Grace Carpenter Hudson and the Pomo Indians

Grace Carpenter Hudson

One of the pleasures of writing my blog is that I am constantly discovering artists I had previously never heard of. Along the way, there are also many other discoveries, which are not related to art, which I find fascinating. Today’s blog is a prime example of this. My featured artist today is the nineteenth-century American painter,  Grace Carpenter Hudson, one of the most celebrated painters of Native American subjects, with her artistic speciality being the pictorial documentation of a Native American group, the Pomo tribe, who lived close to where she was born and lived most of her life. As a child, I was brought up watching Cowboy and Indian films and TV shows featuring the likes of the Midwest tribes of the Sioux, Comanche, and Apache et al. However until researching the life of Grace Hudson, I had never come across this Californian Native American tribe, known as the Pomo.

Portrait of a Pomo Matron (also known as A Young Woman) by Grace Carpenter Hudson (1916)

The word ‘Pomo’ means “those who live at red earth hole” and refers to their earth lodge pit houses that were built with red coloured earth which were the winter homes of the tribe. They were hunter-gatherers and relied upon fishing and hunting for their daily food supply.   The territory they originally occupied in Northern California was vast. To the west, the border of their land was the Pacific Ocean. To the east, their territory stretched to the area around Clear Lake. Their north-south boundaries were Cleone in the north and Duncans Point in the south. Sadly, like most indigenous people around the world they were not allowed to live in peace.

Captain John (Ab-ba-ba-pomo) by Grace Carpenter Hudson

During the 1800s foreigners were constantly invading their tribal lands.   The Russian fur traders, looking for sea otters treated the Pomo people they encountered with brutality.   The Spanish had arrived on the Southern Pomo country looking to convert the tribe to Christianity and forcing them to work as slaves in Spanish missions. In 1821 when the Spaniards finally left the Mexicans took their place and they, once again, forced the Pomo people to work as slaves on Mexican ranches. In 1848, with news of the Californian gold rush, hordes of American prospectors arrived from the east. It was not just the savagery of the “intruders” but the diseases they brought with them that the Pomo people could not withstand. A cholera epidemic in 1833 followed by a smallpox epidemic in 1838 decimated the Pomo community. Around the area where the Carpenter family lived the white pioneers moved onto the Pomo ancestral territory taking the most fertile land in the valley for themselves, the Pomo people were increasingly suffering and on the brink of starvation.

Photograph of Grace Carpenter Hudson at her easel

Grace Carpenter was born on February 21st 1865 in the small town of Potter Valley, in the Mendocino county of Northern California, some one hundred and thirty miles north of San Francisco. It was named after two of its founders William and Thomas Potter in 1852. Her father was Aurelius Ormando Carpenter a newspaperman/photographer and her mother was Helen Carpenter (née McCowen). Aurelius, simply known as A.O. and his wife arrived in California from the Kansas Territory, where A.O. had served alongside revolutionary leader John Brown in the fight to secure Kansas’s entry into the Union as a state free from slavery. They stopped off at Green Valley in Western California and, in 1860, were two of the earliest white settlers in Potter Valley. Grace Carpenter had a twin brother, Grant and an older sister, May. Once Grace’s parents had settled in Potter Valley her father worked part-time as a newspaperman and part-time as a rancher whilst her mother taught the Pomo children at a local school and the whole family tried to help the Promo people the best that they could.

Powley: Young Man Hoeing Corn by Grace Carpenter Hudson (1895)

At the age of four, Grace moved with her family from Potter Valley to the nearby larger town of Ukiah and it was here that the family number increased by one with the arrival of another son, Frank. Grace’s mother and father branched out into a joint project, that of studio photography. As a young child, Grace had started to show an interest in drawing. Once she and her twin brother had finished their primary school education in May 1878, and because there were no high schools in Ukiah, in the autumn, Grace went to live in San Francisco, and attend an ordinary state-run high school whilst, at the same time,  receive private art lessons.

Grasshopper Dance by Grace Carpenter Hudson (1898)

Grace’s parents had been aware how talented Grace was with regards her artwork and so, in early 1879, shortly after her fourteenth birthday they enrolled her at the San Francisco School of Design, which was under the directorship of the American painter, Virgil Macey Williams. Whilst at the School, Grace studied how to draw from casts and sculptures, and then moved on to life drawing with live models. She also experimented in painting using a variety of media as well as taking part in plein air classes. Her progress at the School of Design was swift. Her winning of the highly sought after Alvord Gold Medal in 1881 for the best full-length study in crayon from a cast was followed by a hearty comment from her portraiture teacher, Oscar Kunath who stated that she was the most talented pupil he had ever taught.

Portrait of Grace Carpenter. ca. 1882. Courtesy of the Grace Hudson Museum, City of Ukiah

Sixteen-year-old Grace was enjoying her time in San Francisco. She was vivacious and was described as a petite attractive brunette with a sprinkling of freckles across her face and this beauty brought her a number of suitors during her art school days. Grace, as well as attending the art school, helped out her father at his photographic studio. Her main job was hand tinting the black and white photographic portraits her father had captured with his cameras, (manually adding colour to a black and white photograph, so as to heighten the realism of the photograph).

Rosie’s Baby in a Quilt Basket by Grace Carpenter Hudson (1905)

Grace remained the San Francisco School of design until the autumn of 1883 and that December she returned to her home in Ukiah. Her return to Ukiah was not the joyful homecoming that one might have expected as Grace had met and begun a serious relationship with a man fifteen years her senior and whose previous relationship had resulted in the birth of a child. The “love of her life” was thirty-three-year-old real estate and money broker William T Davis. Grace’s parents were horrified with their daughter’s liaison with a man they considered totally unsuitable. The more Grace told her mother and father that she was in love with Davis the more they became adamant that he was not “the one” for her. Following the Christmas break, they managed to persuade Grace to stay in Ukiah and thus, away from her suitor. To complicate matters further another of her admirers and good friend, Edward Epsey, who had been a fellow art student in San Francisco and had expressed his desire to see more of her, had returned from studying at the Académie Julian in Paris and become a talented young artist. Grace’s parents also liked Epsey. Decisions decisions!

The Dawning by Grace Carpenter Hudson

Against the wishes of her parents, Grace did choose which suitor she loved most and in September 1884 after spending the spring and summer at home, she left and returned to San Francisco and into the arms of William Davis. The couple eloped and married but the relationship did not last and just over two years later, in December 1886, Mrs Grace Davis was granted a divorce absolute and she returned to her family in Ukiah. Whether it was the trials and tribulations of married life and its eventual breakdown, one will never know, except to say her artistic output had almost dried up and very few works exist with the signature Grace Davis. From 1885 to 1890, Grace lived with her parents in Ukiah. She continued to paint including genre, landscapes and still lifes in various media. She also occasionally taught and supplied illustrations to magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Overland Monthly.

Indian Papoose Kawasi by Grace Carpenter Hudson (1904)

Although she was very unhappy with what happened to her first real love affair, Grace carried on with her paintings. It was five years later that another chance of love visited her in the shape of Doctor John Wilz Napier Hudson. Hudson was an American physician who had an interest in Tennessee archaeology, and ethnologist. He had graduated from the Medical College of Nashville and then worked several years at the University of Tennessee.  Later he practiced medicine as a homoeopathic physician. He left his native Nashville, Tennessee in 1889, to take up the position of a physician for the newly extended San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad Company, which had its terminus and medical centre in Grace’s hometown, Ukiah. Hudson was soon accepted into Ukiah’s social circles and met the Cartwright family. Hudson had been brought up in a strict family setting with his father, a physician, expecting his son to tread in his footsteps and become a doctor whereas his son’s first love was ethnology, which is the study of the characteristics of different peoples and the differences and relationships between them. Hudson found the Carpenter family totally different from his own and enjoyed their progressive attitude to life, which could not have been more different than his own conventional and conservative upbringing. A year after his arrival Grace Carpenter married John Hudson and this time, for Grace, she received her parent’s blessing.

The Carpenter family, circa 1873, Aurelius O. Carpenter, photographer. Standing at rear, May Carpenter. Seated, left to right: Helen, Grant, Frank, Grace, and Aurelius Ormando “A.O.” Carpenter. A.O. Carpenter took this family portrait via a camera shutter release bulb he held behind Grace’s back

John’s main interest was in ethnology and through Grace’s parents’ longstanding connections to the local Pomo families, he discovered a wealth of information regarding them, their basketry and culture and this provided him with a foundation for his own cultural and linguistic studies. John joined Grace in her interest in basketry and over the years managed to build a very large collection of the various baskets made by the tribe. John Hudson offered Grace his support for her art and would urge her to focus her paintings on the Pomo people, with whom she was so familiar. Grace and John were both very aware that the Pomo tribe, through disease and war with their “intruders”  were on the cusp of extinction. Both Grace and her husband realised that the Pomo Indians were a vanishing race and that it was important that through Grace’s art they should be portrayed with compassion and deference for their culture. John and Grace realised that if Grace’s artwork focused on the Pomo people it could well make a professional name for her depicting a subject that no other artist had considered. Once Grace had decided on that strategy she began to become more methodical with the output of her work. In the summer of 1891 she began what she termed “her painting diary” and within the tome, she would carefully chronicle information about each of her works she believed were good enough to be sold.

National Thorn by Grace Carpenter Hudson (1891)

The first painting she recorded, as “Number 1” was her painting entitled National Thorn. This was a true-to-life portrait of a slumbering Pomo baby in a cradle basket, guarded by a watchful dog. This maternal choice of a sleeping Indian child to be the focus of the work was not one, which would occur to a male artist of the time, and its popularity meant that it was one that Grace would return to time and time again throughout her career. Midway through the painting, it was seen by H. Jay Smith, the director of the art department of the Minneapolis Industrial Exposition, who was in the Ukiah area, visiting the Hudson’s on a Pomo basket buying expedition. He fell in love with the incomplete painting he saw on Grace’s easel, with its sensitive portrayal and unusual theme. He immediately asked to buy the painting, once completed. Grace agreed and it appeared at the Minneapolis Industrial Exposition. Visitors at the Exposition loved the sentimental work and it was quickly sold. It was not just the sale of the work which pleased Grace, it was the constructive and encouraging publicity that followed the Exposition which made her realise that her choice of subject was a winner.

Quail Baby (also known as The Interrupted Bath) by Grace Carpenter Hudson (1892)

In 1892, her Number Two, Number Three and Number Four works appeared at the Exposition.  The painting logged by Grace as Number Four was entitled  Quail Baby sometimes referred to as The Interrupted Bath.  Critics praised her for how she sympathetically portrayed the Pomo child.  The depiction shows a small Pomo child looking quite startled as if he had been caught unaware of the artist’s presence.  There is such a poignancy about this depiction.

Little Mendocino by Grace Carpenter Hudson

Also in 1892 Grace produced painting Number 5 in her series of numbered oils, entitled Little Mendocino. It was exhibited at the Midwinter Fair in San Francisco, and in 1893 it was hung at the World’s Fair in Chicago. This was the big turning point for Grace and her artwork. Her reputation was well and truly established, and from then on she photographed and documented all her oil paintings for posterity. One of the reasons for doing this was for copyright reasons as other artists had tried to copy her most popular paintings.

According to Patricia Trenton, in her 1995 book, Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945:

 “… Hudson could not paint her portraits fast enough to meet the growing demand. One magazine of the time reported that no other artist today is so popular with the picture-loving public of San Francisco. A canvas from her brush is sold before it leaves her easel…”

Greenie with Two Yellow Puppies by Grace Carpenter Hudson (1896)

By the start of the twentieth century, Grace Carpenter Hudson’s national reputation as a talented artist had been achieved and she became the main breadwinner of the family but all her hard work up to this point had taken a toll on her health and in 1901 she decided to take a year out and relax in the serenity of the Hawaiian Islands. Whilst there, she completed 26 canvases of Japanese, Chinese, and Hawaiian natives. In that same year, John Hudson gave up his medical career and dedicated himself exclusively to ethnography and on her return from Hawaii, Grace travelled widely with her husband, as he documented many other Indian tribes including the Pawnee in Oklahoma Territory. During their journeys Grace continued to paint portraits of the tribespeople but, sadly, many of her paintings of this time were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire which devastated parts of California.

The Sun House – Grace Hudson’s house at 431 S. Main Street, Ukiah, California

In 1912 Grace and John moved into a Hopi style house in Ukiah, known as the Sun House, and except for a brief trip to Europe in 1925, the couple lived there for the rest of their lives. Grace had a beautiful studio which incorporated an intricate system of moveable skylights. It was in her Ukiah studio that Grace invited members of the Pomo tribe to model for her paintings.

John Hudson died on January 18th, 1936, aged 79. After his death, Grace stopped painting. Grace Carpenter Hudson died on March 23rd 1937, a month after her seventy-second birthday. The couple had no children and all their money and property went to a nephew, Mark, who turned their home, along with thirty thousand objects into the Grace Hudson Museum.  The objects consisted of paintings and the vast Pomo basket collection which had belonged to John Hudson.

The Dove Garden by Grace Carpenter Hudson (1911)

Grace Hudson’s painting diary, which she started in 1891, came to an end in 1935 and in it, she recorded all 685 oil paintings she had completed during that time.


I found a lot of information about the life of Grace Carpenter Hudson in an article written by Karen Holmes entitled:

The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Grace Hudson’s Little Mendocino and Its Many Copies

https://static1.squarespace.com/static/577fcdeab3db2bbb8519136a/t/58ae3f2a1e5b6c4889a00f19/1487814572232/little-mendocino-mad.pdf

and in an article in Genealogy.com

https://www.genealogy.com/forum/surnames/topics/carpenter/5071/

 

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Elizabeth Nourse. Part 2.

Elizabeth Nourse
(1859-1938)

In April 1893, Elizabeth and Louise Nourse returned to Cincinnati as they had become aware that their sister Adelaide was seriously ill with consumption. At this time there were just the three sisters left of the original ten children, the other seven already having died. Adelaide never recovered from the wasting disease and died on September 12th 1893, aged 33. This was a devastating loss to Elizabeth as she had been very close to her twin, and used to regularly correspond with her whilst they lived on two different continents. Elizabeth now had no family connections in America and decided that her home from then on would be Paris. For Elisabeth and her elder sister, Louise Nourse, Paris offered them a better standard of living as the cost of living was less than that in America.

La mère” (The Mother), by Elizabeth Nourse (1888)

Before their return journey back to France, the assistant director of the Cincinnati Museum, Joseph H. Gest, invited Elizabeth to exhibit her work. In the Cincinnati exhibition, she had 102 of her paintings on show that she had painted whilst living in Europe and she managed to sell eighteen of them. Later at a smaller exhibition in Washington DC, she exhibited sixty-one of the same works and sold a further twenty-one. After Washington, they spent a week in New York before boarding a ship for England where they rested over briefly before travelling to Paris.

L’enfant endormi by Elisabeth Nourse (1901)

In the summer of 1894, following their return to France, Elisabeth and her sister Louise travelled to Brittany and visited the art colony of Pont Aven. However, Elisabeth decided that rather than live within the bustling colony she and her sister should find a much quieter location where she was able to detach herself from others in a small village which would allow her to paint alone. During their visits to the area, the two women would often find board and lodgings at a convent in the hamlet of Saint-Gildas where Elisabeth reckoned the daily cost of living was just one dollar.

Little Sister by Elizabeth Nourse (1902)

Elisabeth and Louise returned to Paris in the autumn of 1894 and took over a studio at 80 rue d’Assas which was to be their home for the rest of their lives. The studio which was situated opposite the south-west corner of the Luxembourg Gardens was in a quarter which housed a number of artist’s studios and was also home to many American expatriates. A couple of roads away from Elisabeth’s studio was rue de Chevreuse where the American Women Artists Association of Paris had its club and in 1899 Elizabeth served as its president. Elisabeth founded another artistic group, known as the Lodge Art League, which held annual exhibitions of paintings done by women.  It was a female-only group as female artists believed they were not getting a “fair shout” when it came to main-line exhibitions and so they started to organise their own independent shows.

Head of an Algerian by Elizabeth Nourse (1897)

Orientalist painting, depicting the Middle East, had become one of the many specialisms of 19th-century academic art and became very popular in France in the last decade of the nineteenth century, so much so that in 1893, the French Society of Orientalist Painters was founded. In 1897, Elisabeth and Louise Nourse spent three months in North Africa in the Algerian city of Biskra. Elizabeth described North Africa as “the land of sunshine and flowers and lovely Arabs.” and in 1897 completed a painting entitled Moorish Prince (Head of an Algerian).

Meditation (Sous les Arbres) by Elizabeth Nourse (1902

At the start of the twentieth century Elizabeth Nourse and her elder sister (by six years) Louise were living in Paris but they would often escape the hustle and bustle of city life. They discovered the quiet countryside idyll of Saint Leger–en Yvelines, a village in the heart of the Rambouillet forest, fifty-five kilometres south-west of central Paris. They lived there in a simple cottage rented to them by the Lethias family. Elizabeth’s love of the countryside and rural life inspired her art. It was this “back to nature” aspect of her stay in the countryside that she enjoyed so much and this can be seen in her paintings of the time. One I particularly like is her 1902 work, Meditation (Sous les Arbres), which is housed in the Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska. It depicts a mother seated in a chair in the garden. Her chin is resting on her hand and there is an air of tiredness about her, but not enough to stop her amusing her young child who sits on the grass at her feet.

Un Heure de Loisir by Elizabeth Nourse (1900)

In the ten years up to 1904 Elizabeth Nourse concentrated on rural themes, not the depiction of the beautiful country landscapes but depictions of peasant women getting on with their daily lives, working hard bringing up their children, and finally, at the end of the day, taking a chance to have a well-earned rest as can be seen in her 1904 work entitled Un Heure de Loisir (A Time of Leisure).

Normandy Peasant Woman and her Child by Elizabeth Nourse (1900)

Elizabeth Nourse’s depictions of peasant women and their children had a sense of realism, which was not always appreciated by art dealers. A good example of this is her 1900 painting, Normandy Peasant Woman and Child. In this work, Nourse has concentrated on the child but it is the contrasting of mother and child, which is most interesting.   Look at the way she has depicted the woman’s rough, reddened hand, which wraps around the child’s waist, with that of the soft skin of the child’s pudgy hands. This ruddy-faced depiction of the woman was viewed by the art dealers as something which would put off potential buyers and they often urged Elizabeth to make her depictions more “pretty” and thus, in their minds, more “saleable”. Needless to say, Nourse disagreed with their summation. In  Anna Seaton Schmidt’s book, Elizabeth Nourse: The Work of an Eminent Artist in France, she quoted Elizabeth as saying to one dealer:

“…”How can I paint what does not appeal to me?…”

The Kiss (Le Baiser) by Elizabeth Nourse (c.1906)

Elizabeth Nourse had her drawings, watercolours and pastels regularly shown at the Salon as well as her works in oils but it was her works on paper that first brought her recognition there. In 1901 she was elected societaire (member) in that category and in 1904 a societaire in oil painting as well. This was a great honour and more importantly, it meant that her work was no longer juried prior to being accepted and that she herself could also serve as a Salon juror. This official approval by the Salon meant that her reputation spread and she received an increasing number of invitations to exhibit her work. An example of her drawings is her 1906 work entitled The Kiss (Le Baiser). It is a pastel and charcoal on paper, mounted on board and is housed at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (The Clark) in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It is such a delicate and loving portrayal of a mother and her child. I don’t think I have seen such a depiction of tenderness in a long while.

The Closed Shutters (also known as Les Volets Clos) by Elizabeth Nourse (1910)

In 1910 her painting Closed Shutters (Les Volets Clos) was exhibited at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Many of Elizabeth’s works around this time showed how she was fascinated by the depiction of light, whether it be daylight or lamplight or firelight. In this painting we see bright sunlight streaming through wooden louvred window shutters into a dimly lit room.   In the room we see a woman standing before a mirror. It is a masterful depiction of light and one of Nourse’s most famous work of art which was bought in 1910 by French Ministry of Fine Arts for its permanent collection of contemporary art to hang in the Musee du Luxembourg alongside works by other great American artists such as James McNeil Whistler, Winslow Homer, and John Singer Sargent. It is now part of the Musee d’Orsay collection in Paris.

