Ninety years ago today, on July 15, 1921, The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its first solo exhibition of works by a female artist. The Children's World: Drawings by Florence Wyman Ivins, a group of watercolor drawings, woodcuts, and black-and-white drawings, was shown in the Education Department through November 19, 1921.
Florence Wyman (American, 1881–1948) was raised in Evanston, Illinois, until her parents separated and she moved to France with her mother and a sister. She attended school in Paris and later studied at The Art Students League in New York City. At twenty-nine, when she married William Mills Ivins Jr., she was already working professionally in watercolor portraiture and book illustration. [Her husband, a Harvard graduate, lawyer, and a member of the Grolier Club, later held several positions at the Met: Curator of Prints (1916–1946), Assistant Director (1933–1939), Acting Director (1939–1940), and Counselor (1940–1946).]
For a number of years, Florence Ivins designed the posters for the Museum's Story Hours for Children program, as well as the covers of the Museum's Children's Bulletin, and her work was always well received. In 1921, she was approached by Henry Watson Kent, the Metropolitan Museum's Secretary and supervisor of Museum education, about organizing an exhibition of her work. She was thrilled by the offer and replied that she would be "honored" and "more than interested to see if they would please the children of [the] museum." Florence delivered approximately 145 works, of which 122 were placed on view. Harry Wehle, an assistant curator in the Department of Paintings, compared her work to "the gracious-spirited group in mid-nineteenth century England, the Caldecotts and Kate Greenaways who knew so well, how to draw and who, leaving our intellects at peace, find their way directly to our hearts."
It should be noted that the Met was not the first American museum to present a solo exhibition of work by a woman: the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, presented its first such exhibition in 1882; the Art Institute of Chicago in 1887; and the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1913. (The Philadelphia Museum of Art joined this list in 1927; The Wadsworth Atheneum in 1937.) Held within a year of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the exhibition of Ivins's work took place at a time of great social and political change in America and abroad, and in that sense it may be seen as another milestone in the struggle for women's equality.
After the exhibition Ivins wrote to Kent: "I am deeply grateful to you for all that you have done for me—for your kind appreciation and the encouragement your words bring—I should like to really deserve what you say—and to make you responsible."
Melissa Bowling is assistant archivist in the Museum Archives.
Author's note: Special thanks to Tal Nadan, New York Public Library; Deborah Barlow Smedstad, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Marie Kroeger, Art Institute of Chicago; Deirdre Lawrence, Brooklyn Museum; Evan Towle, Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Edward Russo, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, for their assistance in the preparation of this article.
Office of the Secretary Records, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives
Ivins, Florence Wyman, The children's world in drawings, woodcuts and sketches, New York, N.Y. : The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 192
Wehle, Harry B., "The Children's World," The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 16, No. 9 (Sep., 1921), pp. 180–181 (subscription required)
Ivins family papers, 1885–1961, bulk (1900–1946). Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library
William Mills Ivins papers, 1878–1964. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution