Drawn from a newly gifted collection of over 500 works of art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), the Female Gaze: The Linda Lee Alter Collection of Art by Women exhibition organized by PAFA is a rare opportunity to view works by 54 of America’s most important female artists. The theme of the exhibition is “The Female Gaze”–in other words, the development of a new way of picturing female identity as seen through the eyes of women. This theme is especially well reflected in the two works selected for our outdoor banner at the Shwayder Art Building. Here is a some background information on these works to highlight the positive story regarding the intent of the exhibition.

Hung Liu, "Visage II," 2004. Oil on Canvas. Photo credit: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Art by Women Collection, Gift of Linda Lee Alter.

Hung Liu, “Visage II,” 2004. Oil on Canvas. Photo credit: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Art by Women Collection, Gift of Linda Lee Alter.

Hung Liu’s painting, Visage II, based on a historic photograph of an anonymous Chinese woman, most likely a prostitute, tries to honor the memory of a subject whose name was never recorded. With offerings of flowers and the addition of color and light to the dark black-and-white image, she celebrates the imagined qualities of the subject. Paying special attention to the eyes, Liu tries to breathe life into the image of a captive human being lost to history and known until now only through a photograph taken by a man.

Alice Neel, "Claudia Bach Pregnant," 1975. Oil on canvas. Photo credit: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Art by Women Collection, Gift of Linda Lee Alter.

Alice Neel, “Claudia Bach, Pregnant,” 1975. Oil on canvas. Photo credit: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Art by Women Collection, Gift of Linda Lee Alter.

Artists have depicted motherhood in humorous, beautiful, and empathetic ways. A significant example included in The Female Gaze is Alice Neel’s extraordinary portrait of her friend, Claudia Bach, Pregnant. The painting depicts Bach both nude and pregnant but also with poise and dignity. Neel transforms the traditional image of the female nude from passive object into an assertive and aware individual who meets the viewer’s gaze. It is interesting that this portrait has attracted attention specifically for the reason that Bach is shown pregnant. Meanwhile, “traditional” portrayals of the female nude (usually painted by male artists), rarely draw this kind of attention even though they are often highly sexualized.

This distinction might be a measure of how far we have yet to go in accepting the idea that each of us is entitled to a degree of self-definition, free from the stereotypes which form such a large part of our culture. As an academic gallery, we can play a role in questioning these stereotypes in the thoughtful and thought-provoking way illustrated in these two artworks.
If you have further questions about the images on the banner and in the exhibition, feel free to stop by the gallery or e-mail us at galleryinfo@du.edu.