La reverie by Elizabeth Nourse (1910)

After the success of her painting Closed Shutters she completed another impressionistic work which experimented and focused on the way the sunlight plays on different surfaces. In La reverie (Daydreaming) we see a woman, posed by her sister Louise, standing before an open window, lost in thought, as she stares down at a glass goldfish bowl. The interior is illuminated by the bright sunlight so much so that part of the interior where the woman stands and the exterior seem to be as one. The reflection of the woman can be seen in the glass of the open window frame behind her. Nourse executed the work using ingenious strokes of blue, green, and violet, and it reveals the skill Elizabeth showed when showing the multifaceted reflecting elements of glass and water. The style of painting was likened to decorative intimism, a style of painting showing intimate views of domestic interiors using impressionist techniques, a style used in the early 20th century by the likes of her contemporaries the French Post-Impressionist painter, Pierre Bonnard and the American Impressionist painter, Richard Miller who was a member of the Giverny Colony of American Impressionists.

Woman with cigarette by Elizabeth Nourse (1895)

In the fourteen year period before the onset of The Great War, Elizabeth Nourse was at the pinnacle of her artistic career which had started back in 1874 for the, then fifteen-year-old McMicken School art student. But with war, came change. The art scene changed. Art dealers in the major cities of the western world became ever more important with their regular exhibitions, diminishing the importance of the Paris Salon. The Germans had invaded Belgium in 1914 and France became a potential target causing almost all of the American expatriates to return to the safety of their homeland on the other side of the Atlantic. However, Elizabeth and her sister decided to stay in the French capital. In a letter to a friend back in Cincinnati in December 1914, Elizabeth wrote nonchalantly about her thoughts on a possible German invasion:

 ‘…We shall stick it out and retire to the cellar…”

On August 22nd Louise Nourse also wrote a letter to her friend Melrose Pitman in Cincinnati explaining how the sisters had come to the decision to stay in Paris:

“…All the Americans are going but we will stay right here. I should feel an ungrateful wretch to run away—as though I fled from some hospitable roof when smallpox breaks out…”

Woman with cigarette by Elizabeth Nourse (1895)

Not only did the two sisters remain in Paris but they actively supported the people of Paris who had to deal with the influx of Belgium refugees fleeing the conflict in their country. With the collapse of the market for works of art, Elizabeth set about trying to help struggling artists to survive by appealing to her friends in America to donate funds. They worked tirelessly, so much so they both became ill and their doctor ordered them to leave Paris for a while and convalesce in the countryside.

Le frère et la soeur, Penmarc’h by Elisabeth Nourse (1901)

The two travelled to the coastal farming commune of Penmarc’h in Western Brittany. On arrival, they were shocked and saddened to discover that over sixty village women had been widowed by the war and all the remaining able-bodied men had had to leave the area for they had been conscripted to fight in the war. The lack of men in the commune meant that the women left behind not only had to care for their home and remaining family members but also had to cope with all the farm work. Louise and Elizabeth immediately set about helping the local women. An article by their friend Anna Seaton Schmidt in the September 2nd edition of the Boston Evening Post quotes from a letter Elizabeth Nourse had sent to a friend in Cincinnati:

“…It is quite a sight to see us bringing in the cows and tossing the hay, besides feeding ducks, chickens and picking beet and cabbage leaves for the cattle…”

In 1919, the year after the Great War had concluded, the board of the New Salon presented Elizabeth with a silver plaque in grateful recognition for this work during the war.

Artist in her studio

The following year, 1920, Elizabeth became unwell and it was discovered that she had breast cancer. She underwent surgery but it left her seriously debilitated and prevented her from standing at the easel for long periods. When it was time to proffer a painting for the 1921 Salon she had nothing recently painted to give them and so put forward some works she had completed years earlier.

Happy Days by Elizabeth Nourse (1905)

That year, 1921, she was honoured with the Laetare Medal, given annually to a Catholic layperson for distinguished service to humanity by the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The award ceremony was presided over by the Papal Nuncio in Paris, and the Paris edition of the New York Herald referred to Elizabeth Nourse as “the dean of American women painters in France and one of the most eminent contemporary artists of her sex” and the Chicago Tribune simply referred to her as “the first woman painter of America”. Elizabeth, although pleased to receive the award, did not like the comment by either of the newspapers. She spoke of it to her friend Anna Seaton Schmidt telling her that she wanted to be judged as an artist, not as a woman.

Her health continued to deteriorate and by 1924, at the age of sixty-five, she had given up exhibiting at the Salon. In 1937 Elizabeth was devastated when her sister and life-long companion Louise died, aged 84. The loss of her beloved sister caused her health to worsen further and eighteen months after her sister died, on October 8th 1938, Elizabeth passed away and she and her sister were buried next to each other in their beloved Saint Leger–en Yvelines.   Her remaining paintings housed in her studio were returned to Cincinnati.


Most of the information on the life of Elizabeth Nourse I have used is taken from Elizabeth Nourse: Cincinnati’s Most Famous Woman Artist an essay by Mary Alice Heekin Burke.

 

Elizabeth Nourse. Part 1.

Self portrait by Elizabeth Nourse (1892)

My featured artist today is the American realist-style genre, portrait and landscape painter Elizabeth Nourse, who was hailed by her fellow artists as “the first woman painter of America”. She was an artist in an era when female painters were put down as simply “Sunday Painters” whose art was a mere hobby and would never lead to anything. It was just something for them to do whilst they waited to marry a rich gentleman or if marriage did not come a-calling, then they could always teach.

An American journalist and advocate of women’s rights, Boston-born, Mary Livermore, wrote a book in 1883 warning women not to simply hope for a good man to rescue them. In her book, What Shall We Do With Our Daughters? Superfluous Women and Other Lectures, she wrote:

“…one of the most serious dangers to which inefficient women are liable, the danger of regarding marriage as a means of livelihood. The theory is that all men support all women, but some men are incompetent, some are invalids, some are dissolute, and some die leaving their wives destitute…”

Flock of Geese by Elizabeth Nourse (c.1883)

If Elizabeth was to teach or marry and dedicate herself to bringing up a family then the chance of producing a large and varied body of work was very unlikely. With this prevalent jaundiced male attitude of a woman’s place being in the home with her children, one soon realises a female artist had to go it alone and be very determined to overcome the prejudices of male exhibition jurists and male art critics, both of whom they had to curry favour with. Also, later, when she was living in Paris, as a woman she did not have the friendship-bonding/support of the café culture that aspiring male artists had, but thankfully, she was helped by strong family support, especially her elder sister Louise, together with a large network of female friends, including Anna Seaton Schmidt.

Etude by Elizabeth Nourse (1892)

Elizabeth Nourse was born to Caleb Nourse and Elizabeth Lebreton Rogers Nourse, both descendants of pioneer New England families who were married in Cincinnati in 1833. Elizabeth came into this world on October 26th, 1859 at Mount Healthy, Ohio. Mount Healthy was a small village north of Cincinnati, originally called Mount Pleasant, but in 1850 was so named as during a cholera epidemic in 1849 the citizens of the village survived while those in the surrounding territory did not, in fact, four per cent of Cincinnati’s population died of the disease. She and her twin sister Adelaide were the youngest of ten children, four sons, and six daughters, and they were brought up in a Catholic family. Cincinnati’s location on the Ohio River was a great trade hub for North to South and East to West trade and this brought in a large number of European immigrants. At the time Elizabeth was born, Cincinnati had become the sixth biggest city in America. Elizabeth’s father, Caleb Nourse, prospered with the boom and became a banker. However, with the onset of the Civil War in 1861, the movement of goods on the Ohio River was badly disrupted and the four-year war brought a disastrous financial decline to Cincinnati and Caleb’s bank failed.

Charles McMickenElizabeth and her twin, Adelaide, at the age of fifteen, went to classes at the McMicken School of Design in Cincinnati, which was open to all qualified residents, tuition-free, while her next eldest sister Louise became a teacher. The McMicken School of Design had been founded by Cincinnati resident, and real estate millionaire, Charles McMicken. In the 1850’s he donated one million dollars to the city of Cincinnati to form a university. Originally known as McMicken University, a month after the college’s founding, the university’s board of directors changed the institution’s name to the University of Cincinnati and this institution absorbed the McMicken School of Drawing and Design.

Thomas Satterwhite Noble

The head of the Drawing and Design School was an American painter, Thomas Satterwhite Noble. and the McMicken School of Design later became the present-day Art Academy of Cincinnati.

Elizabeth embarked on the full curriculum and took drawing and painting courses for five years whilst also training in sculpture.  Elizabeth’s twin sister Adelaide just studied wood carving and china painting in the classes which had been started by Benn Pitman, a widower whom she later married in 1882 when she was twenty-three and he was sixty. It should be remembered that except for a few months’ studies in New York and later in Paris at the Académie Julian her artistic style was formed at the McMicken School of Design in Cincinnati. Elizabeth’s early interest was the lives of poor rural workers of the Midwest, especially the hardships endured by women at work who struggled to raise a family.

Portrait of a Lady by Elizabeth Nourse (1888)

Once she had completed her course at the School of Design in 1880, she was offered a position at the School as a teacher but she declined the offer, as she wanted to continue with her own art and be recognised as a painter and not a teacher!  This was certainly a gamble as she had to help financially support her sisters and teaching would have given her a secure income. However, after her graduation in 1880, she returned to the School to study for two years in the first life class offered to women only.

Tennessee Woman by Elizabeth Nourse (1895)

Both of Elizabeth’s parents died in 1880 and with her twin sister Adelaide married and living in her own home, Elizabeth, accompanied by sister, Louise decided to move to New York where, having received funding from one of her patrons, she enrolled on courses at the Art Students League in New York City and studied briefly under William Sartain, an American painter who had spent a number of years in Paris. She also met the famed Impressionist painters William Merritt Chase and Julian Alden Weir. She left New York the following year and returned to Cincinnati where she earned money as a home decorator and portrait painter and by selling her pen and ink sketches of local buildings and submitting illustrations to various magazines. Nourse was able to spend a couple of summers during the following years making watercolour paintings in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee.

In August 1887, with the money she had made from her various jobs, Elizabeth, aged twenty-eight, and her elder sister, Louise aged thirty-four, left the shores of America for Europe and the art capital of the world, Paris. She and Louise rented a studio apartment on Paris’ Left Bank. Louise played a very important role in her sister’s life acting as her companion, housekeeper, and later, secretary, and business manager. Having settled in the French capital, Elizabeth enrolled at the renowned Académie Julian and studied under master painters Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre. However, she only remained at the Académie for three months for they advised her that as her artistic ability was of such a high standard she needed no more tuition. After leaving the Académie she set up her own studio and began on a painting, which she wanted to submit to the Salon jurists.

La mère” (The Mother), by Elizabeth Nourse (1888)

In 1888 her painting, La mère (The Mother) was completed and it was accepted at that year’s Salon. Not only was it accepted by the Salon jury, but they also had it placed “on the line”, meaning that it was hung at eye-level, which was quite a prominent position for an unknown artist. The work of art came with no anecdotal details, which would identify the depiction. Elizabeth Nourse did not want this to be a depiction of a specific person with a background story. This work did not relate it to a specific relationship. She wanted this to be about every mother’s feeling, that of fondness and love for their precious baby. As good as the work was and despite it being highly praised by the critics it did not sell. In fact, it did not sell for seven years despite it being exhibited in five different exhibitions. It was finally bought in 1894 whilst being exhibited in a Washington DC exhibition. One interesting fact about the painting and that of most of her early works was that she signed it “E. Nourse”. Elizabeth felt it would be received more favourably by the Salon jury and the art critics if they did not know she was a woman!! By 1891 her reputation as an artist had risen considerably and she felt it time to sign her paintings with her full name.

In the summer of 1888, Elizabeth Nourse took the opportunity to leave the city of Paris and explore the French countryside. She explored the Fontainebleau Forest area and the small commune of Barbizon, a place made famous in the mid-1800’s by its artist colony. She fell in love with the rural landscape of the country.

Fisher Girl of Picardy by Elizabeth Nourse (1889)

Another woman who played an important role in Elizabeth’s life was Anna Seaton Schmidt. Anna was a successful writer and lecturer on art and wrote passionate articles about Nourse and her art for international art periodicals and American newspapers. She would often meet up with Elizabeth and Louise in Paris and went with them on painting trips throughout Europe. In the summer of 1889 Anna, Louise and Elizabeth travelled north from Paris to Picardy and visited the Etaples art colony, and it was in that year that Elizabeth Nourse completed a work, whilst at Etaples, entitled Fisher Girl of Picardy. Of the painting and the day, Anna Schmidt commented:

“…I was with Elizabeth when she painted that girl on the Etaples Dunes—it was so cold and windy the model used to weep…”

The setting for this en plein air painting was the windswept dunes of Etaples. The cold blustery weather at the time of the painting probably was the cause of the model’s pink cheeks and why the small boy clutches the girl’s hand and tries to gain some shelter from the wind by staying within the folds of the girl’s skirt. The girl stands, head aloft, holding some fishing gear as she looks out towards the stormy ocean.

Although based in Paris Elizabeth and Louise travelled extensively, spending time in Russia and Italy. The two sisters spent eighteen months in Rome during 1889 and 1890 and it was during her Italian sojourn that Elizabeth received an invitation from Paris to join the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts (New Salon), one of two important Salons at the time, which was organized by the modern French artists, such as Rodin and Puvis de Chavannes. It was a rebellious act in reaction to the conservative standards of the established artists who made up the jury of the Old Salon. Elizabeth was the second American woman elected a member of this auspicious art society. Her acceptance was a risk as if this New Salon did not get the acceptance by the art world, which it desired then she may never become a Salon painter.

The Church of St. Francis of Assisi by Elizabeth Nourse (1890)

Whilst in Italy Louise and Elizabeth travelled to Assisi where they spent six weeks and during this time Elizabeth completed a couple of religious paintings, one of which was her 1890 work entitled The Church of St. Francis of Assisi.

Peasant Women of Borst by Elizabeth Nourse (1891)

When their time in Italy came to an end Elizabeth and Louise headed back to Paris via Austria. It was a tiring journey over the mountains, part of which was by ox cart. They passed through the Austrian mountain village of Borst, which must have impressed them as they rested there for six weeks and during this time Elizabeth produced her painting, Peasant Women of Borst. This work is now housed in the Cincinnati Museum of Art. The two sisters finally arrived back in Paris during the winter of 1891.

In the Church at Volendam by Elizabeth Nourse (1892)

Whether it was the restless nature of the women or just their love of travel but by the summer of 1892 they were all packed and off once again on their travels. This time their destination was Holland. Although this was a painting trip it was also a chance to catch up with some friends and fellow expatriates from Cincinnati, the Wachman sisters, who had a studio in Volendam. The Dutch village of Volendam in the late 19th, and the early 20th century had developed as an artist colony. Elizabeth and Henriette Wachman had been fellow students at McMicken School of Design. Resulting from her stay in Volendam was her painting entitled In the Church at Volendam……………….

…………………to be continued


A great deal of information for this blog came from a very good and thoroughly researched article: Elizabeth Nourse: Cincinnati’s Most Famous Woman Artist by Mary Alice Heekin Burke.

The Philadelphia Ten. Part 2-The artists

Members of the Philadelphia Ten at their Art Club of Philadelphia exhibition, January 28 – February 11, 1928.

In my last blog I looked at the beginnings of the Philadelphia Ten and how it was made possible for women to seriously study art at an all-women art establishment. Once there, they received the highest quality of training and in order to get more of their work exhibited they decided to set up their group and put on individual shows. So, who were the Philadelphia Ten?
The Philadelphia Ten group was made up of young female painters who had attended art school in Philadelphia, either at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women or the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Originally ten in number but soon the number of them who participated in the Philadelphia Ten group exhibitions eventually increased to thirty, seven of whom were sculptors. The main characters who are now looked upon as the driving force of the group were Isabel Branson Cartwright, Constance Cochrane and Edith Lucile Howard, all of who participated in all of the group’s sixty-five exhibitions held between 1917 and 1945. The other stalwart of the group was Mary Russell Ferrell Colton.  In this blog I take a look at some of the “leading lights” of this group.

Fishing Boat in a Cove by Isabel Branson Cartwright

Isabel Parke Branson was born in Coatesville, Pennsylvania on September 4th 1885. In 1902, at the age of seventeen, she entered the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and was taught by Elliott Daingerfield and Henry B. Snell. She won the School’s travelling scholarship in 1906 which paid for one year’s study in a European city. Her choice of destination was London where she studied under the Anglo-Welsh artist, painter, water colourist, engraver, illustrator and progressive designer Frank Brangwyn. Whilst in Europe she took the opportunity to visit Holland, France and Italy.
In November 1911, at the age of twenty-six, she married the Texan, John Reagan Cartwright, and the couple went to live in Terrell, Texas, and whilst there she held a couple of solo exhibitions in the Texas cities of Fort Worth and San Antonio.

Cotton Picking Time by Isabel Branson Cartwright

John Cartwright died in 1917 and Isabel Branson Cartwright returned to Philadelphia and joined the Philadelphia Ten group of female artists and took part in their exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design. She favoured en plein air painting and soon discovered many ideal painting spots including Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine. The island was one of her favourite places and in the 1940’s she acquired a house on it. In 1953, Cartwright moved to California, to live with her sister Laura and was involved in the artists’ colony at Carmel.   She died in Ross, California in June 1966, aged 80.

In the Valley of the Painted Hills by Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton (1928)

Another of the most influential members of the Philadelphia Ten from the very beginning was the very talented painter, Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton. She was born on March 25th, 1889 in Louisville, Kentucky.
In 1904, at age of fifteen, Mary-Russell Ferrell enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, and after studying there for four years, graduated with honours in 1909. Having left the school with honours, she opened her own studio in Philadelphia and spent her time in art restoration commissions and commercial art projects. In 1912 she married Harold Sellers Colton, a University of Pennsylvania zoologist and the couple took their honeymoon in the wilds of Arizona. Colton and her husband fell in love with the rugged beauties of this American state, and fourteen years later, in 1926, they made their home in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Arizona Plateau by Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton

Colton was a gifted landscape painter and was inspired by the Colorado Plateau and during her time in Northern Arizona she painted in and around that area, a vibrant mix of high deserts and forests, over a mile above sea level. She completed many colourful works which gave a sense of both the beauty of the region and her deep emotional bond with the place that had become her home.

Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff

Colton and her husband established the Museum of Northern Arizona in 1928 and were committed to sustaining the history and cultures of northern Arizona and the Colorado Plateau. Colton wrote many books about the Hopi, a Native American tribe, who primarily live on the Hopi Reservation in north-eastern Arizona. Through her writing, painting and work as an advocate of Native American peoples and Native American arts, she made contributions to progressive education, the Indian arts and crafts movement and archaeology. As curator of art and ethnology at the Museum of Northern Arizona, she established annual exhibitions of Hopi and Navajo art that continue to this day.
Museum of Northern Arizona Fine Arts Curator Alan Petersen said of Colton:

“…Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton’s life and artwork echoed the optimism and modernity of the early twentieth century. Like many other artists and writers during this period, her work reflected the popular romantic perspective of the Southwest. That, and her sense of wonder at the natural world, defined her as an individual and as an artist…”

She was a member of the Philadelphia Ten, exhibiting at the group’s annual shows from 1926 to 1940. She was also a member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, the American Watercolour Society, and the American Federation of Arts
Colton died on July 26th, 1971, aged 82.

Coastal Scene by Constance Cochrane

Constance Cochrane was born in 1888 at the U.S. Navy Yard at Pensacola, Florida, where both her father and grandfather were stationed. Constance Cochrane joined a family of career Marine Corps and Navy officers. Constance Cochrane, another of the original artists of the Philadelphia Ten, began to paint at the early age of six and during her passage through high school she always showed a considerable talent as a young artist. She graduated from Chester High School, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and enrolled in the Philadelphia School of Design for Women where she was an illustration major. She, like many of the other Philadelphia Ten artists, was taught and influenced by her teacher, the painter Elliot Dangerfield. Cochrane studied with Dangerfield at his summer studio in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, as did many other future members of the Philadelphia Ten.
Constance Cochrane devoted her artistic career to painting images of the sea and landscapes showing the nearby shore and its rocks. For a brief time, she even joined the Navy during periods of the First and Second World Wars and was tasked with designing camouflage for ships.

Glory painted by Constance Cochrane whilst at Monhegan, Maine.

Between 1921 and 1927 Cochrane lectured at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and was the art chair for the Delaware County Federation. It was whilst in this role that she organised an exhibition of women artist works. The exhibition proved a great success and was so popular that it led to the Philadelphia Ten circulation of exhibits in the Pennsylvania State Federation. She held many positions in art societies, such as being chair of the Circulating Picture Club of the Philadelphia Art Alliance, and she also sat on the executive committee of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and was one of their selection jurists for their 1935 exhibition.

Monhegan Island, Maine

As a painter Cochrane used the mediums of both oil and watercolour. Her work varied extensively from tiny thumbnail sketches to very large murals. Most of her work was done on Monhegan Island, Maine. In 1921 she visited the area and in 1930 made it her summer home.
Constance Cochrane died in 1962, aged 74.

Overlooking a French Landscape by Edith Lucile Howard

Edith Lucile Howard was one of the early members of the Philadelphia Ten and showed her work at their exhibitions between 1917 and 1945. She was born in Bellow Falls , Vermont in 1885, the daughter of prominent businessman Daniel DeWitt Howard, a descendent of Henry Howard, one of the founders of Hartford, Connecticut. Her mother, Abigail Adams, was a descendent of a famous Massachusetts family. The family moved to Wilmington, Delaware when Edith was a teenager and at the age of nineteen Edith enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women where her teachers were Henry Bayley Snell and Elliot Dangerfield and she would attend the latter’s summer courses in North Carolina at which time she became very interested in landscape painting. She graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1908.

She attained two travelling postgraduate fellowships which allowed her to journey to Europe for the first time. She became an inveterate traveller both within America and abroad and it is said that during her life, she crossed the Atlantic more than thirty times. One of her favourite destinations was Ireland.

Impressionist View of a River and Bridge by Edith Lucile Howard

She had a studio in Carnegie Hall, New York but besides being an artist she was also an educator. She taught at the Grand Central Art Galleries and School of Art in New York and taught art history and fashion at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. On weekends she would return to Wilmington where she acted as administrator of the Wilmington Academy of Art. She was also one of the directors of the Delaware Art Centre.

Sunset on the Jersey Marshes by Edirh Lucile Howard

In 1938, aged 53 she married Herbert Roberts and the couple went to live in Moorestown, New Jersey. She retired from teaching in 1949 and the last time she exhibited her work was in 1959.
Edith Lucile Howard died in 1960, aged 75.

Helen Kiner McCarthy

Another founding member of the Philadelphia Ten art group was Helen Kiner McCarthy, who was best known for her painted landscapes. She was born in Poland, Ohio on September 6th 1888. At the age of twenty she enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, graduating in 1909. Like many others from the Philadelphia Ten group of female artists she was taught by Henry Bayley Snell and Elliot Dangerfield.

Helen Kiner McCarthy (American, 1884-1927) Autumn Glow

After finishing her art course, she remained in Philadelphia where she shared a studio, first with another Philadelphia Ten artist, Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton and later with Lucille Howard. Helen also spent some time teaching at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women before becoming one of the founder members of the Philadelphia Ten in 1917.

In 1920, McCarthy moved to New York City and established a studio at East 40th St. in Greenwich Village. It was around this time that her signature on her paintings changed. She began signing her paintings with her mother’s surname “Kiner” as her middle name becoming Helen K. (Kiner) McCarthy.
Helen also became a member of Philadelphia’s Plastic Club, an all-female organisation founded by art educator Emily Sartain. Her aim was to form a society which would allow women to promote their work, partly in response to the Philadelphia Sketch Club, which was an exclusively male arts club. The Plastic Club provided a social and professional network for women artists as well as exhibition opportunities at the club’s gallery on South Camac Street. Helen received a number of awards for her paintings from the Plastic Club and the National Association of Women Artists.

Unlike many of the other Philadelphia Ten’s group who lived into their sixties and seventies, Helen Kiner McCarthy died young. She passed away in 1927, just forty-three years of age.

This concludes the story of the Philadelphia Ten.  This group of female artists came into being through the auspices of a wealthy patron and through the tuition of talented painters and educators.

The Philadelphia Ten. Part 1 – The beginnings and the facilitators.

Members of the Philadelphia Ten at their Art Club of Philadelphia exhibition, January 28 – February 11, 1928.

A month ago, I looked at the life of English artist Louise Swinnerton and told of her struggle to be accepted into the male-dominated art establishment. It was the time of the suffragettes and their struggle for women’s rights. A similar struggle was taking place across the Atlantic in America where, like the female artists of Britain, the American female artists were struggling to get a foothold in their own art establishments.

All artists need to be able to exhibit their work so that they can enhance their reputation and be recognised as talented painters but also they need to be able to sell their paintings. Too often, females who wanted to learn to paint were dismissed as people who just wanted to paint as a hobby. Why should they earn money from their paintings? Surely the female just needs to marry a wealthy man and let him provide for her. Wouldn’t it be much better if she stayed at home and looked after her husband and their children? A simple male philosophy of the time but of course women were determined to strike out on their own.

In my next two blogs I am looking at the birth of the Philadelphia Ten, often simply referred to as The Ten, an embryonic group of female artists and sculptors that went on to exhibit their work together for nearly thirty years. In the second part of the blog I will look at some of these aspiring artists, based in Philadelphia, who were members of the collective and who, through this group, fought their way to success in the world of American art. The Philadelphia Ten existed between 1917 and 1945 and, during this twenty-eight-year period, regularly exhibited their work together in large annual group shows at the National Academy of Design, the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors’ the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Art Club of Philadelphia. Although having their work accepted by the various exhibition jurists at these annual events was a great achievement there were still hurdles to overcome, such as the number of paintings each of the women was allowed to submit and, after having their paintings accepted, the whereabouts of the hanging position of their works within the exhibition, as this was left to the hanging jurists. For young aspiring female artists, it was a long struggle to have all their work displayed and their aspiration of having more paintings exhibited led to the formation of the Philadelphia Ten.

Sarah Worthington King Peter

Before the “formation” of The Ten could take place there had to be an establishment for them to learn their trade and somebody to support their desire to become painters. Enter onto the scene Sarah Worthington, who would later become a renowned nineteenth-century American philanthropist and patron of the arts. She was born into a powerful political family on May 10th, 1800, at Chillicothe, Ohio, the daughter of an Ohio senator. She led a charmed life, going to private schools in Kentucky and later Washington D.C. At the age of sixteen, she married her first husband, Edward King, the son of a renowned New York politician, Rufus King. The couple, who lived in Cincinnati, went on to have five children. Her husband died in 1836 and she moved to Cambridge Massachusetts to be close to two of her sons who were attending Harvard University.

Edwin Forrest House, formerly the home of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women.

In 1844, she married William Peter, who, at the time, was the British consul to Philadelphia. The couple lived in Philadelphia and it was here that Sarah Worthington King Peter began her philanthropic career. Knowing the difficulties women had in progressing with their art, she founded the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1848. It was the first American art school devoted exclusively to the training of women. It originally was not simply a fine arts college but one which was set up to teach a trade to women, who struggled to support themselves.  They were taught all about lithography, wood carving, and design, which could then be used during the making of household items such as carpets and wallpaper. The institution was renamed Moore College of Art & Design in 1932 after Joseph Moore, Jr. set up a $3 Million-dollar endowment in memory of his parents.  Sarah Worthington Peter’s original vision continues to drive the College’s mission to educate women for careers in the visual arts.  Sarah’s second husband died in 1853 and she returned to Cincinnati where she would stay for the rest of her life. She continued with her philanthropy and established the Ladies’ Academy of Fine Arts.

Having established the Philadelphia School of Design for Women it was important to staff it with the best teachers. Two of the best and most influential teachers, during the days when the Philadelphia Ten were learning about art, were Henry Bayley Snell and Elliot Dangerfield, both talented landscape artists.

Henry Bayley Snell

Henry Bayley Snell, an Englishman, was born in Richmond in September 1858 where he remained until, at the age of seventeen, he emigrated to New York where he attended the Art Students League. In his twenties, to eke out a meagre living, Snell supported himself by working in the blueprint department of an engineering firm, and by producing marine scenes for a Photoengraving Company. In 1888, thirty-year-old Snell married artist Florence Francis. It was in 1899 that Snell was given the post of art teacher at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. That same year the couple travelled to visit a fellow painter, William Lathrop in his hometown of New Hope, Maine. Liking the town so much the couple moved there in 1900.

Sailing in Springtime by Henry Bayley Snell

In 1921, along with Frank Leonard Allen, Snell founded the Boothbay Studios in Boothbay Harbour, Maine, which operated as a summer school. Henry B Snell remained as a teacher at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women until his death in 1943 and during his early days there, he taught many artists who became part of the Philadelphia Ten. During his teaching years, he travelled abroad extensively, frequently accompanied by his students. It was his reputation both as a teacher and a painter that lured many artists to the New Hope Area.

Monk Smelling a Bottle of Wine by Elliot Dangerfield (1880)

The other lecturer who greatly influenced the women was the watercolourist, John Elliott Parker Daingerfield. Dangerfield was born in March 1859 at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the son of Captain John Elliott Daingerfield, commander of a Confederate arsenal, and Matilda Wickham DeBrau Daingerfield. However, from a young age he was raised nearby in Fayetteville, North Carolina and he is looked upon as one of the most important artists to come from this area.  From a young age, Daingerfield’s dream was to become an artist and early on in life he learned some basics of drawing and painting from a sign painter in Fayetteville as well as assisting a commercial photographer and a china painter. In 1880, at the age of twenty-one, he decided to pursue a formal art education and went to New York where he enrolled at the National Academy of Design. During his first year there he produced his painting entitled, The Monk Smelling a Bottle of Wine, which was exhibited at the Academy in 1880.

Midnight Moon by John Elliot Parker Dangerfield (c.1906)

In New York, Daingerfield worked as an apprentice in the studio of William Satterle. So impressed by his student that he offered him a job as an instructor in his still life class. To progress further in the world of art, Dangerfield attended classes at the Art Students League.  Daingerfield’s most influential mentor was George Inness, whom he met in 1884 when he rented studio space at Holbein Studios on Fifty-fifth street. “Master and pupil” would often study each other’s work. Innes taught Dangerfield the technique of how to get the atmospheric effects of light by mixing layers of paint with thin layers of varnish and it was this procedure that brought about a wonderful sense of mood and tone.

