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A Dangerous Woman: The art of Honoré Sharrer

  • Jessica Nicoll, director and chief curator of the Smith College Museum of Art, leads a tour of an exhibit by painter Honoré Sharrer. “Workman by a Fountain,” a 1946 oil on cardboard, can be seen to Nicoll’s left. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Deborah Diemente, collection manager at Smith College Museum of Art, left, and installer Matt Cummings view paintings by Honoré Sharrer at the museum’s exhibit “A Dangerous Woman.”  GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • “Rose Callahan and Child,” a 1954 oil-on-board piece by Honoré Sharrer, is part of “A Dangerous Woman,” an exhibit of Sharrer’s work at the Smith College Museum of Art. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Visitors at the Smith College Museum of Art listen as museum director Jessica Nicoll discusses the work of 20th century painter Honoré Sharrer, who once lived in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Honoré Sharrer painted “Annunciation (Self-Portrait)” in 1938, the year she turned 18. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • "Nursery Rhyme," a 1971 oil on canvas, is one of numerous large-scale, surrealist paintings by Honoré Sharrer now on display at the Smith College Museum of Art. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Honoré Sharrer’s “Workman by a Fountain,” a 1946 oil-on-cardboard painting, is typical of the precise work of her early career; many of her paintings reflected Flemish masters of the 16th and 17th centuries, while invoking modern themes. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Jessica Nicoll, director and chief curator of Smith College Museum of Art, leads a tour of the museum’s exhibit of work by Honoré Sharrer, a 20th century painter who once lived in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • “Reception,” a 1958 oil painting by Honoré Sharrer, offered a satirical look at a number of leading anti-communist figures in the U.S. in the 1950s.   Image courtesy of Smith College

  • “Before the Divorce,” oil on canvas, 1976/1999. Image courtesy of Smith College



Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2017

She might be one of the most talented artists you’ve never heard of — even though her work appeared in noted museums when she was in her 20s, and Mademoiselle magazine named her woman artist of the year when she was 29.

Honoré Sharrer, born in New York state in 1920, was part of major exhibitions in the 1940s at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art and other institutions. By the early 1950s, she also had been featured in magazines such as Life and Newsweek; the latter called a series of her oil paintings “masterpieces of precise miniature art.” 

But when the anti-communist fervor of the Cold War came to dominate the 1950s, Sharrer’s left-wing views left her increasingly marginalized, and her figurative art was deemed out of step with an art world that came to be dominated by abstract painters, mostly men. Her work continued to be exhibited, but her public notoriety faded away.

A new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA), though, takes a fresh look at Sharrer, who painted into her 80s — and who developed a surrealistic style that offered wit, social commentary and what exhibit notes call “visual subversion,” while maintaining a deep commitment to the humanist ideals that had informed her earlier work.

“A Dangerous Woman: Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer,” which runs through Jan. 7, 2018, features about 60 works, predominantly paintings, many of which come from the artist’s estate (Sharrer died in 2009 at age 88). The show, organized by Ohio’s Columbus Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, represents the first public survey of the artist’s work in many years.

Jessica Nicoll, SCMA’s director and chief curator, said Sharrer had ties to the region — she lived in Amherst from 1947 to 1949 while her husband, Perez Zagorin, taught at Amherst College — which makes it fitting that the Smith exhibit can reintroduce her work to the area. Some of Sharrer’s paintings were also exhibited at the college in a 1949 group show, Nicoll said.

But today, Nicoll added as she gave a recent tour of the SCMA show, “She’s not exactly a household name.”

In fact, when Nicoll asked how many of the 20-odd people in the gallery knew of Sharrer’s work, only one woman raised her hand.

“This is a good opportunity to discover how versatile she was,” said Nicoll, who noted that Sharrer’s paintings drew on classical training and influences but also tapped features of pop culture — murals, magazine photos, movie marquees — for inspiration.

“Her interest in the old masters is evident in all her work,” said Nicoll. “But she developed a style that was very much her own.”

