The New Woman of the Roaring Twenties
THE BIGGS IN DOVER IS PROUD TO CELEBRATE WOMEN’S FEST
While thousands of women converge on Rehoboth Beach for the 18th Annual Women’s FEST, Dover’s Biggs Museum celebrates one of several pioneering women in the arts. If you’re fortunate to sit on the North Shores beach this weekend, and look north toward Lewes, this painting will surely come into clearer focus.
Ethel Pennewill Brown Leach was a Delaware artist active in the early to mid-1900s. She studied at the Clawson S. Hammitt School of Art in Wilmington, the Art Students League in New York, and with the renowned illustrator Howard Pyle in Chadds Ford, PA, and Wilmington.
Later in life she trained in Europe, where she observed and adapted Post-Impressionist ideas of color, light, and landscape. Much of her life’s work, including this representation of the former lighthouse at Cape Henlopen, reflects this era of painting. It’s a heartfelt representation of Delaware landscapes through the lens of European art concepts. This lighthouse, in particular, held personal significance for Leach and she painted it multiple times, both before and after its 1926 destruction.
Historical Context: This painting serves as a visual record of a lighthouse that fell into the sea. Through this painting and several others done by Leach and her artistic peers, future generations will have a visual representation of the former appearance of this location.
The era in which the work was painted—the 1920s—was a particularly prosperous time in America. The surge and accessibility of auto-manufacturing meant that more people than ever had access to idyllic spots like the beach, portrayed in this scene. As a result, beach scenes became increasingly popular. The 1920s also saw the birth of “the New Woman,” who, like Leach, was unabashedly venturing into endeavors typically reserved for men, including the bold task of executing such a large-scale, landscape painting.
This painting was created using oil paint and is done on canvas. Given the era in which the painting was created, it is likely that Leach was purchasing mass produced paints and pre-stretch canvases. These were probably acquired from a local art supply store in Delaware. Leach frequently worked in oil, which allows for the kind of impasto—or raised paint—typical of the work of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists Leach observed and learned from. It is likely that Leach would have used both brushes and palette knives to apply the paint thickly and directly on the canvas. This application added both expression and texture to her scenes.
The Cape Henlopen Lighthouse was a popular subject for Delmarva Peninsula painters of the 20th century. Leach was no exception. She was a Delaware native and brought her love of her home state into her artwork. The lighthouse was a structure that she painted many times over. It was built in the 1760s by the British government and stood 126 feet high. As a working lighthouse it provided a beacon for the dunes of the Delaware Bay north of Rehoboth Beach. Eventually, weather damage caused the building to topple into the ocean. The falling of the lighthouse shook many people in the local area who had admired it for years. As a tribute to their admiration, many Rehoboth Beach natives collected pieces of the lighthouse to incorporate into their own homes. Leach herself donated the door of the lighthouse to the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes.
In Far View, Leach chose a perspective that makes the lighthouse look tiny in a painting made up mostly of sand and water. Even so, the lighthouse still stands out as the highest vertical point in the piece. Motion is brought into the painting with the addition of rough waves and blowing beach grass. The purple in the overcast sky is mirrored in the sand, bringing cohesion to the overall look.
This painting hangs in a gallery space the Biggs Museum created to celebrate the American Art Colonies, which includes Delaware’s two most notable colonies of Arden and Rehoboth Beach. Leach was active as an artist in the Rehoboth Beach artist colony in her later years. The Biggs’ preservation of the history of these colonies adds the narrative of Delaware’s artistic legacy and contextualizes the creation of this cherished scene in Cape Henlopen.
Hats off to a woman who pushed boundaries nearly a century ago. As we enter this next century of “roaring twenties,” it will indeed be women who will push boundaries.
Note: The Biggs’ permanent collection boasts other renowned women artists, including Hannah Robinson—one of few (if any) women silversmiths in early Delaware—and our most popular painting “Summer Girl,” which, while painted by a man, Robert Reid, also captured women who defied conventions. He dedicated his life to this during the turn of the century. Hats off to those men who’ve done so during the turn of this one!
For more information, email Brent Mundt. Regina Stephanie Lynch is Education Curator at the museum.