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Eda Sterchi: Embodying the New Woman

Alice Choe
12 AP

Intern/Mentor Period 6
Mr. James Abbott
Ms. Mary Jane Sasser
February 29, 2016

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Eda Sterchi: Embodying the New Woman


INTRODUCTION

In the late 1920s, on the threshold of Americas modern era in art and design, Eda Sterchi
(1885-1969) proved a celebrated female artist, receiving prestigious awards. She was a unique
figure who pursued an art career in an era that was full of discussion about the modern woman
ideal yet short in its acceptance of professional women in any career, let alone that of artist. She
initially studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and in Paris. Later traveling alone through North
Africa, painting soon-to-be acclaimed desert landscapes, Sterchi was recognized for her mastery
of Arabic as well as an appreciation of Arab culture in general. This daring chapter in her life
was no doubt part of Sterchis own evolution as the embodiment of the modern woman, the
process for which may have begun a decade before, when she explored the role of independence
versus social norm in a series of paintings depicting women. These works, as represented by the
c. 1913 painting Two Women in an Interior in the collection of Johns Hopkins Universitys
Evergreen Museum & Library, identify with both European modernism and the still-beingformulated redefinition of a modern woman. In this painting, Sterchi portrays two figures - a
traditional Gibson Girl-type caregiver and a reclining New Woman-style spirit, showing them as
physical manifestations of established Victorian expectations and a counter modern ambition for
all women. The relevance of such contrast applied not just to Sterchi, but to many other women
of the early-20th century, including Evergreens own Alice Warder Garrett (1877-1952).
WOMEN AS ARTISTS

Although the late Victorian era and the Gilded Age marked a vibrant period of economic
advancement, gender roles and academia continued to present backwards attitudes towards
women, especially in the arts. The relationships between men and women were defined by a
concept of separate spheres where women were considered physically weaker, yet morally
superior to men (Hughes 1). Upper-class women were especially confined to domestic
expectations. Raised with the goal of a successful marriage, these young women became
accomplished in singing, drawing, and dancing, but upon marrying were expected to assume a
confining domestic role. The art realm was similarly constrained by a hierarchy in the
relationships between most academies and artists. For example in Britain and France, the Royal
Academy of Arts and the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture provided instruction for art

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students and sponsored exhibitions (Gardner 351). For one to become an artist, he or she would
encounter the academies not only in their studies and exhibitions, but also through requirements
and standards that the academies promoted. During the late 19th century, high society and art
academies continued to exert great control over the relationships that existed between man and
woman, the art and the artist.
Considering the attitudes that existed within the two communities, women in the arts
experienced both promotions and setbacks. In aristocratic circles, art was considered one of the
few respectable occupations open to the ever-growing number of unmarried or impoverished
genteel women who needed some means of supporting themselves (Rubinstein 91). Although
upper-class women were not necessarily encouraged to become professional artists, many
practiced the arts as amateurs and acted as patrons for the arts. As mentioned previously, there
was a certain expectation that a young woman, preparing for marriage, maintained a level of
proficiency in painting as a suitable accomplishment (Nochlin 164). But attendance of
professional art academies was a different story as women were not accepted into free public art
institutions, such as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, until the late 1890s (Myers 1). Instead, they had
to turn to expensive alternatives, such as private academies or studios, which were still
conservative in their approach to teaching lady painters. Learning to paint from nude models
was considered an essential part of an artists training, yet there was the complete unavailability
to the aspiring woman artist of any nude models at all (159). Female painters were allowed to
draw from plaster models, but male nude models were completely off-limits to them. Even when
women were admitted to life drawing classes in the latter half of the 19th century, the nude had to
be partially draped. In addition to this restriction, the societal expectation for women to remain
home further limited female artists in the subjects that could be painted. As a result, many
women preferred anti-academic movements, such as Realism and Impressionism, which
emphasized everyday subjects over historical themes (Myers 5). Before the arrival of the 20th
century, the social and artistic spheres were limiting and restricting in their attitudes towards
women. Eda Sterchis painting, Two Women in an Interior, represents a dynamic change that
began for women both socially and artistically.
JAPONISME AND THE NABIS

