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Florence Griswold Museum Presents Bessie Potter Vonnoh Exhibition
Bessie Potter Vonnoh, Girl Dancing, modeled 1897; cast 1906 Bronze, Chrysler Museum of Art. Photo Credit: Ed Pollard.

OLD LYME, CT.- Today, the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut, presents the first exhibition devoted to Bessie Potter Vonnoh (1872–1955), the leading sculptor of American womanhood of her time and a pioneer among female artists. On view October 11, 2008 through January 11, 2009, Bessie Potter Vonnoh: Sculptor of Women spotlights a selection of the artist’s small sculpture and garden statuary that portrays women as both icons of beauty and moral guardians of family and home. As the home of the Lyme Art Colony, the Florence Griswold Museum is proud to serve as the first venue for this landmark exhibition organized by the Cincinnati Art Museum. Bessie Potter Vonnoh and her husband, the painter Robert Vonnoh, were both involved prominently in the Lyme Art Colony and lived in Lyme for many years.

“Vonnoh’s portrayals of women and children reflect the contemporary social attitudes of her time,” said Julie Aronson, curator of American painting and sculpture at the Cincinnati Art Museum and organizer of the exhibition. “This exhibition provides the perfect setting for all generations to converse about the woman’s role, how it has changed throughout history, and how artists have contributed to this global conversation.”

The exhibition, which features over 35 works created between 1895 and 1930, is drawn from private and public collections, including the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Florence Griswold Museum’s own collection. It presents Vonnoh’s sculpture in bronze, her favored medium, as well as three rare works in terra cotta and two portraits of the artist painted by her husband, American Impressionist Robert Vonnoh. Like American Impressionist painters, Bessie Vonnoh took contemporary daily life as her subject matter, focusing on statuettes of women and children dressed in the period’s fashions. She designed these intimate works for the artistic embellishment of the home at a time when most sculptors concentrated on grand public monuments. In her most famous diminutive sculpture A Young Mother (1896), she expressed the maternal bond with simplicity and reserve. Capturing the charm of youth, Girl Dancing (1897) is a work notable for Vonnoh’s tactile modeling of the skirt to suggest gauzy fabric.

Vonnoh’s career began at fourteen during her art studies under French-trained sculptor Lorado Taft. Upon graduation from the Art Institute of Chicago, she assisted Taft with the sculpture program for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Later travels to France provided Vonnoh greater exposure to contemporary French sculpture and infused her works with a new vibrancy. By bringing together so many of Vonnoh’s sculptures for the first time since her death, this exhibition offers visitors an unprecedented opportunity to study the special combination of naturalism and artistic interpretation that characterizes her work. The exhibition also introduces visitors to the art of bronze sculpture, created through collaboration between the sculptor and craftsmen at a bronze foundry. Vonnoh’s sculptural techniques are further revealed through the exhibition’s juxtaposition of her bronzes and terra cottas—in which Vonnoh experimented with the tactile properties of each medium. Three bronze versions of A Young Mother demonstrate various casting methods employed by Vonnoh. A short video on lost-wax casting by the Victoria and Albert Museum accompanies the exhibition to explain the method of casting Vonnoh preferred for its faithful translation of the artist’s touch from the clay model to the metal statuette.

A 1907 oil portrait of Vonnoh by her husband shows the sculptor at work and surrounded by some of the pieces that helped make her so prominent. Two of those sculptures, A Young Mother and Motherhood, appear in the exhibition. Robert Vonnoh paints himself into the portrait at work at his easel. In 1913, she entered the lucrative field of garden sculpture, creating elegant works such as Water Lilies for the estates of elite American industrialists. The exhibition also includes one of six bronzes of the willowy female figure designed in 1930 for The Frances Hodgson Burnett Memorial in New York City's Central Park, one of the artist's most prestigious public commissions.

The Vonnohs’ connection to Old Lyme began in 1905 when, encouraged by fellow artists, Bessie and Robert visited the Lyme Art Colony, a summer community becoming well known as a center for American Impressionism. It was here that they befriended Woodrow Wilson, then the president of Princeton University; his wife Ellen, a painter; and their daughters. Jesse, the middle daughter, would later model for the sculptor, a work in the collection of the Florence Griswold Museum that also appears in the exhibition. Later the Vonnohs bought a second home in Lyme and began to show at the Lyme Art Association, further immersing themselves in the popular artists community. They are buried, along with other leaders of the Colony artists, in Duck River Cemetery in Old Lyme. Archival materials from the Lyme Historical Society will enhance the story of the Vonnohs’ interactions with the colony.

During her career Vonnoh was honored numerous times for her contributions. In 1900, she was awarded a commission to produce a life-size statue cast in gold of the celebrated actress Maude Adams as the American Girl for the Exposition Universelles, reaffirming Vonnoh’s reputation as the leading sculptor of contemporary American womanhood. She was the second woman elected into the National Sculpture Society and was among the first female sculptors honored by the National Academy of Design. In 1931 she was named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her patrons included such luminaries as writer William Dean Howells, President Woodrow Wilson, and painter Theodore Robinson. The Cincinnati Art Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art were among the first museums to purchase her sculpture.

To accompany the Vonnoh sculptures, the museum presents a companion exhibition, Women Artists in Connecticut: Selections from the Florence Griswold Museum. This group of works from the Museum’s permanent collection focuses on the contributions of women artists in Connecticut, particularly the members of the Lyme Art Colony. Paintings, works on paper, portrait miniatures, and sculptures created between the 1870s and today provide a context for Bessie Potter Vonnoh: Sculptor of Women. Women’s early focus on still lifes and garden scenes, and their involvement in fields such as illustration and miniature painting reflects both the challenges they faced in entering the professional art world as well as the unflagging creativity that enabled them to flourish. Works by contemporary women artists reflect upon the legacy of Vonnoh and other female artists of her generation. Featured artists include Cecilia Beaux, Fidelia Bridges, Matilda Browne, Margaret Cooper, Judy Cotton, Elisabeth Gordon Chandler, Mary Roberts Ebert, Caro Weir Ely, Elizabeth Enders, Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, Barbara Eckhardt Goodwin, Lilian Westcott Hale, Breta and Lydia Longacre, Dorothy Ochtman, and Margaret Hardon Wright.

The national presentation of the exhibition and catalogue are generously supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, and Women’s Committee of the Cincinnati Art Museum. The exhibition at the Florence Griswold Museum is sponsored by People’s Bank, Pfizer Inc and the George A. Long and Grace L. Long Foundation.

Exhibition Catalogue - Bessie Potter Vonnoh: Sculptor of Women is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue co-published with Ohio University Press. Authored by exhibition’s curator Julie Aronson, the leading scholar on Vonnoh, Bessie Potter Vonnoh: Sculptor of Women is the first publication exclusively dedicated to Vonnoh’s career. The 308-page catalogue also includes an essay on connoisseurship by American sculpture expert Janis Conner. Copies will be available for purchase from the Florence Griswold Museum Shop. The catalogue retails for $39.95 (paperback) and $60.00 (hardcover).

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