Fern Coppedge knew from an early age that she was different. The snowy Pennsylvania landscapes that she is best known for were always, to her, accurate representations of the deep purples, blues, and pinks that she saw in snow when others would only see white. While many artists of the time embraced painting en plein air, it was not uncommon to see Coppedge, in heavy bearskin coat, strapping her canvas to a tree in order to prevent her artwork being borne away in the wind.
Coppedge was also a prominent member of The Philadelphia Ten, a progressive group of women artists from the Philadelphia area in the early 20th century. The group expanded from their original 11 members to thirty by the mid 20th century and also included Theresa Bernstein, Harriet Frishmuth, and M. Elizabeth Price. Many attended art school together before working and exhibiting together and mentored other women looking to expand their talents. They were able to create, and popularize, their all-female art shows, which were unheard of in that era, when it was difficult for even one woman to be accepted into an art exhibition. They depended on themselves and each other for an equal foothold in the male dominated art community.
The primary goal of the group was for each individual to achieve recognition, and for society to view women in art as professionals rather than just hobbyists. The women also strived to make art more accessible to the general public and encouraged other women to explore their artistic abilities. The exhibitions displayed an extensive variety of each of the artists' talents. While landscape paintings dominated the exhibitions, there was a variety of painting subjects and sculpture that kept collectors and critics on their toes and excited for each show. The artists were able to achieve financial independence as well as professional renown. This allowed many members of the Philadelphia Ten, who never married, to live independently, in a time when women who had careers most often had to forgo families and a more domestic life.
The Philadelphia Ten sponsored 65 exhibitions between 1917 to 1945. While the time period that these women were most active was also arguably one of the most turbulent in American history, their art remained popular and they succeeded in growing the influence of women in the wider art community. On what would have been Fern Coppedge's 139th birthday, we salute her and her early groundbreaking comrades.
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