In 1886, Dangerfield’s health began to deteriorate and he decided to leave New York and return to North Carolina and the town of Blowing Rock where he hoped to recuperate. He fell in love with the area and decided to make his home amongst the peace and tranquillity of the Blue Ridge Mountains

Daingerfield spent the rest of his life travelling between his studios in Blowing Rock and New York City and taught out of his studio in North Carolina in the summers and at the Philadelphia School of Design and the Art Students League in the winters. Dangerfield was a very spiritual man and sensed the connection between art and spirituality. He once said:

“…Art is the principle flowing out of God through certain men and women by which they perceive and understand the beautiful. The office of the Artist is to express the beautiful…”

The Philadelphia Ten’s first joint exhibition was held on February 17th 1917 at the Art Club of Philadelphia at 235 South Carmac Street. In all, 245 paintings were on display and this exhibition was looked upon as the birth of the Philadelphia Ten. Following the great success of the event, the group’s exhibitions became an annual event and art critics and collectors always looked upon them as exhibitions of the highest quality, embracing a wide selection of subject matter and a variety of styles. The fact that the artists were able to exhibit a large number of their paintings at each exhibition soon allowed the observers to be able to easily recognise their individual styles, something that had not happened before due to the small number of paintings large exhibitions would allow each artist to show.

In my next blog I will look at the life and works of some of the artists who formed the Philadelphia Ten.

Grant Wood. Part 3 – the latter years and rumours.

For many people the name Grant Wood is synonymous with the painting American Gothic but in fact he completed many more superb works of art and in this blog I will look at some of my favourites.

Stone City, Iowa by Grant Wood (1930)

In 1930, the same year he painted American Gothic, he entered two of his works in to the Iowa State Fair Art Exhibition and was awarded first prize for the best picture of the exhibition and first prize in the oil portrait category for his Portrait of Arnold Pyle (see Grant Wood, Part 2) and first prize in the oil landscape category for his painting entitled Stone City. Stone City was Grant Wood’s first major landscape painting. It is a tranquil, idealized scene of life in harmony with nature. Stone City which is located on the Wapsipinicon River, twenty-six miles from Cedar Rapids, was once a boomtown but it went bust. The boomtown came to fruition because of its limestone quarries and laid to rest by the development of Portland cement. Wood, through his painting, would like us to believe that the town has since reverted to a purer purpose of grazing animals and growing crops.  In his 1995 book Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed, James Homs wrote about this painting:

“…Although Stone City, Iowa was based on a direct study of a place with which he was thoroughly acquainted, he turned this village and its river valley site into a fantasy of curving contours, ornamental trees and brightly patterned surfaces. Wood considered the “decorative adventures” of his commonplace rural surroundings – their inherent elements of abstraction – as the true origin of the most lasting qualities in his work…”

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Grant Wood (1931)

In 1931, a year after American Gothic, Wood finished another of his well-loved paintings entitled The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Wanda Corn, a biographer of Wood, wrote that as a child, Wood had been captivated by the tale of Revere’s journey through the night from Boston to Lexington to warn the patriots of the British advance. Like most Americans of his day, Wood would have learned about the American legend from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which was published in 1863:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

Like many young boys, Wood was captivated by the idea of a local hero carrying vital news, raising the alarm, and through this brave deed, achieving immortality. Wood probably liked to imagine himself on just such an assignment galloping from farm to farm to warn his neighbours of an approaching tornado and then being held aloft as the local hero having saved so many lives.

Toy Town like geometric houses

Grant Wood’s depiction is viewed from above. We see a vast sweep of countryside and a village with houses depicted as simple geometric shapes, which resembles a “toy town” where the houses are made with wooden blocks. The painting portrays the hero on horseback as he gallops through a small village which is nestled among the trees which are painted in Wood’s favoured “sponge-like” representation. Ahead of this American hero, as he rides out of town, is darkness, behind the horse and rider are houses with lights on and some of the occupants, woken by Revere’s warning calls, stand in their night clothes on their front steps and in the street.  Woods intention in depicting this piece of American folklore was, as he put it, to save those bits of American folklore that are too good to lose. His intention was, during the Great Depression, to remind people of historic times of the past, to remind people of the greatness of their country. However, his work had many detractors who said that his child-like depiction made fun of this American legend.

Grant Wood painting his Stone City ice wagon quarters (c. 1932) Photographer: John W. Barry, Jr.
Courtesy of the Grant Wood Art Gallery, Anamosa, IA.

By 1932, Wood’s reputation as an artist had risen significantly and he became co-founder of the Stone City Colony and Art School in Iowa. along with Edward Rowan, the director of the Little Gallery in Cedar Rapids, Adrian Dornbush, the former director of the Flint Institute of Art who was an art instructor at the Little Gallery. The Stone City Art Colony was a home and a place to paint for artists in the Midwest. As a teacher at the colony Grant Wood was able to spread the message of Regionalism to aspiring artists. Unfortunately, the art colony was always plagued by financial difficulties and closed in the autumn of 1933.

The Corn Parade mural by Orr C. Fisher, in the Mount Ayr, Iowa, post office (1941)

In 1934 Grant took on a position with the art department at the University of Iowa, and also in that year, he was named director of the Public Works of Art Project in Iowa. Grant Wood later took on many of the artists at the artist colony in that project, a programme which employed artists, as part of the New Deal, during the Great Depression, and which he administered for the state of Iowa. The programme produced a large number of Depression Era murals that can still be viewed on the walls of rural post offices and public buildings in Iowa. In her book Wall To Wall America: Post Office Murals in the Great Depression by Professor Karal Ann Marling, she explains that the concept for nine years, from 1934 to 1943  She said that the Federal Government, under the Public Buildings Administration, commissioned murals for a variety of newly constructed post-offices around the United States. Life magazine,  named it “Mural America for Rural America.” It was a programme designed to get starving artists out of the garrets and into suitable work that would decorate bare walls, edify the public, and put some spare change in their pockets.

Grant Wood in his favoured rural-type bib and braces

In 1935 Grant Wood published the essay “Revolt Against the City,” in which he laid out the tenets of the Regionalism movement. For him Regionalism was a movement to which artists all over the United States must dedicate themselves in order to avoid a colonial dependency on European tradition. He felt that the rural Midwest, (the farmer’s life, dress and setting) would provide the richest kind of material for a truly indigenous regionalist style.

Joseph Chamberlain Furnas was an American freelance writer. He is best known for his article, commissioned for the Reader’s Digest, “—And Sudden Death!”   This article brought national attention to the problem of automobile safety and is the most-reprinted article in the Digest’s history. In it he wrote:

“…An enterprising judge now and again sentences reckless drivers to tour the accident end of a city morgue. But even a mangled body on a slab, waxily portraying the consequences of bad motoring judgment, isn’t a patch on the scene of the accident itself. No artist working on a safety poster would dare depict that in full detail…”

Death on the Ridge Road by Grant Wood (1935)

It could be that Grant Wood read the whole article in the August 1935 edition of the Reader’s Digest and it was that, that made him paint Death on the Ridge Road in 1935. It is a painting all about movement but with a bleak message about death on the roads. The painting vividly depicts the bends of the road, the shapes and positions on the road of the vehicles careering towards one another. It is a bleak and stormy night.  Even the telegraph pole at the top of the hill seems to be bending over due to the ferocity of the wind and, in the background, we sense that the storm clouds are scuttling across the sky depositing rain which will moisten the road surface. The tarmacked road bends are bordered by barbed-wire fences as it cuts through green hills. The large red truck rushes headlong over the crest of the hill towards an on-coming black car which has skidded across the road into its oncoming path. We know what is going to happen next. We know there will be deaths and the arms of the telegraph poles now seem to symbolise crosses on a grave. Maybe Wood was warning us about the dangers of technological progress.

Spring Turning by Grant Wood (1936)

Grant Wood painted a very hypnotic work in 1936 entitled Spring Turning. This type of work by Wood is often referred to as Magic Realism.  The term magical realism, was first expressed in a discussion of the visual arts. The German art critic Franz Roh, in his 1925 book, Nach Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten europäischen Malerei (After expressionism: Magical Realism: Problems of the newest European painting).  In it he described a group of painters whom we now categorize generally as Post-Expressionists, and he used the term Magischer Realismus to both highlight and rejoice at their return to figural representation after a decade or more of abstract art.

With its bird’s-eye view of smooth, swelling hills and nearly abstract banded squares of green grass and ploughed earth, Wood’s depiction is probably from his own memory as a child on the family farm in Anamosa.  There is no evidence in the depiction of cars, farm machinery, paved roads, or electric wires. Wanda Corn in her 1983 book, Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision, describes the work as a tale about:

“…man living in complete harmony with nature; he is the earth’s caretaker, coaxing her into abundance, bringing coherence and beauty to her surfaces…”

1935 photograph of the happy couple – Grant (44) and his wife Sara (51)

Despite the successes Wood achieved with his paintings in the 1930’s his life was becoming stressful with the IRS chasing him for unpaid taxes and he began finding some solace in liquor. To add to his problems, on March 2nd, 1935, he, without warning, married a divorced woman, Sara Sherman Maxon, the former head of Michigan City’s School of Fine Arts and a former light opera singer  The marriage took place in a small ceremony in Minneapolis, the town in which Sara was living, far from Grant’s home, and with none of his friends or family in attendance, as one report put it:

“…Wood’s neighbours read with astonishment that he was to be married that night in a small ceremony in Minneapolis. The fact that Cedar Rapids’ “bachelor artist” had a secret fiancée was nearly as dumbfounding as the circumstances of the wedding itself – a ceremony conducted with little warning, far from home, and with no friends or family in attendance…”

Grant Wood and his wife Sara Maxon

It was not a “marriage made in heaven” and many of Grant’s friends thought they were ill-matched, as Sara seemed flamboyant and overpowering whilst Grant was a socially awkward and reticent bachelor. Shortly after the couple were married, they moved to Iowa City where Grant was teaching at the University of Iowa.

House in Iowa which Grant restored and served as home for his bride and his mother.

Wood bought an eighty-year-old house for $3,500 and spent almost $35,000 renovating and refurbishing it, which financially crippled him. The pair found it difficult to survive as a happily married couple. The marriage was a platonic affair and never consummated. Did Sara know that her husband was homosexual? It seemed to have been common knowledge of his friends and some of his students.

