Throughout March, Object of the Week celebrates Women’s History Month. Each Monday a new post will highlight women designers in the collection.

This unfinished angelic figure was likely a design for stained glass. Louise Howland King Cox designed windows for Louis Comfort Tiffany in the 1890s. However, there are few extant records about her work at his company. Tiffany preferred that his name alone appear before the public, and advertisements proclaimed that all work was made under his personal supervision.  Although he occasionally credited the designers of the firm’s windows and mosaics, many Tiffany employees—a largely female staff—worked anonymously.[1]  This study—itself anonymous, without identifiable facial features—seems a fitting allegory for their legacy.

“Anonymous was a woman”—a line adapted from Virginia Woolf—is a statement often true of museum collections.  Records relating to female artists and designers are scant, and works are often unsigned and undated.  Fortunately, Louise took it upon herself to document her own training and working methods.  A memoir of her student days, dictated later in life, is available through the Archives of American Art’s website.  Born in San Francisco, she studied first at the National Academy of Design in New York before enrolling at the Art Students League in 1883.

There, she enjoyed the creativity and camaraderie of the student-run organization, and continued to hone her drawing skills through class critiques. She also observed that:

“Wherever there are art students sooner or later there is bound to be a costume party.”[2]

Costumes and props were made with whatever materials were convenient, like gilded paper, netting, and even dyed cheesecloth.  The experience inspired her later costumes for models.  She noted that, “For years twisted, dyed and redyed cheesecloth was my mainstay in costuming angels for stained glass windows, for nymphs, semi nudes and allegorical characters.”[3] Likely, cheesecloth drapery was used for this figure, standing before a carefully shaded background. Louise firmly believed that a composition could be “made or marred by the wrong background,” declaring that “a monotone is especially fatal.”[4]

After school, Louise taught in Toledo, Ohio, before marrying Kenyon Cox—her former instructor at the Art Students League—in 1892, after a long courtship through correspondence. She explored mural painting and portraiture, eventually gaining renown for her portraits of children.  She was elected to the Society of American Artists in 1893, became an Associate of the National Academy of Design in 1902, and was elected to membership in the Society of Mural Painters in 1919. She received the Hallgarten prize at the National Academy of Design in 1896, and was awarded medals at the world’s fairs in Paris in 1900,  Buffalo in 1901, and St. Louis in 1904.[5]

Laura Fravel is the Curatorial Research Assistant (American Art) in the Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design Department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

[1] Martin Eidelberg, Nina Gray, Margaret K. Hofer, A New Light on Tiffany:  Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls (New York, NY: The New York Historical Society, in association with D Giles Limited, London, 2007): 12, 182.

[2] Louise Howland King Cox. Louise Cox autobiographical notes, 1945, p. 3. Kenyon and Louise Cox papers, 1876-1977. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[3] Ibid. Instructor Frank Millet also suggested dyed cheesecloth draperies for models in his lectures at the Art Students League.

[4] Ibid., p. 6.

[5] “Mrs. Kenyon Cox, Portrait Painter,” The New York Times (December 12, 1945): 26.  Also, see Richard Murray’s introductory biography for “Louise Cox at the Art Students League: A Memoir,” Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 27, No. 1 (1987): 12.

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