Editor's note: The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts provided permission for Resource Library to publish the following essay included in the exhibition catalogue for Rediscovering Nina Belle Ward, being presented at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts May 16 - August 23, 2015. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay and associated materials, please contact the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:
Rediscovering Nina Belle Ward
by Karla J. Niehus
NINA BELLE WARD (1885-1944) trained as a professional artist and received significant recognition for her achievements before choosing a different path, pursuing social reform as an arts educator. Ward taught art at Kalamazoo High School for over 20 years and played a key role in founding the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (KIA). This exhibition represents the first solo show of Ward's work since 1945 and includes examples of portraiture, landscape, and floral still life, drawn from two public institutions and five private collections.
Each year from 1911 to 1918, Ward's work was included in important Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., museum exhibitions intended to demonstrate that American paintings could compete in quality with works by European artists. Ward's paintings, including Portrait of a Lady in Black and Elizabeth, hung along-side work by Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, William Glackens, and other American luminaries. She won several awards and garnered praise from critics.The New York Times deemed the award of the 1914 Mary Smith Prize to Ward's Elizabeth "richly deserved," praising Ward's "understanding of the figure beneath the garments" and the refreshing "ease and simplicity of the execution." The following year another Times article encouraged, " if Miss Ward should go a very little further she would be a painter of great distinction." However, Ward chose not to actively sell her work or seek commissions.
Instead, this modest and independent woman chose to nurture the talents of others. Embracing the reformist principles of her era, she saw art education as a path to social change. Ward expressed her views about the power of art education in a 1930 article about the KIA's classes for children:
Ward's remarkable skills as an artist and teacher were invaluable to Kalamazoo's fledgling Institute of Arts. She contributed not only professional-level instruction to children and adults, but also first-hand knowledge of the art museum/art school model and experience exhibiting art.
Nina Belle Ward was a woman of her time. Her lifelong pursuit of art, art education, and social reform was emblematic of major social trends in America during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The number of women pursuing careers as professional artists and art teachers skyrocketed between 1870 and 1890, increasing from approximately 400 to 11,000. Drawing and art appreciation were added to the public school curriculum across the nation in the late 19th century, fueling rapid growth in art education. The adoption of art in public schools reflected a growing belief that appreciation of art was critical to the moral well-being of all citizens, rich and poor.[5,6] The early 1900s marked the Progressive Era, a time when many middle-class women took on volunteer and professional roles as social reformers, and when art and education were seen as engines of social and economic change. Communities supported local access to cultural education because the arts were understood to have a stabilizing effect on the moral and economic health of a community.
To prepare for a career, Ward enrolled at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) from 1907 to 1912. PAFA was the country's oldest art museum and school, founded in 1805 to establish America's cultural independence from England. There, Ward's artistic style would be shaped by her rigorous training in traditional figure and landscape painting. She studied figure drawing and portraiture with distinguished artists, including William Merritt Chase. Chase brought to his American students a respect for the portraits of Franz Hals and Velázquez, in addition to an appreciation for artists of the day, such as Manet and Whistler. Ward developed a style of portraiture steeped in these traditions. Like Chase, she attempted to capture her subject's character in the face, gesture, and garments, placed against simple, muted backgrounds. As a student, Ward twice won the Cresson scholarship for summer travel in Europe. The scholarships enabled her to participate in a tradition long considered essential to the education of a professional artist: visiting European museums to see the "old masters," becoming immersed in artistic communities, and painting European scenery.
East Coast artist colonies brought the spirit of the European experience to American shores at the turn of the century. They became particularly popular when World War I forced many American artists back home. Numerous professional artists settled in picturesque New England fishing villages, some establishing summer art schools. Ward regularly spent summers painting in these vibrant arts communities and frequently invited one or two of her Kalamazoo students to join her. On Cape Cod, they practiced painting en plein air with Charles Hawthorne, a protégé of William Merritt Chase. Ward embraced this European practice of painting outdoors to capture the natural light and color. Later in life, she was known to Kalamazoo residents primarily as a painter of New England landscape and harbor scenes.
Ward brought the experience of these active arts communities back to Kalamazoo. In the early 20th century, many Midwestern towns established associations in order to keep artists from migrating east to more established art communities. These art associations provided opportunities for study, created venues for artists to meet and exchange ideas, and encouraged citizens to commission and purchase original art. Some of these early associations evolved into institutions that survive today; among these are the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. Projects initiated by Ward at the KIA, such as teaching children's classes (1925) and mounting an annual exhibition of work by local artists (1930), continue today.
Ward devoted her talents to her students and community until cancer prevented her from teaching in 1943. Her older brother tended to her in Kalamazoo until she passed away in 1944, and then loaned work to the KIA for one last solo exhibition of 32 paintings in 1945. After giving a few works to the KIA and to her closest friends, he returned home with over 200 paintings. Several of these works are now treasured by his descendants, along with a few fragmented stories about their "Aunt Nina."
This 90th anniversary year of the KIA presents an opportune moment to reflect on the values that inspired Nina Belle Ward and many other women to embrace the arts and to take action on behalf of their communities almost a century ago. We honor Ward's legacy by teaching art, by welcoming and celebrating local artists, and by harnessing the power of art to transform our community.
1 "Pennsylvania Academy Exhibition at Philadelphia Rich in Excellent Works," New York Times, February 15, 1914.
2 "Pennsylvania Academy's Annual Exhibition," New York Times, February 14, 1915.
3 Nina B. Ward, "The Saturday Class of Creative Art for Talented Children," The School Arts Magazine 29, No. 5 (January 1930): 289-291.
4 Kirsten Swinth, Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern American Art, 1870-1930 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2001), 3
5 Walter Smith, Industrial Art and Education (Boston: L. Prang and Company, 1875).
6 Theodore F. Wolff and George Geahigan, Art Criticism and Education (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 134-5.
7 Pam Lajeunesse, PAFA school registrar, letter to Michael Goodison, KIA curatorial assistant, Kalamazoo, MI, February 13, 1976.
8 Gary Tinterow and Genevieve Lacambre, Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003), 284-292.
9 Mary Warner Boyce, student of Ward, letter to Helen Sheridan, KIA curator, February 26, 1984.
10 Wendy Greenhouse, "To Unify and Elevate: Midwest Art Organizations," in Mathias J. Alten: Journey of an American Painter, ed. Celeste M. Adams et al. (Grand Rapids: Grand Rapids Art Museum, 1998), 91-101.
About the author
Karla J. Niehus is Associate Curator of Exhibitions at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts.
To view the checklist for the exhibition, please click here.
To view biographical information about Nina Belle Ward, please click here.
To view selected images of artworks in the exhibition, please click here.
To view the exhibition catalogue please click here.
Resource Library editor's notes:
Rediscovering Nina Belle Ward is being presented at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts from May 16 - August 23, 2015.
The above essay was published in Resource Library on June 11, 2015 with permission of the author and Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, which was granted to TFAO on June 10, 2015. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Karla J. Niehus and Vicki Wright for their help concerning permission for publishing the above essay. On June 10, 2015, Ms. Neihus also forwarded the exhibition catalogue, checklist, biographical information and images to accompany the essay.
For a checklist definition, please see Definitions in Museums Explained.
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