Boy Milking Cow, by Grant Wood (1932)

In the same year Grant and Sara married, Wood hired a handsome,  athletic, young man, Park Rinard, as his personal secretary. Rinard, who lived in Falls Church, was born in Montana and grew up in Iowa. He graduated from the University of Iowa, where he also received a master’s degree in creative writing. It was while he was in graduate school that he became secretary to Grant Wood. Although not a homosexual himself, Rinard clearly understood Wood’s attraction to him. Rinard was the ghost writer for Grant Wood’s unfinished autobiography, Return from Bohemia.  But Rinard’s presence only further pushed Sara to the side, which made her woefully unhappy.

The relationship between Wood and his wife was so bad at the end that, according to one account, he  enlisted his housekeeper as proxy to deliver his desire for a divorce to Sara. Another account tells of Sara going to hospital because of a suspected heart attack (she was a notorious hypochondriac) and Grant sent a note to her telling her not to bother to return!  The inevitable divorce came in September 1939.

Parson Weems Fable by Grant Wood (1939 )

Another American folktale was the subject for a satirical work depicted in Grant Wood’s 1939 painting Parson Weems Fable. Mason Locke Weems usually referred to as Parson Weems, was an American book agent and author who wrote the first biography of George Washington, entitled The Life of Washington  in 1800, immediately after the first President’s death in December 1799 . The tale of the cherry tree and Washington appeared in the fifth imprint of this bestseller book in 1805. The tale of the cherry tree (I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet) was to highlight George Washington’s virtues, even as a six-year-old child, and was intended to provide a morally instructive tale for the youth of the young nation. Grant Wood created his work in celebration of historian Parson Weems and the first President George Washington. Weems’ anecdote told the story of the six-year-old future President chopping down his father’s favourite cherry tree and then owning up to it. Grant Wood’s regionalism style painting, this satirical work predicts the revolutionary spirit coming to colonial America. His contrast of colours conjures up a sense of impending change, particularly in the storm clouds we see gathering on the horizon.

Father and son, with the $1 bill face

Washington’s father Augustine is depicted as a red coat holding the fallen cherry tree with an outreached hand, while the unruly youth, painted with the adult head and face of Washington, as it appears on the $1 bill, on a child’s body,   The child points at the offending hatchet.   In the right-hand foreground, we see Weems, with a wry smile on his face, pulling a drape aside to reveal this iconic encounter. In the background we catch sight of two slaves picking cherries from another tree, and this could be a reference to another historic and revolution that was to come.

Grant Wood in his studio in1931

Grant Wood was a complex character. He constantly wanted to be known a “farmer-painter” and in many of the photographs of him we see him dressed in overalls which was bizarre as he hated farming. It is more than likely that his showy rural character was part of the style that he, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry promoted in the 1930’s as champions of American Regionalist painting. There is no doubt that they were nostalgic about the past and believed that the healthy values of the Midwest should be maintained as an antidote to their perceived view of the decadence and degenerate European lifestyle and the corruption which they believed sullied life in the American East Coast cities.

Young Corn by Grant Wood (1931)

Unfortunately for Grant Wood, his artistic legacy, which only lasted eleven years, was damaged, firstly by critics’ ridiculing his work, saying it was merely “regionalistic” and light-weight and secondly by wide spread rumours about his sexuality. The final part of the title of this blog mentioned “rumours” and I thought long and hard whether to even include the rumours about Grant Wood’s life. The rumours were about Grant Wood’s sexuality and I was not sure whether it had any bearings on his ability as a painter.  A 1944 biography hinted at Wood’s homosexuality, as did the catalogue written by Wanda Corn that accompanied the travelling exhibition of Grant Wood’s work. However, she and other art historians had to be very careful what they wrote about Wood as his sister, Nan, was quick to litigate against any slurs about her brother. There were  rumours of an attachment Wood had with his wife’s son, Sherman, from her first marriage who occasionally lived with them.  Lester Longman, a modernist-minded colleague in the University of Iowa art department, where Wood had taught since 1935, tried to have him fired, in part on explicit moral grounds. However, the university ignored the charge and retained Wood. It was only after his sister’s death in 1990 that historians could write with more openness and impunity. In a 2010 biography, by R Tripp Evans, Grant Wood: A Life, he unequivocally states that Wood was a closeted gay man and someone who was terrified of having his sexual orientation uncovered.

Sultry Night by Grant Wood (1939)

Probably another work by Wood which made people question his sexuality came about in 1939 when he produced a controversial lithograph, entitled Sultry Night. In it he depicts the farmhand pouring a pail of bathwater over his head in the empty dark of a field. We see water dripping from his mouth, along his chest, and down to his penis. The problem for Wood was that the depiction of the naked man is not posed in the academic postures of the classical nude, which may have made it more acceptable, but instead we see this splay-footed individual with his face upturned to receive the stream of water. Wood created the lithograph for Associated American Artists, a distributor of low-cost reproductions for the masses, but the print was quickly banned by the US Postal Service. Wood maintained that the depiction of the naked man was just a normal scene from his childhood memories of farm life, but despite his protestations that the image was not pornographic, the Postal Service upheld the ban.

Spring in Town by Grant Wood (1942)

Wood’s Regionalism was falling out of favour and that put him at variance with many of the university faculties and he became so frustrated that, in 1940, Grant Wood took a leave of absence from academia although he carried on with his paintings, which continued to show his faithful adherence to American Regionalism, the American art movement he was primarily responsible for founding. During his sabbatical period from lecturing and teaching he still carried on painting. His last works were a pendant pair entitled Spring in Town and Spring in the Country which he completed in 1941. They both illustrate his steadfast devotion to American Regionalism.

Spring in the Country by Grant Wood (1941)

In his sister’s 1993 autobiography, My Brother, Grant Wood, written by her with John Zug and Julie Jensen McDonald. Grant’s thoughts about the paintings are quoted:

“…In making these paintings, I had in mind something which I hope to convey to a fairly wide audience in America—the picture of a country rich in the arts of peace; a homely, lovable nation, infinitely worthy of any sacrifice necessary to its preservation…”

In 1941, shortly after taking his sabbatical, Grant Wood was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the doctors told him that he was terminally ill. On February 12th, 1942, just a day before his 51st birthday, he died.  Park Rinard was at his bedside.  Grant Wood was buried on his family’s plot in Anamosa. Reportedly, on his deathbed, he repeated over and over again that he wanted to paint his dead father, whom he had “lost” at the age of ten. Thomas Hart Benton, a fellow Regionalist, who visited Wood before his death, later remarked:

“…It was if he wanted to destroy what was in him, and become an empty soul before he went into the emptiness of death…”

He died in debt and his contribution to American art was mostly forgotten by the late 1930’s with international political concerns overshadowing domestic ones. His beloved Regionalist art was condemned for being too parochial, too much of Midwestern chauvinism and a genre which failed to change despite the onset of American Abstract Expressionism which was about to dominate in the post-war years. If remembered at all, it was for one work which has always been judged, as not his finest or most interesting, but one which has now become an iconic work, famous all around the world.

After Wood’s death in 1942, Nan inherited his estate and devoted the rest of her life to maintaining and promoting his legacy. Nan, who had married a real estate investor, Edward Graham, died in 1990, aged 91.

I could have attached many more of Grant Wood’s paintings but I am sure if you like what you have seen in these three blogs about his life you will search out more of his work.

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Most of the information I gleaned for these three blogs on Grant Wood came from the usual sources such as Wikipedia and the following websites:

Cedar Rapids Museum of Art
http://www.crma.org/content/Collection/Grant_Wood.aspx

Sullivan Goss an American Gallery
http://www.sullivangoss.com/Grant_Wood/#Bibliography

Nan Wood’s scrapbook
http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/grantwood/id/880

The Beacher Weekly newspaper

http://www.thebeacher.com/pdf/2014/BeacherSep18.pdf

 

Grant Wood. Part 2 – American Gothic and sister Nan

Grant Wood, Study for Self-Portrait, 1932,

When Grant Wood spent time in Munich overseeing the production of stained glass for the memorial window for the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids he had time to visit the city’s museums and he was inspired by the artistry of the painters from Netherlands, especially Jan van Eyck and the portraiture of the Renaissance artists.

Man with Pink Carnation by Andrea Solari (c.1495)

Portraiture normally has a plain background so as not to detract from the sitter but often in Renaissance portraits a landscape background was used which would give you some knowledge about the sitter.

Woman with Plant by Grant Wood (1929)

No doubt Grant Wood remembered that type of portraiture when he painted Woman with Plant in 1929. In this work we see a Midwestern woman in country clothes, wearing a cameo broach and an apron bordered with rick-rack stitching. In her hands she holds a plant pot containing a snake plant. She is the epitome of the pioneer woman, and this is a Renaissance-style work with its half-length figure in the foreground and a landscape backdrop and it is the inclusion of a windmill and sheaves of corn which marks it as an American Midwestern depiction. This was actually a portrait of his mother !

Arnold comes of Age (Portrait of Arnold Pyne)

In August 1930 at the Iowa State Fair Grant Wood’s painting entitled Arnold comes of Age which was his portrait of twenty-one year old, Arnold Pyne, his assistant on the Memorial Window project.

Des Moines Tribune-Capital, August 20th 1930

The renowned American journalist and correspondent for the Chicago Tribune from 1925 to 1932, covering Europe, William Shriver, once asked Grant Wood whilst in Paris, why, having witnessed the emerging art styles in Europe in the 1920’s, would his artistic style change. Wood answered by likening himself to the famous American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright, whose 1920 novel, Main Street, satirised the strict conservatism of small-town life. :

“…I am going home to paint those damn cows and barns and barnyards and cornfields and little red schoolhouses… and the women in their aprons and the men in their overalls and store suits… Isn’t that what Sinclair Lewis has done in his writing… Damn it, you can do it in painting too!…”

American Gothic by Grant Wood (1930)

A year after the stained glass window was installed at the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids, Grant Wood completed his iconic painting American Gothic, a painting which many consider to be the most famous painting in American art. So how did all come about?

In the spring of 1930, Grant Wood decided to take a weekend off from his painting and drove the 12o miles from his home in Cedar Rapids, to the home of one of his former student in Eldon, Iowa. The road trip passed through gently rolling patchwork of farmlands of central and south Iowa between the Cedar River to the Des Moines River. On a Sunday morning in early April, Wood came upon the now-famous house. It was known by the local residents as the Dibble House as it was built by Eldon resident, Charles Dibble, a Civil War veteran and livery stable owner in 1882 for his family, which included himself, his wife, and his eight children.

