We’re more attuned than ever to the phenomenon of overlooked women artists: Each new discovery reveals the extent to which our contemporary understanding of art history has been shaped by the indispensable innovation and talent of women who were not often welcomed or properly credited by the overwhelmingly male establishment. Perhaps that’s why American Impressionist Mary Rogers Williams (1857–1907), a “revolutionary artist,” in the words of her biographer Eve Kahn, did her best to sidestep it. It’s also why so few have ever heard of the artist, who was, in many ways, more than a century ahead of her time.
In Forever Seeing New Beauties: The Forgotten Impressionist Mary Rogers Williams (out today from Wesleyan University Press), Kahn chronicles her discovery of Williams’s letters and artwork over a century after the artist’s death. Born to a baker in Connecticut, Williams’s working-class upbringing precluded the abundance of leisure time afforded to her peers born into inherited wealth, such as fellow impressionist Mary Cassatt. She never married, instead opting for the company of her three adult sisters and longtime companion Mabel Eager. She had a 20-year-long teaching career in the art department of Smith College, and enjoyed summer breaks and sabbaticals that afforded her the chance to travel everywhere from the Arctic Circle to Paris.
In addition to teaching, Williams oversaw her household without the aid of servants and made all of her clothing by hand, carving out studio time to paint whenever possible. “Do not feel sorry for her,” Kahn entreats the reader on the first page of her biography. “Mary, above all, had fun, within the limitations of her budget and her era’s misogyny.”
Of course, it’s Williams’s art—not just her strikingly modern life story—that prompted Kahn to spend the better part of a decade on the book that would lift the artist from obscurity once more. Like her Impressionist peers, Williams painted landscapes, often en plein air (a method that, to her joy, often required her to hike for miles in the Northeastern wilderness). While other Impressionists’ works were characterized by textural, staccato brushstrokes, her art began to approach proto-abstraction. This is best illustrated, according to Kahn, in her pastels of the cliffs and seaside vistas of Maine’s Monhegan Island. “She’s there doing crazy avant-garde work at the same time as anyone you’ve ever actually heard of, like George Bellows or Rockwell Kent…at the same time that these guys are on the same island, about to become the names that appear in [the history books],” Kahn tells Vogue.
Williams was similarly accomplished at portraits; in keeping with the conventions of Impressionism, she had an overwhelming preference for painting women. “She was almost undoubtedly gay,” Kahn asserts. Though the statement was made in the context of Williams’s decision to never marry, it contextualizes her art as well. Whereas her male peers created striking portraits of women, often from a voyeuristic point of view, Williams took great pleasure in creating decorous compositions of her female subjects. “Her women are always proud and either staring off dreamily into space or doing something productive with their hands. They’re reading, they’re working on textiles of some kind, they’re playing cards,” says Kahn.
Unlike so many of her counterparts, Williams had no interest in social climbing among the Northeast elites or Paris’s society scene. “She hated pompous people,” Kahn says. “She hated name droppers, and she didn’t like many of the bohemian men, because she thought they smelled bad! I can’t imagine she would have had any pleasure chatting with Cézanne, even if she had liked his work.”
Still, Williams enjoyed considerable success; she was praised for her talent by the New York Times during a period when, if the newspaper took any care to mention women artists, it was most often for the purposes of condescending to them. Her work was exhibited by the National Association of Women Artists, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the 1899 Salon de Paris.
The rediscovery of an artist like Williams goes to show the impact of a centuries-old system that has deemphasized female artists, but which has begun to shift for the better in recent decades. “Lots of forgotten women of her time showed prolifically,” says Kahn. “And if I went through the catalogs of the shows that Mary was in, I could point out 10 women whose stories haven’t been told. But nobody’s work is quite as avant-garde as Mary’s was.”
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Originally Appeared on Vogue