Collection Spotlight: Adoration of the Masters, Elizabeth Olds

Title: Adoration of the Masters

Artist: Elizabeth Olds

Nationality: American, 1896–1991

Date: 1940

Medium: Screenprint

Credit: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 1998.25.1

            Elizabeth Olds’s Adoration of the Masters captivates viewers with vivid colors and comical characters in a relatable setting. As an avid lover of museums, I was drawn to this piece because it depicts museum-goers viewing Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (c. 1485) in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Olds’s print illustrates this familiar experience with a touch of satire and humor, which inspired me to learn more about both the piece and the artist herself.

            Every figure in the print is unique and drawn with exaggerated features to display any of a wide range of humorous facial expressions. From the woman fainting to the man taking a picture, every person appears as though he or she could have an entire backstory written about their life. The little girl in the lower right seems to have her view of the art blocked by taller people standing in front of her, which makes me wonder if Olds is critiquing the way people attend museums.

            The piece is done almost entirely in four or five colors: a bright yellow, blue, black, gray, and red. This bold use of colors creates cohesion throughout the print, even though there are a few distinct styles: the Botticelli piece hanging on the wall is done in a more traditional hand, possibly to stay true to the famous work, while the figures are more cartoonish and stylized.

            Olds continues to surprise throughout the piece, not only with the facial expressions, but also through her different techniques. Much of the work is done in bold strokes and swaths of color, but one figure is wearing a blue-dotted dress that almost appears to have been splashed with small dots of paint. It’s the only moment in the print that utilizes this type of coloring, and I wonder why this figure is unique. Like many prints of the era, these smaller details come together to build a piece that blends traditional cartoonish elements with the newer printmaking styles and techniques of the 1930s.

            After being first drawn in by this print, Elizabeth Olds only grew more intriguing to me as I learned about her background. Olds received a scholarship to study art in New York City and then continued her artistic education in Europe. However, she did not take the traditional path of studying the old masters. Instead, she “sketched performers at the Cirque d’Hiver, later joining the troupe as a trick bareback rider…”. Olds also became the first woman to be awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship. Eventually, she returned to the United States and became interested in printmaking, especially lithography, which was only beginning to become popular among artists in the United States at that point.

            Olds produced many prints for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. Her works covered a wide range of subjects, from the Great Depression to laborers and traditionally masculine subjects, such as miners and stockyards. She often imbued her more personal art with political themes that she stood behind, and she thus became known for her leftist views and satirical commentary.

            While this piece was not produced for the WPA, it demonstrates the breadth of Olds’s subject matter and printmaking styles. Adoration of the Masters is an entertaining piece, but it is also a print that reminds us how Elizabeth Olds was an artist who helped to bring printmaking to the forefront of the American art scene during the first half of the twentieth century.

Contributed by Madaline Hultquist, Block Museum of Art Summer Intern, 2019


Balk, Eugene. “The ‘American Scene’ Print and the Cartoon.” Print Quarterly 11, no. 4 (1994): 379-94.

Langa, Helen. “Elizabeth Olds: Gender Difference and Indifference.” Woman’s Art Journal 22, no. 2 (2001): 5-11. doi:10.2307/1358896.

“Olds, Elizabeth.” Benezit Dictionary of Artists. 31 Oct. 2011; Accessed 21 Aug. 2019.

Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences

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