The American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa

The house was built in a style known as Carpenter Gothic, or Rural Gothic, and is a North American architectural style-designation for an application of Gothic Revival architectural detailing and picturesque massing applied to wooden buildings erected by house-carpenters. This terminology is used when the design of lofty architecture of European cathedrals is applied to American frame houses. The Eldon house was a small, simple frame structure and was no different than many houses dotted around Wood’s home in Cedar Rapids. However, it had one unusual feature. On the second storey there was a single gable with an inset narrow Gothic window. The house mesmerised Wood and he began to wonder what type of people lived in such a house, so much so, after driving around the block he knocked on the door and introduced himself to the residents who showed him around the interior. After thanking the young couple he went back to his car, grabbed his paints and made a quick oil sketch of the house.

The Sunday Register, December 1st 1930

After he got back home he told his sister Nan about the house and how it had captivated him. The one aspect of the exceptional house which disappointed him was the fact that the residents were not whom he had envisioned for they were a young couple.  He said to Nan:

“… I’ve decided to do a painting of the kind of people I think should live in that house. I thought about it last night. I have a woman in mind, Nan, but I’m afraid to ask her to pose, because, you know, like all the others, she’ll want me to make her look young and beautiful. And I’m not going to paint her beautiful in this picture. So she’ll be disappointed…”

Of course, we now know that the woman in the painting would be his thirty-one year old sister, Nan, but there lay the problem for Grant, for the woman he intended to paint was going to be an “old maid”. However, even knowing the problem he still asked his sister to pose and he showed her his preliminary oil sketch.

American Gothic painting satirised

There was a long pause before Grant answered his sister’s question.  Finally he addressed his sister asking her, if she was willing, to pose for the picture.  He then had to sell the concept to her as he wanted the “daughter” to have a plain and old-fashioned appearance and her facial expression was to be one of sternness and sombreness. He asked Nan to imagine what it would be like to be under the control of her elderly and authoritarian father. Nan agreed and that afternoon went off to the store to buy some appropriate sombre brown and black clothes for the painting, as she later recalled:

“…. We were supposed to be small-town people. We were really not supposed to be farmers, but just small-town folk. We would own maybe a cow to milk, and we would have a little garden to tend for ourselves. But we’d keep all we grew and not sell anything in the market. Grant and I talked and talked about this. The man in the painting – who was supposed to be my father, would do some tinkering around the house, we decided. We tried to determine what the mother and wife would look like, but we just could not agree on anything. So we decided that the man was a widower. Now, when we talked about this, we tried to imagine what expression would be on the face of the man and his daughter. When we finished talking about this, I posed…”

Nan later remembered the posing for the painting:

“…It was really difficult because Grant was always joking. And both of us would break into laughter, and then we would have to start all over again. It was hard to go from being Grant Wood’s sister and joking with him in the studio to being a farmer’s daughter standing in front of a house. When I was posing and I lost my concentration, Grant would always draw me back to the work at hand by begging, ‘Come on, now, Nan. I’m trying to do your face and I really need you to look sour.’ So I looked sour, the best I could. And so he painted me…”

His depiction of a plain, stern-faced Iowa woman has an everlasting, inscrutable quality and some who saw the painting called her the “American Mona Lisa.”

Grant explained to her that he would paint the house in the background and, standing side by side in front of it would be an elderly man and his daughter and that he intended to approach his sixty-three year old dentist, Byron McKeeby, to pose as the man. Grant had exchanged some of his paintings in lieu of payment for dental work with him and he knew McKeeby liked his work, so he was sure he would pose for the painting.

For Nan, Grant could do no wrong, and she was a constant source of encouragement to her brother. She had no misgivings about posing for the American Gothic painting even though she knew ahead of time it would probably be very unflattering. However, she harboured no resentment towards her brother, once saying:

“…Grant made a personality out of me. I would have had a very drab life without it…”

Some say the pair depicted were husband and wife but Grant’s sister Nan maintained it was father and daughter so that she was not to be classified as a woman who would marry a much older man. Grant, himself, never clarified the status of the pair !

Nan Wood Graham and the painting American Gothic

The stern-looking man was posed by Wood’s Cedar Rapids’ dentist Byron McKeeby. We see McKeeby dressed in a black jacket and collarless shirt and clean denim overalls. In his right hand he holds a three-pronged pitch fork, the prongs of which are echoed in the stitching of his overalls and again in the Gothic window of the house. Although the depiction of the couple looks suitably posed Wood painted the two people separately and his sister and the dentist never stood together in front of the house.

Comments about Nan as the model were often derogatory with one viewer writing that her face “would sour milk”. Other women protested that Nan was poking fun at them with her dour expression.

Nan Wood Graham and Dr. Byron McKeeby

American Gothic was displayed in Cedar Rapids after Wood’s death in 1942. Nan, at that time, Mrs Wood Graham, and Dr. Byron McKeeby were united with each other and the painting for the first time, with their “stretched out long” faces as dour as ever !

Bronze medal winners awarded by Art Institute of Chicago

Grant submitted the painting to the jury for the forty-third annual exhibition of American paintings and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930. The judges dismissed it as a trifling “comic valentine,” but a powerful museum patron urged them to reconsider. The painting was awarded the Norman Wait Harris Bronze Medal, as well as a three-hundred-dollar prize. The painting was bought by the Friends of American Art at the Institute for another three hundred dollars. Newspapers throughout America soon carried articles and reproductions of the painting. Eventually, the picture appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, which caused great consternation with the real Iowa farmers and their wives and they were not amused. To them, the painting looked like a nasty caricature, portraying Midwestern farmers as pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers. However, the painting, which is now housed at the Art Institute of Chicago, is one of the most iconic and recognizable images in American art, and it helped propel Wood to fame and launch the Regionalist movement, of which Wood became the de facto spokesperson.

The sitters for the American Gothic painting (1942)

The highly detailed style of the work and the two unbending figures at the forefront of the depiction were inspired by the Flemish Renaissance art, that Wood would have seen during his European travels between 1920 and 1926. Despite the negative comments that Wood was belittling the Mid-Western folk he actually intended the painting to be an upbeat declaration about rural America and rural American principles. Remember, the year before American Gothic was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago, the country was hit by the great depression and America was facing a major crisis. In the Mid-West there was overproduction in agriculture, as farming techniques improved, and farmers started producing too much food. Coupled with the fact that there was less demand from Europe for food from America because they could grow their own crops. This abundance of crops led to falling prices and thousands of farmers became unemployed after having to sell their farms. Despite this Wood wanted his painting to be a positive statement about rural American values, and for it to become an image of comfort and encouragement at a time of great displacement and disenchantment. For Wood the man and his daughter were symbols of survivors who would battle on through the tough times.

Portrait of Nan (1931)

Grant Woods, as a token of his gratitude, and maybe knowing of the hurtful remarks about his sister’s appearance in the painting, painted a formal portrait of her in 1931. Tripp Evans, a biographer of Grant Wood, wrote:

“…It’s really kind of a love letter from Grant to his sister. He adored Nan. And it’s a painting that he felt very close to as well, one of very few of his mature paintings that he kept for himself…”

In the painting, Portrait of Nan, he depicts her in fashionably marcelled hair style. The Marcelled hair style was a popular hairstyle of the 1920’s and 1930’s that featured unique waves and styling. Marcel Waves are a deep waved hairstyle reminiscent of American actress and bombshell Jean Harlow. Nan is shown wearing a patent-leather belt and a sleeveless polka-dot blouse. She is holding a plum in her left hand whilst the right-hand cups a small chicken. Nan is depicted as a chic-looking and chick-holding modern woman ! Grant Wood bought the little chick at a dime store but it proved to be an unwilling “sitter” for him. His sister Nan recalls the problems her brother had with the chick:

“…Grant kept long hours when he was on a painting spell and would work well into the night. The chick adjusted to his hours and made an awful fuss if it was sent to bed—actually, a crock Grant kept in the closet—before 2 or 3 a.m. It was also fussy about its victuals. It wouldn’t eat toast without butter or potatoes without gravy. One evening, the chick was acting up while company was over, so Grant deposited it in the crock, placed a book on top and forgot all about it. By morning, deprived of air, butter and gravy, the chick was in a dead faint. We threw water on the chick and fanned her for almost an hour before she came to. It was a close shave. She was pretty weak, and Grant didn’t have her do much posing that day…”

So why were the chicken and the plum featured in the portrait. Wanda Corn a leading Grant Wood scholar knew Nan well before she died, at age 91, and in 1990 wrote about the portrait:

“…He [Grant] undoubtedly liked the chicken because as it perched, young and vulnerable, in the cupped hand of his sister, it conveyed her tenderness. And the plum because, as an artistic convention, fruit has always symbolized femininity…”

So according to Wanda Corn, the two images represented, for Wood, all that was beneficial and wholesome about the Midwest. Many believed the chicken and the plum were symbolic but Grant’s sister Nan had a more down to earth reasoning for the inclusion of the chicken and the plum. In 1944 she wrote about the portrait:

“…Grant said the chicken would repeat the colour of my hair and the plum would repeat the background…”

Nan’s role as a model for Grant’s paintings ended with Portrait of Nan, Tripp Evans wrote in his 2010 book, Grant Wood: A Life:

“…After completing the painting, Wood reportedly told his sister, ‘It’s the last portrait I intend to paint, and it’s the last time you will ever pose for me.’”

She was surprised—she’d spent years posing for him—and asked for an explanation.
Wood said, “Your face is too well known…”

..……to be continued

In my final blog about Grant Wood I will look at his later years, showcase more of his paintings and talk about a rumour concerning the artist which would never go away.


Apart from Wikipedia much of the information about the artist and his paintings came from:

Cedar Rapids Museum of Art
http://www.crma.org/content/Collection/Grant_Wood.aspx
Sullivan Goss an American Gallery
http://www.sullivangoss.com/Grant_Wood/#Bibliography
Nan Wood’s scrapbook
http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/grantwood/id/880
Eldon House
http://lde421.blogspot.com/2011/12/american-mona-lisa-profile-of-nan-wood.html