Since 2016, the National Museum of Women in the Arts has celebrated Women’s History Month with a social media campaign raising awareness of the lives of women artists. The campaign – #5WomenArtists – challenges institutions and individuals to spotlight the stories of women artists by posting about works and people in their collections.
The Heinz History Center’s collection holds multiple examples of women’s artistic works that demonstrate the challenges they faced and impact they’ve made on Pittsburgh’s cultural life. Learn more about five of them below.
Jane Grey Swisshelm (1815 – 1884)
Jane Grey Swisshelm’s “Self-portrait,” c. 1840, is on display in the History Center’s exhibition, Pittsburgh, A Tradition of Innovation. Swisshelm fulfilled many important roles during her lifetime: teacher, abolitionist, journalist, women’s rights advocate. But one role she desired eluded her: artist.
Swisshelm first encountered the world of paints and brushes when she visited the studio of a traveling artist in Wilkinsburg around 1837. She later wrote that seeing the easel, paints, and brushes made her feel “at home in a new world, at the head of a long vista of faces” she wanted to paint. She tried her hand at creating those faces, painting a portrait of her husband and the self-portrait now in the History Center. “From the moment I began,” she wrote, “I felt I had found my vocation.” But the weight (and disapproval) of 19th-century expectations crowded in. Eventually, Swisshelm abandoned painting, sadly deciding that she could not balance the duties of married life and her desire to be an artist. Nearly 40 years later, the loss still hurt. She wrote in her autobiography: “I put away my brushes; resolutely crucified my divine gift, and while it hung writhing on the cross, spent my best years and powers cooking cabbage.” (But, as her friends pointed out, she made a truly lasting contribution in many other areas.)
Sibyl Barsky Grucci (1905 – 2007)
Sculptor Sibyl Barsky’s bust of Hyman Blum, c. 1946, the founder of the Hyman Blum Company (later Blumcraft), can be seen on the History Center’s sixth floor, just outside the Detre Library & Archives. The bust represents a story of perseverance and self-initiative. Barsky, the daughter of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, came to America with her parents and older sister around 1907. The family welcomed five more children, but then tragedy struck. Both Barsky’s parents died within months of each other in 1926, leaving Sibyl and her sister to take care of their younger siblings. Despite this, Sibyl found time to study painting at Carnegie Tech. She taught herself sculpture, improvising with “needles, finger nail files, even knives from the kitchen.” Barsky’s early works garnered praise at the annual Associated Artists shows at the Carnegie Institute, and she was selected as one of six local artists for a Pittsburgh Federal Art Project during the 1930s. She wanted more Americans to support local artists by purchasing their work, noting that “Art never will develop in America until people get over the idea that the purchase of artwork is a luxury.” She eventually made a career of sculpture, securing commissions for portrait busts and other works. In 1940, Barsky married poet and University of Pittsburgh professor Joseph Grucci; the couple eventually settled near Penn State University in 1950, where Barsky’s work is also visible today.
Esther Phillips (1902 – 1983)
After Sibyl Barsky Grucci’s death in 2007, items from her estate were gifted to the History Center’s collection. Among them were multiple paintings by another young woman who got her start in Pittsburgh in the 1930s.
Esther Phillips came from a family of Russian Jewish immigrants. She studied art at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement in the Hill District and took classes at Carnegie Tech. Phillips found no encouragement from her family in support of her art but nonetheless made an early splash in Pittsburgh, garnering notoriety, praise, and controversy for her modern paintings of people and local scenes. She sought out images from Pittsburgh’s rougher side, making expeditions into slum areas such as Soho hunting subjects for her work. Some found her images exciting, even humorous. One critic described a street scene as “a prehistoric monster doing a rhumba” and praised Phillips’ “witty” brush. Others found her inexplicable, deriding her primitive images as “not art.” Pittsburgh Press art critic Douglas Naylor noted that Pittsburgh’s art-going public “probably disagrees more violently over the work of Miss Phillips than any other local artist.”
