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Artist Biography

 An influential and important artist, illustrator, and teacher, Alice Barber Stephens’ career bears testimony to the positive impact that professional art schools for women had on promoting female artists. Born on a farm near Salem, New Jersey, Alice Barber started to draw as a child and was still in elementary school when she first began classes at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art and Design). At the precocious age of fifteen, she was already supporting herself as an artist with commissions such as a series of wood engravings of prominent women for the periodical Women’s World. In 1876 she began to study with Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts as a member of the first class to admit women. Among her classmates were Susan Macdowell (Eakins future wife), and Charles Hollowell Stephens, who Barber later married. Impressed with her talent, Eakins asked her to make wood engravings of his own work for reproduction.

In 1887, Barber traveled through Europe and studied in Paris at the Académie Julian and at the Académie Colarossi, where she came under the influence of French Impressionism. Upon her return to the United States, she married Stephens who became an instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She had a studio on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia and in the years following her marriage, she was inundated with commissions and won numerous prizes and medals at several Expositions in America and Europe. Stephens was one of the most successful illustrators of her time and her work was regularly published in Cosmopolitan, Harper’s, and Scribner’s. She illustrated numerous books, including works by Louisa May Alcott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in addition to other authors for Houghton-Mifflin publishing company. She was so overworked that in 1899, she turned down a very tempting offer to teach life-drawing classes at the Pennsylvania Academy, an unusual honor for a woman.

In 1901, Stephens and her family began a fifteen-month vacation in Europe. Upon their return, they settled on a farm in Moylan, Pennsylvania, where she continued to paint and work on commercial projects. In 1902, Emily Sartain, director of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, hired Stephens to teach life-drawing classes. There, Stephens taught with such renowned artists as Robert Henri, Daniel Garber, and Henry B. Snell.

Stephens and Emily Sartain founded the Plastic Club of Philadelphia to help promote equality for women artists. Stephens had a solo exhibition there in 1929. She also exhibited sixteen times at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts between 1879 and 1905, in addition to showing at the Boston Art Club, National Academy of Design, Art Institute of Chicago, Paris Salon of 1887, Universal Exposition, Paris (1890 bronze medal), and the Exposition of Women’s Work, Earls Court, London (gold medal). Her works are housed in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania; Sewell C. Biggs Museum of American Art, Dover, Delaware; and the National Museum of American Illustration, Newport, Rhode Island.

References:

Elizabeth L. O’Leary, At Beck and Call: The Representation of Domestic Servants in Nineteenth-Century American Paintings (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996), pp. 181-182

Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists: from early Indian Times to the Present (New York: Avon Books, 1982), pp. 145-146

Page Talbott and Patricia Tanis Sydney, The Philadelphia Ten: A Women’s Artist Group 1917-1945 ( Philadelphia: Moore College of Art and Design), 1998.