SAN DIEGO — The idea of an all-woman show at the San Diego Museum of Art sounds a tad sexist. More than 120 paintings and sculptures, and not one by a man?
Yep. That's "American Women Artists," a comprehensive survey of, well, American women artists from 1830 to 1930, that opened Saturday and continues through Jan. 31.
From portraits and still lifes to landscapes and traditional marble and bronze sculptures, the works are designed to make a clear statement that female American artists have been producing quality work for more than 100 years.
But when put in the context of women's place in art history, an all-woman show does not seem sexist so much as "a first step towards rewriting art history," said Museum of Art director Steven Brezzo.
Organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the exhibit, which opened the museum in Washington in April, has traveled to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. It will go in February to the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Unearthing and promoting the historic contributions by women to art and offering women artists a forum is the National Museum of Women's main raison d'etre.
The museum had its origins "as a very private, fun hobby with my husband and me . . . when we found out women weren't in the (art history) source books," said Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, the museum's president.
Holladay, and her husband began collecting art privately in the 1960s. While visiting an Austrian museum, they discovered the work of Clara Peeters, a 17th-Century Flemish painter. When they returned to their home in Washington to look up Peeters in the top art history book, H.W. Janson's "The History of Art," they found no mention of Peeters or any other women artists.
"It seems that in our Western society, it's part of our heritage somehow, women aren't taken very seriously," Holladay said. She and her husband made women the focus of their private collection.
At the urging of Nancy Hanks, the first director of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Holladays were encouraged to help form the new museum. They donated their collection of several hundred artworks to be the core of the museum's permanent collection.
In curating the current exhibit that opened the museum, Eleanor Tufts, an art history professor at Southern Methodist University, had to become a detective.
Among the works in the exhibit is "Going to the Bath," a painting of two nudes by Kathleen McEnery.
"She was in the 1913 Armory Show in New York," Tufts said. "That was quite an honor. It was the show that introduced European modernists. The mystery was about the rest of this woman's work."
McEnery, Tufts found, had married a businessman in Rochester, N.Y., had three children, and eventually gave up painting. Tufts was able to trace some of McEnery's art, however, by locating a daughter in Madison Mills, Va.
The show includes three pieces by Jean Maclane, an artist from the Art Deco period whose works Tufts finally tracked down to a gallery in Charlottesville, Va.
"This woman used to exhibit every year in New York," Tufts noted. "She was one of eight chosen to do paintings of international figures."
The National Museum for Women in the Arts has been criticized for "ghetto-izing" women artists by removing them from the mainstream. Holladay, however, doesn't buy such criticism.
"In 50 years, the Whitney (Museum of American Art) has had two shows by women artists," Holladay said. She has said that "less than 5% of the art in museums is done by women."
Tufts concurs with the need for a museum that focuses on women artists.
"From my point of view, it's one more museum in which women can show their art," Tufts said. "After all, museums have been negligent on this issue in the past."
But why have women received such short shrift throughout history? The art of some, like McEnery, suffered when they had children.
"A lot of the women artists did not promote themselves," Tufts said. "Men could always go to the bars and talk with the critics. Men had more freedom to socialize.
"I think of a painter right here in Dallas who exhibits. She says to me sort of wistfully, 'How do I get exhibited in other places?'
"I don't have the men artists asking me that question. I think they are a little more accustomed to hustling their art."