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A Meeting of the Group W Bench Salon

In the Studio by Maria Konstantinowna Bashkirtseff

Remember those couple or three kids in first grade who were always giggling in the corner? You know the ones – they had to be shushed and then separated because when they were sitting together, everything was funny. It wasn’t published in the newspaper, but there was a small reunion of that group in Cambridge, New York on Friday night, a rearranging of the Group W bench at our family’s favorite Italian restaurant as it were.

A new friend, a photographer who has recently moved there, invited me and another friend, an illustrator from northern Vermont for dinner at our favorite (the only) Italian place in Cambridge. The instigator was well aware that the other Vermonter and I have reputation in some circles for being the giggling kids in the corner, so she knew what she was getting into. A few people at the neighboring tables clutched their pearls as we chortled our way through drinks and bread, but in between the screeches and cackles, we managed to solve the world’s problems before talking a about our own issues.

It was a great way to cap off my very short but deliberate weekend. I’d been trying to get to the Clark museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts all summer to see an exhibit of women artists in Paris from 1850 to the early 1900s. The boys, having developed a resistance to art museums thicker than MnM shell, made it clear that they would only go if Indian food was on the menu at the end of the visit, and I knew that, even then, I would spend as much time Fending off queries of “can we go, yet?“ as I would actually enjoying and learning about women breaking down barriers. The show ends next week, so, making sure there were no trips to the hospital planned or chores that needed to be done before noon, I headed out the door as soon as I got up, leaving T1 in charge.

I expected to see mostly Cassatt and a few lesser-known impressionists, and they were represented in the collection. The wonderful surprise, however, was the breath of work hanging in the basement gallery of the museum. In an era when most women led hidden lives, the 19 or so artists represented in the gallery had worked within and against the salon system, had painted impressionistic views of family life, amazing examples of classical realism, and covered subjects as wide ranging as still life tea sets to great historic events. Some women had the support of their husbands or families, but many had to go against the grain just to acquire the training they wanted. Some had to get permission to wear men’s clothing in public so that it would be safe for them to paint plein air. They had to get permission to join classes for life studies and to create content outside the domestic sphere. Absent family support, many of these women found encouragement from mentors and frequently from fellow female students sharing the same creative boat.

Friday night, As the photographer, painter, and illustrator sat laughing about our own creative and life goals and venting about the obstacles we have faced, we inadvertently formed our own little salon system on that Group W bench where T1 and T2 normally test out the finest fart jokes in the Northeast. My illustrator friend teased me good-naturedly as the dinner ended, saying as soon as I got home I would be painting again, and she was right.

Sometimes I paint when I’m frustrated, sometimes it’s just meditation. The best painting times come after a storm or a brush with something really good, like a silly dinner with some equally silly friends, always ready to encourage each other, carrying on a tradition of female camaraderie that has a pretty good success rate.

There will be future meetings of the female contingent of the Group W bench.