Neil Simone. The Visual Surrealist

Neil Simone

My blog today is quite different to most of my others for two reasons.  My love of art is quite traditional, some would say boringly middle-ground. If you imagine visual art as a spectrum, at one end of which we have Abstract Expressionism and at the other end there is Hyperrealism, then my predilection would be much closer to the hyperrealism end of the spectrum.  I like to look at the beauty of a painting.  I like to be amazed by the skill of the artist and marvel at the time they must have spent in completing a work.  Mere splashes of colour do not impress me, whether it be stripes or dots.  However, as I have said before I was told that to appreciate visual art one needs to embrace all types !  So, the first reason for this blog being different is that it focuses on the art genre of Surrealism and the works of a Surrealist painter.

Surrealism is a 20th-century form of art in which an artist brings together unrelated images or events in a very strange and often dreamlike way.  It stresses the subconscious significance of imagery.  Through their works of art, the Surrealist artists wanted to revolutionise our experience.  They want us to cast-off our coherent and balanced visualisation of life and, in its place, value the power of the unconscious and dreams. The artists want us to look at their works and share their feeling of mysterious enchantment and discover the perplexing beauty in the bewildering depictions which totally disregarded convention.

Alternative Path by Neil Simone

The second difference with my blog today, and this is more of a concern to me, is that my subject today is a living artist !  Why should that matter?  I suppose the answer is that I am delving into the life of somebody who has not given me permission to do so and secondly when one looks back and writes about somebody it is extremely important to have the correct facts.  You would be surprised at the number of times when I am researching a painter that I am finding differing facts, differing dates, differing names of family members and I never want to just guess at the correct information and so these inaccuracies drive me mad !!!  However, the deceased painter cannot complain at a mistaken fact quoted about them (albeit on some occasions I do get quizzed/censured regarding the authenticity/accuracy of what I have written by knowledgeable relatives or art historians).  With a living artist, they may take umbrage with my factual accuracy.

Having said all that let me introduce you to the English Surrealist painter Neil Simone.  The reason for this entry was that last week I was in the picturesque Yorkshire town of Harrogate and I visited Suttcliffes Contemporary Gallery, in the Montpellier Quarter of Harrogate and came across his works  and actually bought one of his prints, The Retreat,  as I was so fascinated by it. The one thing I like about some works of Surrealism, and I am a great fan of René Magritte, is that they are thought-provoking and quirky and I wonder how the artist ever came up with the ideas they put on canvas.

Nightfall by Neil Simone

Neil Simone was born in London in 1947. His parents rented rooms in a property in Burrows Road close to Kensall Green Underground station.  He was an only child and lived here for the first eleven years of his life.  In 1958, his parents bought their first property in Harrow, Middlesex.  This move to their own house finally gave their son his own room which as a teenager, was a godsend.

His progress in school was limited to success in graphic art and design in which he gained his “A” level and buoyed by that success he applied to enrol at the Harrow School of Art but was turned down due to not having achieved any academic qualifications in other subjects, in particular, the lack of “O” level English.  Like many setbacks in life one often find they were for the best and Neil Simone considered it was a narrow escape for him not to have gained admission to the art school as he believed that his erstwhile colleagues and friends who did attend the school were stymied as far as to their choice of a future artistic road map as their artistic path was dictated to them by the tutors, whereas Neil made all his own artistic life choices.

The Ocean Floor by Neil Simone

With no art college to attend, Simone had to both occupy his time, as well as finding a way of earning money.  Over the next few years he became a trainee lady’s hairdresser, helped a van driver deliver laundry, a petrol pump attendant and the nearest he got to the art world was a short spell as a layout artist for Moss Enterprises and a messenger for a commercial art studio, during which time he was attacked and robbed whilst carrying staff wages.  However the job which was to change his life the most was as a display artist at Sopers department store in Harrow for his immediate boss and team leader was Linda  who would in April 1968, become his wife.  The couple moved into a flat into a house owned by Peter Hale, the head of department at the Road Transport industry Training Board which made training films and artwork for use in lectures and promotions.  Peter had seen some of Simone’s work and offered him a job as creator of an exhibition to commemorate the opening of M.O.T.E.C. (multi-occupational training centre) which was held in Shrewsbury.  M.O.T.E.C. was the training centre for apprentices in the Road Transport Industry. The training unit was designed to provide realistic working conditions in which apprentices could have experience of all aspects of the trade.  The commission Peter gave Simone was so big that he needed help and so he took on his wife on a freelance basis to help him with the task.

