Women’s Art and the Art of Philanthropic Activism

By Nancy Foss
PMA Docent

*Join Nancy on Saturday, March 30 at 1 p.m. for a Gallery Talk. Free with PMA admission.

March 8 was International Women’s Day and the entire month of March has been designated Women’s History Month—a great time to consider the contributions a few extraordinary women have made to the Portland Museum of Art.

The PMA collection includes many well-known women artist, but it is the philanthropic activities of women behind the scenes that made the PMA what it is today.

Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat
The McLellan House was originally designed and built in 1801 by the local house wright John Kimball Sr. for the merchant sea-man Major Hugh McLellan and his family. If it wasn’t for the third private owners of the house, Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat and her husband Colonel Lorenzo de Medici Sweat, the PMA would not exist as it does today! The McLellan House could have been demolished or converted into condominiums but instead, thanks to the philanthropic activism of Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat, the Portland Museum of Art was born at the corner of Spring and High St.

Margaret and her husband Lorenzo were both Maine natives. They spent winters in Washington D.C., where Lorenzo was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and used the McLellan House as a summer home until they retired. While she was in Washington D.C., Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat became fully engaged in the cultural and intellectual life of the country. She was an author, a literary critic, and a novelist (including the novel, Ethel’s Love Life, a story about the complexities of educated women’s friendships, including friendships characterized as “Boston Marriages.”) Margaret was a world traveler, fluent in five languages, a founding member of the women’s club movement, and involved in the women’s suffragist movement. Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat was also a strong proponent of historic preservation; while in Washington D.C., she championed the historic restoration and preservation of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate. And Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat was an art patron.

Retiring in Portland, Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat quickly became an ardent patron of the local art scene. She was an early member of the Portland Society of Art (founded 1882), the predecessor to the Portland Museum of Art.

Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat understood the McLellan House was as architectural monument and did little to alter the structure, with the exception of turning the office into a library. This gesture announced her sentiment that entertaining and socializing are not an enterprise separate from the world of the intellect. She strongly believed that art makes for an enriched community, so when she died in 1908, she left her house and her money to the Portland Society of Art. Hugh McLellan had built his house to announce that Portland was part of the civilized world and Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat continued the legacy by leaving her home to enrich the community with art. The PMA stands where it does today because Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat was a philanthropic activist.

Joan Whitney Payson

Joan Whitney Payson was another philanthropic activist who made a significant contribution to the PMA. Joan Whitney was born in 1903 into a family described as a pantheon of strong and creative women. She was 10 years old when she attended the famous 1913 Armory Show in New York City, the show credited with introducing Americans to modern art. (The Whitney family contributed financial backing for this show). Collecting art and opening museums was practically a competitive sport for the rich and famous during Joan’s formative years; the PMA is very fortunate to have benefited from this sport! Joan Whitney cemented her foundation in Maine when she married M. Charles Shipman Payson of Falmouth.

The Joan Whitney Payson Collection came to the PMA in 1991 and included great works that form the core of the European Impressionist collection such as such as Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley.

Elizabeth Noyce and Katherine F. Woodman
At the PMA, you can see Anne and Her Nurse by American painter Mary Cassatt. I consider this work of art a trifecta in my discussion of women’s art and the art of philanthropic activist: a woman artist, donated by a woman philanthropist, in honor of another woman art activist. The Cassatt painting is part of the Elizabeth Noyce Collection.

The Elizabeth Noyce Collection came to the PMA in 1996 and includes 64 works of American art works by Marsden Hartley, Andrew Wyeth, George Bellows, and more. Elizabeth Noyce donated Anne and Her Nurse by Mary Cassatt in honor of Katherine F. Woodman. Katherine F. Woodman was a philanthropist in her own right as she was deeply and personally involved with the transformation of the PMA from a small community art gallery to a major regional museum. Woodman became a philanthropic activist; she showed up, rolled up her sleeves, and was, what I like to call, the “gritty” on a committee. The Precinct Committee, the Century III Campaign, The Committee of One Hundred, and The Board of Trustees have all benefited from Katherine F. Woodman’s art activism. Like Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat, Joan Whitney Payson, and Elizabeth Noyce, Katherine F. Woodman believed art makes for an enriched community.

So, as you wander the PMA galleries, you can engage with art created by talented women like Mary Cassatt, Marguerite Zorach, Isobel Bishop, and Louise Nevelson, but remember it was the creative energy and philanthropic activism of other women that gave these great works of art a wall to hang on!

Image credits: Unknown photographer, Mrs. Margaret Mussey Sweat, nd, black and white photograph mounted on canvas. Museum collection.; Jo Davidson, Joan Whitney Payson, 1933, polychrome terra cotta on marble base. Museum purchase with support from John Whitney Payson.


  1. William David Barry
    Posted April 5, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Delighted to see Margaret Sweat, Joan Whitney Payson, Elizabeth Noyes & Katherine Woodman saluted by the PMA, in WOMEN’S ART AND THE ART OF PHILANTHROPIC ACTIVISM.
    Huzzah! for Nancy Foss and all involved. Women have played huge roles in making the PMA what it is today without the late Mrs. Benjamin Holt it would have been difficult or impossible for the staff and board to make initial contact with Charles Shipman Payson and what about Mary Lou Sprague, Peggy Osher, Frances W. Peabody who with Katherine Woodman insisted on saving and buying the McLellan family items in the l970s. Also great staff members over the years.
    Well done, keep on doing.

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