Celebrating Women in Art at Krannert Art Museum

(Featured image credit: Bea Nettles, The Skirted Garden, 1969. Gift of the artist 2017 20-2.


The Krannert Art Museum is a unique attraction to our area. Associated with the University of Illinois, the KAM feels just as much a part of the community as it does the campus. There’s no denying the sense of wonder one has when they enter the museum, and lately, a lot of changes have modernized that sense of wonder to include more contemporary types of media. Renovations to gallery spaces that began five years ago led to an initiative that led to the acquisition of more works created by female artists. 

As Julia Nucci Kelly showed me around the newest changes to the gallery, it was evident that the Krannert Art Museum is stepping up their dedication to the experience of a space. For example, a new addition to the museum are two elongated gallery spaces for multimedia art exhibits. On one side, a confined space is painted white, and with minimal lighting, still has a sense of brightness and vividness. Turn 180 degrees, however, and you’ll see the opposite side of the space, painted to be dark to accommodate other multimedia works, and the contrast is staggering. The design of the new gallery spaces are works of art themselves, and with a lot exciting works ahead featuring videos, soundscapes, and even more traditional forms of art, the spaces are sure to captivate onlookers.

While making these changes over the last five years, the KAM found itself acquiring more and more work from female artists. Interestingly enough, the additions of 20th century works began to form themselves into a body of work that offered a unique approach to consuming art that encompassed inclusivity, intersectionality, and insights into the lives of women in their respective times. A piece Julia and I spent quite a bit of time discussing was Anna Ruysch’s Still Life of Flowers in a Glass Vase on a Stone Table Ledge.

 Anna Ruysch, Still Life of Flowers in a Glass Vase on a Stone Table Ledge, ca. 1690s. Oil on canvas. Museum purchase through the John Needles Chester Fund and the Richard M. and Rosann Gelvin Noel Krannert Art Museum Fund. 2017-18-1

Ruysch had a unique insight into painting that came to her through her father, sister, and husband, but one that she created all her own. Her father was a prominent Dutch professor of botany and anatomy, lending her exposure to plants and flowers from an early age. Ruysch likely studied with the Amsterdam still life painter Willem van Aelst, as her older sister Rachel did from the age of 15 or 16. Rachel Ruysch would go on to be internationally famous, while Anna would marry a paint dealer and continue to improve her skills, notably as a hobby rather than a profession. There are few works from Anna Ruysch, but this one features her knowledge of both painting and botany, displaying a unique intersection of expertise that she held and honed over her lifetime.

The story behind Ruysch’s Still Life of Flowers painting is just one example of how works acquired by the Krannert Art Museum tell the story of extraordinary women and allow us insight to their lives and experiences. Like any art gallery, seeing these works in person is staggering, but the online gallery for the KAM allows you access to some of these works from home. The Krannert Art Museum was able to acquire these works the past five years thanks to a $10 million fundraising project. Other featured works includes experimental photography from Bea Nettles, a U. of I. alumnus and professor emerita, and early works from San Francisco photographer Linda Connor.

A great opportunity to see these works is August 11-12, where the Krannert Art Museum will be open and free to the public as part of Open Door Illinois, a statewide event celebrating attractions in the state to coincide with the Bicentennial. Other area attractions participating in Open Door Illinois are the Spurlock Museum, Museum of the Grand Prairie, and Champaign County History Museum.

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