Island in the Sky by Neil Simone

The August Bank Holiday of 1969 proved a turning point in Neil and Linda Simone’s lives.  Their landlord and Neil’s employer invited the couple to visit his other home, The Priory, in the picturesque town of Harrogate in the heart of the Yorkshire countryside.  For Neil this was the first time out of London but he was immediately taken by the beauty of the area.  Peter and his wife Elizabeth persuaded Neil that Harrogate and the surrounding countryside would be a perfect base for him to carry on with his painting and they offered to rent Neil and Linda the basement of their house.  It must have been a big decision for Neil and Linda to have to make, whether they should give up their jobs and move two hundred miles away from their home and families in London and for Neil to take up painting professionally.  It was probably Linda’s belief in her husband that he could succeed and the fact that it was just the two of them that Neil decided to take the plunge and start a new life in Yorkshire with his wife.

As Autumn Leaves by Neil Simone

Once the decision was made and the couple had moved to Harrogate Neil reckoned that to survive financially he needed to sell a minimum of two paintings per week.  He started to build up a collection of his work so that he could show his work at the 1970 Valley Gardens exhibition in Harrogate.  The exhibition went well and he sold twenty of his paintings.  However with every success comes failure and after the exhibition the sale of his paintings dried up and during the winter months of 1970 he was forced to go door to door with them to try to get a sale.

In the Spring of 1971 he exhibited at the Lounge Hall, Royal Baths, Harrogate and it was during this show that he met a fellow artist Judy Pyrah.  The two of them talked about the dream she had of opening her own gallery and suggested a joint venture when they had sufficient money.  Neil’s financial situation was improved by another person, Mr Rivlin, whom he also met at the exhibition.  Mr Rivlin liked Simone’s artwork and offered him employment at his company as the resident artist in charge of packaging designs and corporate identity material for his company, Endura Lamps of Horsforth.  In October 1971 Neil Simone started working for Mr Rivlin and in November Neil and Judy Pyrah opened their gallery, the Eye-Glass Gallery, in John Street, Harrogate.  The gallery remained open for just twelve months and this coincided with his work for Mr Rivlin being terminating in January 1973.

Exploring the Alternatives by Neil Simone

Neil and Linda’s stay in the basement of The Priory came to a sudden end in the autumn of 1974 when Harrogate was subjected to a series of storms and their basement flat was flooded and so the couple moved to another flat in Harrogate which also had room for a studio and a workshop for framing and was both light and airy.  During the next two years the sale of Simone’s paintings did well and he exhibited at galleries as far north as Edinburgh.  When Neil and Linda had taken the decision to permanently leave London and take a chance with life in Harrogate there was just the two of them and so if the venture failed then it would just hurt them as they had no children to support.  However seven years on, with their finances at a reasonable position, they believed they should start a family and in July 1976 their son, Lee, was born.

Within six months things turned for the worse for the family with galleries not wanting his paintings and with sales tumbling, they were in trouble. For Neil, it was a time of introspection, a time to figure out why things had gone wrong and more importantly work out what people wanted from art.  He needed time to reassess his art and, to give himself a chance to do this, Linda took their son and went back to live with her mother.  He realised the most important question he had to answer was what did he want from his art for he realised his mistake of suffocating his own imagination which once set ablaze his passion for art.  Neil thought long and hard and eventually hit on the idea that people may like to view works which would transport them into an alternative vision of reality.  He wanted observers of his work to question what were they actually looking at.  This was of course a form of surrealism, which he had dabbled with eight years earlier but had abandoned believing that he must paint what the public wanted and not what he wanted.

The Dropleaf Table by Neil Simone (2006)

His new style of artwork soon became an art with a sense of humour, as Neil put it “they would be paintings with an element of realism that invite conjecture”  It was quirky but would it sell?  He decided that he had nothing to lose and so in 1977, Neil Simone’s art became different.  It was a new direction.  In August 1979, the Harrogate Advertiser described it as

“…a fusion of fact and fantasy…”

It was the start of an exciting journey.  With the mental turmoil dissipated on having finally decided on the future of his art, he asked Linda to return to Harrogate.

The public and art critics both liked and were excited by this new style and his works of art were in great demand at exhibitions and sales rocketed.  His gamble on changing his artistic style had paid off and his paintings were in great demand.  Neil struggled to keep up a collection of his work due to all the sales.  His brain was awash with new ideas and his artwork was in great demand.  With all this came a healthy bank balance and in July 1978 Neil bought and moved into a house with Linda and two-year-old Lee in Grasmere Crescent, Harrogate.  This was the first home they had purchased and was an ideal place for an artist with a bright studio in the loft conversion.

Realms of the Imagination by Neil Simone (1992)

Neil decided to launch his first set of limited editions prints but to do this he needed some financial backing which he got from family and friends and this proved a financial success and soon he could pay back his friends and from then on, he was able to fund any subsequent print editions, the second of which was launched in February 1980.  With all these print runs space at home became critical and it was soon obvious to Neil that the family needed a larger house.  In June 1980, they moved into a large house on Harlow Hill, one of the highest points around Harrogate, which he had bought when it was only partially constructed which allowed him to agree to some design alterations with the builder.

