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  • Claude Raguet Hirst (1855-1942) Featured at NMWA
    November 2, 2004 WASHINGTON, D.C.

    Claude Raguet Hirst. Still Life with Shells and Clay Pot, ca. mid- to late-1880s. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Dr. Leslie Greenbaum.

    Thirty-five innovative trompe l’oeil paintings and watercolors by Claude Raguet Hirst (1855-1942), featuring literary texts on women’s concerns, will be on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) through Dec.19, 2004. Hirst was the only American woman artist accomplished in this hyper-realistic style of still-life painting.

    “Claude Hirst’s extraordinary command of watercolor technique and unexpected use of imagery recognizable specifically to women make this exhibition at the women’s museum a long-overdue acknowledgment of her talent and position in the history of art,” commented NMWA Director Judy L. Larson.

    Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Hirst first studied at the University of Cincinnati School of Drawing and Painting, then privately in New York City after she moved there in 1879. She mastered the skill of painting intricate, detailed still lifes and within a few years began exhibiting small flower and fruit works, such as Still Life with Lemons, Red Currants, and Gooseberries, from the late 1880s.

    In 1885, ten years into her professional career, Hirst abruptly abandoned her former floral subject matter in favor of the highly illusionist still lifes popular in turn-of-the-century America. These small, contemplative paintings were traditionally painted by men for a male audience. Hirst painted the majority of her still lifes in watercolor, a medium preferred by women and unusual to the genre, though her works did include the pipes, tobacco, candles, and reading glasses typical of the trompe l’oeil style.

    Another notable innovation was Hirst’s inclusion of detailed, recognizable representations of books in her works. Many of these texts were proto-feminist works by early progressive women writers, featuring resourceful, independent heroines living untraditional lives. Hirst’s The Bookworm’s Table, exhibited in 1901, includes the Memoirs of Madame de Remusat, a French aristocrat who wrote daring pieces in support of the education of women. Hirst’s meticulous incorporation of books with legible pages and engraved illustrations draws viewers’ attention to the writings and beliefs she is thought to have championed as a woman and an artist.

    In the 1920s, when Hirst was in her sixties, her exhibited works began to receive widespread acknowledgment in the form of jury prizes and critical acclaim. At this point she had lightened her palette and rejected the pipes and masculine accessories standard to the still life 20 years earlier. A work from late in Hirst’s career, Ode to Superstition from 1923, features stacked and open books piled on a table, an indication of her ongoing love of literature. She continued to paint and exhibit into her eighties, leaving a legacy of over 100 still-life paintings at her death in 1942.

    The National Museum of Women in the Arts is grateful to its Business and Professional Women’s Council and Legg Mason Funds for their generous sponsorship of Claude Raguet Hirst: Transforming the American Still Life in Washington, D.C. The exhibition was organized by the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, with support from the Henry Luce Foundation, and is curated by Martha M. Evans. Coordinating curator is Jordana Pomeroy, NMWA curator of painting and sculpture before 1900. The accompanying soft cover catalogue Claude Raguet Hirst: Transforming the American Still Life, published by the Columbus Museum of Art, will be sold in the Museum Shop and online for $24.95.