Book Review: Renée Radell Web Of Circumstance by Eleanor Heartney


Published by Predmore Press (New York)

In 1971 art historian Linda Nochlin created the premise “Why have there been no great women artists”, exploring the historical, cultural and social limitations imposed on women artists. This is intriguingly where author Eleanor Heartney begins her exploration of American Figurative Expressionist painter Renée Radell in her new book Renée Radell Web Of Circumstance. 

Radell began to be recognised as a painter in a mid-late 20th century age incorporating artists approaching a variety of philosophical and political issues within their work. Movements such as Abstract Expressionism, underpinned by the theoretical perspectives of Greenberg, were no longer dominating US culture. The contemporary radical and multifaceted art of the era, characterised as the arrival of postmodernism, was certainly suited to Radell’s complex philosophical and existential themes in her work. However the artist was also creating her paintings in a context of rising social issues, including demands for women’s liberation.

Heartney’s introduction to Radell highlighting Nochlin’s provocative statement, therefore, is not only indicative of the challenging cultural nature of the era, but of an intention to explore the painter, her work and life as both artist and woman in an age of potential for radical change.

The author enables the reader an understanding of Radell by introducing her biography, her early life and achievements such as noting her education in the Detroit Arts and Crafts Movement. However it is her insights into the more personal aspects of the painter’s life which develops a more concise and importantly, more warmly perceptive picture of an artist, a woman, a mother, a wife. That Radell, when married and mother to five offspring, utilised her kitchen as a studio and her refrigerator as easel, is not only testament to Nochlin’s acknowledgement of gendered limitations and sardonic reference to “kitchen creativity”. It is also evidence of a woman’s ability to typically achieve against the odds, while provoking a darkly humorous insight into the challenges of family life, akin to the motifs within the work of the artist herself.

Heartney highlights Radell’s work and particularly female perspectives with such recurring themes as family, motherhood, brides and female aging. The author however reflects on the rejection of the sentimentality of artists like Cassatt, by pondering Radell’s work such as Solace (1958) in which the bond between mother and child is portrayed as both enduringly loving and darkly fraught. However Radell’s work is shown to portray many aspects of human life and Heartney allows the work to unravel in its own complexity, enabling the artist’s weaving of expressionism with allegory, realism with the existential, to become intriguingly unveiled.


Renée Radell, Solace 1958, watercolor on paper 24 x 18 in

The author takes the reader on a journey through a lifetime of work, as Radell herself utilised the theme of the passage of time, in terms of choice and fate, life and death. It is not only a literal trek from a life in rural Michigan to the bright lights of the New York art world, but also an expedition through an artist’s exploration of the metaphysical and all that is human existence. The influence of the artwork of Käthe Kollwitz is acknowledged in reference to themes ranging from morality to social justice, community to isolation, reversed hierarchies to the darker undercurrents of the political system. All are probed against the backdrop of Radell’s own experience, such as her upbringing within Catholicism and her family experience of enforced economic demotion as a result of the Great Depression. In Radell’s international award winning work The Tide (1966), for example, Heartney highlights the painter’s grimly metaphorical reference to a prevailing current in which workers are passively doomed, while one figure’s resistance offers a glimmer of hope.


Renée Radell, The Tide 1966, acrylic on Masonite 44 x 60 in.

In turn, Heartney fortifies the text with quotes from writers, poets and philosophers such as T.S Elliot, Emily Dickinson and Yeats, framing Radell’s complex artworks in the high cultural context they deserve. With many pages devoted to the artwork itself however, Heartney enables the reader to focus on the huge body of work Radell has enriched the world with herself, from sketches to painting and murals. Heartney ends Web of Circumstance referring once again to Nochlin’s article asserting that there have indeed been great women artists, and in the case of Renée Radell the reader will certainly be inclined to agree.

P L Henderson