When you have a permanent collection that runs as deep and rich as that of the Chrysler Museum of Art, you're bound to find all sorts of work that can tell an interesting story.
But even people who know the Chrysler well might not have suspected the scale and texture of the tale that can now be told since chief curator Jefferson C. Harrison began looking for ways to retrace the history of women in art.
Inspired by a statewide celebration of women in the arts called "Minds Wide Open," Harrison started out with confidence he could mount four or five small focus exhibits on various artists with little problem.
But as he began sifting through all the candidates in the museum's 35,000-object collection, the curator realized he was looking at the stuff of a much more ambitious and revealing exhibition.
What resulted was "Women of the Chrysler: A 400-Year Celebration of the Arts," which fills the changing galleries here with more than 150 works ranging from pioneers to contemporary figures.
It begins as the story of an uphill battle for acceptance and recognition, then ends with a landscape so dramatically remade that women now make up the majority of talents vying for fame and fortune in today's art world.
"It's a broad story of the challenges and struggles that have faced women artists from the very beginning — and which they have finally overcome by getting their hands on the levers of the art machine," Harrison says.
"And the more we looked at our collection, the more it dawned on us that we could say something credible and interesting about a history that has — in many ways — been lost and forgotten."
The exhibit opens with 325-year-old Baroque religious painting whose ties to its female creator were lost — then purposely obscured by a counterfeit male signature — until being rediscovered by the museum's alert conservator, Mark Lewis, and a famed French art expert.
Claudia Bouzonnet-Stella trained at the side of her famous uncle Jacques Stella — one of Louis XIII's favorite artists — and inherited the contents of his studio, giving her a rare degree of professional and financial independence, Harrison says. But she still struggled in life and after death with a culture that had no room for women.
Though many female artists worked anonymously in such fields as tapestry weaving and manuscript illumination, it was not until 1663 that the Royal Academy in Paris admitted its first woman. More than 225 years passed before the most prestigious art guilds and academies of Europe began accepting females for training.
Even in the mid-1800s, such pioneering figures as American sculptor Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, who began working in Rome in 1852, were so rare that they faced constant tests of mockery and derision.
"She was challenged at every step by her male contemporaries and disliked intensely for her unseemly ambition. She actually had to provide documents proving she did her own work," Harrison says.
"You had to have guts — you had to have courage — to be an early female artist."
Still, the second half of the 19th century became a watershed period in the history of women's art, with landmark figures such as American painter Mary Cassatt pushing the old barriers aside to become one of the era's most influential avant-garde artists.
At two world's fairs held in the United States in 1876 and 1893, special women's pavilions showcased the growing ranks of female painters and sculptors as well as those working in other media.
By and large, however, most women with artistic talent ended up like Clara Driscoll and the "Tiffany Girls," a corps of 35 keen-eyed and nimble-fingered women who labored behind the scenes to create some of Louis Comfort Tiffany's most celebrated lamps and decorative arts objects.
Even after the 20th century opened, moreover, many women who managed to break the mold — such as talented American Impressionist painter Helen M. Turner — often focused on genteel, domestic and maternal scenes deemed more feminine than other subjects.
Among the rare exceptions was Susan Watkins, who built a considerable reputation in both Paris and New York producing notable portraits, landscapes and genre scenes of upper-class life.
"She was a great draftsman. She was a great colorist. Her work is just phenomenal," Harrison says, describing an impressive array of more than 20 drawings and paintings assembled for the exhibit.
"But after her early death from cancer in 1913, her work has been waiting to be rediscovered."
Not until the 1920s, '30s and '40s, Harrison says, did the art world broaden enough to enable women to pursue the same kinds of possibilities and subjects as men.
And when that happened, their impact on the studios, schools, galleries and museums of Europe and America exploded.
Among the photographers included here are such figures as Dorothea Lange, Berenice Abbott and Margaret Bourke-White, whose images rank neck and neck with those produced by the best male photographers of the modern era.
Ditto for such celebrated sculptors and painters as Louise Nevelson, Doris Caesar and Helen Frankenthaler.
"Isn't this fabulous!" Harrison says, admiring the passionate exaggeration of human form found in Caesar's masterful 1953 bronze "Female Torso."
"There's a thread here that runs all the way back to our earlier sculptures by Anna Hyatt Huntington. But this is just so avant garde."
News to use What: "Women of the Chrysler: A 400-Year Celebration of the Arts"Where: Chrysler Museum of Art, Olney Road and Mowbray Arch, NorfolkWhen: Wednesday-Sunday through July 28Cost: FreeInfo: 664-6200 www.chrysler.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun