Women and the Arts


Woman Feeding Birds colored block print, by M. Louise Stowell and Ada Howe Kent, 1902.

Art and culture are fundamental to the fabric of community. Through the arts, people share and understand experiences, bridge divides, and imagine the future. In 1829, Nathaniel Rochester and others formed the Athenaeum to cultivate the arts, literature, and science. The newly opened Erie Canal facilitated visits by artists and travelling exhibitions. By 1848, over 100 Rochesterians were subscribers to the American Art-Union, a national organization created to promote American art. Local private collections were robust enough to allow the Ladies’ Hospital Relief Association to borrow 150 paintings for the Art Gallery section of its 1863 Christmas Bazaar. 


As the American art world rapidly expanded after the Civil War, women entered art schools in unprecedented numbers. They joined and formed art clubs, displayed and sold their paintings beside men’s, and pressed for critical recognition. D.W. Powers’ Art Gallery opened here in 1875, exhibiting European and American fine art; Rochesterian Emma Lampert Cooper (1855-1920) showed there by 1877. Within a year, she and others had founded the Rochester Art Clubstill active today. The Rochester Ladies Art Exchange began in 1879Along with a marketplace where women could exhibit and sell their work, the Exchange offered classes as a path to employment. Fruit and flower paintingfor example, was needed by local companies supplying illustrations to area nurserymen and skilled needlework was essential to Rochester’s burgeoning garment industry.  


The Mechanics Institute (now RIT) opened in 1885 to teach women and men the technical skills needed in Rochester's businesses. Among its earliest artist-teachers were Emma Lampert Cooper, Ada Howe Kent (1858-1942) and M. Louise Stowell (1861-1930)all of whom were active in local and national arts clubs and who exhibited their work nationally and abroad. As the 19th century came to a close, more and more women sought not only private fulfillment in art, but professional careers.   


Cyanotype (L-R) Fred Beach, Edwin S. Gordon, May Bragdon, Helen Dutcher in Cutler Manufacturing Company office, Rochester, N.Y., September 5, 1890.

In 1889, Helen “Ned” Dutcher (1872-1899) became the first female member of the Rochester Architectural Sketch Club. She worked as a draftsman in various offices in Rochester before marrying architect Will Orchard in 1897. Dutcher died in 1899, just days after giving birth.

Often dismissed as feminine busywork, the needle arts have long been taken up by activists. Abolitionists and suffragists raised funds by selling handicrafts and stitched political messages in quilts, banners, and hemlines. In the 1970s, second-wave feminists re-asserted needlework as a legitimate art practice. On January 21, 2017, the knitted Pussyhat became an international symbol for women’s rights worn by millions of people at marches all over the world.