The Dinner Party: Artist Judy Chicago’s Iconic Symbolic Celebration of Women’s Heritage in Creative Culture
From Hypatia to Susan B. Anthony to Virginia Woolf, a sacrament and an insurrection restoring women’s place in history.
By Maria Popova
“I spent the morning in needle-work,” pioneering astronomer Caroline Herschel wrote in her journal on an unexceptional July morning in 1786. To persuade her conservative mother to let her leave home and join her brother in his astronomical endeavors, Herschel knitted a year’s worth of stockings for the family. But even as this tiny five-foot woman was gazing at the cosmos by night through her twenty-foot Newtonian telescope, making comet discoveries that paved the way for women in science, by day she remained consistently engaged in craftwork. Just before her seventy-eighth birthday, Herschel became the first woman awarded the prestigious Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. That week, her nephew, the astronomer John Herschel, wrote to congratulate her on the accolade and offered in the same breath: “My mother … begs me to thank you for your kind and beautiful present of needlework (which even I could admire).”
At the age of eighty-one, beloved artist Louise Bourgeois — who came from a long lineage of craftspeople — reflected on her lifelong fascination with “the magic and power of the needle” in her diary: “The needle is used to repair the damage. It’s a claim to forgiveness. It is never aggressive, it’s not a pin.”
That redemptive and rebellious aspect of needlework is a centerpiece of The Dinner Party (public library) — the iconic 1979 project by artist Judy Chicago (b. July 20, 1939), celebrating women’s heritage in creative culture.
At once a sacrament and an insurrection, the project was born out of and into the women’s empowerment movement of the 1970s. But any hubristic impulse we may have had, until recently, to dismiss its central point as no longer relevant or needed has been swiftly disarmed by the political situation of our day — a situation that is foisting upon us the unwanted, discomfiting awareness that misogyny and other forms of bigotry are alive and well, that we live in a society not nearly as woke as we may have thought, and that somehow we must break bread with people who have a very different view of the present and of the tapestry of former presents we call history.
Chicago’s words from decades ago stun with their relevance today:
Women had always made a significant contribution to the development of human civilization, but these were consistently ignored, denied, or trivialized.
The monumental installation, every meticulous detail of which is painstakingly crafted by hand, features an open triangular table, each side 46 ½ feet long, covered with fine white cloths embroidered in gold. Thirty-nine place settings grace the table, thirteen per side — a number of deliberate duality, referring to both the thirteen apostles at the Last Supper and the number of witches in a coven, contrasting the holiness of maleness with the demonization of women.
At the center of each place setting is an exquisite hand-painted fourteen-inch china plate, representing a particular period in Western civilization and a particular woman — artist, writer, scientist, saint, mythic figure — who made a powerful mark on that period. Among the women are Susan B. Anthony, Caroline Herschel, Georgia O’Keeffe, Hypatia of Alexandria, Emily Dickinson, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Virginia Woolf. Painted onto each plate is the vibrant, symbolically stylized vulva of each woman.
Surrounding each plate are a golden chalice, lustered ceramic flatware, and a gold-embroidered napkin, resting upon a generous runner embroidered in the needlework style specific to the period and region in which the respective woman lived.
The table itself stands on an enormous triangular floor covered in 2,300 handcrafted ceramic tiles, inscribed in gold luster with the names of 999 notable women grouped around the women represented at the table — a constellation of influences and affiliations celebrating the long and interwoven history of women’s accomplishment.
Chicago details the extraordinary craftsmaship process that brought the project to life in Embroidering Our Heritage: The Dinner Party Needlework (public library) — from her decision to learn china-painting after becoming enchanted by the quality of color in an antique porcelain plate to her assembly of a diverse team of craftswomen collaborators to learning about the rich cultural history of needlework and ceramics.
Studying china-painting exposed me, for the first time, to the world of women’s traditional arts. I learned a great deal from the women with whom I trained — not only about china-painting, but also about a very different way of being an artist. Most china-painters see teaching as part of their work. Their teaching takes a number of forms; they give classes and seminars, but most importantly, at least for me, they teach by example. During exhibitions, they sit in their booths and paint while crowds of people watch them. This act and the public response to it intrigued me; the china-painters’ activity was in stark contrast with the isolated and private act of creation associated with twentieth-century “high art.”
In an homage to these women and their countercultural approach to art, Chicago decided to do same with The Dinner Party — a project that began as a solo endeavor, but after a year and a half of work, made it clear that completion would require a studio of skilled workers.
Four years elapsed between the time Chicago enlisted the help of her team of craftswomen and the time The Dinner Party was completed and exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the spring of 1979. Once a week, the bustling rhythm of labor at the studio was halted for an evening of discussion, lectures, and a potluck dinner. The materials and fabrication of the finished project cost more than $250,000 — close to $875,000 in today’s money.
Chicago reflects on the wonderfully emboldening grassroots spirit of the project — the same spirit in which the vast majority of art in human history was made:
We worked as I had worked for fifteen years: without knowing where the money would come from. I’d sell a drawing, we’d get a small grant, someone would make a donation — and we’d have enough money for another month or two.
The installation itself, as powerful today as it was four decades ago and at least as culturally necessary, is currently housed at the Brooklyn Museum and lives on, alongside essays detailing its creative process and exploring its cultural significance, in the commemorative volume The Dinner Party.
Published November 14, 2016