Women of Western Art

By Phil Kovinick & Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick

Following is an excerpt from An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West [1998 University of Texas Press, Austin], a 448-page book illustrated with 264 black-and-white reproductions; foreward by William H. Goetzmann.

encyclopedia, Southwest Art

Women artists have been inspired by the American West for more than 140 years, producing works of art as varied as the region itself and distinctive for their power and imagination. Unfortunately their efforts have received relatively little attention until recently, due primarily to a view long held by many that only male artists can effectively capture the true vitality and virility of the West in their work. The lack of recognition also is due in part to some of the earlier women themselves and to the structure of society. Although many rejected the Victorian role for women, few divorced themselves completely from its influence. Thus, even though a substantial number of women went west and painted the landscapes, missions, Native American camps, and flora and fauna, more often than not they failed to promote their work. And frequently they signed their work with monograms, aliases, or some form of their husband’s name. Not surprisingly, many of their renderings ended up in family collections and undoubtedly still remain hidden away in attics and other storage areas.

The era of the woman artist in the American West began in 1843 with the arrival of Eliza Griffin Johnston [1821-1896] in Texas, 23 years after Samuel Seymore [c1775-c1823] and Titian Ramsey Peale [1799-1885] traveled west as artists of the expedition headed by Major Stephen H. Long of the U.S. Topographical Engineers. It was not Texas, however, but California, and more specifically San Francisco, that became the first mecca for women artists in the West. Turned into a boom town with the discovery of gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, San Francisco blossomed into a financial and cultural center almost overnight. The first women artists to arrive in the 1850s, sailing there via Cape Horn or the Isthmus of Panama, were typical of the many who were to follow or who settled in or visited other centers in the West in subsequent years. Generally they were the wives, daughters, or sisters of business, religious, and professional men; apparently few lacked kinship with people of at least moderate means. Some admittedly were self-taught as artists, not surprising for the time; a number, however, had substantial art training, and many were teachers.

Ellen Burpee Farr, The Pepper Tree [c1893], oil, 36 x 26, Southwest Art
Ellen Burpee Farr, The Pepper Tree [c1893], oil, 36 x 26

Clearly, the story of the woman artist and the American West in the 1850s and ’60s is to a large extent one of art activity in Northern California. In 1857, San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Institute introduced its first fair, which included an art exhibition. A year later, the event featured the work of almost 50 women among its entrants. In 1858, the state fair exhibition began, providing women another outlet to display their art. The listings from these events, together with the occasional art columns from newspapers and other publications, support the contention that a majority of the female exhibitors and others active in the region at the time, like their counterparts east of the Mississippi River, painted subjects traditionally considered appropriate for women—portraits, still lifes, and local landscapes. Some, however, drawn by the state’s scenic wonders and caught up in the fervor of the Hudson River School’s adulation of nature, turned to the more untamed and rugged country for themes. Significant among the latter were Abby Tyler Oakes [1823-1898] and Mary Park Benton [1815-1910], both of whom had works in the Mechanics’ Fair exhibitions in the 1850s and, in Benton’s case, for many years after. During her brief stay in California, Oakes, the recipient of several awards for landscapes at these events, also received high praise from local newspapers for her studies of Yosemite and other Sierra Nevada scenes. Benton, who arrived in the state in 1855 and remained a resident until her death, also earned medals and produced canvases of the mountains and missions.

Barbara Latham, Tourist Town, Taos [c1940s], egg tempera on masonite, 25 x 353⁄4.,Southwest Art
Barbara Latham, Tourist Town, Taos [c1940s], egg tempera on masonite, 25 x 353⁄4.

Relatively few women artists of any importance were active in other regions of the West during the 1850s and ’60s. The most unique exception was the Frenchborn Eugenie Aubanel Lavender [1817-1898], a well-trained painter who sketched Texas scenes as early as 1851. Other significant regional artists of the time were Mary Achey [1832-1886] and Margaretta Favorite Brown [1818-1897]. Achey, an 1860 arrival in Colorado, became the territory’s first resident female artist, noted for paintings and drawings of subjects ranging from fruit studies and portraits of Rocky Mountain landscapes to Native American buffalo hunts. Brown, who settled in Idaho in 1862, apparently was not a prolific artist, but after a decade in the territory, she gained a reputation as one of its most important painters, recognized especially for her primitive renditions of mining scenes and pioneer portraits.

Marion Kavanagh Wachtel, Crystal Craig and Lake George Near White Lodge [c1925], watercolor, 36 x 28., Southwest Art
Marion Kavanagh Wachtel, Crystal Craig and Lake George Near White Lodge [c1925], watercolor, 36 x 28.

