“Silk Paintings” and “Girl Artists”: Women at the Society of Independent Artists, 1940

March 13, 2017

Josephine E. Verbinski at Work, c.1942. Gelatin silver print. John Sloan Manuscript Collection, Delaware Art Museum.

From 1917 through 1944, the Society of Independent Artists (SIA) hosted annual open exhibitions for their members. For a $5 membership fee, artists were able to exhibit their works in huge shows in New York City. The SIA proudly featured no jury and no prizes, so all members could exhibit, and the works were hung alphabetically to further democratize the process. The SIA attracted a wide range of artists—from famous painters to Sunday painters—and became an important venue for emerging artists, women, and others underrepresented in the mainstream New York art world. Women and younger artists were also deeply involved in running the organization. In 1940, the SIA’s directors included Helen Farr, Esther Goetz, Magda Pach, Regina A. Farrelly, and Mary E. Hutchinson.

The SIA was proud of the opportunity it provided for unknown artists to have their work seen and sought to promote this feature of the group. In 1940 the group was highly successful in getting this story told through a well-promoted article on the society’s vice president Esther Goetz. However, being 1940, news stories about female artists often treated them as novelties and inevitably found their place on the “women’s pages” of the day. The women of the SIA were no exception.

On April 16, 1940, two artists based in Kingston, Pennsylvania, Anna C. (Walukiewicz) Groblewski and her sister Josephine E. (Walukiewicz) Verbinski, were featured in the local Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader on the occasion of their work being exhibited with the Society of Independent Artists in New York City. According to the Times-Leader’s columnist Kay Dangerfield, the self-taught sisters had been collaborating for about five years on works of art that they drew and then stitched in silk on muslin. Dangerfield explained that the art of Groblewski and Verbinski developed naturally from their extraordinary skills in crocheting and embroidery, previously practiced within the domestic sphere on table cloths, curtains, and clothing. For the SIA exhibition catalogue, however, the sisters called their works “silk paintings” not embroideries, perhaps in an effort to link their pictures to the high status of oil painting, instead of the traditional domestic associations of “embroidery.” They were, after all, sending them to an art exhibition in New York.

Anna C. Groblewski at Work, c.1942. Gelatin silver print. John Sloan Manuscript Collection, Delaware Art Museum.

As chronicled beneath the headline “Paging Home Makers” in a local newspaper, the small-town backstory of these “silk paintings” speaks to the broad range of art and artists exhibited at the SIA. The society’s open policy attracted women, self-taught artists, and artists from outside major urban centers—individuals like Groblewski and Verbinski who otherwise might not be unable to break into the New York art scene.  That the sisters identified themselves as being “of Polish descent” on the photographs they submitted also links them to the hundreds of immigrant artists—including exhibition directors Abraham Baylinson and William Meyerowitz (both born in Russia) and Xavier Barile (born in Italy)—that exhibited with the SIA.

The newspaper notice about Groblewski and Verbinski was one of many such local-interest stories. The 1940 scrapbook for the SIA contains clippings from papers in Buffalo, Poughkeepsie, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, touting the local artists being shown that year in New York. In widely published interview, Esther Goetz, one of the exhibition’s directors, is described as a “talent scout” on the hunt for such obscure artists. The article quotes Goetz: “Right now, somewhere in America, in a little village nobody ever heard of, there no doubt is some great artist waiting to be discovered. Unless he receives encouragement and gains confidence, this young Sunday painter will just go on producing for an approving audience of one.” In February 1940, just as the SIA’s call for participants would have been circulating, the profile of Goetz, which described her as a “girl painter” as well as a “talent scout,” was picked up in local papers from Troy, New York, to Toledo, Ohio, to Pawhuska, Oklahoma. It even ran in the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, where it may have encouraged Groblewski and Verbinski to join the SIA in 1940.

In dozens of newspapers, the article about Goetz was reprinted with a photograph of the artist at her easel. The success of this appealing image likely came as little surprise to the SIA’s directors, who  requested that their members send photographs of “artists at work” to be used for promotion around this time. Groblewski and Verbinski answered the call, sending pictures of themselves stitching their latest “silk paintings”—doubtless two of the nudes described by the Times-Leader as “lovely almost beyond belief”—although I’ve found no evidence of these making into print. Posed with the muslin stretched and vertical, the sisters appear every bit the artists in their studios. Indeed it takes close looking to notice that they are wielding needles instead of brushes. The talented sisters would continue to exhibit with the SIA until the Society’s final exhibition in 1944, but little is known of their lives and work. Despite talent and excellent connections, Goetz fared only slightly better. The bare bones of her career can be discovered online but few of her works have made it into public collections. The Delaware Art Museum owns three works by Goetz, including a typical Central Park scene.

Heather Campbell Coyle
Curator of American Art

If you want to check out the entire 1940 SIA Scrapbook, click here.
To read the full article in the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, click here.

Page 12 from the Scrapbook for the Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, 1940. John Sloan Manuscript Collection, Delaware Art Museum.

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