This article is part of our ongoing Days of Art Series and also one of the first entries in our #NastyWomenArtists series about groundbreaking female artists who kicked arse even if they have been largely eliminated from texts or ignored during discussions of Art’s enduring history. Let’s start righting some wrongs right here!
Anne Whitney suffered from the extraordinary duality faced by many female artists — that of being at once acclaimed and unknown. Her works are housed in major American museums and public venues, all the while enjoying name recognition only by the art world’s cognoscenti. Even less heralded were her political works, she being a liberal beacon for abolition, woman’s suffrage, and other issues.
Whitney was born in 1821 Watertown, Massachusetts, one of seven children to a homemaker mother and justice-of-the-peace father. Her politics, and perhaps the direction of her life’s work, was shaped by her parents’ abolitionist and Unitarian church views. Whitney was educated largely by private tutors, but took one year at a private school, enough to qualify her to teach. After two years of teaching, Ms. Whitney began traveling, and by age 24 was carving busts of family members. Unsurprisingly, the availability of formal art education for women was limited, and a woman’s right to secure quality training was problematic. Some could conjecture, as the Wikipedia quote below implies, that it was due the puritanical preservation of women’s virtues, in tones echoed today by the likes of the Taliban, the Saudi government, and other neoconservative organizations, but the likely truth is more onerous: the art world, up and until the dawning of the 21st century, both restricted access to education and training for women artists and systematically erased their achievements from the history books.
“At the time that Whitney began to study art, women had limited educational opportunities. Unlike male students, women could not take life drawing classes. Visits to art galleries required that sculptures of nude men needed to have the genitalia covered before the women could enter the gallery. Plaster casts of the human form could not be used in co-educational classrooms. Whitney moved to New York so that she could study anatomy at a Brooklyn hospital from 1859 and into 1860 and then studied drawing and modeling at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.”
In other words, women were such delicate flowers that they couldn’t view even a statue of a male penis without swooning into a dead faint. It is no wonder that the common Victorian treatment for “female hysteria” (anxiety, irritability, and a bloated stomach, among other symptoms) and for centuries before had been a “pelvic massage,” read, being masturbated into orgasm by a physician. This, of course, led to the invention of the vibrator in the 1880s, but did little to assuage the irritation of the vast majority of women, like Anne Whitney, who refused to simply be jerked-off into submission.
Instead of running to the doctor for a “treatment” for her artistic frustration, followed by the male-sanctioned poetry tome, Whitney moved to NYC and studied anatomy the old-fashioned way. In 1959, she put a female boot up the male-arsed art community with the release of the bust of “Laura Brown,” which was exhibited in the National Academy of Design in New York. It is now in the collection of my favorite museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps to add insult to injury, that same year, Whitney did publish her first collection of poems, which she cleverly entitled, Poems, of her work that had previously been published in magazines of the day. The North American Review got it, however, writing, “”Every word strikes home; every line is clean, distinct as if cut in stone; the pen in her hands becomes so like the sculptor’s chisel that one questions if poetry be the fittest exponent of her genius.” Yeah, she was a Nasty Woman, that sculptress.
Whitney went on to open her own studio, progressing first to full-size works and then monuments, many of which are on display today, especially around her native Massachusetts. She lived her life her own way, advocating for the rights of women and other humans and choosing to live independently in her “Boston Marriage” to Abby Adeline Manning, a socially accepted luxury afforded to other upper-class, educated women but frowned up for lower-class lesbians or any other LGBT artists. She lived a full life including stints in Boston, Paris, Rome, and Florence, before dying of cancer in Boston at age 93. Below is a sampling of some of her more famous works.