If you’ve never heard of Clara Peeters, a 16th-century Flemish painter of superbly rendered still-lifes, or Renaissance painter Lavinia Fontana, or Russian artist Sonia Delaunay, whose mastery of murals, theater sets, and ceramics led the Louvre in 1964 to choose her as its first living female artist to hold a retrospective there . . . well, as I say, if you’ve never heard of these wondrous artists, it’s a shame, but not surprising, given the historical short shrift accorded women’s contributions to art. Here in Washington, D.C., we have an answer for that: Visit the National Museum of Women in the Arts, where more than 1,000 works by women, 16th century to the present, are on display at any one time. Open since 1987, the museum remains the world’s only major museum solely dedicated to recognizing women’s creative accomplishments.
Inside the white marble Renaissance Revival 1908 museum building, originally a Masonic temple, is a space so elegant it’s frequently in demand as a wedding reception venue. Some of the artwork is on display in the Grand Hall, but most exhibits are in upstairs galleries, accessed via the sweeping marble double stairways. Among the works from the permanent collection that you might see are those by Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, Helen Frankenthaler, Frida Kahlo, Barbara Hepworth, Georgia O’Keeffe, Lilla Cabot Perry, and Elaine de Kooning. Most popular is Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait; it is the only Frida Kahlo on view in Washington. The museum mounts 10 special exhibits annually on such topics as black women abstract expressionists and retrospectives of singular female artists.
Also recommended is the museum’s gift shop, which sells clever little items like leaning ladies bookends and a Dorothy Parker martini glass. And if you’re hungry, dine in view of artworks at the Mezzanine Café, Monday to Friday 11am to 2pm.
- Elise Hartman Ford