Mary Watts and Elena Polenova: Kindred Spirits of the Arts and Crafts Movement

Kirsty Anson

Abstract


This article studies two important women of the Arts and Crafts Movement during the late nineteenth century, the Scottish artist Mary Watts and the Russian artist Elena Polenova, and considers similarities in their lives and works which have never before been observed. Though starting their careers in remote locations and cultures, their personal philosophies and consequent artistic choices brought about a striking convergence in their lives, culminating in the mutuality, not just of creative output, but also of direct personal links and acquaintances.

Starting with a broad consideration of the Arts and Crafts Movement, the paper locates the women within their respective national movements and notes shared elements within British and Russian Arts and Crafts ideologies. The article then addresses the role played in the women’s thinking by the distinguished artistic networks into which they were linked. By extension, the study then considers the channels and degree of contact, influence and artistic exchange between different national groups and the extent to which the women can be said to have participated in a broad international movement. The paper reveals just how close the two women came to personal acquaintance. The tragic early death of Elena Polenova, the rise of the Russian avant-garde, and the Soviet art historical bias against her artistic movement, on the one hand, and Mary Watts’s widowhood, subsequent career divergence, and the rise of British modernism, on the other combined to foreshorten their artistic careers and obscure their legacy for much of the twentieth century. Research for this project has brought about discussions between the English and Russian curators of Mary Watts and Elena Polenova’s legacies towards a range of future collaborative enterprises.

 

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