New on the Bookshelf: The Creative Power of Women

December 13, 2023–June 16, 2024

Centre Street Building, Level 3, Medieval Gallery

Celebrating the creative power and the sweeping impact women have made in the book arts at all levels, this intimate display showcases recently acquired works that were printed, illuminated, commissioned, designed, or written by women.

Featuring ten new additions to the Walters’ Rare Books and Manuscripts collection, the installation reveals how creating with ink, paint, paper, and parchment can be an empowering and, at times, a rebellious act. This installation is the second in a two-part series introducing the museum’s new permanent manuscripts gallery.

Standout objects on view include three books printed by the Calderón-Benavides family: the Oracion panegyrica (1683), the Exaltacion Magnifica de la Betlemitica (1697), and the Distribucion de las Obras Ordinaria, y extraordinarias del dia (1712). A family tree detailing seven generations of the Calderón-Benavides family printers is included in the installation’s didactics, detailing the many women who ran the press across nearly 200 years. This tree presents a visual guide to the collected works from the family and sets the stage for the installation to tell the story of “widow printers,” a term used for women who took on their husband’s printing presses after they died.

Visitors will encounter themes of women’s creativity, entrepreneurship, and the roles that writing and the book arts have played in women’s lives. The stories in the installation also demonstrate how bookmaking and writing could be deceptively rebellious acts. Clothilde Coulaux, the scribe and artist of the Clothilde Missal, was a young woman living in German-occupied France. On its surface, the Clothide Missal is a beautiful and humorous book, but closer examination shows that Clothilde used her book to privately resist the German occupation, choosing to write in French as opposed to German, and including the figure of Joan of Arc, a symbol of French rebellion.

Other stories include Frances Macdonald’s binding design, which features a sensual depiction of the Virgin Mary as a challenge to how 19th-century society viewed women; and a letter written by Sybby Grant, the enslaved cook of Dr. John Hanson Thomas of 1 West Mount Vernon Place, also known as Hackerman House, whose letter was considered rebellious for the mere acts of reading and writing, which were illegal for most enslaved people.

New on the Bookshelf: Expanded Narratives, presented June through December 2023, was the first installation in the installation series and began the work of introducing more than two dozen fascinating rare books and manuscripts that have been added to the Walters permanent collection in recent years, many of which have never been on view.

Podcast Episode

The Creative Power of Women

On episode two of Free Admissions, the Walters Art Museum’s podcast, Lynley Herbert, Robert and Nancy Hall Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, walks listeners through each artwork in the exhibition.