Another break came in March 1981 when a Dutch art dealer called at Simone’s studio. The dealer, Kees De Jong, had been told about the success Simone was having with his new style work and came to offer him a chance to exhibit some of it at the prestigious London Department store, Harrods.  Simone accepted the invite and in May his works were being showed in the windows of the prestigious department store.  More invites rolled in for Simone to exhibit works at various exhibitions and he now had to continually produce works.  Although this was time consuming and tiring Simone was very aware that the popularity of one’s artwork is ephemeral and that he had to make the most of his popularity.  The downside to this success was Neil had less time to spend with his wife and son.

The Sea Bed by Neil Simone (2000)

In 1983 Neil Simone met Barbara Dutton who had come to look at his paintings.  She was just about to open her own gallery at Pately Bridge, a village some four miles from Harrogate, and wanted some of Neil’s prints and originals but had a limited budget.  Neil and Barbara came to an agreement that she could take all his works on a sale or return basis.  The gallery opened in May and later that year there was an exhibition of Neil’s latest works.

In June 1984, Neil and Linda had an addition to the family with the birth of a daughter, Gemma.  Over the next ten years Neil was inundated with work to satisfy exhibitions he had committed to.  Life was hectic but profitable.  He had taken his son to Paris for his eighteenth birthday in 1994 and in 1996 his son had gone to university and his daughter was about to start secondary school.  Everything was going so well and yet around this time, Neil sensed all was not well.  He had a foreboding that things were going to change.  This sense he had of imminent change in his life was converted into two paintings he completed entitled The Ephemeral Nature of Beauty and the Persistence of Art and Our Thoughts Stray Constantly Without Boundary, both hinted at Neil’s concern that things in his life and marriage were about to change and not necessarily for the better.

The House of Glass by Neil Simone (1991)

In 1997 Neil struggled with the effort to have to paint more pictures and became physically and mentally run down. He had to continually paint to satisfy clients and fulfil exhibition commitments but found it difficult to achieve sufficient work during a day at the studio so would leave home in the evening, returning to the studio to continue working through part of the night.  He began to worry about all the pressure to keep people happy but would not talk about it to his wife. He admitted that he became morose and withdrawn but he just hoped the problem would be short term. The strain on his marriage got so bad that in January 1998, in a hope that things may improve, he and Linda decided to separate and he left the family home and went to live in his rented studio.

The Retreat by Neil Simone (1999)

Some years earlier, Neil became very friendly with a lady called Heather who worked at an art materials shop where he bought most of his supplies.  Although she worked in Centagraph, an art supply shop, she had never painted and she was pleased to accept Neil’s offer of artistic tuition.  They became great friends and Heather proved to be the support Neil Simone needed to get him through life.  Living in his studio where he stored his artwork was proving to be untenable and so he decided he needed to buy somewhere larger.  The time also coincided with Heather and her young son Ben wanting to move out of rented premises and contemplate owning somewhere and so Neil and Heather, for financial reasons, decided to jointly buy somewhere and to fund his part of the purchase, Neil reluctantly sold some of his original paintings he had been keeping for himself.  In May 1999, the couple moved into a first-floor apartment in Langcliffe Avenue, Harrogate.  It was ideal for these two artists as it had a hexagonal sun room and a private roof terrace.

Rock Formation by Neil Simone (1999)

In late 2000, fifty-three-year-old, Neil Simone suffered a heart attack and was forced to rest and in January 2001 he underwent a triple bypass operation.  After a long period of rehabilitation under the watchful eye of Heather, Neil resumed painting.  Although they loved their apartment there was just not enough wall space to hang their work and so decided to search the property market for something larger and room for a gallery and workshop. Their search proved fruitful in September 2003 when they found the ideal home in the village of Whixley.  A month later Neil and Heather moved in to their new home and were able to hold exhibitions in their own gallery.  Heather and Neil are now married and still live in their Whixley home.

 Of his painting style which he termed visual surrealism, Neil wrote:

“…I paint the way that I do because I see the world as a dimension of shadows, shapes, contradictions and ever changing fragile boundaries…”

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The majority of the information for this blog came from Neil’s own autobiography, Neil Simone.  The Memoirs of an Artist.  How long does it take? which is an excellent book with many reproductions of his work.

Neal and Heather’s gallery is at 2a High Street Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire which I look forward to visiting in the summer.  The website is   http://www.simonegalleries.com/.

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Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1850 – 1936)

In my last blog I looked at the life of the nineteenth century American painter, Anna Elizabeth Klumpke.  Today I want to look at the life of one of her contemporaries, Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, who was born just six years earlier.