In an analysis of Two Women, the form and context of the piece allude to a more intricate
story behind the two subjects. Two Women is an oil painting that is characterized by a linear

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quality and flatness. The subtle green outlines of the figures, the divisive black lines in the back
panel and the geometric shapes in the bed refer to a Japanese-born aestheticism, which was
popular during the time. After Japan opened its ports to Western trade in 1853, art in Europe
was heavily influenced by an influx of woodcut prints that demonstrated simple transitory
everyday subjects from the floating world (Ives 1). In addition to flat color and linear
elements, Japanese woodblock prints characteristically included bright colors, as well as
asymmetrical placement and cropping of figures, all of which are seen in Two
Women. Japonisme clearly influenced Sterchi directly and indirectly, not only through popular
woodblock prints but also through work of other avant-garde artists who were equally taken with
Japanese techniques.
Another essential aspect of Two Women is the contrast created by the use of blocked
expanses of color throughout the scene. This style is reflective of the French Nabis, a movement
started by a group of Parisian artists of the late 1880s that broke from traditional uses of form
and color in order to evoke deeper emotions and ideals (Auricchio 1). The bright green
background as well as the simple segments of white, red, and purple in Sterchis work follows
the Nabis ideal of broad planes of unmediated color, thick outlines, and bold patterns
(1). Meaning prophet in French, the Nabis was one of the many avante-garde movements that
arose to form European modernism. As Sterchi studied in Paris in 1913, she was most likely
surrounded by various avante-garde movements that influenced her work (Doan 1). A
combination of Japonisme and European modernism provides a foundation for the story of the
two women in the piece.
In Sterchis painting, there are two women, most likely a caretaker and a mistress, resting
in the natural, intimate setting of a home. The caretaker especially, with her black hair and robe,
indicates certain Western Victorian strictures of fashion, style, and social behavior. However,
they may also be inspired by a Japanese aesthetic. In Japanese art, a common feature of ukiyo-e
art (art depicting everyday life) was bijinga or pictures of beautiful people (Meier 3). Usually
courtesans and kabuki actors from the pleasure districts, the beautiful Japanese women could
have inspired the aesthetic of the two women in the piece. It is also possible that the reclining
nude depicted in the works of other European artists of the time influenced the depiction of
Sterchis reclining mistress. In reference to the c. 1863 painting Olympia by French artist
Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Olympia arrogantly confronts... and undermines tradition... posing

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as a classic nude (Lipton 48). Manet depicted Olympia, a reclining female prostitute, as a
challenge to the conventional ideals of femininity, which outraged many critics at the
time. Although Sterchis woman is not nude nor openly confrontational, she suggests a relaxed,
uncaring attitude towards her environment and the paintings viewer.
A GIBSON GIRL IDEAL

The two women depicted in this piece are also representative of the Gibson Girl and the
New Woman. Identified with illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, the Gibson Girl became the
quintessential American beauty of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Adopted by the popular
press, the Gibson Girl was someone who women of different races, levels of education, and
varying social classes aspired to be. The concept and beauty of the Gibson Girl was in many
ways a continuation from the prior Victorian era, yet she posed a modern figure as a confident
player in the mating game. Because of her widespread feminine appeal, the Gibson Girl was
widely represented in art collected by upper-class patrons, like Alice Warder Garrett, who
emulated her makeup, hairstyle, and fashion. In Sterchis painting Two Women, the Gibson
Girl-figure, represented by the caretaker, establishes the first suggestion of a step from the
Victorian ideals of womanhood.
The Gibson Girl offered not only a popular image but also a standard of feminine beauty
and behavior in the United States until World War I. According to Charles Dana Gibson, the
quintessential American woman possessed a flawlessly beautiful face, was tall and slim-waisted
yet voluptuous, and radiated physical grace and self-confidence (Gibson Girls
America). Gibson illustrated the Gibson Girl with inspiration from his wife and sisters as a
representation of all beautiful American women. Gibsons idealism created a white
bourgeois ideal representing the pinnacle of evolutionary accomplishment and serving as the
foundation for American dominance on a world stage (Patterson 34). With the rising popularity
of social evolution and American imperialism, the Gibson Girl was an evolutionary culmination
of beautiful women, a survival of the fittest and the most attractive. In addition to this ideology
of social evolution, the Gibson Girl was defined by the culture of consumerism. As the United
States increasingly industrialized and urbanized, a developing market economy encouraged
women to buy new products as consumers (Patterson 33). The popular press used the image of
the Gibson Girl in magazines and advertisements to perpetuate this consumerist attitude towards

