Several decades ago, I became aware of the work and life of Enid Yandell, a Kentucky-born, Paris educated sculptor whose statues I used to see at various ceremonial points in Louisville. This early twentieth-century woman artist, although acclaimed in her time, seemed to be forgotten.
Yandell was one of a group of talented women artists who were asked to contribute work to the Women’s Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The building, designed by women architects and run by 117 “Lady Managers”—all married and listed by their husbands’ names—was the fruit of a collaboration between wealthy American and English women, the artists, and the government. Such a collaboration had never existed before, and has never existed again.Mary Cassatt painted three large panels showing “The Advancement of Women Over the Centuries.” Yandell sculpted a bronze Athena in her Paris studio, rivaling in height the Statue of Liberty. In order to ship it to the U.S., the statue had to be broken into three pieces, one of them so large Yandel held a farewell dinner party inside it. She also wrote a charming account of her life during those productive years, titled Three Girls in a Flat.
All eighty of the works by women artists, commissioned for the building, were stored when the building was demolished after the Exhibition and are now officially lost.
There is much to be written about the enthusiasm and support, both public and private, that resulted in the Women’s Building—and much to be written about the loss of these masterpieces.
But better late than never. Enid Yandell: A Life of Art and Activism opens next July, first at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, then at the Speed Art Museum, then at the Louisville Free Public Library, and finally at Bellarmine University, with panels and presentations that may answer these questions: “Why then?” and “Why never again?”
One crucial difference: well-off women of the late nineteenth century (and the money was often their husbands) gave funds to progressive, even radical causes, including settlement houses and political candidates who supported votes for women.
Not so now, with a few notable exceptions.
Have the “ladies” lost their fire?