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Back Story: Female painters founded Watercolor Society

Third-oldest art group was formed after women were barred from being members of the all-male Charcoal Club

By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

6:05 PM EDT, April 11, 2013

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It's springtime, and with the beautiful weather and perfect light comes an age-old ritual as artists set up their easels around Maryland.

You can find them working in a variety of mediums in Druid Hill Park, roadside in the Green Spring and Worthington valleys, along the winding stone-lined streets of Ellicott City, or on the wharves of St. Michaels and Rock Hall.

And among the artists will be many members of the Baltimore Watercolor Society, the nation's third-oldest such organization. It was established in Baltimore in 1885, after the American Watercolor Society and the Boston Watercolor Society.

The Baltimore Watercolor Society was born out of discrimination, as female painters were barred from membership in the all-male Charcoal Club.

"As legend has it, they deemed it inappropriate for women to participate in 'life' drawing classes that featured nude models," according to a brief history of the society. "So these women simply formed their own organization and went about the business of being fine artists, free to paint whatever subject they wished."

The first gathering was held in the Arundel, an apartment house at Charles Street and Mount Royal Avenue. It included a veritable collection of late 19th-century Blue Book names such as Mrs. Harrison Beachum, the club's first president; Louisa Stewart, Lulu Nelson Ford, Dora Murdoch, B.E. Owens, Christina Bond, Gabrielle Clements and Elizabeth Smith.

Its goals were simple and direct: to "encourage painting in watercolors, and to show annually the finest examples obtainable in Baltimore, and the rest of the United States."

The society held its first show in 1892, and over the years venues changed to include the YMCA Hall at Charles and Saratoga streets, the Architectural Club on West Eager Street near Charles, and a building at 245 W. Biddle St.

"Every subject which the brush of the watercolorist may find to perpetuate in the delicate traceries of this branch of art is represented in the collection," wrote a Baltimore Sun art critic at the time of the 1897 show.

"There are stirring marine views, quiet landscapes, quaint and fanciful genre paintings, portraits galore, bird studies and still-life, studies of exceptional merit," observed the newspaper. "There are many out-of-town artists represented in the exhibition, but the local talent compares favorably with the geniuses from afar."

The women of the Baltimore Watercolor Society were slightly more democratic than their counterparts and by 1900 admitted male painters.

Today, the society has about 600 members who, in addition to Maryland, hail from Washington, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and New Jersey.

The other day, Susan Avis Murphy, 62, a Sandy Spring watercolorist and teacher who is a member of the society's board and workshop co-chair, explained the lure of drawing and painting.

"When you're painting, you lose yourself and are totally absorbed in the moment. You can think of nothing else. It is what you are doing and it's very therapeutic," she said during lunch in a Baltimore restaurant.

She began drawing and painting while growing up in Rocky Hill, Conn., where her mother was a casual painter.

"She gave us pads and pencils to keep us quiet," she said. "So I've been painting all of my life."

While a student at Syracuse University, Murphy, who also had been fascinated by the natural world, decided to become a biologist, and after graduating worked in the field for about 15 years.

After moving to Maryland in 1979, she decided to jettison science in favor of art and set about becoming a full-time professional artist and teacher.

"There are no absolute rules about what makes a great painting. I don't go along with real schools of thought," said Murphy, who calls her studio and school ARThouse.

Murphy is looking forward to the society's widely recognized Mid-Atlantic Regional Exhibition, which will be held June 10 at Stevenson University. About $8,000 will be awarded to winning entries in the juried show.

In addition to the show, there will also be several workshops, she said.

Murphy said she has benefited tremendously from being a member of the society.

"Perhaps the main benefit has been to get to know so many other professional and semi-professional artists," she wrote in a tribute to the society. "To be able to exchange ideas and learn about the art world together has been a tremendous asset to my development as an artist."