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attaining beauty and friendship. From a consumer to an evolutionary ideal, the Gibson Girl
symbolized both the individual and the nation.
The image of the Gibson Girl was established by distinct characteristics and attitudes.
Her waterfall of curls, S-shape figure, and her dress were similar to their respective Victorian
counterparts. The main difference between her and the earlier Victorian woman existed in their
respective attitudes towards men. While the Victorian woman waited demurely for a husband,
the Gibson Girl was often depicted seeking out a mate (Patterson 32). Although the emphasis
was still placed on the system of matrimony, the Gibson Girl mentality shifted the womens role
to an active, confident woman who could choose her partner. However, this newfound freedom
was limited to certain acceptable social activities. Gibsons portrayal of the Gibson Girl did not
support a public life, illustrating women such as suffragettes in a much more negative light. The
Gibson Girls modern approach to choosing a husband could not disguise her innately Victorian
purpose - domestic manager, mother, and silent spouse. Referring once again to her appearance,
the Gibson Girls large bust, corseted waist, and voluminous hair represented female allure and
fecundity (Patterson 42). The difficult practice of corseting represented the suppression and selfcontrol of a womans desires to satisfy such male standards of beauty. While she was considered
the first popular image of the New Woman, the Gibson Girl was ultimately created with the
expectation that she would perpetuate the human race through motherhood.
EVERGREENS ALICE WARDER GARRETT

At Evergreen, the Gibson Girl image is prevalent through drawings, paintings, and
sculptures of Alice Garrett, ne Warder. A bust by Pietro Canonica (1869-1959) and pastel
portrait by Bradford Johnson (unknown dates) reflect similar feminine ideals to those defined by
the Gibson Girl. Although the details of Pietro Canonicas relationship with the then Alice
Warder Garrett are unknown, he was very influential among the upper class, aristocratic circles
of Europe. The bust shows a woman whose hair is swept up into an elegant bun, staring
gracefully at something off to the side. The white plaster of the statue highlights a gentle
delicacy in her neck and dress. At the same time, Alices firm gaze gives credit to a strong and
independent character. Little is known about the portrait artist Bradford Johnson and his
relationship with his sitter also remains in obscurity. However, his rendering shows a similarity
with Canonicas bust. The figure was drawn in a semi-transparent manner, except at the eyes;
the clothing is vaguely represented, contributing to an alluring yet proper portrayal of

