Women and the Arts: Two Pioneers
Before the Civil War, there were few documented instances of women earning a living as professional artists in the Ohio Valley. This was in part because artists frequently traveled between plantations and cities, taking their business directly to clients. It was considered unsafe for women to travel by themselves, and social mores of the time dictated that women stay mostly in the confines of the home. Domestic duties also made it difficult for wives and mothers to invest time in professional art careers.
Magdalen Harvey McDowell (1829-1918)
Reared in Lexington, Magdalen Harvey McDowell (1829-1918) always had an interest in painting and architecture, but she had little opportunity to make a career out of her passions. Very few women worked as architects during McDowell’s lifetime, and no woman was awarded an architecture degree until 1880. But McDowell persisted in teaching herself the skills to become an artist, inventor, and architect. She never married, instead managing the land she inherited from her mother and asserting her financial independence despite family expectations.
McDowell was 40 years old when she applied to the newly opened New York School of Design in 1868. She never attended the school, but she did study under Emanuel Leutze in New York for a time. At the age of 70, she designed several houses for Aylesford housing development in Lexington. One of her last projects was the Children’s Building of the Bluegrass Sanatorium.
Patty Prather Thum (1853-1926)
By the time Patty Thum was born in Louisville in 1853, twenty-five years after McDowell, new educational opportunities had opened allowing the next generation of women to pursue fulltime careers in the arts. At the age of 16, Thum left home to study art under Henry Van Ingen at Vassar College in New York. She graduated in 1874 and opened her own studio in Louisville in 1875. Thum established a name for herself by entering paintings in national exhibitions, selling work to commercial printers for mass production, writing about art for the Louisville Herald, teaching, and selling work out of her studio.
In just one generation, women went from being barred from educational and professional opportunities in the arts to travelling, studying, and profiting as professional artists. Each generation of industrious women paved the way for the next, helping to shift public attitudes and open new doors for their fellow artists.
Born in Louisville in 1853, Patty was the eldest child of Louisa Miller and Mandeville Thum, a doctor with a practice on Jefferson Street. Patty attended the Louisville Girl’s School (the city’s first public school). Patty was 9 years old when her father died in 1862, serving as a surgeon for the Confederate 7th Arkansas Infantry. Louisa never remarried and ensured her sons and daughters all attended college.
Patty Thum was known for her paintings of flowers, especially roses but she was also a talented landscape and portrait artist. She is one of the city’s earliest professional woman artists. She also was an author, inventor and a major advocate for the arts in the City of Louisville.