Preferred Citation: Todd, Ellen Wiley. The "New Woman" Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.



In American Scene easel painting of the 1920s and 1930s there are virtually no radical feminist images of women. Depictions of women's oppression occasionally appear in leftist cartoons or images by WPA artists. But no work attempts to portray what radicals in the National Woman's party unsuccessfully campaigned for in the first E.R.A.—a statement of women's collective and full-scale equality with men. Instead, embedded in the painting, the politics, and the gender ideologies of the period are liberal accommodations, inscribed in a revised discourse of new womanhood that shifted women's roles toward more moderate ideals of femininity in the wake of the franchise. Paintings of urban women by artists of the Fourteenth Street School gave shape to these new standards, using female types and pictorial strategies that negotiated changing features of new womanhood.

I have argued that these artists inserted themselves into this theater of aesthetic and social mediations. Thus, though Kenneth Hayes Miller's generalized and capacious matron was never a model for a wide audience, she personified the new woman as consumer and represented social values of normalcy, nurture, domesticity, and companionability. Many of these values were prescribed for home and family in the prosperous 1920s by conservative pundits who sought an alternative to the boisterous boyish flapper. In contrast to Miller's shopping matron, Reginald Marsh's voluptuous model drew from the widely known cinema stereotype, the Siren. A mysterious and alluring, if inaccessible, fantasy in the early years of the Depression, the Siren had a provocative sexuality that worked in opposing modes, foregrounded in Marsh's paintings. Her bold mask of cosmeticized beauty could be read as a defiant declaration of the new woman's sexual liberation—her figure as an expression of male anxiety about unleashed female sexuality. But her exaggerated looks could also seem to reinstate sharp distinctions between masculinity and femininity. Clarifying sex roles by reducing working-class women to sexual commodities reassured some middle-class men whose manhood had been compromised by the loss of productive work.

Indeed the conjunction of "work" and "femininity" was debated throughout the Depression. The middle-class New Woman's earlier claims to economic independence and career satisfaction, both before and after marriage, fell by the wayside. In the competitive job market of the Depression, "right-to-work" claims yielded to the demands of family, the companionate marriage, and motherhood. Certain


already feminized occupations, however, like sales and clerical work, were reaffirmed as womanly in a market otherwise hostile to working women. Raphael Soyer addressed the problems and Isabel Bishop the possibilities of feminized occupations. Soyer's shopgirls, working-class figures, represent alienated female labor, quietly interrogating a social order that systematically ignored their plight. Bishop's images of office workers carve out a transitional space for women's intimate interactions, a space in a public arena where women were most on display. Unlike Soyer's, her pictures tend to blur class distinctions, thus perpetuating the myth of access to individual female success.

These images are not simply female types mirroring aspects of womanhood "out there" in the culture, already well established and understood by any viewer who might have come across them. Nor are they Depression era updates of old master paintings, contained within the supposedly unproblematic institution of "art." Nor are they merely "American Scene" paintings, embodying a period look, a national iconography, and a mainstream politics of liberal humanism that ennobles the average individual as an equal participant in American democracy. Although I have discussed these works within and against such boundaries, I have argued that neither the artists nor their viewers saw them in such straightforward ways.

To place any one of these pictures in a single category of meaning or to apply any one mode of analysis foreshortens the historical complexity of pictorial production and signification. Paintings by the Fourteenth Street School work concurrently in and against each discursive category so as to defy easy summary. The pictures attest to what Cecelia F. Klein has called the "extreme complexity" and "exceptional flexibility" of the pictorial process that allows artists to manipulate signs of gender, class, race, and age, making possible "the production of a wide range of semantic assertions."[1] All these artists worked as painters of modern life, chronicling the urban scene by updating recognizable artistic traditions. But they also combined pictorial components in disparate ways, producing for a viewer often conventional (though sometimes oppositional) understandings of contemporary womanhood.

In arguing for the complexity of realist depictions that some art historians have called illustrative and merely topical, I have viewed these works as interpretations and constructions of gender that maintain relations of power. How did such images in easel paintings act on viewers? How widespread were their effects? The paintings were exhibited regularly in private galleries, major museums, and international shows. Some won prizes; others were appraised in critical reviews. When the Metropolitan Museum purchased Bishop's painting Two Girls , New York newspapers carried feature stories. In 1934 Marsh's work gained national recognition as the outstanding, example of urban regionalism in Time . By contrast, Miller's art addressed the art-world insider. Although they gained currency and popularity among an expanding audience for art, however, these paintings, unlike movies or


advertising, played no part in the widespread dissemination of masculine or feminine imagery. With few responses to these works beyond the art press, how can we speak of their "constitutive effects?"

Several issues are important here: realist ideology, gender roles, and political commitments. The first addresses the assertions by apologists for American Scene painting. Whether discussing mural painting—intended for a vast public—or easel painting, which in adopting similar realist strategies could lay claim to similar communicative aims, critics described realists as motivated by a powerful quest for "truth." They also broadened the definition of realism itself, recognizing the mediating process of artistic form. No longer a "superficial" realism, faithful only "to what the eye perceives," the critic Virgil Barker intoned in 1934, "authentic realism is faithful rather to what the mind conceives.... realism may therefore assume many forms.... but in each case there is the achievement of a consistent conception of the world, and the communication of it with conviction and convincingness."[2] The true American artist would "naturally" convey true American values—the "consistent conception" lying behind a national realist art.

