Book review: Edith Halpert and Rachel Feinstein

Two books that tell the lives of two women who cracked the masculine world of art


Edith Halpert, the Downtown Gallery, and the Rise of American Art by Rebecca Shaykin (Yale University Press, £40) and Rachel Feinstein, Dung N Go (Ed), (Rizzoli, £55)

I had not heard of Edith Halpert and her Downtown Gallery before reading Rebecca Shaykin’s book in which she brilliantly tells the story of how a young Jewish woman, who came to New York from Odessa aged five, became a successful dealer of American contemporary and folk art. And it is lavishly illustrated with more than 250 illustrations showing works that she sold and others from her own collection.

Halpert was groundbreaking. She had worked in retail from an early age, had a spell working in Macy’s and, at 25, was on the board of an investment bank and earning a small fortune.

Along the way, she had studied art and married the much older artist Samuel Halpert. When he became ill, she sent him to a Freudian analyst, whose diagnosis suggested that, “her success was emasculating him and causing his ailments,” for which the remedy was for her to quit her job and spend her earnings on taking him to live in France for a year.

Back in New York, she divorced her husband and opened the Downtown Gallery in Greenwich Village, becoming the city’s first woman art dealer. As Shaykin comments, “she was frequently underestimated and patronised by the male art world” but she maintained the gallery for over 40 years until shortly before her death in 1970.

Halpert represented Jewish artists Ben Shahn and William Zorach, along with Georgia O’Keefe and Japanese-American Yasuo Kuniyoshi.

She made the gallery look like a domestic space so middle-class buyers could imagine how works would look in their homes, and allowed them to pay in instalments. She attracted rich buyers, too, notably Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who went on to donate most of her collection to the Museum of Modern Art.

And she promoted the work of African-American artists. Her gallery administrator Lawrence Allen was black and “any visitor who took issue with his presence in the gallery was someone Halpert had no interest in as a client”. In 1941, she opened the landmark exhibition American Negro Art and later sold African American Jacob Lawrence’s celebrated Migration series to two museums.

Arizona-born Rachel Feinstein grew up in Miami. Early in her career, she worked as a model and remains particularly interested in the representation of women. As wife and muse to the painter John Currin, she is used to posing and writes about the difficulties of seeing herself evolve in the paintings.

Feinstein’s book is made up of her own conversations with some of her famous friends, among them director Sofia Coppola, with whom she discusses how to balance motherhood with work; designer Marc Jacobs, for whom she has modelled; and singer Florence Welch and her mother Evelyn Welch, a renowned art historian, with whom she discusses religion.

Featuring glossy, full-page photographs of Feinstein’s work, the book is without doubt beautifully designed but is quite difficult to read.

In the introductory essays, there is no reference as to which image shows the work under discussion and, indeed, the images are labelled only at the back of the book in a tiny font size.

Having said that, the musings of the artist show that even Feinstein, whose private view was attended by a huge array of celebrities, struggles with issues that many women face:

“I find that being a mother, a wife and an artist,’’ she says, ‘‘all work against each other and nothing works at all any more.”

Julia Weiner is the JC’s art critic

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