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe was born December 10th, 1850 in a small log cabin farmhouse, built by her father, near Irving Cliff in Honesdale, in rural north-eastern Pennsylvania.  It was a picturesque area, which the historian, writer and author of the short stories, Rip van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irvine, described as:

“…Honesdale is situated between high hills on a plain through which two romantic mountain streams flow, uniting in the village and forming the Lackawaxen River. There are two wide basins where the streams unite, and the water was formed into the two most picturesque lakes. From the Eastern shore of one of these, Lake Dyberry, a solid ledge of serried and moss-grown slate rock rises almost sheer to the height of nearly 400 feet…”

Peasant Girl Before a Gate by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

Jennie was the only child of William Brownscombe, originally a farmer in the English county of Devon who had left England to seek his fortune in America in 1840 and his American wife Elvira Brownscombe (née Kennedy), who was said to be a direct descendent of an original Mayflower passenger.  Her mother who was a talented writer and amateur painter, nurtured her daughter’s interest in poetry and art.  Her early exploration of drawing is mentioned in the entry for Jennie Brownscombe in the 1897 book, American Women Fifteen Hundred Biographies:

“…She was studious and precocious, and about equally inclined to art and literature. She early showed a talent for drawing, and when only seven years old she began drawing, using the juices of flowers and leaves with which to colour her pictures. In school she illustrated every book that had a blank leaf or margin available…”

Jennie won awards for her art at the Wayne County Fair  when she was a high school student.

The New School-Mistress by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1873)

In 1868, when Jennie was eighteen years old, her father died.  To help herself and her mother financially, Jennie began selling illustrations to book and magazine publishers based on the landscape around her home and Irving Cliff.  One such illustration appeared in the illustrated journal, Harper’s Weekly, of September 20th 1873, entitled The New School-Mistress.   She also accepted a post as a school teacher at the high school in Honesdale.  Eventually she moved to New York to study art.  To get an idea of what this young aspiring artist was like we need to see the description of her given by art historian, Florence Woolsley Hazzard in her article on Brownscombe for the three-volume biographical dictionary, Notable American Women 1607-1950, in which she described the young artist:

“…she was slender, with a thin face in which large brown eyes and a dimpled chin were distinctive, and reserved in manner. She lived simply with one companion or servant…”

Jennie Brownscombe left home and went to New York where she studied under the Paris-born academic-style painter Victor Nehlig who had come to America in 1850 and opened up a studio in New York city, and was elected as an academician in the National Academy of Design.  In May 1871 Jennie graduated from the School of Design for Women of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art more commonly known as the Cooper Union or Cooper Institute which was a privately funded college located in Cooper Square in the East Village neighbourhood of Manhattan, New York City.

Portrait of a Young Woman in Pink and Green by Jennie Brownscombe (1898)

For the next four years, until 1875, Jennie was enrolled at the National Academy of Design where she attended the Antique and Life Schools and studied painting under the tutelage of the American painters, Thomas LeClear and Lemuel Wilmarth, who was the director of the Academy.  The Academy also paid Jennie to teach some of the classes and this helped defray the cost of her tuition.  Whilst at the Academy Brownscombe won the first prize, the Charles Loring Elliott Medal, in the Antique School and the first prize, the Suydam Medal in the Life School, which was given annually by the Academy for achievements in life drawing and painting in the Life studies school.

Unfortunately, the Academy encountered financial problems at the end of the 1874/5 academic year and could no longer afford to employ Wilmarth and there was even talk that come the start of the next academic year in the autumn the Academy would not re-open.  With the uncertainty as to whether the Academy, due to financial pressures, would cancel all classes temporarily, forcing students to forgo drawing from life for a significant period of time, something had to be done.  Apart from this uncertain future, many of the students were also unhappy with the rigid artistic teaching at the Academy believing the favoured academic-style was too conservative especially in comparison with what was happening at the time with the art in Europe with the birth of Impressionism.  And so, in 1875, Lemuel Wilmarth and a group of artists, most of whom were students at the National Academy of Design, and many of whom were women, founded The Art Students League and Wilmarth was confirmed as its first president.

The present Art Students League of New York Building, West 57th Street, New York

Jennie Brownscombe was one of the founder members of the Art Students League.  Another founder member was the sculptor and illustrator James Edward Kelly whose comments about Jennie were published in 1925 in the Fiftieth Anniversary of the League publication.  He recalled the young artist:

“…Although I used to see Miss Jennie Brownscombe when she came to Harper’s Art Department, and as a student at the old Academy, I always visualize her sitting at her easel – working,  working, ceaseless and untiring.  The outcome was a series of paintings and etchings showing the halcyon days in the home life of America…”

The League opened its school with studio space on the top floor of a building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 16th Street. Things were somewhat cramped and classes were conducted in just one small room.  It proved so popular that many more art students joined and by the end of the first semester the League had to rent the whole of floor to accommodate this new influx of artists.  Jennie returned to the National Academy of Design in 1879 and remained there as a student until mid-1881.

After completing her studies at the Academy, Jennie travelled to France and studied in Paris under the Polish-born American painter, Henry Mosler, who became well-known for his Breton peasant depictions.  Jennie returned to the United States but an eye injury curtailed her art until 1884 at which time she returned to painting in her studio in New York City.  Whilst living in New York she found time to make regular visits back to her mother who was still at the family home in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.  Her mother died in 1891.

The Homecoming by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1885)

Jennie Brownscombe’s art was of various genres.  Many of her works focused on the observance of rural family life and it was the sentimentality of these works which appealed to buyers who liked to remember those trouble-free days.  A good example of this is her 1885 painting, The Homecoming, which depicts the return of a husband and the greeting he received from his wife and child on the doorstep of their log cabin.  Everything we see in the painting oozes with happiness and contentment –  what’s not to like about it?

Ready for the Oven by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

In another depiction of contented homeliness,  Ready for the Oven, we see a lady in the kitchen.  She holds a pie, which she has just made and is about to put it into the oven to bake.  Again, this is a work depicting the joy that can be had by simply staying at home and looking after one’s family.  It is a depiction of a clean and well organised country kitchen and the rural idyll.  A lot of her genre works featuring rural life were about a clean and contented homely American lifestyle and is in stark contrast to the rural/ peasant kitchens we see depicted in some of the Dutch genre paintings where realism seemed to mean showing less than clean interiors and chaotic lives, often caused by the demon alcohol.  So, what did people want from their paintings – idyllic sentimentality or realistic hell on earth?

Love’s Young Dream by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

One of the most popular example of Brownscombe’s idyllic but sentimental depictions is her idealized painting depicting rural family life which is entitled Loves Young Dream.  The painting has two distinct parts to it.  In the right foreground, and squeezed in, we have the porch of a wooden house and three people whilst on the left and in the background the space is open and clutter-free as we look towards the hills shrouded in mist but it is this openness which gives us the sense of vast sweeping and unspoilt countryside and set up of the painting highlights the isolation of the small house.

We see a young woman standing on the outside step of her modest wooden home.  Her expression is one of yearning, as she looks out at the winding country lane which leads to her family home.  In the distance, we can just make out a man on horseback approaching. Could this be who she is awaiting?  On the right of the painting we see an elderly couple sitting on the porch. One, probably her mother, looks up from her knitting and looks at the young woman and probably worries about her daughter’s expectations.  She is completely oblivious to the fact that the cat is playing with her ball of wool.  The other person on the porch is an elderly man who is completely engrossed in his book and has no time to observe his daughter, wife or the approaching rider.

The New Scholar by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1879)

In another example of her genre paintings we have The New Scholar which captures what school days were like in a rural community in the past.  In the work, we see a very young girl heading to her lessons. She is new to the school and is somewhat frightened at the reception she would receive from her fellow pupils. She walks towards the school room door, head down, but surreptitiously eyeing some of her fellow pupils whilst they line her approach and blatantly study her.   This is yet another beautifully portrayal of individuals.  This work is housed in the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma

The First Thanksgiving held at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth, Massachusetts by Jennie Brownscombe

In some works, she would produce depictions of special moments of American history such as the arrival of the first settlers in her painting The First Thanksgiving held at Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth, Massachusetts which commemorated the event which took place in early autumn of 1621, when the 53 surviving Pilgrims celebrated their successful harvest, which was an English custom.  Another reason for the depiction by Brownscombe could have been the colonial roots of her mother’s family.

In the painting, we see a group of Puritans in dark and dour-looking clothes gathered around a table being blessed by a pastor.  The idealisation of the depiction shows friendly native Americans looking on at the ceremony and are ready to participate in this communal meal. In the background, we see a solitary log cabin set amongst the yet to be developed New England countryside.  This is a quintessentially American depiction and paintings like this were very popular with American public.  Brownscombe sold the reproduction rights to more than a hundred of her genre and historical works which were then used by publishers to produce prints or incorporate them in calendars and greeting cards.

Washington Greeting Lafayette at Mount Vernon, 1784 by Jennie Brownscombe

Brownscombe was among a group of artists of the Colonial Revival Movement, which was a cultural movement which was both an architectural and decorating style. It was very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was motivated by a romantic adoration of the early American past. Paintings were created by artists depicting early American scenes.  Colonial heroes like George Washington and colonial history were popular subjects for artists, inspired by the 1876 centennial, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia.  Jennie Brownscombe’s painting Washington Greeting Lafayette at Mount Vernon is a classic example of Colonial Revival Movement painting.

Colonial Minuet by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe

Brownscombe developed a structured lifestyle geared up to her artistic life.  She would travel to Italy and spend the winters in Rome and it was during one such winter she met the American still-life and landscape artist George Henry Hall who had a studio in the Italian capital.  They became close friends and Hall who was twenty-five years her senior, became her mentor.  During the summer months, the two of them would return to Hall’s American residence, in Kaaterskill Clove Valley, in New York’s eastern Catskill Mountains, lying just west of the village of Palenville.   When Hall died in 1913 at the age of eighty-eight, he bequeathed the house and studio to Brownscombe.

Children Playing in the Orchard by Jennie Brownscombe (1934)

In 1932 Jennie Brownscombe suffered a stroke which temporarily stopped her painting but two years later in 1934, when she was eighty-four years old, she completed a work for the Lincoln School in her hometown of Honesdale entitled Children Playing in the Orchard.

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, who never married, died on August 5th, 1936 four months before her eighty-sixth birthday and was buried next to her parents in the Glen Dyberry Cemetery in Honesdale next to her parents.

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (c.1930)

I end this story with a quote from the blog The Jellybean Tree which perfectly sums up the life and work of Jennie Augusta Brownscombe and why her paintings appealed to so many:

“…Jennie Brownscombe was a pilgrim in her own way, making a name and life for herself in a time when most women were still housewives and mothers. She tapped into a talent and nostalgia that warmed the hearts of her viewers. Artists like Brownscombe place a mirror to our lives, forcing us to see the beauty in every day. Creative types can sometimes become bogged down with visions of the fantastic. A reminder of the subtle grace of life is always welcome…”

Anna Elizabeth Klumpke. – Her talented siblings and Rosa Bonheur

Anna Elizabeth Klumpke in her studio

Anna Elizabeth Klumpke was born in San Francisco on October 28th 1856.   She was the elderst daughter of a German-born father, John Gerald Klumpke and his American wife Dorothea Matilda Klumpke (née Tolle). Her father was born in February 1825 in Suttrup, a small north-west German town in the state of Lower Saxony.   Anna’s father was  hard-working German immigrant who was raised in New Orleans where he attended college and spent some time studying medicine and other professional courses.   In August 1850 with news of the Californian Gold Rush he left Louisiana and headed for California where he was registered as one of the early territorial pioneers.

With the discovery of gold the population in 1848 of San Francisco which had started off as a small Spanish mission nestled in the coastal dunes, was less than one thousand but the following year it had soared to twenty-five thousand. San Francisco boomed and law and order became a serious problem, so much so that the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance was formed in 1851 in response to widespread crime and corruption in the municipal government. This vigilante organisation, which John Klumpke joined, provided an extra layer of legal intervention to counteract the rising wave of crime. John Klumpke’s life as a prospector didn’t last long and the money he made prospecting was sank into real estate which he bought and sold and soon became a very well respected and very wealthy San Francisco citizen.

Portrait de mon père by Anna Elizabeth Klumpke (1888)

Dorothea Mathilde Tolle was born in New York on March 21, 1835. In 1853, at the age of eighteen, she accompanied her older sister who travelled to San Francisco to be reunited with her husband who had set up a gunsmith business in the town.  Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Dorothea met her future husband John Klumpke and the couple were married on October 28th 1855.  The couple went on to have seven children.  There were five daughters, Anna Elizabeth was born in 1856, followed by Augusta Maria in 1859, Dorothea in 1861, Mathilde in 1863 and Julia in 1870 and two sons John Wilhelm and George Frederick in 1868.

Augusta and her daughter Yvonne

Before I look closer at the life of the painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke it is interesting to note that all her siblings were great achievers.  Augusta Maria, the second born child, formerly a science student in Lausanne, went to Paris in 1877 to study medicine, and in 1882 became an extern and in 1887 became the first woman in France to be appointed interne des hôpitaux. She studied under Jules Déjerine, a celebrated French neurologist and later in 1888 the two married and had a daughter Yvonne.   In 1914, Augusta was elected the first female president of the French Neurological Society.

Dorpthea Klumpke Roberts

Dorothea Klumpke was the youngest child of John and Dorothea Klumpke.  She initially studied music at the University of Paris but later became interested in astronomy. In 1886, she received her bachelor’s degree and seven years later, in 1893,  she was awarded her doctorate and in between she took up a post at the Paris Observatory. Her work consisted of measuring star positions, astrophotography, which is a specialized type of photography for recording photos of astronomical objects and large areas of the night sky.  She eventually became Director of the Bureau of Measurements at the Paris Observatory and was elected a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.   She married the Welsh astronomer and astrophysicist,  Dr. Isaac Roberts.

Both the fourth-born child, Mathilda Klumpke, and the youngest child Julia, took music lessons at the Paris conservatory.  Mathilda became a talented pianist who married Harry Milton Dalton, an American lawyer from Cincinnati, and they had three children.   Sadly Mathilda died young in 1893, from diphteria while caring for her sick children.   She was just thirty years of age.

Miss Julia Klumpke, playing the violin

Julia Klumpke, the youngest family member who was born in 1870, was a student at Lycée Fénelon, which in 1883 became the first high school of young girls of Paris.  Julia studied the violin and subsequently taught the violin to students at the Spartanbourg Girls College, South Carolina.

The fifth child, and the only son to survive infancy, John William Klumpke, was mostly educated in Paris in the heart of the Quartier Latin just across from the Sorbonne at Lycée Louis-le-Grand which was a prestigious secondary school founded in 1563 as the Collège de Clermont, but was renamed in King Louis XIV of France’s honour after he extended his direct patronage to it in 1682.  Later John returned to America where he became an engineer.

Having said all that, this blog is all about the eldest daughter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke but I thought it would be of interest for you to see what a set of very gifted siblings she had and one wonders whether that pressurised her to succeed.

Anna Elizabeth Klumpke

Anna Elizabeth Klumpke was the eldest of John Dorothea’s children, born on August 22nd 1856.  Her early life proved traumatic as in the early months of 1860 when she was three and a half years old she had a fall and fractured her femur.  Less than eighteen months after this accident she fell again and this resulted in osteomyelitis with purulent knee arthritis and this condition would leave her with a limp for the rest of her life. Her parents sought medical help in America but to no avail and they decided that the best course of treatment was to be found in Europe and so, in 1886, her mother and aunt took Anna Elizabeth and her three sisters and travelled by boat to a specialist, Professor Néalton, in Paris and later to Berlin to consult with Professor Langenbeck where she would remain at his clinic for eighteen months with much time spent taking the healing waters of the local thermal baths.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton by Anna Elizbeth Stanton (1889)
American suffragist, social activist, abolitionist, and leading figure of the early women’s rights movement

Anna’s three sisters went to school in Berlin whilst she, due to her physical condition and medical treatment, received private lessons.  She thrived educationally taking lessons in German, French and music.  Eventually Anna’s mother and her sisters returned to San Francisco somewhat disappointed that Anna’s hoped-for cure never materialised.  Back in California, Anna and her siblings attended the local school but because of their father’s wealth also had home tutoring in music, dance and German.

A Moment’s Rest, Barbizon by Anna Elizabeth Klumpke (1891)

The disappointment of Anna’s mother over the failure to cure her daughter’s physical disability was not the only complication which arose from her long stay in Europe separated from her husband. Despite the birth of two further children, John and George Frederick in 1868, although the latter died before his first birthday, and Julia in 1870, the estrangement of husband and wife led to the break-up of the marriage and she requested and won legal separation and later a divorce, along with custody of all the children.  Anna’s mother decided on a clean break from both her husband and America and in April 1871 took all the children, including eight month-old Julia, to Germany to live with her cousin in the town of Gottingen where Anna, who at the time was fifteen years old and thirteen year old Augusta, enrolled at a boarding school in Bad Canstatt, a town close to Stuttgart.  In 1873 after the legal ramifications of the separation were concluded and divorce granted, Dorothea took her six children and went to live in Lausanne.

Portrait of a Seated Woman Anna Elizabeth Klumpke (1886)

All the children, with the exception of Anna, attended various schools in Lausanne but Anna studied at home, and as she showed an interest in painting she was enrolled in a course of drawing lessons.  In 1876 Anna’s mother was faced with the prospect of losing her two eldest children to further education colleges away from Lausanne but a friend advised her that Paris would be an ideal place to live as it would offer Anna a chance to further her career as an artist in a well-respected atelier de peinture and at the same time offer Augusta the chance to continue her interest in medicine at the prestigious medical faculty of the Sorbonne.  There would also be numerous good Parisian schools for the other children and so with her decision made to relocate to the French capital Dorothea Klumpke went to Paris and met with the secretary of the Faculty of Medicine and the secretary of the Faculty of Sciences at the Sorbonne to assess the colleges for Augusta and had a meeting with the artistic director of Académie Julian with regards to enrolling Anna.  Dorothea also met with heads of various secondary schools to discuss the schooling of her other children and by October 1876 an apartment had been rented and all the children were attending various schools and colleges.

