Seeing my friend Rob Wynne’s show at the Brooklyn Museum, an “activation” of the permanent collection, I found myself pausing time and again to study works that were impressive and striking—some by renowned artists but many by artists I’d never heard of.
Case in point: among the 19th-century portraits is one of Sarah Cowell LeMoyne, an actress, by Jane E. Bartlett (who???), from 1877. It’s a startlingly modern portrayal, with its forward pose and head-on gaze, and it feels like a collaboration between two forthright, ambitious women. To the right of it hangs William Merritt Chase’s full-length portrait of Lydia Field Emmet, an artist herself, from 1892. She, too, seems self-assured, looking back over her shoulder, with her hand on her hip, but Chase presents her in a more traditional fashion, in keeping with the conventions of the period. (Swipe left for Bartlett’s portrait of LeMoyne, and left again for Chase’s of Emmet.)
Rob has inserted an exclamation point on the wall between the two portraits, as if to register our amazement at these bold women, ahead of their time, and to call attention to the fact that, besides painters like Chase, whose names we know, there were accomplished artists that history has overlooked. It’s a welcome surprise to see that many of these were women. Their rediscovery is long overdue.