Monday, July 23, 2012

Following the Stars to Our Dreams

An American pioneer passed away today: Sally Ride, the first American woman, and the third woman of any nation, to travel into space.  She was part of two shuttle missions on the Challenger shuttle in 1983 and 1984, and was named to the presidential commission investigating the terrible accident that befell the Challenger.  


After she left NASA, she created programs to encourage children, especially girls, to study science.  She died at age 61 from pancreatic cancer.



Sally became part of NASA at a time just after the long years of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space flights, which featured macho male test pilots at the controls.  She fearlessly led a generation of women into greater challenges and opportunities.  She followed her dreams to the stars.

Women have faced obstacles to pursuing their passions in every field over the centuries.  A career in art was all but impossible for women until relatively recently.  Our museums and art history books are filled with a multitude of creations by male artists, but the examples of women artists are few and far between.  Those who did achieve a measure of mastery and success were upper class women of leisure who had the time and money to pursue their interests, but were still restricted by cultural norms that inhibited everything from their choice of subjects to the exhibition of their work.  

Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun was one of the first women artists to be recognized for her talent.  Born in 1755, the daughter of a painter, she became a professional painter in her teens, and became portraitist to Marie Antoinette in the late 1700's.
This is her self portrait from 1782.  She survived the French Revolution and continued as a successful artist for many years, leaving over 800 paintings at her death in 1842.

A number of women artists of the Impressionist movement became successful and well-known.  One of my favorite artists is Mary Cassatt.  Earlier this year I had the great joy of standing in front of her work at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
This is her self portrait.  In spite of her family's opposition to her passion for art, Mary became a very proficient painter. She left Pennsylvania in 1873 to live in Paris, and became part of the Impressionist movement.  Bound by conventions of the time, she painted scenes of home life, mothers and children, and pastimes of the upper classes such as attending the opera.



Her life was not easy, but she followed her own path and found success.  She was an accepted member of the Impressionist group which included Degas, Renoir, Monet, and Pissarro.  Her style evolved as the years passed, but still retained a lovely glow of simplicity, vibrancy, and engaging emotion.  

I admire and celebrate the lives of the women like Sally Ride and Le Brun and Mary Cassatt who led unconventional, pioneering lives, and who by doing so opened up a wider world to all women.         

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