In the Wash-House by Anna Elizabeth Klumpke (1888)

Anna Klumpke enrolled at the Académie Julian in 1883 and was the pupil of Tony Robert Fleury, Felix de Vuillefroy, William Adolphe Bouguereau and Jules Lefebvre.  In 1884, whilst still at the Academy, she exhibited for the first time at the Paris Salon.  She excelled at the academy and won a number of awards including one for the outstanding student of the year with her painting entitled An Eccentric.  She also won the silver medal at the Versailles Exhibition.  She became the first woman to win the Temple gold medal at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  This prestigious art prize was awarded for the best oil painting by an American artist shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts’s annual exhibition.  She also won the bronze medal at the 1889 Universal Exhibition.  She was a regular contributor to the exhibitions at the Salon des Artistes Français.

Catinou Knitting by Anna Elizabeth Klumpke

One of her well known painting is a large one entitled Catinou Knitting which she exhibited at the Salon of 1887 and is now housed at the Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia. Anna returned to the United States and taught in Boston for a few years.

Antique German Kling Parian Bisque Rosa Bonheur Doll

One of the greatest influences on Anna Klumpke’s was the French artist Rosa Bonheur, an animalière, (painter of animals) known for her artistic realism.  Anna’s interest in Bonheur probably goes back to her childhood when as a young girl she was given a doll, known as a “Rosa” Doll.  Rosa Dolls were made in the image of Rosa Bonheur, who had become a famous artist and from early childhood Anna was fascinated with the career of this French painter.  She first met Rosa in 1887 when she was employed as a translator by an American art collector who was interested in buying some of Bonheur’s artwork.

Rosa Bonheur by Anna Elizabeth Klumpke

Ten years later, in 1897 Anna wrote to Rosa Bonheur asking permission to paint her portrait. The two women met for the second time on June 16, 1898 at Rosa’s residence, the Chateau de By at Thomery on the edge of Fontainebleau Forest, which the artist had bought for herself in 1859 when she was at the height of her popularity.  Despite the thirty-four year difference in age between Rosa and Anna, they soon became great friends. While Klumpke worked on her first portrait of Bonheur, the two women became close friends and one month later Bonheur asked Anna to join her in both a personal and professional partnership, Anna agreed and the two women signed a formal arrangement to cement their working and personal arrangement in August 1898. Bonheur agreed to build a studio for Anna at By and in return Anna agreed to paint portraits of Bonheur and to write Rosa’s biography.  Controversially, as far as her relatives were concerned, Bonheur changed her will and made Klumpke her sole heir. Bonheur used her last will and testament to force legal recognition of her right to transfer her property to another woman.  Anna, I am sure, brought a great deal of happiness to Rosa who had been devastated by the death of her lover and long-time companion Nathalie Micas in 1895.  Nine months after Anna and Rosa formalised their arrangement Rosa Bonheur died on May 25, 1899, aged seventy-seven.

Rosa Bonheur by Anna Elizabeth Klumpke (1898)

Klumpke painted three important portraits of Bonheur. The first, from 1898, depicted the artist at an easel wearing the men’s clothes for which she had secured a license from the French government. The second portrait, from 1899, depicted Bonheur seated, holding her dog on her lap. Klumpke kept the third portrait of Bonheur, painted posthumously in 1902, for the Musée de l’Atelier de Rosa Bonheur that she established at By, near Fountainebleau, in 1904.

After Bonheur’s death, Klumpke devoted herself to researching the biography Bonheur had asked her to write. It was published in 1908 with the title Rosa Bonheur, sa vie et son oeuvre.  It is a merger of biography and autobiography. Anna Klumpke combined her own memories with Bonheur’s first-person account.  In the book Anna, Bonheur’s lover and chosen portraitist, tells how she came to meet and fall in love with Bonheur but of course it is Bonheur’s account of her own life story, and delves into such subjects as gender formation, institutional changes in the art world, governmental intervention in the arts, the social and legal regulation of dress codes, and the perceived transgressive nature of female sexual companionship in a repressive society.

Rosa Bonheur’s atelier in Château de By , Thomery

Klumpke continued to paint and exhibit her works in both Paris and the United States, and set up many projects in the name of Rosa Bonheur.   In 1914,  she established l’Hôpital de Rosa Bonheur at By, where she nursed wounded soldiers until World War I and sometime later, she established the Rosa Bonheur Memorial Art School for Women Painters and Sculptors at By and continued to exhibit both her work as well as Bonheur’s on both continents.

Among the Lilies by Anna Elizabeth Klumpke (1909)

Anna Klumpke was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government in 1936. During the 1930s, she returned to San Francisco where she painted landscapes and portraits.  She died in 1942 at the age of 86 and her ashes were entombed alongside Bonheur’s and those of Nathalie Micas in Père Lachaise cemetery three years later.

Anna Elizabeth Klumpke never married, maybe because her career meant everything to her but also because she chose a committed relationship with another woman, and by doing so she defied all the late Victorian expectation of women. Her artistic work was a visual testament of her life and times, and included the joyous but brief time she loved and lived with Rosa Bonheur.