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Alice. With her waterfall of curls style of wispy hair, elongated neck, and feminine frontal
gaze, the still unmarried reminds the viewers of original Gibson Girl illustrations. Both pieces
convey a woman of still lingering Victorian fashion, yet her confident aura differentiates such
from the traditional Victorian woman.
Alice Warder Garretts courtship with and marriage to John Work Garrett embodied the
hopes of a Gibson Girl. Coming from a well-to-do family, Alice Warder met her future husband
in Berlin in 1905 (Abbott 12). John pursued Miss Warder, but he was not alone in his courting
as another man, Francis Welch Crowninsheild, also sought Alices favor. In this situation, Alice
Warder reflected the Gibson Girl of Charles Dana Gibsons illustrations, feminine yet confident
in her ability to choose her own husband. In the end, she chose John Work Garrett and the
lifestyle of a diplomats wife. They immediately left for Europe... Johns transition from
Second Secretary at the American embassy in Berlin to First Secretary within the American
Embassy in Rome (13). As a diplomats wife, Alice Warder Garrett would have felt the
pressure to emulate the fashionable aspects of Victorian dress and conform to an established
societal perception of her rank. At the same time she promoted her own independence as an
active volunteer of the American Red Cross in Paris and as a patron of the arts and music. In
these instances, Mrs. Garrett acted as a picture of the Gibson Girl.
Returning to Sterchis painting, the caretaker in Two Women has the same hairstyle and
traditional clothing perpetuated by the Gibson Girl. Portrayed in darker clothing, she contrasts
the lighter colors of the other womans dress and the bedroom. She is also sitting at the edge of
the bed, looking downwards in a more constrained pose. As a caretaker figure, she may
represent an older woman possibly of a lower class than the reclining woman. Sterchis image
seemingly replicates that of both Canonicas and Johnsons earlier portrayals of Alice Warder
Garrett. The portraits of Mrs. Garrett identify with the positive attributes of the Gibson Girl young, graceful, feminine, and confident. However, in Two Women, the Gibson Girl-style
caretaker is compositionally and characteristically confined by her location and her role in the
piece. Perhaps, this contrast is a statement on the obsolescence of the Victorian ideal in contrast
to the freedom of the New Woman constructs.
ORIGINS OF THE NEW WOMAN

In the transition period between centuries, rapid urbanization and industrialization called
for the modernization of different systems, including the roles of women. In a culture that

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increasingly promoted independence and growth, the New Woman stemmed from the political,
social, and economic environment of the Progressive Era. Politically, women were rallying for
suffrage and raising awareness about the problems that arose from the city environment.
Socially, divorce rates were rising as birth rates were falling. Also, more women were beginning
to attend college and pursuing a higher education, which led to greater involvement of women in
the work force. By the 20th century, an estimated 5 million women, or one out of every five,
were employed in a number of differentfields (Patterson 8). Economically, industrialization
and other forces created a corporate and consumer culture. These dynamic factors nurtured and
developed the New Woman, who dramatically diverged from previous social expectations of
women (6-11). While the popular press often portrayed the New Woman negatively, new styles
and art movements propelled her image as the modern woman.
The idea of the New Woman originated in Europe in part due to the fin de sicle (end of
the century) attitudes. Sarah Grand, an Irish feminist writer, coined the term the new woman to
represented a sympathetic woman who was also self-sufficing and self-supporting. According to
her, the new woman is a little above [the Bawling Brotherhood]... where she has been sitting
apart in silent contemplation all these years... until at last she solved the problem (Grand
27). The Bawling Brotherhood, referring to men who actively supported womens suffrage
during the late 1800s, were attempting to solve the question of what the fundamental role of
women should be in western countries. Sarah Grand proposed that men and women cooperate to
solve the conflicts regarding suffrage, marriage, and sexual freedom. Although the New Woman
originated as a noble character, she became associated with fin de sicle debauchery and
sensuality. In Europe, the [Victorian] fin de sicle emphasis on the importance of pursuing new
sensations also, inevitably, led to sex and sexuality playing an increasingly important part
(Buzwell 1). Many social critics responded negatively towards the new degenerate generation
that seemed to arrive with the 20th century (Degeneration (1895), Max Nordau). However,
artists, especially Art Nouveau artists and illustrators, depicted the New Woman positively in
magazines and posters (Jugend, 1896). The New Womans arrival into the new century sparked
much more controversy than the Gibson Girl because she openly defied the social order of the
Victorian era.
MORE THAN ONE NEW WOMAN

