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.


This Magdalen Harvey McDowell oil painting of Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston from 1863 is in the Filson's permanent collection. 

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.

Women and the Arts