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The Lives of Female Art Historical Figures Will Now Be Transcribed and Available Online

A crowdsourced transcription project hopes to make the lives of women artists, art historians, art dealers, and gallery owners easier to keyword search and read.

Diary page from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney papers, 1851-1975, bulk 1888-1942 (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

Teddy Roosevelt didn’t pause to pose for any kind of presidential portrait until six months after his inauguration as the 26th American president, and it was only by chance that he allowed artist Cecilia Beaux to sketch his likeness — his first in his new presidential role. Beaux was at the White House painting a double portrait of First Lady Edith Roosevelt and her daughter, and somehow the President was convinced to sit for the Impressionistic painter for a few moments. “It has been a very real pleasure to catch glimpses of you while you have been here at the White House,” President Roosevelt wrote to Beaux in 1902, shortly after her visit. “I thoroughly enjoyed my two sittings — something which never happened before.”

If you’ve never heard of Beaux, you’re not alone. While she was a highly respected portraitist in her day, even hired by the US War Portraits Commission to paint French Prime Minister George Clemenceau, she’s received far less attention than her big-name Philadelphian contemporaries, Mary Cassatt and Thomas Eakins.

Cecilia Beaux, “Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and daughter Ethel” (1902), oil on canvas, 113 x 80 cm (image via Wikimedia)

Beaux’s personal archive has been publicly accessible at the Archives of American Art for 50 years, and fully digitized for over a decade (resulting in a whopping 6,022 online images). There is a problem, however: Beaux’s handwriting is of the sort of inky, late 19th-century scribble that is hard for 21st-century computer users to decipher. Now, a yearlong crowdsourced transcription project focused on women artists, art historians, art dealers, and gallery owners — spearheaded by a selection from the Cecilia Beaux papers —hopes to make the lives of such female creatives easier to keyword search and read. This would make it easier for scholars to research such figures in the future.

Sketchbook page from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney papers, 1851-1975, bulk 1888-1942 (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

The Women’s History at the Archives of American Art project, a part of the Smithsonian Transcription Center, began this March with a diary, personal correspondence, and essay on children’s art education from Cecilia Beaux’s papers. This month features an art journal and two diaries from sculptor and museum founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The project will release two to three transcription projects from a different female art historical figure each month through March 2020, with the aspiration that they be fully transcribed by anyone with an internet connection (and, most likely, the Smithsonian’s already devoted pool of digital volunteers).

“We surveyed the papers of our women creators, looking for autobiographical content that would help contextualize their lives and their work,” explained Megan Burdi, the archivist for digital initiatives managing this project, who selected the documents for transcription together with intern Justin Padilla. “I think that’s a great medium for getting to know the day-to-day life of an artist and the world that they lived in. So, the goal is to contextualize artists, art historians, art dealers, gallery owners who we might have heard of — but through their own autobiographical writing you can get a better sense of what they were like and what their life was like.”

Photograph of Anna Coleman Ladd in her studio painting a mask worn by a French soldier who was disfigured in World War I, July 1918 (image via Wikimedia)

The 13 total projects will be uploaded each month in semi-chronological order, and include both lesser-known and famous artists. Next month will feature the diaries of Anna Coleman Ladd, an American sculptor celebrated for creating custom prosthetics for soldiers injured during World War I. Some of the more contemporary artists to be featured are Color Field painter Alma Thomas, figurative painter Marcia Marcus, and art critic and curator Lucy Lippard.

“We have the papers of several women creators fully digitized and I’m always looking for ways to bring discovery to that resource so more people can find them and find interesting information for their research,” Burdi told Hyperallergic. “Transcription is a really great way to do that, because transcribing something makes it keyword searchable. So all of a sudden, all this content, it’s already very accessible on the web but it’s been opened up to keyword searching, too.”

Women’s History at the Archives of American Art joins other projects hoping to make it easier to research women artists, such as the A Space of Their Own database that will be a comprehensive and fully illustrated resource on female painters, pastellists, printmakers, and sculptors active in the United States and Europe between the 15th and 19th centuries.

“Having the transcripts available makes [material] more accessible to people, so it’s easier for them to read, they can do their research more quickly,” Burdi added. Becoming a transcription volunteer (or ‘volunpeer,’ as regulars at the Smithsonian Transcription Center have named themselves) is easy and takes just a few minutes (you can sign up here). In the process of translating idiosyncratic penmanship to a universal sans serif font, volunteers may help foster research about the American women who have shaped the arts.

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