These Women Refused to Stay in the Kitchen

Posted on April 19, 2012

New York Times, April 19, 2012 by Eve M. Kahn

Anecdotes keep emerging about how American female artists would battle misogyny, skeptical relatives and heavy skirts to paint somewhere remote and possibly dangerous. A dozen recent and forthcoming publications and exhibitions cover such art heroines of a century and more ago.

National Academy of Design, New York

A portrait of Eliza Pratt Greatorex (1869) by Ferdinand Thomas Lee Boyle. She traveled with her children to paint.

They faced grimly low expectations from the scholars of their time. “Women are beginning to paint and model with originality as well as skill,” the critic Charles de Kay wrote in 1903.

The newly uncovered biographies are often similar, involving destroyed archives and family tragedies.

The Impressionist artist Helen M. Turner and the Arts and Crafts illustrator Elizabeth Colborne, the subjects of 2011 shows and catalogs, were both orphaned young and shipped off to be raised by relatives. Genevieve Jones, an 1870s ornithology painter in Ohio who died young of typhoid fever, is the topic of a new book, “America’s Other Audubon” (Princeton Architectural Press).

Eliza Pratt Greatorex, known for her scenes of crumbling European villages and New York City farmsteads, was widowed at 39, in 1858, with four small children. Her daughters, Kathleen and Eleanor, never left their mother’s side and never married; both became prominent artists in their own right.

“She must have been a ‘Mommie Dearest’ type and didn’t let them out from under her wing,” said Katherine E. Manthorne, a City University of New York historian who is finishing a book, “Maeve’s Daughters: Eliza Pratt Greatorex and the Epic Story of the Art Women in the Age of Promise.”

Ms. Manthorne has also been studying the realist landscape painter Fidelia Bridges, who was orphaned in 1850 at 16. Bridges effectively lost both parents in a single day: a letter informed the family that her sea captain father had died of disease months before in Macau, at the moment her mother lay dying at their home in Salem, Mass.

The era’s female painters sometimes managed to live reasonably well on artist wages. Eliza Greatorex kept a home in Manhattan and traveled with and without her brood to France, Germany, Algeria and Colorado. She sketched and published prints along the road. Colborne, whose first major retrospective appeared last year at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Wash., divided her time between New York and a cabin in Bellingham.

A sometimes meager paper trail documents physical endurance and charisma. The New England landscape painters Elizabeth Hamilton Thayer Huntington and Marguerite Stuber Pearson took long trips and realized widespread gallery and museum shows, although both were disabled by polio. Their work was included in an exhibition this year, “White Mountain Artists 1840-1940,” at the Florida Museum for Women Artists in DeLand.

In the late 19th century the landscape painter Susie M. Barstow, based in Brooklyn, sought out artistic subject matter throughout the Alps, Adirondacks, Catskills and White Mountains.

“It is believed that she climbed 110 different mountain peaks over her lifetime” and would traipse 25 miles a day through blinding snow, the art historian Jennifer Krieger wrote in the catalog for a 2010 show at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, N.Y., “Remember the Ladies: Women of the Hudson River School.”

Colborne’s diary describes her regretful choice to keep warm by chopping down and burning trees that she would have preferred to sketch.

The Impressionist painter Mildred Burrage, as a schoolgirl in Maine, learned to maneuver along sea cliffs while carrying paintbrushes. Just before World War I she headed off to study in France and brazenly introduced herself to Monet in his Giverny garden, according to the catalog for the show “From Portland to Paris: Mildred Burrage’s Years in France” that opens on Saturday at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.

“I have nothing but ‘nerve’ and pure brass,” Burrage wrote home from Paris in 1910.

The works of these rediscovered artists have risen in value. Prices reach more than $300,000 apiece for the 48 paintings in “Beyond a Woman’s Place: Pioneers in American Art,” on view through April 28 at the Vose Galleries in Boston. The subject matter reflects far-flung travel and exotic interests: Ida Pulis Lathrop painted a still life of a rabbit and a Chinese urn in front of an ancient Buddhist scroll, and Helen Savier Dumond captured desolate coastline in Nova Scotia.

The market is young, however, and the sheer quantity of canvases is not yet known, so determining values can be tricky. “That’s our hardest job, really, pricing,” said Elizabeth Vose Frey, the director of the Boston gallery.

For the “White Mountain” show in Florida, the art historian Frances S. MacIntyre turned up the names of 150 painters active in that region of New Hampshire. But many “have fallen into oblivion,” she writes in the exhibition brochure. A mysterious Florence Wood has left no trace but a handful of signed, titled and dated watercolors; pieces by Wood have turned up on eBay and at obscure auction houses.

“We can only hope that eventually some long-lost relative will discover a pile of Aunt Florence’s work in the attic and bring it to light,” Ms. MacIntyre writes.

Ms. Manthorne is still on the hunt for pieces by Greatorex; the research has been gestating for about 15 years. She has recently cleared up errors in art history databases as basic as the daughters’ death dates. But the forthcoming book may well bring out more material to analyze.

“That’s what terrifies me,” she said. “That as soon as I publish, all this stuff will avalanche on me.”

In the 1880s, Ms. Manthorne has discovered, Greatorex’s daughters collaborated on a floral mural for a ladies’ sitting room at a Manhattan apartment building. They were so famous that when they took on the commission, a newspaper reported that their signatures on a painting amounted to “a guarantee that the work upon it will be artistic and unconventional.”

The building, the Dakota, is known for preserving rather than demolishing interior walls. Ms. Manthorne’s contacts there are working to persuade the space’s current owner that the Greatorex evidence will be worth excavating.

“There’s a good chance that we can find something,” Ms. Manthorne said.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: April 21, 2012

The Antiques column on Friday, about exhibitions and publications about American female artists from the 19th and early 20th centuries, misidentified the publisher of a book about one of them, Genevieve Jones, “America’s Other Audubon.” The publisher is Princeton Architectural Press — not Chronicle Books, which is the distributor.

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