On ViewDelaware Art Museum
Despite their shared belief in a woman’s right to choose, Madame Restell (aka Ann Trow Lohman), a 19th-century abortion provider, sent no letters to Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood; the women’s lifespans did not overlap. Nor did those of women’s rights advocate Margaret Fuller and feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir, or, for that matter, those of the Pre-Raphaelite model Fanny Eaton and American poet Maya Angelou. To correct this misalignment, artist Angela Fraleigh traverses time and space, pairing them together through an exchange of floral bouquets steeped in the cryptic meanings of floriography, the Victorian language of flowers. The sculptures are set against large scale paintings which connect women, artists, and models across eras.
At the entrance to the exhibition Angela Fraleigh: Sound the Deep Waters, curated by Margaret Winslow at the Delaware Art Museum, a glass case holds five such arrangements, crafted in cold porcelain by a team of international flower-makers that includes the artist. Among the blooms are tansy and rue, which stand for resistance and grace, and can be used to induce menses; southern magnolia, symbolic of determination and used as a fertility treatment; poppy, signifier of consolation and a key ingredient in laudanum, prescribed for menstrual cramps or “a case of the nerves”; and snowdrop, code for hope, used to induce abortions. Standing in vases whose voluptuous lines and earthy hues echo the figures in the paintings they herald, the flowers act as metonyms for women’s private thoughts, conversations, and actions.
Fraleigh’s world of veiled meanings and whispered confidences continues in four large-scale narrative paintings populated with women both historic and contemporary. Inspired by the museum’s extensive collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, her compositions place 19th century models—some of whom wished to be artists—alongside contemporary women, notably her former students, who are now her colleagues. In Our world swells like dawn, when the sun licks the water (2019), portraits of two Black women—one a former student of Fraleigh’s, the other Fanny Eaton—occupy the center of three oil and acrylic panels. Traditionally marginalized, they stand as the focal point in Fraleigh’s work. They are surrounded by a chorus of five other women who recline beneath a dark canopy of fuchsia and violet. Fraleigh pours yellow, pink, and teal paint over the surface of the work, allowing it to spill and seep where it will. The effect is a spontaneity that tempers the formality of the work, a building of playful layers over an exacting process.
In Fold in the sun (2019), dapplings of black and white create a shadowy sense of water rushing over rocks. Two smiling women wash a plump baby in a fountain. In the foreground, a nude woman plucked from Francesco Hayez’s Susanna at her Bath (1850) covers herself with a length of cloth. While Hayez’s repurposed model epitomizes the Pre-Raphaelite ideal of beauty, in Fraleigh’s composition, she becomes more complex. Her gaze confronts the viewer, who may or may not be a welcome observer to the sequestered space where bathing provides respite from a world in which appearance defines value.
Delving into the museum’s holdings of American illustration, Fraleigh discovered a number of works dating from the early 1900s by such women artists as Katharine Pyle and the Red Rose Girls, a Pennsylvania collective who worked at a time when women were seldom recognized as fine artists, only garnering attention as illustrators. Evidence of their legacy is seen in Where summer ripens at all hours (2019), in which red lines traced from Pyle’s work overlay an assembly of women, several of whom wear red headscarves reminiscent of Albert Joseph Moore’s painting The Green Butterfly (1879–81). Fraleigh’s palette turns psychedelic here, bringing a quality of wildness to her seemingly docile subjects: bedlam approaches as arms reach overhead, multiple Eves plucking apples, the forbidden fruit that will impart them with knowledge.
Circling the gallery, I felt bolstered by the communities of women the artist assembles. Fraleigh does not show them “at work,” but relaxing together—something I, like so many women, feel guilty admitting I need. Sound the deep waters (2019) evokes the women of Simeon Solomon’s Toilet of a Roman Lady (1869), a 19th century depiction of class distinction which Fraleigh reinterprets as an act of mutual nurturance. At the core of the piece stand three older women. Thin and wrinkled, they are elegant and dignified, as are all of Fraleigh’s women, who congregate in secret pockets where societal limitations of female identity are eluded. One of the women holds out a thread, a simple act which reveals their power: these are the Fates, the women who determine the past and future for gods and mortals alike, a reminder of what is possible.