From January until May of 2004, the Picturing Women project presented, interpreted, and taught through an exhibition exploring historical and contemporary representations and self-representations of women — how they are figured, fashioned, turned into portraits, and told about in words and pictorial narrative.
Curated by Susan Shifrin, a Visiting Fellow at Bryn Mawr's Center for Visual Culture, Curator of Education at the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History at Ursinus, the Picturing Women exhibition juxtaposed historical works with 20th- and 21st-century art to promote dialogue about the representation and self-representation of female identity. The exhibition's nearly 200 works spanned the 15th through the 21st centuries, presenting photographic, printed, and painted portraits along with such diverse cultural artifacts as conduct manuals, historical costume, literary portrait sketches, advertising images, caricatures, silhouettes, and contemporary installation pieces.
“The Picturing Women project,” says Shifrin, “reaches across institutional, chronological, disciplinary, gendered, and racial lines to explore crucial questions about what constitutes female identity. The project looks at how female identities have been constructed in images, artifacts, and texts, and what roles such artifacts have played in defining how women have been ‘pictured’ historically and how they are ‘pictured’ today.”
Thematically-organized components of this collaborative exhibition were simultaneously installed at three venues across the greater Philadelphia area — at Bryn Mawr College, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Rosenbach Museum & Library. The historical works at each venue were drawn primarily from the permanent collections of the three host institutions. Contemporary artists' works entered into a kind of call and response relationship with their historical counterparts in the exhibition. The artists were selected for specific ways of working that comment on the construction and reception of female identity while responding to the traditions of portraiture embodied in the exhibition's historical artifacts.
The full, three-venue exhibition presented a range of artifacts chosen to exemplify ways in which the American and western European cultures foregrounded in the collections of the host institutions have made material the presentation of female identity. As a means of parsing these processes of representation, the exhibition was structured around four thematic frames: Figuring, Fashioning, Portraiting, and Telling.
This is not a project about art with a capital A. It specifically levels hierarchies in the interest of demonstrating the currency of representational patterns across genres, across media, and across viewing audiences. Nor is it an historical survey of images, or an attempt to resituate women in particular spheres as other scholarly publications and exhibitions have done. Instead this project aims to come face to face with the patterns and contexts of representation that have asserted what women were and are, to unveil what art historian Linda Nochlin has called the mixed messages of representations of women.
The Picturing Women exhibition and its public programming were made possible by generous support from the William Penn Foundation, the Samuel S. Fels Fund, the Valentine Foundation, the Center for Visual Culture at Bryn Mawr College, Friends of the Bryn Mawr College Library, and the project's partner organizations. The creation and development of the educational programming for the project was made possible in part by a grant from the Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership through support by the William Penn Foundation, as well as by the Samuel S. Fels Fund and the Valentine Foundation.