Recently, John Updike participated in a wonderful project under the auspices of the US National Endowment for the Humanities. He collected photographic prints of 40 American works of arts for distribution to US schools. The prints are meant to represent the history of American art.
Updike’s 2008 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities describes some of the choices and discloses the guiding principles used in the selection process, with these introductory comments:
As many in this audience already know, the National Endowment for the Humanities, in association with the American Library Association, has launched in 2008 a program that will supply classrooms and public libraries with reproductions of significant American art, one example on each side of twenty high-quality posters, forty examples in all, under the overall title Picturing America. It was my idea, invited to give the 2008 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, to use some of these forty works, with others, to pose the question, “What is American about American art?” The question has often arisen; it was asked in almost these exact same words in 1958, by Lloyd Goodrich, then the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. His essay was titled “What Is American-in American Art?” and began, “One of the most American traits is our urge to define what is American. This search for a self-image is a result of our relative youth as a civilization, our years of partial dependence on Europe. But it is also a vital part of the process of growth.” Inquiries into an essential American-ness are less fashionable, my impression is, than they were fifty years ago, since they inevitably gravitate, in this age of diversity and historical revision, to that least hip of demographic groups, white Protestant males of northern European descent. These thin-lipped patriarchal persons figure, as founding Puritans or Founding Fathers, as Western pioneers or industrial magnates, at every juncture of traditional history books, and our diverse, eclectic, skeptical present population may have heard quite enough about them.
Yet my skimming survey of our sensitively diverse set of forty artworks cannot avoid these founders.
Updike goes on to describe paintings by John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Charles Grant and Norman Rockwell, amongst several others.
I know nothing of their lips, but it doesn’t seem controversial to agree that they are patriarchal. JJ’s post points out that only two of the forty are women. And, as she notes, thus far there doesn’t appear to be much criticique of the selection. Gee, Georgia O’Keefe isn’t even included.
When I began blogging all of three months ago, I noticed immediately that it was just a little more difficult to indulge my interest in politics, art, photography and poetry if I was also interested in the contribution that women make and have made in these areas. I simply had to dig a little harder to find the women.
By far the most difficult work to find was that of women artists and photographers, and especially Canadian women’s art. I started my own little series of that genre and I still publish a post from time to time. The fact is, I have to be willing to spend more time than I often have digging for it.
In any case, I think I shall now expand the category to include American women artists. Beginning with Letta Crapo-Smith. The immediate difficulty is that I can’t find out a whole helluva lot about her. No Wiki entry and not much else either. I know that she was the granddaughter of Henry Crapo-Smith, the first Governor of Michigan and that her painting “The First Birthday” was the first one by a woman from Michigan to be shown in the Paris Salon, an important annual exhibition.
Then there’s this photograph of Smith from the Smithsonian:
Description: Photograph of Letta Crapo-Smith taken by F. Friend. Annotated on reverse by Detroit painter Helen Keep, “Letta Crapo-Smith, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. H. H. H. Crapo-Smith. The first person from Detroit to have a picture in the Paris Salon, [signed] Helen L. Keep.” Crapo-Smiths (1862-1921) was a painter from Detroit, Michigan.
Creator/Photographer: F. Friend
And this lovely still life by Smith: