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Alasdair Nichol
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Published: 5 January 2018

A Perfect Ten: Women Artists Making History

The Philadelphia Ten were a self-titled group of female artists from the area, who joined together to exhibit their work beginning in 1917, and continuing until 1945. While the group’s number would eventually swell to include thirty artists in total—twenty three painters and seven sculptors—the original core was initially comprised of 11 painters, all alumnae of either the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts and the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (known today as Moore College of Art and Design), and included: Eleanor Abrams, Katharine Marie Barker, Theresa Bernstein, Cora S. Brooks, Isabel Branson Cartwright, Constance Cochrane, Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, Arrah Lee Gaul, Lucile Howard, Helen Kiner McCarthy, and Katharine Hood McCormick.

Later members of the group included Fern Isabel Coppedge, Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, and Susette Schultz Keast, artists well-known—and well loved—amongst the American Art  & Pennsylvania Impressionists department at Freeman’s. Works by Coppedge in particular have done consistently, and often exceedingly, well at our bi-annual auctions of American Art, with a sustained interest in the artist.

A Group of Their Own
Gender discrimination at the time of the group’s formation prevented many women from having their work exhibited at public institutions, and so together they committed to changing not only the rules, but the expectations surrounding themselves as artists. Women painters were considered hobbyists, not serious artists. At the time, women were barred entry from some of the most prestigious art academies, and were denied access to figure models, which accounts for the large amount of landscape, still-life, and genre paintings the Philadelphia Ten exhibited.

The Philadelphia Ten held their first show, of close to 300 paintings, at the Art Club of Philadelphia in 1917, a significance that can not be understated, as it would be a full three years before women were even granted the right to vote in America. While there were other, older women’s art clubs around the same time—including The Plastic Club, in Philadelphia, and the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, in New York City—The Philadelphia Ten were noteworthy because they exhibited as a group longer than any other. In addition to their annual exhibition at the Art Club, they also held traveling exhibitions, along the east coast and the Midwest, at museums and galleries.

An Enduring Appeal
The path forged by these artists is an enduring one. Their work paved the way for later American women artists, giving them equal footing in the eyes of critics and art historians as time progressed. Art academies began opening their doors to women, and women painters were no longer viewed as simply “dabbling” in the vocation. The continuing appeal of prominent American women artists, including Fern Coppedge, Harriet Frishmuth,  Paulette Van Roekens, among others, owes much of its success to the Philadelphia Ten.

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