“Self Portrait” by Ethel Ashton

by William R. Valerio

Women artists take the spotlight at Woodmere this spring, and to anyone familiar with the museum and its history, this should seem like business as usual.

From the early 1940s through 1978, Woodmere’s director was Edith Emerson, an artist herself who organized exhibitions and collected works of art made by women.

She collected works by men, too, but it was unusual to afford this sort of attention to artists who were women. Still today, this strength is one of the distinguishing features of Woodmere’s collection.

One such artist who showed at Woodmere in the years of Emerson’s tenure was Ethel V. Ashton (1896-1975), who was born and raised in West Philadelphia and trained at Moore College of Art and Design.

Ashton may be best known for having been the close friend of renowned painter Alice Neel, who also attended Moore, and with whom Ashton shared a studio from the mid-1920s through 1930.

Ashton, Neel and a third young artist, Rhoda Myers-Medary, modeled for each other in their studio, and Woodmere’s exhibition “Public Artist/Private Life: Ethel V Ashton” (on view through June 30) includes Neel’s portrait of Myers-Medary, as well as several portraits of Neel by Ashton.

Ashton spent her weekends in Fairmount Park and Rittenhouse Square with pastel in hand (she was a great virtuoso of that medium, with its intense color and soft calligraphic line), and she created works of art on paper that document the labor and the leisure of urban life. Ashton was ahead of her time in focusing on the great diversity of people who populate modern Philadelphia.

Another exhibition on view through June 30 at Woodmere, “The Promise of Peace: Violet Oakley’s United Nations Portraits,” explores a remarkable series of work in Woodmere’s collection by the great Violet Oakley (1874-1961). World War II had just ended, and in 1946 the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin hired Oakley to attend the first sessions of the United Nations.

Her task was to illustrate the newspaper’s ongoing coverage of the proceedings by capturing on paper the appearances of the delegates from across the globe who had come to New York to make a safer, more peaceful world.

Oakley’s draftsmanship is impeccable, and her work conveys a sense of the urgency of the historic moment. Oakley was the partner-in-life of Emerson (the two women lived together on St. George’s Road), and there is no doubt that she contributed to many of Emerson’s endeavors at Woodmere, including the effort to consolidate Woodmere’s mission around the artists of Philadelphia and the region.

“The Promise of Peace” is Woodmere’s contribution to the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (PIFA), organized by the Kimmel Center.

An exciting, brand-new acquisition at Woodmere is also the work of a woman artist, Helen Corson Hovenden (1846-1935), who, with her husband, artist Thomas Hovenden, lived on the Corson family’s estate in Plymouth Meeting at the intersection of Germantown Pike and Butler Pike.

Corson Hovenden’s painting “The Concert” exudes a magical tenderness, and it may well be a portrait of the artist’s daughter, Martha Hovenden, and the family dog.

The elegant little girl offers a concert on the harmonica to her adoring pet, and the innocence of the moment is palpable. Corson’s fluid handling of paint and refined balance of cool and warm hues make for a dynamic interplay between the two figures.

A gift to Woodmere from collectors in New York, the painting has barely been in Chestnut Hill for two weeks, and it is already a favorite in our Founder’s Gallery. The gallery itself was recently restored to its appearance at the turn of the 20th century, and this renewed focus on the historical fabric of our architecture makes for a magical experience when viewing the art of the period. Please come for a visit this spring!

The Woodmere Art Museum is at 9201 Germantown Ave. For more information, call 215-247-0476 or visit woodmereartmuseum.org.

William R. Valerio, Ph.D., is the Patricia Van Burgh Allison Director and CEO at Woodmere Art Museum.