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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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.
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
and in an article in Genealogy.com