a small town in Missouri in 1902:

She tells of a girl from the town who came to the tent one morning and began to sing about the “man” who had left her. The song was so strange and poignant that it attracted much attention. Ma Rainey became so interested that she learned the song from the visitor, and used it often in her “act” as an encore.

More than twenty years passed between that fateful morning and the day Ma Rainey made her first blues recording in 1923, including “Bo-Weavil Blues.” Some of her other hits (songs such as “Sissy Blues,” “Prove It on Me Blues,” and “Hustling Blues”) can surprise new listeners even now with their head-on and no-holds-barred approach to taboo subjects—in them, Ma Rainey sings about homosexuality, prostitution, drug abuse, and social deviance. That doesn’t mean they’re vulgar. In fact, in his chapter on women and the blues, Spottswood writes: “These and other tough-minded songs pull no punches. They’re blues at their best, allowing humor to merge with grief, and candor in turn to displace vulgarity.”


Click here for more information on Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press.

Q&A with Steven Kasher, Part 3

“Sit-in at F.W. Woolworth’s lunch counter, Jackson, Mississippi, May 28, 1963,” by Fred Blackwell. Image from The Civil Rights Movement.

Steven Kasher is a photographer, curator, and author of the book The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68, published by Abbeville Press. This week, Kasher was kind enough to answer a few questions for the Abbeville Blog, and here, in the final portion of the interview, he talks about the role of photography and the continuing influence of the Civil Rights Movement.

Q. What role did photography play throughout the Movement?

A. You can mark the beginning of what we call the 60s—the era of protests and counterculture in America and elsewhere—to February 1960, when there was the sit-in in Greensboro, which started very small—just four college freshmen trying to get a cup of coffee in a Woolworth’s. Their action was a spark that kindled a fire that spread through the South very rapidly. Over a matter of weeks and months there were protests all over the South inspired by that first one. The tinder was there, and it had to be dry and ready to take the spark, and how exactly that happened is a very important part of the history. But the actions were spread through the news, the news media, and photography was a major part of that spreading of the word.

“Sit-in training session, Virginia State College, Petersburg, 1960,” by Eve Arnold. Image from The Civil Rights Movement.

As the movement progressed, it was constantly being written about, snowballing as it went on. At first, the media attention was purely repressed and skeptical, but as the Movement gathered power and also learned how to publicize themselves, the word got out more and more, and it quickly reached beyond the South—into the North and to the newspapers that government leaders and the President of the United States read, and people around the world read. The accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement were very real and very much due to the direct action of everyday black people.

Q. How did the Civil Rights Movement inspire or serve as a role model for subsequent causes and movements for social change?

A. It has been an extremely important—if not the most important—social movement of our time. The Civil Rights Movement was really the first movement of the 60s. It inspired directly the peace movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, the environmental movement. The people who started all these other movements very often were trained in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s really endless, the effect of the Civil Rights Movement.

Q. What do you see as the continuing impact and importance of these photographs, half a century later?

A. I hope that people will read the book and look at the pictures and be inspired to see that a few people banded together and protesting in brave and creative ways can change a lot of things. That, to me, is the continuing message of the Civil Rights Movement. To look at it and see a lot has been achieved, and you can’t help looking at it and seeing that a lot still remains to be done, when you look at America, which still has racism and still has tremendous inequality. So the story is there to inspire us, to work continuously to make more equality.


Click here for more information on The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68, published by Abbeville Press.