You won’t find Frida Kahlo or Georgia O’Keefe in Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (In That Order) and that’s probably for the best.
Bridget Quinn’s survey, published earlier this month by Chronicle Books, examines the lives of artists who were overlooked or overshadowed by history, but whose impact resonates today. The book includes examples of the artists’ works and is lavishly illustrated by Lisa Congdon
Broad Strokes unfolds like a series of hidden histories, telling the story of Paula Modersohn-Becker, the first woman to paint a nude self-portrait, or Edmonia Lewis, a half-black, half-Chippewa sculptor who escaped Civil War era America to Rome, leaving behind a masterpiece (“The Death of Cleopatra”) hiding in plain sight for nearly 100 years.
“Somehow, by 1892 [“Cleopatra”] was on display at a Chicago saloon. Later it became the property of a notorious local gambler, ‘Blind John’ Conlon, who may have won it in a bet.”
Did you know that Virginia Woolf had a sister named Vanessa Bell whose paintings helped shape Modernism? Or that painter Rosa Bonheur was acquainted with Buffalo Bill Cody? Or that the sculptor Ruth Asawa was sent to an internment camp in California when she was 16 years old?
“Why is an artist lost and then found?” Quinn asks the reader in the course of her investigation. For women, it’s usually not that mysterious. The duties of marriage and motherhood, imposed by the prevailing patriarchy, typically dictate a choice between a “normal” life and an artistic one. In many cases that choice was, and continues to be, a matter of life and death.
“Art is a guaranty of sanity” writes Louis Bourgeois, who lived until she was 98 and made art for seven decades, but not all of the artists collected in Broad Strokes were so fortunate.
In the course of telling the stories of these remarkable women, Quinn describes her own journey in the art world.
“What I discovered as a grad student in New York was the necessary and exhausting emotion of confronting art itself. The messy, sexy, physically unnerving shock of the real. That paintings can seduce you, sicken you, haunt you.”
Quinn imbues the narrative with sparks of discovery and flashes of insight that one finds in the best art appreciation. But her interest isn’t merely academic. Throughout the book Quinn uses the example of these trailblazing women to chart her own course as a student, writer, wife and mother, making Broad Strokes a tantalizing read for artists and aficionados alike.