Mother/Daughter Duo at the Heart of the Art Scene
Ruth McIntosh Cogswell - Dorothy Cogswell, 1925, Dorothy Cogswell (1909-2008) Ruth McIntosh Cogswell, 1926
New Haven, Conn. (July 6, 2023) –New Haven’s vibrant art scene has a long and storied history, and the New Haven Museum’s newest exhibition, “Profiles: Ruth McIntosh Cogswell and Dorothy Cogswell,” highlights two remarkable women at the heart of it a century ago. Using works by the Cogswells and the students they inspired, “Profiles” illustrates a small portion of a pivotal time in the Elm City. The exhibition will open at the New Haven Museum on July 12, 2023, and remain on view through December 30, 2023.
Ruth McIntosh Cogswell (1885-1944) grew up in New Haven and attended the Yale School of Fine Arts in 1905-06. She was an art educator and artist renowned for her intricate silhouette work. Her daughter, Dorothy Cogswell (1909-2008), was the first woman to earn an MFA from the Yale School of Fine Arts and later served as chair of the Department of Art at Mount Holyoke College. The exhibition’s photographs, watercolors, pencil drawings and silhouettes give a glimpse of the New Haven arts scene in the early 20th century and allows present-day audiences to consider the role women played in establishing the New Haven arts community that exists today.
While volunteering at NHM in 2019-2020, artist and student Katy Rosenthal (currently working towards her doctorate at Bryn Mawr College) curated the exhibition with NHM Collections Manager Mary Christ. Rosenthal says she was surprised by how many amateur and professional arts organizations were active in New Haven at the turn of the 20th century. “But I realized that it is a legacy that has taken new forms. New Haven is still bustling with creatives and an entrepreneurial artistic community that should be heartened by this history.”
Ruth Cogswell spent her adult life and career in the Elm City. As an artist, she worked in mediums including pencil and watercolor, and was commissioned by various clients, and her work was exhibited locally and throughout New England. Her true passion, however, was the delicate and curious art of silhouettes, and she ran a silhouette business out of her home on Alden Avenue in New Haven.
Ruth also taught art at the Normal School (now Southern Connecticut State University), Troup Junior High School, and New Haven High School (later Hillhouse High School) until her retirement in 1940. While at Hillhouse, Cogswell served as a faculty advisor to “The Hillhouse Gleam,” a student-run literary magazine that prominently featured student art.
Ruth also founded the Cogswell Studio near her home in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood. The Cogswell Studio offered a variety of classes including creative work for younger children, a preparatory class for the Yale School of Fine Arts and other art schools, and creative and representational drawing and painting. Dorothy Cogswell, while a student at the Yale School of Fine Arts, taught with her mother during the Cogswell Studio’s later years.
Dorothy was educated in New Haven and worked there for a short time before her decades-long career as an artist and professor of art at Mount Holyoke College. She followed in her mother’s footsteps by teaching in New Haven schools and working as an instructor at the Cogswell Studio as well as the Cogswell Art Colonies located in Killingworth and Columbia Lake, Connecticut. She spent several summers abroad, studying, teaching, and creating art. She was awarded a Fulbright grant and spent nine months teaching at the National Art School in Sydney, Australia. Returning to Mount Holyoke, Dorothy Cogswell served as chair of the Department of Art from 1960 to 1969, and in 1970 she became the director of the Mount Holyoke Art Collection. She retired as professor emeritus in 1974.
In the 1980s, Dorothy donated hundreds of her mother’s silhouettes depicting New Haven notables to the New Haven Colony Historical Society (now known as the New Haven Museum). She also donated drawings and watercolors of herself and Ruth, and materials related to the art classes and schools founded and taught by her mother. The exhibition includes works by Ruth and Dorothy and their students and protégés of Ruth’s, including Gilbert Banever and Barbara Lewis Hewlett, among others.
Mary Christ, who invited Rosenthal to co-curate the exhibition in 2019-2020, says that while the work of the two women is appealing, the collection also speaks to the interplay of working artists and art education, to the role of women in the New Haven arts community, and to the story of a mother and daughter whose lives and careers were based in the arts. She adds that the collection also shows a more personal side of the artists—many of Ruth’s works are of her family, including Dorothy as a young child and adolescent.
Rosenthal notes, “As someone who was freelancing as an artist in New Haven myself, I was attracted personally to Ruth’s entrepreneurship. It was striking to me to see her somewhat enigmatic business card and to imagine her home operating as a small-scale center of production for her local clientele.”
Rosenthal completed her undergraduate studies in 2015, receiving a dual degree in textile and surface design and apparel design from University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Fashion Institute of Technology. She worked as a textile and surface designer for five years before beginning her Ph.D. in history of art at Bryn Mawr College, where she has worked as a collections assistant and researcher in the college’s special collections as well as in the Asian section of the Penn Museum in Philadelphia.