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By the end of the nineteenth century, New York City was the accepted cultural and artistic capital of the United States. The country’s largest, wealthiest, and most successful city and a growing international community, by 1900 New York was home to an increasing number of world-class cultural institutions. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, formed in 1870, was immediately recognized as a leading museum, housing a remarkable collection of international art; Carnegie Hall, opened in 1891, was to become one of the most celebrated concert halls in the world. The New York Public Library, formed in 1895, opened the city’s temple to knowledge, the library’s Fifth Avenue Branch, in 1911.

In the decades following the turn of the century, New York welcomed artistic innovation, supporting new and sometimes radical arts projects that would certainly have failed in smaller, less diverse cities. In the fine and literary arts, as well as the theater, New York City became a center of the avant-garde. In 1920, Scofield Thayer published the first number of his influential literary journal, The Dial, including work by Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, and Djuna Barnes. The socialist magazine The Masses issued its first number in 1911 and, in its six years of publication, the journal included literary work and art by Amy Lowell, Sherwood Anderson, Rockwell Kent, Mabel Dodge, and Robert Henri. Michael Gold and John Sloan revived the journal’s spirit in 1926 when they began publishing the New Masses; the radical political and arts magazine would publish the period’s most important writers, from Langston Hughes to Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill to Upton Sinclair.

The International Exhibition of Modern Art of 1913 was the first exhibition of its kind anywhere in the world; with the Armory Show, as it was called, and its exhibition of Cubist, Futurist, and Postimpressionist art, the city embraced modern art with enthusiasm. In 1929, Miss Lillie P. Bliss, Mrs. Cornelius J. Sullivan, and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., founded the Museum of Modern Art; the following year, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded the city’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

The embodiment of the mythic American land of opportunity, New York welcomed many women whose pursuit of a career in the arts might have been unrealistic elsewhere. “New York was largely run by women,” Mabel Dodge Luhan wrote of the period, “there was a woman behind every man in every publisher’s office, in all the editorial circles, and in Wall Street offices, and it was the judgment and intuition of these that determined many policies, but they were anonymous women.”1 In the arts community, women were involved with every aspect of the radically changing cultural landscape. At “evenings” hosted by influential women artists and patrons, art and politics, literature and social action were fused. Though Mabel Dodge’s salon was perhaps the best known of these gatherings, her friend Muriel Draper was also an avid supporter of the arts who brought artists and activists together in her home. Actress Fania Marinoff, with her husband Carl Van Vechten, hosted outrageous all-night parties famous for gathering together the finest artists and intellectuals of the New Negro Movement with white artists, publishers, and patrons. The Stettheimer sisters—Carrie, Ettie, and Florine—all artists in their own rights, were hostesses to an international group of writers, critics, and painters that included Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp.

In collaboration with Duchamp, painter and art collector Katherine Dreier, a New York native, helped to create an audience for modern art in the United States by establishing the Société Anonyme, an organization dedicated to exhibiting and promoting modern and contemporary art. Another New York artist, painter and colorist Pamela Coleman Smith first exhibited her work in the city at 291, the famous gallery run by photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Smith’s work explored a variety of subjects, including the occult, music, and theater.

The city’s thriving theater movement matched the innovation of its art scene; women were central to all aspects of the movement—as playwrights, actresses, set designers, directors, producers, and promoters. In 1916, the Provincetown Players, one of the most significant noncommercial theater groups of the twentieth century, performed their first play in Greenwich Village; their first season included new plays by Eugene O’Neill, Louise Bryant, Susan Glaspell and George Cram Cook, and Neith Boyce. Just a few years later, in 1919, the groundbreaking theater company known as the Theatre Guild produced its first show; in the years that followed, the company would become famous for outstanding original plays unlike anything ever seen on the New York stage. Playwright and novelist Neith Boyce Hapgood, a founder of the Provincetown Players, helped to begin a revolution in noncommercial theater devoted to performing the highest quality plays, regardless of popular trends. Women like Adele Gutman Nathan and Eva Le Gallienne headed small theater companies that performed new plays for eager, if sometimes small audiences in Greenwich Village and other city neighborhoods. Theresa Helburn, a producer with the famed Theatre Guild, helped to establish the period’s most important playwrights and actors with groundbreaking shows that in some cases literally changed American theater.

A center of publishing and literary development, the city was a natural home for writers and editors. Poet Elinor Wylie, who lived in Washington and Europe before settling in New York, found in the city a community of writers and editors that included her future husband, William Rose Benét, and his sister, poet and critic Laura Benét. As managing editor of The Dial, Alyse Gregory was in a position to direct contemporary literary tastes and help determine the character of twentieth-century American poetry. Marianne Moore was perhaps the most important and influential member of this literary circle. An innovative poet and visionary editor, Moore was among the most significant forces in Modernist literature internationally; a widely read and visible figure in New York’s literary scene for half a century, she played a defining role in twentieth-century American literature. Bridging the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, novelist Edith Wharton was no less important in shaping American literature.

1 Mabel Dodge Luhan, Movers and Shakers, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1936, p. 143.


(Download PDF of the full chapter from the catalog Intimate Circles: American Women in the Arts.)