Ironically, the only woman artist of the time to have her western pictures seen by a national audience was Fanny Palmer [1812-1876], who herself never traveled west of New Jersey. Her lithographs, particularly those done for Currier and Ives, effectively captured the spirit of the western frontier as perceived by easterners, despite their inaccuracies.

The completion of the Union Pacific/Central Pacific Railroad in 1869 and the subsequent construction of other transcontinental railroads and numerous trunk lines opened up the West to artists. California, with its burgeoning population still heavily concentrated in the San Francisco Bay area, continued to be the place most frequented by women artists. Its appeal was enhanced in 1871 with the formation of the San Francisco Art Association, the first such organization in the West. Three years later, it could boast another first, the establishment of the California School of Design, whose first class of 60 students included 46 women.

Around this time, Pasadena, CA, artist Ellen Burpee Farr [1840-1907] painted many canvases of missions, pepper trees, and still lifes. Farr’s paintings found ready markets, both in the United States and abroad.

Without a doubt, the single most important event for California women artists in the 19th century was the First Annual Exhibition of the Lady Artists of San Francisco. The event, sponsored by the San Francisco Art Association in December of 1885, featured more than 270 works by 81 artists. Although relatively few of the pieces shown were of western subjects, the exhibition was the first in the West to focus such attention on women artists and demonstrated to the public that many of them were more than mere “Sunday painters.”

Colorado was another important location in the West that began to gain converts among women artists. Like California, it had experienced rapid growth following gold and silver strikes. Denver and Colorado Springs were particularly popular places. The list of early visitors included Rose Kingsley [1844-1925], who produced some sketches while visiting during the winter of 1871-72 in Colorado Springs and later wrote of her experiences; Eliza Greatorex [1819-1897], an associate of the National Academy of Design who produced etchings of landscapes in and around Colorado Springs in 1873; Rosina Emmet Sherwood [1854-1948], a prominent New York artist and illustrator who painted in the Rocky Mountains during an 1881 trip; and Georgina de L’Aubiniere [1848-1930], a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy in London who did mountain scenery during a mid-1880 visit before going with her husband to paint in California and British Columbia.

Colorado’s most important resident woman artist of the period was Helen Henderson Chain [1848-1892]. She settled in Denver in 1871 and by the time of her death had become a major landscape painter in the West. Not only was she the first woman to paint the Mount of the Holy Cross on site [1877] just two years after Thomas Moran executed his famous canvas, but she was also the first to exhibit New Mexico pueblo scenes at the National Academy of Design [1882] and more than likely the first to sketch the Grand Canyon of Arizona on location [c1883]. To their credit, Chain and other Denver women formed the all-woman Le Brun Art Club in 1891, which, although short-lived, helped bring an art consciousness to the city and had much to do with the founding of the Artists’ Club of Denver two years later.

The 1870s also witnessed the introduction of Mary Hallock Foote [1847-1938] to the West. When Foote left New York City in 1876 to join her husband in California, she was a successful illustrator, a field opened to women after the Civil War. In the next 19 years, while moving from place to place, Foote gained recognition as both an illustrator and a writer. Her depictions of western life in both media reached a national audience through the pages of Scribner’s and The Century, and her novels, such as The Led-Horse Claim, The Chosen Valley, and Coeur D’Alene, were widely read. Her fame, due in part to her success as a writer, was unique among women artists in the West.

Beginning in the early 1890s and continuing into the 1930s, women artists enjoyed greater opportunities for recognition. Their increasing numbers and successes in the fields of art and illustration led to a growing acceptance of them as professional artists. Organizers of many exhibitions, some of which were international in scope, invited women to participate. The first one of real significance to those who worked with western themes was the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. At this event, Grace Carpenter Hudson [1865-1937], a native Californian who has come to be recognized as a major painter of Native Americans, particularly the Pomo, became the first female to win an award for a western canvas in an exhibition of this magnitude.

In subsequent exhibitions of international scope, other women gained recognition for their offerings. Alice Cooper [1875-1937] achieved celebrity when the organizing committee of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland in 1905 accorded her life-size sculpture of Sacajawea the place of honor. Ten years later, E. Charlton Fortune [1885-1969] received a silver medal and M. Evelyn McCormick [1862-1948] a bronze medal at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

Women who worked with western themes also began to be represented more frequently in exhibitions of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Academy of Design, the American Watercolor Society, the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors (now the National Association of Women Artists), and the National Sculpture Society. Among them, Margaret Lonstreth [1864-1918] produced numerous Native American portraits and western landscapes; Georgia Timken Fry [1864-1921] did many views of the Grand Canyon; Bertha Menzler-Peyton [1871-1947] captured the nuances of the Arizona desert in her paintings for more than 30 years; and Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel [1870-1954] painted the Native Americans of the Southwest and their environs but achieved her greatest fame for watercolors of California landscapes. One of the later, The Sierra Madre, appeared as the frontispiece of the catalogue for the 1911 annual exhibition of the American Watercolor Society.

