The antebellum Rhode Island Art Association was an arena of great concern to first wave feminist Paulina Wright Davis who was writing and publishing the Una at this very moment in Providence. In particular, the RIAA goal of establishing a design school in RI was a strongly coded message to women, since the first three design schools in American had just been opened between 1848 and 1852 in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, and all were founded by women and for women. These design schools have been interpreted as being about the need for gentile employment, but Davis and others saw them as a radical hope for women to achieve economic self-sufficiency and escape the slavery of marriage. Even an 1859 New York Times review of design schools observed that they were “for women who, unable and unwilling to become mere drudges in servile occupations, and for the meanest pittance, would be doomed to otherwise sell themselves at the matrimonial alter, or resign themselves to a life of … poverty. Their efforts have been eminently successful.” More powerfully, the Una quotes a young women who was attending the New England School of Design for women: “It seems to me as if I had never seen the world before.”
We should recognize the resonating 1854 Rhode Island Art Association exhibition as a historic showcase for women as artists, patrons, and political activists. At least thirty women were patrons loaning art from their own collections in 1854. This was only the second American exhibition of work by the emerging international artist and lesbian, Rosa Bonheur. It included paintings by Jane Stuart, the self-supporting Newport artist and daughter of Gilbert Stuart; a portrait of the path-breaking artist, Angelica Kauffmann; and work from the estate of Sarah Wickes Lippitt (1789-1847), a Rhode Island artist who had trained in Italy and exhibited six paintings at the very first large exhibition held in Rhode Island, in 1829.
I believe that the RIAA exhibition contributors included Davis’s close friend, Lucy Stone, with whom she had organized the epochal first National Woman’s Rights Convention in neighboring Worcester, in 1850. At the RIAA exhibition opening, Davis notes that the RIAA president is proud to preside over a society in which women have equal rights, and asks if Davis, or presumably Stone, would like to address the mixed sex gathering.
Further, Paulina Wright Davis was a lifelong supporter of the sculptor Paul Benjamin Akers (1865-1861), with whom she later traveled in Italy. Indeed, it was her contacts that brought Akers his Washington, D.C. commissions (which include a marble portrait bust of Davis, now in the collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society). For the 1854 RIAA exhibition Paulina Wright Davis loaned two portrait busts by Akers from her collection, and both carried riveting political overtones in the years before the Civil War. One is a portrait of the famous abolitionist, Gerritt Smith (unlocated). The other is a portrait bust of Supreme Court Justice John McLean (Collection of the U.S. Supreme Court). Justice McLean is remembered today as among the “most politically conscious justices in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court” and the dissenting voice in the Dred Scott case of 1856-7. The antebellum Rhode Island Art Association was trailblazing. It is clear now why the antebellum RIAA echoed across the century in RI discussions about the what and why of establishing a design school and art museum in Rhode Island – even if it has been misinterpreted as to what this resonance was remembering.
In particular, the founding of RISD by Helen Rowe Metcalf must be understood within the context of what of first wave feminist Paulina Wright Davis brought to RI. Davis lived in North Providence from shortly after she arrived here in 1849 to lecture on women’s bodies, until her death in 1876. (She is buried in Swan Point Cemetery.) As a young women, RISD’s future founder attended Paulina Wright Davis’ lectures, as did Mrs. Metcalf’s sisters-in-law – who also had been pupils with the radical Margaret Fuller, when she taught in Providence at the Greene St School from 1837-1838.
I will be presenting a paper on “First Wave Feminism and the Ecology of Culture in Antebellum Rhode Island” at the First Annual Feminist Art History Conference in Washington, D.C. on Nov 5, 2010.
Robert O. Jones and I continue to work on the Holly Home project, the Transcendentalist utopian community founded by Mrs. Davis’s husband, the abolitionist, Thomas Davis.
Margaret Fuller in RI and her legacy is the topic of the Providence Athenaeum’s opening Salon on October 1, 2010 from 5-7pm, presented by Robert O. Jones and Nancy Austin.
The Hours, by RI miniaturist Edward Malbone (1777-1807)
Actual Title: The Past, Present, and Coming Hours
Collection of the Providence Athenaeum
Collection of the Providence Athenaeum
A feminist history of the Rhode Island Art Association provides a new context for the popular Rhode Island anecdote about the teenage girl who raised $1200 through public subscription in order to buy Edward Malbone's painting The Past, The Present, and Coming Hours for the Providence Athenaeum. Now we can understand that this was 1854, and the community fundraising campaign of nineteen-year old Elizabeth Patten is another expression of what must have been a most euphoric moment of possibility for women. The Providence Athenaeum closed the sale of the Malbone on August 24, 1854 and with credit to Miss Patten, loaned The Hours a week later for the September 4, 1854 opening of the Rhode Island Art Association exhibition. The so-called “Cult of True Womanhood” does not describe the possibilities available to antebellum Rhode Island women.
© Nancy Austin, 2010