ART REVIEW + ESSAY: Securing a Place in History for a Forgotten Female Painter-Woodmere Art Museum

(Author's note: This piece was published in Hyperallergic here.)

Located in the Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Quita Brodhead: Bold Strokes shines a welcome light on a painter who displayed a level of ingenuity and skill in a range of styles, one who strangely has little name recognition in the United States today. Brodhead is best-known for her mid-20th century abstract works, but as Bold Strokes demonstrates, she was adept at painting figures and landscapes as well.
Quita Broadhead, “Swamp Willows” (c. 1939–40)

The exhibition is located in two galleries in a large, airy atrium: The Catherine M. Kuch gallery on the first floor, which is devoted to Brodhead’s abstract paintings from the mid-1930s to the end of her life, and the Dorothy J. Del Bueno Gallery, which is located on the second floor balcony overlooking the former gallery, which contains a chronological retrospective of Brodhead’s life and career.

Brodhead, who was born Marie Waggamann Berl in Wilmington, Delaware, grew up around the Philadelphia area, studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1919–25, spent time painting in Paris at the Académie Julian, and left PAFA in 1925 to study under her mentor Arthur B. Carles. She was highly prolific and active in the Philadelphia area, served on the PAFA board, and spent several non-consecutive years of her life painting in Europe, where she exhibited with Kandinsky.
Quita Broadhead, “Abstract Forms I” (1959)

The works on display in the Dorothy J. Del Bueno Gallery on the balcony begin with Brodhead’s 1923 portraits of her father, done in a fresh, sketchy but still figurative style. As I walked along, studying the works on the walls, her maturing style abstracted into plays of light and shadow as she engaged new ways of addressing form and line.

Her influences became clear as I moved further along her life. As the wall text next to the painting discusses, 1930’s “Nude” pays clear homage to Amedeo Modigliani’s stylized, elegantly delineated nude female forms. Cézanne’s effect on Brodhead pops up in her renditions of still lives of flowers and fruit, including 1934’s “A Vase of Tulips,” and in one particularly vivid, lush work, 1939–40’s “Swamp Willow.“ The latter work depicts a grove of curving trees rendered in harmonious tones of blue, green, tan, and a litany of color. The influence of Henri Matisse makes an appearance in “Seated Model (Orchestra Subscriber),” which originally dates from 1935–9 but was retouched by the artist in 1990, where the model’s pale peachy flesh is delineated with unexpected green and red lines.

What is immediately striking is how adeptly Brodhead’s works echo and exemplify the best of a variety of styles and of artists. Moving chronologically in the lower gallery, her abstract works begin as imaginative, sharp reinterpretations of still life setups, growing bolder and smoother in the 1950s, then mellowing out continuously as she grew older.
Quita Broadhead, “Whence and Where To” (2000)

Her works dating from the 1940s harken back to a colorful variation on cubism, and her 1950s abstract paintings in the Kuch gallery display clear knowledge and understanding of Wassily Kandinksy’s more renowned paintings, such as her 1959 “Abstract Forms 1,” while her 1961 “From the Aegean” demonstrates that Brodhead could paint a Rothko just as well as Mark could. Beginning in the 1980s, Brodhead’s abstract works recall Paul Klee’s loopy childlike forms and Joan Miro’s spare, delicate images, while the works she created towards the end of her life borrow the blurry luminous light quality of some of the best Impressionist painters. Klee’s influence is represented by “Implosion #2,” dating from circa 1980, with its bright yellow background and wobbly peachy-blue mass, while Miro can be seen in the lovely “Untitled,” dating from 1987. The influences of the Impressionists are found, most charmingly, in “Whence and Where To,” dating from 2000.

I came away from “Quita Brodhead: Bold Strokes” wondering how it is possible that I had not heard of her in the past. She is as least as good as many more renowned abstract painters, the vast majority of whom are male. Was it a matter of timing, as many of her works post-date the artists they are inspired by, or a matter of all-too-common overlooking by the establishment? In her excellent article “Quita Brodhead: Capturing the Vibes of the Twentieth Century,” Barbara Wolanin notes that Brodhead was involved in a good many small-scale shows in the tri-state area, Washington, DC, and Paris towards the end of her life, and has been collected by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Delaware Art Museum. Yet where is Brodhead’s place amid modernist masters?
Quita Brodhead, “Nude” (1930)

According to Rachel McCay, the Woodmere’s assistant curator, Brodhead never identified with the feminist movement. Was this move either out of personal convictions, a generational gap, or out of a lack of desire to see her works grouped within their subcategory of art? The dearth of critical and commercial attention paid to this bold and adroit artist surely indicates the need for greater recognition of women artists, yet her lack of engagement with feminist art movements during her life may contribute to her relative obscurity within art-historical discourse today. Of course, her works are hardly political or social in nature, which would make her a poor fit in the context of feminist art movements, but her personal successes both in the United States and abroad during the course of her life point to her importance during her time. Should she be held up under feminist values due to the personal successes she enjoyed during her own life, or does her lack of engagement with movements aimed at promoting art by women negate her status in the cause?

Brodhead’s relative contemporary obscurity highlights the difficulties that many modern-day art historians deal with when discussing how best to re-examine the canon of Western art to be more inclusive of neglected women artists and artists of color. Including Brodhead within feminist art movements would not only be disingenuous, but it would lead to her becoming pigeonholed, as many artists such as Barbara Kruger, Judy Chicago or the Guerilla Girls have been. Yet she is an example of how important it is to challenge the canon of Western art as we know and understand it; for the contemporary audience, Quita Brodhead has largely fallen through the cracks. I wonder, after seeing this exhibition and learning about Brodhead, if there are other artists who, like her, have been missed.