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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”