Changing styles

At one end of the SCMA exhibit, the evolution of Sharrer’s style is particularly evident. A work that especially made her early name is “Tribute to the American Working People,” a five-panel painting that features day-in-the-life scenes of small-town America in the mid-20th century. It’s now part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Painted between 1946 and 1951, the various scenes — a classroom, a factory, a county fair — offer mural-like portraits of numerous people, executed with such rich precision, in a style reminiscent of Flemish masters of the 16th and 17th centuries, that Sharrer went through over 250 paintbrushes to complete the panels.

The model for the middle-aged female teacher in the classroom panel, Nicoll said, was a woman Sharrer met in a store in Amherst when she lived in the town in the late 1940s; she painted a good portion of the five-panel work during her time in the Valley.

Though Sharrer grew up in comfortable circumstances — her family lived in Paris for a year when she was a teen, and she soaked up the City of Light’s artistic ambiance — Nicoll said the artist worked as a welder in a California shipyard during World War II and contributed artwork for various union publications.

“This kind of work really grew out of her genuine admiration for working people,” said Nicoll.

On the wall to the left of “Tribute to the American Working People” is a very different kind of canvas. At nearly 9 x 6 feet, “Leda and the Folks,” from 1963, is the largest painting in the SCMA exhibit, and it’s also one of Sharrer’s earlier forays into surrealism.

The partly abstract work features three somewhat oddly proportioned figures. Two are based on Elvis Presley’s parents, Gladys and Vernon, while the third, a Renaissance-like, golden-haired nude young woman, represents Sharrer’s take on the ancient Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, in which Zeus transformed himself into a swan to get close to and seduce a beautiful woman.

As exhibit notes explain, the painting came in part from Sharrer’s interest in examining the intersection of myth and the celebrity culture that surrounded Elvis Presley and other popular entertainment figures in the early 1960s.

A 1958 painting, “Reception,” provides more pointed social commentary. In a large, ornate room, where a chandelier hangs overhead, a throng of people in evening dress mingle; among them, one can spot the faces of some of the most noxious anti-communist figures of the era, like U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Cardinal Francis Spellman.

While the painting features the same realistic figures of Sharrer’s earlier work, the artist adds various surrealistic touches. For instance, small birds perch on the chandelier and on the heads and shoulders of some people, all of whom remain oblivious to the avian creatures.

Nicoll notes that when Sharrer painted “Reception,” she and her husband were living in Canada; her husband had taken a position at McGill University in Montreal, as he had been unable to keep a teaching job in America because of the progressive ideals he shared with his wife.

“It’s really a profound social critique of that era,” Nicoll said, pointing out that much of Sharrer’s work from this point on also took issue with the limits placed on women’s lives at the time.

Sharrer’s paintings became increasingly surreal as she aged, and the SCMA exhibit features a full range of often absurdly funny images: bent, dancing cutlery (“Two Dogs in a Still Life”); nude women in dreamlike locales, like one that includes Thomas Jefferson (“A Dream of Monticello”); and human figures juxtaposed with oversize animals such as a giant owl (“Don’t Murder Me, I’m Not Ready For Eternity”).

An accompanying catalog to the exhibit notes that Sharrer did not see a big distinction between her traditional figurative art and her later surrealist paintings; the subjects of her paintings were most often “ordinary matters,” she said.

In the catalog, M. Melissa Wolfe, former curator of American art at The Columbus Museum of Art, writes that Sharrer’s surrealism was not an “element of whimsy or perversity” but a deliberate means to reveal the discordant background (for instance, the Cold War) to ordinary life in the U.S.

“Sharrer reimagined the images that played across the magazine pages and TV screens in the homes of every one of her subjects, and hers as well, by teasing out their roots in the world of myth,” she writes. “In doing so, she transformed the mundane and the surreal into important markers of meaningfulness.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“A Dangerous Woman” is on view at the Smith College Museum of Art through Jan. 7, 2018. For more information about the exhibit and the museum, visit smith.edu/artmuseum.