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 Helena DeKay Gilder  (1848 - 1916)

About: Helena DeKay Gilder


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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: figure, genre, landscape, portrait

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Helena Gilder, although a painter, is perhaps better known as a founder of the Society of American Artists and the Art Students League, two institutions that broke the strangle hold of the old-guard National Academy of Design. DeKay studied privately with Winslow Homer and John La Farge, and also at the Cooper Union Institute and the National Academy of Design. She and her friend, Maria Oakey, attended the first life-drawing class that was opened to women at the Academy, in 1871.

The two young women alarmed their parents by sharing a studio in New York, where they associated with artists and intellectuals of the day, including Henry James, Abbott Thayer, and John La Farge. De Kay married Richard Watson Gilder, poet and editor of Scribners and Century magazines. Their home on East 15th Street, near Union Square (a former stable renovated by the fashionable architect Stanford White), became a turn-of-the-century salon for a group of New York artists. Many of them had just returned from their European expatriate years and were full of new ideas. Among other things, they were dissatisfied with the jurrying practices of the National Academy of Design.

The Society of American Artists was formed in 1877, at Gilders home, with Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Walter Shirlaw, Wyatt Eaton, and herself. The goal of this new group was to provide a forum for new and diverse trends in art, and one of its expressly stated aims was to encourage women artists.

In 1875, Helena Gilder was one of the founding members of the new Art Students League, which became a center of progressive art teaching in the United States. From its classrooms would emerge powerful American women painters such as Georgia OKeeffe, Isabel Bishop, and Peggy Bacon. The League, from its inception, espoused the principle of equality between men and women, both as teachers and as students. In the early years of the League, women dominated the Board of Control, but this percentage later diminished.

Gilder exhibited paintings at the National Academy of Design and showed a figure painting, "The Last Arrow" (c. 1878), at the first exhibition of the society of American Artists in 1878.

The Gilders maintained a second residence in Venice, the meeting place in the 1880s for artists, authors, and wealthy Americans. The couple exerted an influence on such women painters as Cecilia Beaux, with whom they toured Europe.

Helena Gilders career, as a painter and organizer, declined with the increased burden of family life after 1886. When she relinquished her activities in the Society of American Artists, due to family pressures, no other woman held any position on its board. This group eventually merged back into the National Academy in 1906.

(Information for the biography above is based on writings from the book, "American Women Artists", by Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein.)

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