Unlike Sibyl Barsky, Esther Phillips found no happy endings. Determined to pursue her art, Phillips moved to New York in 1936 and took up residence in Greenwich Village, living in poverty on the proceeds from sales of her paintings. At one point, the stress proved too much, and she suffered a nervous breakdown. She was institutionalized for six years, a period that ironically provided some stability and allowed her to paint. She died in 1983. While Phillips never achieved the mainstream success she dreamed of during her life, today a new appreciation of her work is emerging. Pittsburgh’s Borelli-Edwards Galley mounted a retrospective exhibition of her paintings in 2016.
Lila Hetzel (1873 – 1967)
Lila B. Hetzel created her painting “Me (Self-portrait)” in 1949-1950 when she was 76 years old, testament to a life spent in pursuit of art and in support of Pittsburgh’s arts community.
Hetzel was born in Edgewood in 1873 to a family well-known in the art world. Hetzel’s father, the French-born painter George Hetzel, had been a leading artist in Pittsburgh since the 1860s, where he was known for painting murals in steamboats and saloons before gaining national acclaim with works exhibited at venues such as the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the National Academy in New York City. Alas, Lila may have been inspired by a home filled with artistic pursuits, but her own goals as an artist were not initially embraced by her father. He refused to teach her. She forged a path anyway, studying at the Pittsburgh School of Design. She eventually established her own studio in downtown Pittsburgh and became a founding member of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, a group that continues to promote the life and work of artists here today. Lila Hetzel’s daughter Dorothy became an art critic for the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph newspaper.
Jane Haskell (1923 – 2013)
Anyone who has boarded Pittsburgh’s “T” subway from the platform at the Steel Plaza station has encountered the work of painter and neon artist Jane Haskell. Her installation “River of Light” was commissioned in 1985 and recently received a thorough restoration in 2015 funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Watch a video of the installation.
Haskell, a native of Long Island, New York, studied art and design at Skidmore College and relocated to Pittsburgh with her husband in 1949. While the couple added two daughters to their family in 1949 and 1953, Haskell also began to pursue her art more seriously, studying painting with the well-known local artist Samuel Rosenberg and earning a master’s degree in art history at the University of Pittsburgh. She began to garner serious artistic recognition by the 1960s; one of her paintings was added to the permanent collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art in 1964. By the 1970s, Haskell’s fascination with light led her to the world of neon art. The installation in the Steel Plaza subway station was her first commission, but other projects followed, including neon installations in the parking garage at Boston Logan International Airport and a fiber optic installation in the Delta Terminal at the Fort Lauderdale Airport. Haskell maintained a vital practice in Pittsburgh for decades, being named Artist of the Year by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in 2006. She was also a well-respected member of the Board of Directors and Collections Committee at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Jane Haskell’s papers were added to the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Heinz History Center in 2013.
 Swisshelm’s account of her artistic ambitions can be found in Chapter VIII (“Fitting Myself Into My Sphere”) of her autobiography: Jane Grey Swisshelm, Half A Century (Chicago: J. G. Swisshelm, 1880): pp 47-50.
 Sibyl Barsky is quoted in: “Luxury to buy art?” The Pittsburgh Press, June 10, 1934.
 “Sculptor demonstrates prospects for great success in the future,” The Pittsburgh Press, February 24, 1935; “Work relief program provides employment for professional persons as well as laborers,” The Pittsburgh Press, April 22, 1936.
 “Luxury to buy art?” Pittsburgh Press, June 10, 1934.
 The account of a show featuring Phillips can be found in: Penelope Red, “Museum exhibits Rea Waterford glass collection,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, December 3, 1933.
 Douglas Naylor, “Girl’s quarrel-provoking paintings exhibited here,” The Pittsburgh Press, November 27, 1933.
 An excellent profile of Phillips was also published in 2016: Vicky A Clark, “Hidden from History,” Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine (Fall 2016).
 Lila Hetzel’s contributions were noted in her obituary: “Lila Hetzel, famed artist, dies at 93,” The Pittsburgh Press, June 5, 1967.
 A good overview of Jane Haskell’s life and work can be found in the online journal of the Carnegie Museum of Art: Costas G. Karakatsanis, “Jane Haskell: Artist, Collector, and Museum Donor,” Storyboard (January 26, 2016).
Leslie Przybylek is senior curator at the Heinz History Center.