Women Artists at the Princeton University Art Museum

It all started with Angelica.

In late March, while leading a discussion on the University’s new gender-neutral housing policy during a meeting of Princeton Students for Gender Equality (PSGE), the group, inclined to free-flowing discussion, became distracted by a question about the intersection of art, gender, and feminism. Our conversation quickly sidetracked into a discussion about the representation of women artists in the Princeton University Art Museum. Having completed training to become a student tour guide at the Museum this past January, I was immediately curious about the question. As student guides, we are trained to present ten different objects throughout the galleries, from the Art of the Ancient Americas galleries to the Modern and Contemporary galleries, for a Highlights Tour. Of those ten pieces, only one is by a woman: Angelica Kauffman’s Portrait of Sarah Harrop (Mrs. Bates) as a Muse. In fact, this eighteenth-century portrait was an extraordinary achievement during a period that included relatively few women artists due to societal constraints that made it impossible for women to receive the same training as men.

 Angelica Kauffmann, British, born in Switzerland, 1741–1807, Portrait of Sarah Harrop (Mrs. Bates) as a Muse, 1780–81. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase, Surdna Fund and Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, FundAngelica became the focus of our inquiry and served as the impetus for a more exhaustive examination of the representation of women in the Museum. Her 1780–81 portrait of Harrop, in the neoclassical style, is one of my favorite pieces on view in the Museum because both Kauffman, a prodigious artist and a founding member of the Royal Academy, and Harrop, an opera singer who was one of the foremost interpreters of Handel’s music in her day, were independent women who achieved success in their own right. The painting is considered one of Kauffman’s masterpieces in portraiture, and its history and sociocultural context add layers of meaning that enrich the visitors’ experience.

Katherine Fleming, one of the copresidents of PSGE, and I embarked on an ambitious project of cataloguing all of the women artists in the Museum’s collection, working from its online artist index. Halfway through the “Bs,” Katherine and I realized our error: the problem was not a lack of women artists in the Museum’s collection per se, it was instead a disproportionate lack of representation in the history of visual art overall. After several walk-throughs, I counted on different occasions between twenty and thirty pieces by women artists in the galleries. (The Museum does not maintain a “permanent collection” on view but instead regularly rotates the pieces in each gallery.)

After several e-mails—as well as collaboration with and significant aid from Veronica White, curator of academic programs, and Cara Bramson, student outreach and programming coordinator—we emerged with a tentative list of works. Our concept was not, in any sense, novel but initially was inspired by a similar project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: a tour titled “Nasty Women of the Metropolitan Museum” organized by a private tour company, Shady Ladies Tours.

Peyton Lawrenz leading a tour through the galleries.I emphasize that this project was driven by passion. As soon as I started looking at labels in museums, considering the ways that women are presented and are present in museums—as naked figures, as objects of others’ attention, and through representations rendered by men—the task of learning about the few voices of women artists who are represented became all-important.

Through the second half of the semester, working from the list of works that Veronica compiled, I embarked on the task of researching the objects, with the aim of developing a tour of the Museum and the Works on Paper Study Room, where I was able to show pieces from the collections not currently on view. I was able to include a range of women who worked in various media, including Ana Mendieta, Angelica Kauffman, Anna Atkins, Carrie Mae Weems, Cindy Sherman, Elizabeth Catlett, Gabriele Münter, the Guerilla Girls, Hannah Wilke, Her Suyoung, Kay Sage, Maria Montoya Martinez, Mickalene Thomas, Myra Greene, Nan Goldin, Pat Steir, Sarah Charlesworth, and Zanele Muholi. 

In late April, Katherine and I dedicated an evening to these voices, leading a tour through the Museum’s galleries, stopping to introduce the pieces by women artists before moving to the upstairs study room to view several pieces from the collection that were not on view. It was an evening filled with passion and empowerment as I delighted in the opportunity to showcase the incredible talent and power of opinionated, unstoppable, and original women artists. However, it was also a solemn occasion as we trudged past entire galleries and sections of the Museum where women’s voices are not represented. To quote a slogan plastered across a Guerilla Girls poster from 1989: “You’re seeing less than half the picture without the vision of women artists.”

The Museum exists as an extension of the academic boundaries of the University. It is a center of cultural life—a microcosmic collection of the shared cultural patrimony of the world, and the site of discussion and debate. Here, the Art Museum’s continued commitment to collecting and showcasing the work of women reflects the University community’s interest in diversity of representation. In recent years, the Campus Art Steering Committee has commissioned, and the Museum has overseen the installation of, major new works by Ursula van Rydingsvard at the Andlinger Center and Shahzia Sikander at The Julis Romo Rabinowitz Building and the Louis A. Simpson International Building. Just in the past five years, the Museum has acquired notable works by Lynda Benglis, Elizabeth Catlett, Magdalene Odundo, Kiki Smith, Myra Greene, and Ayana Jackson, as well as a set of all of the Guerrilla Girls posters, to add to their growing collection. Visit the Museum or simply wander campus to encounter objects by these extraordinary artists.

Peyton Lawrenz

Class of 2019