The entrance of railroads into the field of western art was also instrumental in bringing attention to the work of women artists. Several companies, seeking to publicize attractions along their routes in order to stimulate ticket sales, began acquiring western landscapes and genre paintings either by purchase or by offering artists passage and lodging expenses in exchange for canvases. The Santa Fe Railway Company was particularly ambitious. It started its permanent collection in 1903 and through the years amassed an impressive number of works, many done by women. During the first decade alone, its energetic chief of advertising, William H. Simpson, seeking realistic and romanticized renditions of southwestern subjects seen along the railway’s route, acquired more than 35 canvases by women; these were displayed in ticket offices, passenger stations, and Fred Harvey restaurants and reproduced in company literature. By the mid-1930s, the number had more than doubled.

Although less involved, the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific railroads also used works by women in their advertising. In its building at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904, Great Northern displayed 21 northwestern landscapes by Washington artist Abby Williams Hill [1861-1943] that were completed after arduous treks into the northern Cascades. The paintings also appeared in 30,000 brochures distributed to visitors at the fair. The following year, Northern Pacific exhibited Hill’s paintings of Yellowstone and other places in Montana and Idaho at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. In 1926 another woman, Kathryn Leighton [1875-1952], figured prominently in the promotional plans of Great Northern. After sponsoring her summer sketching trip to Glacier National Park, the company purchased her entire output of Blackfoot portraits and sent them on a national tour accompanied by an expert on Native American lore.

Between 1893 and the 1930s there was a dramatic increase in the number of art schools, art associations, and art colonies founded in the West. Of particular importance were the art colonies in Taos and Santa Fe. Although the best-remembered artists in these colonies at the time were men, the list of women, both as residents and visitors, is long and impressive. One of the earliest was Ethel Coe [1878-1930], an accomplished painter who made her initial visit to New Mexico in 1915 to study and sketch among the natives. Grace Ravlin [1873-1956], whose impressionistic studies of Native American ceremonials were widely acclaimed, arrived the next year. A host of others followed, including Catharine Carter Critcher [1868-1964], the portraitist of Native Americans and the only woman member of the original Taos Society of Artists [1915-1927]; Eugine Shonnard [1886-1978], the sculptor of Native Americans and animals; Gene Kloss [1903-1996], the National Academician known for the velvety richness of her etchings, particularly of Native Americans and landscapes of New Mexico; and Barbara Latham [1896-1989], who first went to Taos in 1925 to produce illustrations of southwestern life for a greeting-card company.

The Great Depression and the consequent lack of funds to patronize art severely affected the careers of many artists, both men and women. However, the country’s malady prompted the federal government to sponsor emergency programs to provide work for artists. As a result, numerous women painters gained opportunities to paint murals in post offices and other public buildings throughout the country. What is impressive about this is that many of the commissions were awarded “blind”—without knowledge of the name or sex of the applicant.

Modernism, which made its initial impact on the American scene at the Armory Show of 1913, enjoyed efflorescence to about 1925, reappeared in newer forms in the late 1930s, and by the 1940s had become a dominant art trend in the country. Its emphasis on method rather than subject matter seriously limited the opportunities for many traditional artists to hang their works at important exhibitions. This factor, along with the increasing demand by buyers for paintings and sculptures ranging from the semi-abstract to the nonobjective, caused many western artists to go beyond representationalism to express western ideas. Some, such as Gene Kloss, were apparently little affected by the movement during its peak years (1940s-1960s) and sustained their earlier styles through productive careers. Others, such as Ethel Magafan [1914-1994], gradually changed their styles from literal to semi-abstract. Georgia O’Keeffe [1887-1986], a modernist almost from the beginning, continued to paint New Mexico subjects in her highly individualistic way and gained recognition during her lifetime as one of the country’s foremost artists.

The dominance of the new modernism continued virtually unchallenged until the early 1960s, when the resurgence of interest and nostalgia for America’s past, especially the era of the frontier and the settling of the West, led to a dramatic increase in the popularity of western realism and, for the first time, its acceptance in eastern circles. Since then, the number of art museums and galleries featuring western art has grown dramatically, as has the number of artists, both men and women, depicting its varied historical and contemporary themes.

Featured in November 1998