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From the start, there existed two images of the New Woman portrayed by her critics and
her supporters. Among the popular press (largely serving a rich and white audience), the New
Woman was an unattractive, browbeating usurper of traditionally masculine roles (Patterson
2). In most illustrations of the New Woman, she was portrayed as manly and tiring, often
working as a suffragette or a self-professed artist. Considered a traitor to her sex, she lacked
the grace and elegance of the more acceptable, perhaps less threatening Gibson Girl. For
example, Charles Dana Gibsons, A Suffragettes Husband, depicted the New Woman as a
portly older female looking at the newspaper while her exhausted husband sat to the side. Such
illustrations reflected a disapproval within the mainstream male-dominated society. On the other
hand, some artists began to recognize the New Woman as a growing population of domestic
consumers - middle- and working-class women. Contrary to the opinion of the popular press,
modernist artists observed the bourgeois womans growing engagement with educational,
political, and occupational pursuits outside the home, reflecting this reality in their artwork
(Todd, xxvii). Although they were more active from the 1930s to 1940s, the Fourteenth Street
School in New York City helped to construct a more objective image of the New Woman. Isabel
Bishop (1902-1988) was a female artist of the Fourteenth Street School. She focused on genre
paintings of working class women, embodying... a middle-class ideology of office work that...
negotiated class and gender differences (Todd 282). Her c. 1938 painting, Tidying Up, depicts
an office woman who is checking her appearance in the mirror. Seen alone, this modern and
fashionable woman is caught in an everyday moment that is idealized but not
sexualized. Artists, like Isabel Bishop, had a growing fascination with the New Woman that
helped to reconfigure the negative image that was produced by the popular press.
THE NEW WOMAN VIA THE COLLECTORS EYE

At Evergreen, the New Womans character is reflected by the styles of experimental and
avant-garde artists. The drawing Portrait of Alice Garrett by Paul Thevenas (1891-1921) shows
a unique style that compliments his subject, Alice Warder Garrett. Thevenas was known as a
rhythmycian for his stylistic interpretation that connected art and music (Van Saanen). As a
result, his portraits are linear and precise, but also harmonious in form. The portrait of Mrs.
Garrett shows a woman with a stylish bob haircut and bright red lipstick that contributes to the
dramatic aura that she exudes through the vibrant green foliage in the background. In Thevenas
interpretation, Mrs. Garrett is a vibrant combination of colors and shapes that stands out from the

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paper. Unlike earlier portrayals reminiscent of the Gibson Girl model, Mrs. Garrett is depicted in
a very masculine style, corresponding to the self-sufficient characteristics of the New
Woman. The portrait combines Alice Warder Garretts two enduring passions, art, and
music. Studying voice from an early age, Alice had formulated a belief that one had to
experience the training of voice and the act of performing to truly appreciate the art of opera
(Abbott 12-3). Even after marrying John Work Garrett, she continued to study voice into the
1920s. She would never perform professionally, only at charity and other private events,
especially at her home, Evergreen. In addition to her love for music, Mrs. Garrett showed a
unique connoisseurship in her selection of dynamic, modern works.
The painting Woman with a Mirror by Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) is similar to
Sterchis painting Two Women in style as well as character. Part of the Nabis movement,
Vuillard used expanses of color and layers to render the figure and the background in a textured
manner. The subject of this piece is a woman with a bob haircut who is looking into a mirror, a
comparable subject and composition to Tidying Up by Isabel Bishop. In contrast to the previous
images suggestive of the Gibson Girl, the woman holding the mirror seems comfortable as she
briefly checks her reflection. In accordance with the New Woman convention, she does not have
an uptight bun or a formal attire, but instead dons non-constricting clothing that reflects the
consumerism and culture of a modern era. Although not a portrait of Alice Warder Garrett, the
character in the piece can be seen as a projection of her. Mrs. Garrett collected modern artworks
like this as an active patron for avant-garde artists. Specifically, during Mr. Garretts relocation
to Paris, she met artists like Vuillard. Later on, when she settled in at Evergreen, she built a
new collection of European and American modern art to adorn the walls (Abbott 18). Much
like the character in Woman with a Mirror, Mrs. Garrett adopted a modern attitude and character
in her independence and control as a patron of the arts.
As a New Woman figure, the reclining woman in Sterchis painting Two Women in an
Interior is the main focus of the painting, compositionally and thematically. Dressed in white,
the woman lounges on her bed in a casual manner. The white allows her to stand out from the
dark hues of the caretaker woman and even the vibrant colors of the room. By her posturing, she
takes up much of the space, which draws the eye immediately to her figure. Furthermore her
free-flowing hair, upward expression, and loose dress all suggest a comfortableness that is
unfettered by the frame of the painting. Unlike the caretaker, the reclining woman is a modern

