Helen K. McCarthy (1884-1927)

Helen K. McCarthy (1884-1927)

As a founding member of the Philadelphia Ten, Helen Kiner McCarthy played an instrumental role in fostering the careers of talented women painters and sculptors, and bringing their work to the attention of a wider collecting audience. Born in Ohio in 1884, McCarthy was the only child of Mary R. Kiner McCarthy, who sadly passed away shortly after her daughter’s birth.

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McCarthy enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, where she studied under Elliott Daingerfield and Henry Snell, and was awarded several prizes, including a post-graduate fellowship in 1908-1909. After finishing her formal education in 1909, McCarthy maintained her ties with her teachers at their respective summer schools, later taking classes with Daingerfield in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, and with Snell at Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1919 and at Boothbay Harbor, Maine, in 1922.

She remained in Philadelphia for ten years following her graduation, sharing studio space with fellow alumnae and participating in small group shows and ‘thumb-box painting’ exhibitions. As a young artist and with fairly limited opportunities to present her work to a larger audience, she took on restoration work and occasionally led still life classes at the PSDW to make ends meet, and later taught art history for the 1919-1920 school year. In addition to being young and relatively unknown, McCarthy and her colleagues faced the additional challenge of being women in a male-dominated art world; solo exhibitions and the opportunity to display more than one painting to show the full breadth of their talents were elusive if not nonexistent. To counter this obstacle, they formed the Philadelphia Ten and in February of 1917 held their first exhibition of paintings (sculpture would eventually be included as membership increased beyond the original group). McCarthy was a founding member, along with close friends Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, Lucile Howard, Eleanor Abrams and Cora S. Brooks, among others, and continued taking part in the group’s exhibitions following her move to New York City in 1920.

In addition to shows of the Philadelphia Ten, McCarthy exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts almost annually beginning in 1910 and the National Academy of Design almost annually from 1914 to 1926, as well as with the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, winning prizes from the latter group in 1919 and 1926. Tragically, McCarthy suddenly took ill and passed away in November of 1927, stunning her fellow artists and curtailing what had already become a remarkably successful career. To honor their fallen friend, the women included her work in two posthumous exhibitions in 1928 and 1929, and again the critics were captivated by her skills, writing: “…an entire wall [was] devoted to a show within a show, a memorial display of canvases by the late Helen K. McCarthy which reveal[ed] her as an artist of versatility, able to turn her brush to still-life, landscape or portraiture, and to catch either the gay lilt of sunshine or the somber mood of storm and mist.”[1]

 

[1] Philadelphia Public Ledger, January 29, 1928

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