How much of what we believe and how we live is determined by genetics, upbringing, or our early childhoods? Generally our philosophies and actions are determined by a combination of factors. That was true for Anne Goldthwaite, who could have been a traditional southern belle and ended up as an artist making a name for herself and shedding light on the lives of others.
When Anne Goldthwaite was born on this day, June 28, in 1869, the American Civil War had ended just four years prior. She was born into an Alabama family whose father, Richard Wallach Goldthwaite, a lawyer, had served in the Confederate army. Her mother was Lucy Boyd Armistead. Her family moved to Dallas, Texas so her father could find work. Goldthwaite’s parents died when she was 15, so she and her two sisters returned to Montgomery, Alabama, where various relatives took responsibility for them. Initially, Goldthwaite was raised to be a southern belle, presented by an aunt to society and became engaged at a young age.
The death of her fiancé would change her life. Henry Goldthwaite, her uncle, noticed her talents in drawing and painting and offered her an opportunity. He would support her for up to a decade if she moved to New York to study art. She enrolled in the National Academy of Design, an honorary society and school founded in 1825 that had been accepting women since 1846.
By 1906, in her mid-thirties, Goldthwaite moved to Paris to study Fauvism and Cubism. By chance, Gertrude Stein was walking through the Luxembourg Gardens where Goldthwaite was sketching. The two women spoke, and soon Goldthwaite accepted an invitation to visit the author’s apartment, which was populated with an impressive contemporary painting collection. Through Stein, Goldthwaite joined an artists’ circle that included Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. It wasn’t until she helped create the Academie Moderne that she found the confidence to embrace her talents and found tutelage under Charles Guérin.
1913 was arguably her breakout moment. That year she had two paintings, The House on the Hill and Prince’s Feather, in the Armory Show back in New York City, where the greats like Cassatt, Cézanne, Degas, van Gogh, Henri, Hopper, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, and Renoir were displayed. For most of the rest of her life, she spent three quarters of every year in NYC. From 1922-44 she taught at the Art Student League and was hired to do private portrait commissions. She became very active in various artist organizations and was president of the New York Society of Women Artists from 1937-38.
Portraiture had long been an accepted subject for a few female artists, but in general women artists’ talents were seen as private hobby and therefore not for hire or public display. There was a connection between those commissions and her passion for the everyday lives of people in the South. Starting in 1915, she spent every summer in Montgomery, where she tried to capture the lives of men and women of all ages and across racial lines. She was particularly known for her sympathetic pieces featuring African-Americans in Alabama. Going against centuries of tradition, she was hired to design two murals for the post offices in Atmore and Tuskegee, Alabama.
Goldthwaite’s paintings ranged from landscapes to portraits, as did her drawings. She also combined mediums such as watercolors and graphite. In 1915, Goldthwaite won the McMillan Landscape Prize from the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. Later that year she also earned a bronze for drawing at the Pan-Pacific exhibition in San Francisco.
Her art, of course, is Goldthwaite’s legacy, but she was also an advocate for equal rights by showing honest renderings of life in the South and in New York City, as well as speaking out when offered the chance, particularly about women. Goldthwaite joined and advocated for Katherine Dreier’s Cooperative Mural Workshops. These gatherings included men and women artists who worked not only on murals but in pottery and needlecraft as part of the arts and crafts movement that tried to democratize the arts. Likewise, Goldthwaite joined the Société Anonyme, Inc., whose members worked for women’s rights, at least in the early years of the society.
In a 1939 interview she laid the double standard of sexism in art at the feet of critics whose “best praise that women have been able to command until now is to have it said that she paints like a man. But that women have a valid place as women artists is both obvious and logical . . . We want to speak to . . . an audience that asks simply – is it good, not – was it done by a woman.” Her memoir of that same year shared personal experiences of sexism in the art world as student, teacher, and artist.
By the time she died on January 29, 1944, Goldthwaite may not have shattered the sexism of the art world or of the world in general, but her honesty in both word and image helped bring the subject attention. Today her works hang in some of the most respected museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian.