At the turn of the 20th Century, when a woman’s most acceptable occupation was motherhood, Bessie Potter Vonnoh succeeded professionally as a sculptor, flouting convention by focusing on a career instead of raising children. Rather than challenging traditional expectations of women, however, her sculptures idealized women as mothers. Her success as an independent, working artist rested on subject matter that supported traditional notions of women. This irony makes the Cincinnati Art Museum’s current exhibition Bessie Potter Vonnoh: Sculptor of Women all the more fascinating.
It was next to impossible for a woman to break into the realm of professional sculpture, which was dominated by men designing and erecting large public monuments.
Vonnoh must have realized she could be accepted by creating sculptures that were domestic in both subject and scale. Her work not only reassured her clients of a woman’s proper place in the world, but also served as lovely decorations small enough to display in middle-class homes. Further, Vonnoh depicted her subjects realistically but impressionistically — they are not smooth and flawless like classical sculpture, but appear to be modeled on-the-spot, further suggesting the natural state of woman as mother.
Virgins to Vixens: Picturing American Women, 1880–1930, a small companion show outside the Vonnoh exhibition, provides further historical context for her sculpture. Prints and photographs by American masters depict a myriad of female imagery.
See both shows at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Sept. 6.
Read Tamera Lenz Muente's full review here.