Standing in The Fralin Museum of Art at UVA, surrounded by paintings from across the 19th and 20th centuries, you notice something about the passage of time in the museum’s current exhibition, “Feminine Likeness: Portraits of Women by American Artists, 1809-1950.” There’s a subtle shift as years slip by, a transformation in the representation of femininity and codes of womanhood.
But if the work makes it seem that artists do the representing, you’re only seeing half the story. “It was always a give and take between artists and the people being painted,” says curator Jennifer Camp. “A lot of these portraits reflect the self-representation of the sitter as much as the representation or painting by the artist.”
In other words, the faces of women on display don’t belong exclusively to those who wield the brush. It’s a dialogue that echoes changing norms on both sides of the canvas.
Camp, who is the Barringer-Lindner Curatorial Fellow at The Fralin and a Ph.D. candidate in history of American art and architecture at UVA, sees the collection as an opportunity for viewers to consider how they present themselves to the world “via imagery, or art, or even something as silly as the selfie,” she says.
Camp has long been fascinated by 20th- century American art, which stands at the nexus of social and visual experimentation.
“When you study American art, one of the first things you learn about is the Armory Show, which was a huge exhibition in New York that upended the art world and created all sorts of scandals,” she says. “It was where people were first introduced to cubism as well as other avant-garde movements.”
Camp’s interest in the shifts of social and cultural expectations, as well as visual language used by artists, led to the concept of “Feminine Likeness.”
As part of her fellowship, Camp was tasked with putting together an exhibition that draws from The Fralin’s collection. Under the mentorship of former curator Rebecca Schoenthal, she developed a show that features portrait painters such as Thomas Sully, Rembrandt Peale, George Luks and others. Through changes in fashion, accessories, facial expression and pose, the images on view reveal changes in expectations for women themselves.
“In the 19th century, only the very wealthiest people could typically afford [portraits],” says Camp. “Portraiture was very much about the accurate likeness, about conveying status and wealth. …Mather Brown shows a woman holding a letter. Letter writing was a sign of decorum as well as education.
“In the 20th century, you see a shift towards a brighter pallet, looser brush strokes, some more inventive posing. Henry Glintenkamp, the 1920s artist who has the final portrait of the show, depicts an older woman sort of staring off into the distance, surrounded by these small vignettes that seem to be depicting scenes from her life. It’s done in the very sort of cubist manner, with jagged lines, harsh angles, deep shadows and kind of distorted proportions. He’s less interested in straightforward naturalism and more interested in the inner character of this woman, in her feelings and emotions.”
Camp sees this shift as a response not only to the growing accessibility of photography, which rendered exact likenesses with ease, but women’s changing status in society. In the 1920s, she points out, women had recently gained the right to vote, and flappers were considered much more liberated than their mothers and grandmothers.
“The audience response to art can tell you a lot about whether the culture at large is ready for that idea,” Camp says. “It’s interesting to think about whether or not art can actually be a vehicle for social change. Why or why not?”