Cross MacKenzie Gallery is pleased to present “First Ladies,” an exhibition of portraits by Michele Mattei. This exhibition pulls together Mattei’s arresting portraits, new and old, of eminent ladies who tore down barriers and brooked no obstacles in their paths to the top of their respective fields. From Muriel Siebert, the first woman to hold a seat on the NYSE, to Betty Friedan, the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), to DC’s own Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, who created the first museum dedicated to women in the arts, these ladies, to name but a few, established an enduring legacy for women the world over. These activists, writers, politicians, teachers, doctors, and artists fought against the entrenched patriarchal systems to be recognized for their individual achievements and in so doing opened doors for all the women who followed. This power and nobility of purpose shines out of the portraits, enveloping the viewer in the mythos of these ladies.
The ‘First Ladies’ captured in these photographs are all noteworthy in their own rights, but together they tell a powerful story of women in the 20th century. The last century saw immense strides in gender equality, from women gaining suffrage in most of the world, to winning the Nobel Prize, to being elected heads of state, to establishing globally recognized brands, to leading civil rights movements, these are but a handful of the myriad of recent achievements. That these accomplishments have only taken place since 1900 goes to show just how significant the obstacles they surmounted were. Following Hillary Clinton’s historic candidacy for president it is important, now more than ever, that we celebrate these women and recognize that their accolades are stepping stones on which we must continue to build and build, never sliding backwards, so that our sisters and daughters and granddaughters can follow in their footsteps.
Best known for her portraiture, Mattei’s photographs capture the power, grace and humanity of her subjects. These women, known for their exceptional accomplishments, are at the same time made distinctly relatable and approachable through Mattei’s eye. By its nature, portraiture is entirely about the subject, enlightening the viewer to any number of implicit or explicit revelations. Through the setting, composition and attitude of the subject, their persona is opened up and expounded upon. Humorously or seriously, the artist immortalizes an identity through their brush or lens. Mattei’s respect and admiration for her subjects is self-evident, but it is in going beyond their imposing public facades that the heart and personality of each woman shows through. Helen Thomas’s playful embodiment of the three wise monkeys, Muriel Siebert’s contagious smile while holding her dog, and Louise Bourgeois’s laughing eyes.
Born in Paris, now based in L.A., Mattei started her career as a journalist before moving into photojournalism and subsequently into fine arts photography. Her portraits maintain a photojournalistic quality, creating a narrative around the subject that extends beyond the frame. Mattei’s photography has been exhibited worldwide, and she continues to be involved with advertising campaigns and major magazines like Paris match, G.Q., Stern, Vogue International, Amica and Figaro Madame. She was recently honored with a solo exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC for their 25th anniversary celebration, featuring her portraits of women from the last century who empowered and inspired generations in politics, literature, medicine, finance, fashion, dance and entertainment.