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    Cover photo: "The Passing Train," by Marianne Stokes. 1890. Oil on canvas.

    Paint the scene. It’s 1887 and you’re an aspiring artist living in Cincinnati with dreams of your work hanging in the most prestigious museums in the world. You decide to pick up from home and move across the pond to Paris. Only, there’s one small problem. You’re a woman.

    This was the life of painter Elizabeth Nourse. Traveling with her sister, she left her life in America behind and moved to France. But what she found wasn’t freedom, exactly. Women living in Paris at the time were not to leave their homes without an escort, smoke, wear pants, have a bank account or attend highly-esteemed art institutes like École des Beaux-Arts. To Nourse’s disappointment, all of the glitz and glamour of the idealized city of love crashed down around her. But she recognized her talent and knew she deserved a place in the art scene. Months later, she enrolled into Académie Julian, the only Parisian school that accepted female artists at that time.

    Paint the scene. The elevator doors open, and there’s Erika Holmquist-Wall, chief curator at the Speed Art Museum, here to talk about an exhibition called Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism. “This is a project that’s been in the works for almost a decade. Eighty-seven works. Thirty-seven different women artists. Thirteen countries represented. It’s an expansive show. You have to let it wash over you,” she says.

    "Children Playing on the Beach," by Mary Cassatt. 1884. Oil on canvas.

    Photos of Paris in the mid-1800s cover the walls, setting the stage for the world we’re about to enter. Turning the corner, we get a look behind the scenes of how women Impressionists got their starts — self-portraits, facsimiles of famous works that hung in the Louvre and paintings of other women artists. In a work by Swedish painter Hanna Pauli, her roommate sits on the floor, un-corseted and molding clay with her mouth open, mid-sentence. “When this was exhibited, it caused such a scandal,” Holmquist-Wall says. “It’s depicting a normal evening at home, yet it’s so very modern compared to the very restrictive expectations set against women at the time.”

     “When we signed up for the show three years ago, I had no idea that the conversation about women right now in the political landscape would be so timely and relevant,” she tells me later. “It feels more important now than ever to talk about gender equality. It’s like everything changes and nothing changes.”

    As we walk deeper into the exhibit, a narrative starts to emerge: The outside world defiantly colors itself on the canvases. Women move out of the studio and into their homes to paint family members, into parlors to paint their friends and to beaches to paint babies playing in the sand. One section is devoted to landscape paintings. “What happens is, artists arrive back home after studying in Paris, and the light is totally different. It’s not the hazy French light where everything is soft and blurry,” Holmquist-Wall says. “Instead, the light is clear, cold and crisp. Everything they learned in Paris has to be recalibrated, and as a result, you get an incredible new way of painting that is naturalistic and infused with a certain mood. Landscapes become about national identity.”

    "Echo," by Ellen Thesleff. 1891. Oil on canvas.

    Holmquist-Wall intends the exhibition to give women a visual megaphone and show the universality of gender inequality, no matter the time period. Some of the last pieces in the show — “Echo,” by Ellen Thesleff and “The Passing Train,” by Marianne Stokes — look to the future. Women gaze upon the horizon, or shout to the sky. “The women here feel modern,” Holmquist-Wall says. “They feel like there’s a lot of opportunity, potential and hopefulness. These modern impulses synthesize the themes addressed in the exhibition, and it’s a really nice way to end the show.”

    The Speed Art Museum also has an exhibit open titled Thoroughly Modern: Women in 20th Century Art and Design, and will be unveiling Breaking the Mold: Investigating Gender at the Speed Art Museum, on April 7. For more information, visit


    All photos courtesy Speed Art Museum.

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    About Evan Allen

    a boy with a thing for metaphors

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