As important American Scene works, paintings by the Fourteenth Street School realists disseminated deeply held beliefs about American society. No matter what the actual viewing audience, the paintings belonged to the larger realist canon of more widely seen murals and prints in the Depression. At the same time—and this brings me to the second issue, feminist claims about representation—paintings that imaged women were produced and received according to mainstream assumptions about both American realist art and gender roles. Artists and spectators alike relied on prevailing conventions of gender as they produced and viewed painted figures. When their particular strategies are read in the larger context of representation in words and images—from social science and journalism to cinema and advertisements—the pictures themselves can be seen as constructing and maintaining conventional gender roles. They shared the aims—and to some extent the rhetorical means—of other cultural practices that produced the restricted and problematic femininities of the period. Their visual strategies were formed within the institutional boundaries of art, their meanings grounded in moments of production and reception when, for the middle-class viewer addressed by such works, there was "no aspect of present day social history more controversial in character or more delicate in its implications than that of the new status of Woman."[3] As a consequence the pictures share with other representations the tasks of understanding and shaping femininity for a larger audience; no longer simply part of a circumscribed American art history, they belong to a broader "regime of representation" that produces gendered identities at a given historical juncture.[4]

The fact remains, however, that debates in artistic circles frequented by the Fourteenth Street School artists focused not on feminism or the conditions of women's lives, but rather on the relation between art, society, and politics and the role of art


in effecting social change. How do the representations of working and shopping women figure in these debates? I have tried to show that though none of these works was read as "propaganda," each artist's female type was produced at a slightly different historical moment within these debates and, depending on the politics of the critic, was interpreted accordingly. When Miller, after painting Fifth Avenue matrons, depicted a Fourteenth Street bargain hunter, for example, American Scene critics praised the democratic ideals implicit in the change; by contrast, leftist critics insisted that even if he painted certain types, his works were nonetheless tied to the bourgeois conventions of old master easel painting. Although Marsh's early 1930s paintings of Siren shoppers are also "bourgeois" easel paintings embodying none of the didactic or revolutionary proletariat themes advocated by the Left during its most sectarian period in the first half of the Depression, they appeared when Marsh himself was also engaged in depicting men on breadlines, making crayon drawings for the New Masses , and attending a few classes at the Workers' School. Moreover, though they lack the rhetorical directness of the political graphics produced in these years, their sketchy illustrative qualities, combined with a quantity of information about a working-class neighborhood, accommodate political concerns obliquely, allowing, as I have suggested, a more socially concerned reading of these types. Finally, Soyer's and Bishop's paintings of working women were painted during the Popular Front era in the second half of the decade. The more liberal aesthetic and political agenda surrounding the idea of revolutionary art made a space in which Soyer's work could be read as both accomplished painting and generalized social commentary. The shifting color and light surrounding Bishop's female figures celebrated broader ideals of individual achievement in a democratic society.[5]

Although the paintings featuring women should be read in light of these changing ideas about art and politics, that women in them are also subjects of aesthetic "contemplation" mutes the political impact of the works. For artists committed to painting contemporary life according to traditional aesthetic values, lower- and middle-class working and shopping women were signs of modernity, urbanism, and—because of the public nature of city space—sexuality; they were valued, moreover, as "average" Americans. By contrast, men depicted at work or unemployed raised the specter of labor conflict and class struggle at the heart of the leftist political agenda. Female figures were less implicated in this political rhetoric.

At a time of feminist conflict and heterosexual and domestic retrenchment, the Fourteenth Street School artists were among the few easel painters to acknowledge woman's growing participation in public life. The spaces of consumption and work in which women appeared signified to a liberal mainstream viewer both the progress and the integrity of democratic society. At a time of economic crisis and social concern, the artists broadened their viewers' social world, inscribing class and sometimes ethnicity into their female imagery. In addition to suggesting possibilities for


women, they occasionally staged quiet inquiries into the circumstances in which women shopped or worked.

These artists, however, continued to work within old master and contemporary visual traditions that objectified the female form by constructing particular kinds of looking, modes of address that maintained established hierarchies of power and sexual relations. Though their aesthetic strategies participated in the containment of women by assuming that women are different from men—an unequal Other—the artists were attentive to distinct positions for and visions of women. Miller saw "otherness" through consumption, as domestic leisure; Marsh worked the boundaries of seduction and consumption; Bishop saw difference in terms of class; Soyer used the artist-model studio convention to demystify the lives of working women. In the end, the artists' diverse collective vision adjusted itself to social values and gender roles articulated by mainstream feminists and middle-class Americans who continued to subscribe to the ideals of a separate identity and proper place for women. Through such ongoing accommodations—such continual re-visions—the paintings made their contribution. From their own shifting vantage points on contested ideals of new womanhood the artists, through their works, kept in play the multiplicity of debates about women and the contradictory experience and representation of "new women" and a "new womanhood" between the wars.



Preferred Citation: Todd, Ellen Wiley. The "New Woman" Revised: Painting and Gender Politics on Fourteenth Street. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.