Hillstrom Museum of Art acquires etching suggested by student Sydney Stumme-Berg (’22)

Posted on May 27th, 2022 by

Claire Mahl Moore (1917-1988), The Widow, c.1936-1939, lithograph on paper, 7 1/2 x 6 1/8 inches, Hillstrom Museum of Art purchase with endowment acquisition funds

The Hillstrom Museum of Art at Gustavus Adolphus College recently acquired a Depression-era lithograph made in New York by artist Claire Mahl Moore (1917-1988), titled The Widow (also known as Old Woman or Farm Woman) and thought to date between about 1936 and 1939. The work is typical of the artist in this early part of her career, when she employed an expressionistic yet realistic mode that used bold compositions coupled with a detailed graphic handling. Her works often addressed themes of social injustice.

The Widow was one of eight artworks presented by members of the spring 2022 Museum Studies class as suggested acquisitions for the Museum. In this class project, each student, in consultation with their professor, identified an available artwork as an appropriate addition to the Hillstrom Collection, most of them choosing a work dating from the 1930s or 1940s. Each student then argued why the work should be acquired for the Collection. The project culminated in a ballot in which students voted for the most appealing and relevant work, which the Museum then acquired using funds from an endowment established by Museum namesake Richard L. Hillstrom to support acquisitions and programming.

Mahl Moore’s The Widow was presented to the class by fourth-year student Sydney Stumme-Berg, a major in secondary education for social studies teaching, with a minor in geography, and with an interest in museum education as a possible career. In her discussion, she emphasized the artist’s sympathetic depiction of the elderly woman, who, as the imagery in the background beyond her indicates, has seen difficult times. Stumme-Berg also noted that many other works in the Hillstrom Collection also date from the 1930s, and that the Museum had recently featured American Depression-era art in a major exhibit titled Industry, Work, Society, and Travails in the Depression Era: American Paintings and Photographs from the Shogren-Meyer Collection.

Artist Claire Mahl Moore knew from an early age that she wanted to be an artist, and her earliest memory was sitting on the floor next to her mother while drawing the sewing machine at which she worked. At age 10, Mahl Moore drew a cityscape that demonstrated remarkable ability, and her mother referred to her hands as being “precious like gold” because of what they could do. The artist’s father was a socialist and a supporter of women’s rights who also encouraged his daughter’s interest in art. At some point, the artist adopted the surname “Mahl” for her career, using it instead of the family name of Millman (though later she started using Moore, after she married).

Mahl Moore attended art classes while still in school. She then received a scholarship in 1935 to study at New York’s Art Students League, with which many of the artists in the Hillstrom Collection are associated. Her teachers there included Harry Wickey (1892-1968), a highly regarded printmaker who taught her lithography, the medium of The Widow. She also studied at the League under Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), the acclaimed Regionalist artist. In Benton’s class she became acquainted with another of his students, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), who later became famous for his “drip” paintings and who encouraged her to get involved in the “Siqueiros Experimental Workshop” in New York. This was organized by celebrated Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974) and had goals of exploring modern art techniques and creating art for the people. Mahl Moore later worked in the New York atelier of the French Cubist Fernand Léger (1881-1955).

Like many artists of this era, during the Depression, Mahl Moore created art for a Federal Government relief program under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The Widow bears the stamp of the New York City Federal Art Project of the WPA. This program was one of several different relief projects of the era, and it ran from August 1935 to April 1943. It was the most extensive and comprehensive of all the New Deal art projects and sought to employ artists who were then on the relief rolls. Its largest division was Fine Arts, which included murals, sculpture, easel painting, and graphic arts. The New York City branch was particularly active and some 3,000 different print designs were made by artists employed by the NYC FAP/WPA, with about 75,000 individual impressions printed. Many of the prints were made between 1936 and 1939—and when a specific date for a New York FAP/WPA print is unknown, that date range is often assumed.

The Widow is one of 20 lithographs Mahl Moore did for the FAP/WAP, and is believed to have been printed in an edition of 25 examples. The title widow is shown with refined dignity that old age and hardships have not taken from her. Her aged left hand is the most foregrounded element in the print and shows her continuing to wear her wedding ring. The Widow is less abstract in its details than many of Mahl Moore’s works, although the woman is not situated into a single, realistic space with the rest of the print’s imagery, which instead consists of vignettes arranged around her. Behind her head is a bit of dry landscape, with stunted or dead trees and possibly a couple tumbleweeds, calling to mind the terrible Dust Bowl that was part of the overall hardships of the time (this interpretation has also been made by the artist’s daughter). In front of the widow’s face is a structure that could be an old farmhouse, perhaps where she lived, and perhaps lost to foreclosure. And below that is a tornado tearing into the earth.

This element ties the print to the Hillstrom Museum of Art by calling to mind the terrible tornado of March 1998 that did severe damage to the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College. In some ways, the Museum was a beneficiary of that disaster because the building in which it is housed, the Jackson Campus Center, was expanded when it was rebuilt in the aftermath, which allowed space for a new Museum (which opened in 2000). The tornado has evolved into a kind of informal symbol for the College and its resiliency. One of the early works the Museum acquired using funds from its endowment also features a tornado, the 1939 lithograph John Brown by Regionalist John Steuart Curry (1897-1946). Curry had earlier depicted another one, in his 1929 oil painting Tornado over Kansas (Muskegon Museum of Art, Muskegon, Michigan), and images of tornadoes were part of the popular culture and imagination of that time. Perhaps most notable of these is the twister in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, and it may be more than a coincidence that the tilted position of the building in Mahl Moore’s The Widow, and its position above the tornado, evoke the image of Dorothy Gale’s house being carried by the cyclone in the movie.

Works by Mahl Moore are found in numerous public collections, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and, in New York City, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All these museums own an example of another of Mahl Moore’s prints for the WPA/FAP, her more abstracted work titled Street Accident. The Metropolitan Museum of Art also owns an example of The Widow.


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