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and independent New Woman. Sterchis positive depiction of the reclining woman contrasts
with many negative depictions of the New Woman by the then popular press but imitates the
empowering images of an independent woman of means by Isabel Bishop, Paul Thevenas, and
Edouard Vuillard. Like the women these other artists portrayed, Sterchis reclining woman
commands our attention. Perhaps, the reclining woman is a reflection of Eda Sterchi herself,
who defied the status quo to pursue her own dreams.
CONCLUSION
An analysis of the c. 1913 painting, Two Women in an Interior, reveals the modernity of
thought that Sterchi employed in her painting technique in addition to her subject matter.
Influenced by multiple factors that characterized the late 19th century to the early 20th century,
the piece is a reflection of both European modernism and feminist imagery. Regarding the two
women in the painting, the story of the modern woman does not end with the Gibson Girl and the
New Woman. The popularity and appeal of the Gibson Girl declined by World War I, but the
image of the New Woman endured into the 1930s and 1940s with the new popular culture
revolving around the Jazz Age flapper and her like successors. While the New Woman outlasted
the Gibson Girl, both of their portrayals in various media pervade our modern understanding of
womanhood and feminism. Eda Sterchi and Alice Warder Garrett both embodied aspects of the
Gibson Girl and the New Woman, making them some of the first modern women for a modern
age.

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Works Cited
Abbott, James Archer. "Evergreen: A House's History." 2015. MS.
Auricchio, Laura. The Nabis and Decorative Painting. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct. 2004. Web. 7 Sept. 2015.
Bishop, Isabel. Tidying Up. 1941. Oil on masonite. Collection of Indianapolis Museum of
Art, Indianapolis. Delavan Smith Fund. (43.24)
Buzwell, Greg. "Daughters of Decadence: The New Woman in the Victorian Fin
De Siecle." British Library. British Library, n.d. Web. 3 Feb. 2016.
Canonica, Pietro. Bust of Alice Warder. 1907. Plaster. Collection of Evergreen Museum
& Library, Baltimore.
Doan, Jan. Eda Sterchi. N.d. Raw data.
Gardner, Helen, Fred S. Kleiner, and Christin J. Mamiya. Europe and America, 1850-1900.
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Gibson, Charles Dana. A Suffragette's Husband. 1911. Illustration. Other People.
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Cong., 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2016.
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Web. 20 Jan. 2016.
Ives, Colta. Japonisme. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oct.
2004. Web. 10 Sept. 2015.
Johnson, Bradford. Portrait of Alice Garrett. N.d. Pencil, gouache, conte crayon. Collection of
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Lipton, Eunice. "Manet: A Radicalized Female Imagery." Artforum 13 (1975): 48-53. Print.
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Myers, Nicole. "Women Artists in Nineteenth-Century France." Heilbrunn Timeline of Art
History. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sept. 2008. Web. 2 Feb. 2016.

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Nochlin, Linda. Why have there been no great women artists?. The feminism and visual
culture reader (1971): 229-233.
Patterson, Martha H. Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 18951915. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2005. Print.
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Sterchi, Eda Elisabeth. Two Women in an Interior. 1913. Oil on canvas. Collection of Evergreen
Museum & Library, Baltimore. Gift of Anis and Michael Merson.
Thevenas, Paul. Portrait of Alice Garrett. N.d. Pencil and watercolor. Collection of
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& Library, Baltimore. Gift of Walter Berry (1952.1.39)