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The following essay segment appeared in pages 16-18 of the catalogue titled Women's Work, Early Wisconsin Women Artists, published in 2001 by the West Bend Art Museum. Essay segment reprinted with permission of the West Bend Art Museum.

 

 

Emily Groom

essay segment by Mary Poser, assisted in research and documentation by Elizabeth Groom and Helen Johnston

 

Emily Parker Groom (1875-1975) was an artist simply because that is what she wanted to be, and she arranged her life to do just that. She chose not to marry because she was committed to her life-long pursuit, She took every opportunity to study her craft, became very well trained and particularly adept at watercolor techniques.

Emily had exuberance and a zest for life that incorporated her love for the natural beauty around her. With her artist's eye for color and form, she expressed this exceptionally well in her landscapes and florals. Her art endures not only because painting was her first love, but also because she was true to herself. She had a deep and secure sense of her place in the world, especially in the world of art. After painting landscapes in Pennsylvania, she remarked that there were others who "belonged" there, and who did a better job of recording "their own" land. She returned to the Midwest to paint "her" surroundings in Milwaukee and the countryside around Genessee and Boscobel, Wisconsin.

Though Emily spent ninety-five of her one hundred years in Wisconsin, and did most of her painting in this state, her roots also connect to New England. Her paternal grandparents lived in Massachusetts where her grandfather was an early and successful Boston merchant. Emily's father met his wife in the Sun Prairie, Wisconsin area where he had settled for a while, building a lovely house in 1869. The couple eventually settled in Milwaukee, in a home on Cambridge Avenue, which was to become Emily's home for the next eighty-three years. She was the oldest of six children, three of whom were born in Massachusetts.

Emily attended a pioneer kindergarten at Miss Ogden's School on Albion Street in Milwaukee, in the basement of the Unitarian Church. As a child she took art lessons at the home of Miss Alida Goodwin, who taught drawing at South Division High School as well as at the Cathedral Institute in Milwaukee from which Emily graduated.

It is of interest that there were few, if any, students of German origin at the Institute. Emily's family was not part of the German community, which represented the majority of the Milwaukee population at the time, and which had developed a rich tradition of intellectual and artistic life in that city. The artistic "Grandfather" of this German culture was Henry Vianden, who came to Milwaukee from Germany in 1844. Emily never knew him but they both loved to paint plein air along the Wisconsin River, and they both loved their cottage homes and gardens. Emily, through her art, would eventually become an active participant in the artistic life of this very German community, though her course of studies took a somewhat different route.

In 1894 at the age of nineteen, Emily entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. During her last two years she studied under John Vanderpoel, a well-known teacher, who was particularly adept at drawing the human figure. His picture and a plaque in his honor hang in the John Vanderpoel Memorial Gallery at the Beverly Art Center in Chicago. An oil, by Emily Groom, titled Genesee Hills in November, hangs in the same gallery.

In 1900 she attended the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston, where she studied under Edmund Tarbell and Frank Benson, both well-known artists and teachers. It was while studying there that she developed her interest in, and love for watercolors. She would spend time contemplating the watercolors of Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, and later was attracted by those of John Marin. She liked the spontaneity and the element of chance in that medium. It was perfect for capturing the ever changing light in landscapes and the beauty of fresh-cut flowers. She felt that watercolors were at least as durable as oil; and there was the expediency of water media to consider. She could produce watercolors faster, sell them cheaper, and thus sell more of them. She believed that watercolors were always appropriate, in the grandest or simplest of settings. Most of all though, she liked the challenge of "catching" a certain look.

In 1901 Emily was asked by Miss Ellen Sabin of Milwaukee Downer College to join the faculty as an art teacher, and in 1902, she was asked to set up an art department there. Part of her work was giving art lessons to teachers. Except for a period from 1917 to 1935, when she concentrated on painting and exhibiting, Emily was connected either to Downer College or to the Layton School of Art until her retirement from teaching in 1957, at the age of eighty-two. That was the year that Downer affiliated with Lawrence College, and Miss Groom gave up her very popular extension class that had continued for twenty-two years. She must have been an influential teacher, judging both by the popularity of her classes and the fact that a good number of her students continued to paint, some professionally. Her influence on the women she taught, and on others who bought her paintings or just appreciated them, certainly helped increase interest in art in her region. This connection was evident by the presence of her art at the Milwaukee Woman's Club, Marquette University, the City of Milwaukee, the Milwaukee Journal, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the West Bend Art Museum and in various libraries and other public places. Women donated most of these works. Emily was important in their lives, and they in turn in hers. Her inclusive business and social world was extensive. Its nucleus was art, but art was not an exclusive factor for her relationships. Many people responded both to her as a person and to her painting, not in a sophisticated way, but as something that was enriching. For them her art was something that was satisfying, understandable and broadening.

Emily spent most of the year 1907-08 in England, Scotland and on the Continent. A Milwaukee friend, Mary Dexter, who was not only a student of art history but also a talented writer, accompanied her. She recorded in a diary and letters accounts of this trip and other adventures that the two experienced together. This was fortuitous, since Emily was not a very good correspondent. This particular trip was a significant one for the artist. She spent a good part of the year studying in the London studio of Frank Brangwyn, an internationally known teacher of painting and etching at that time. She also spent five weeks on the island of Hoy and one week on the Orkney Islands in the North Sea with her grandfather's cousins. A daughter of one of these cousins, an artist herself, joined Emily and Mary in London and on Hoy. Life on the island was unique in every way, and Emily spent much time sketching the rugged cliffs, the choppy water and wind blown gulls, as well as the isolated summer home and outbuildings called Melsetter. She later recorded these sights in many of her watercolors. The sojourn on Hoy was important, too, as it introduced Emily to a very different way of life from the one she knew in Milwaukee. These particular cousins were involved in politics (one was a member of Parliament), as well as art collecting. They were also quite wealthy by her standards.

In 1913-14, Emily had an opportunity to study in Woodstock, New York, at the summer school of the Art Students League of New York. She found it so exhilarating and challenging that she managed to stay on for the winter session, stretching her means to do so. Her friend, Mary Dexter, who once again kept an animated diary, joined her. The artist's main purpose for going there was to study with Birge Harrison, who, it turned out, was in ill health. Her teachers also included John Carlson and Charles Cochran. This school was known for its strong curriculum in landscape painting. In all types of weather, the students painted in the fields, woods, near streams and on roads, where few cars traveled. This experience exposed Emily to different methods of teaching, which involved regular critiques ("crits", as she referred to them) and the "hanging" of the best work. This, according to Mary Dexter's letters, more often than not included Emily's paintings. Students also were exposed to mainstream trends in art, such as the activities and painting styles of "The Eight" and "The Ten," groups of artists who were exhibiting at the time and who were to help change the course of American art. There was excitement in the world of art, and it was a wonderful time to be involved, until World War I brought it all to a halt.

Emily Groom was in Europe traveling with friends in 1914 when the war broke out, and they had to return home. On the way, she was able to sketch refugees in the railroad station in Annamasse, Belgium.

During the war Emily and her sister, Mary, bought an acre of Howard Greene's Brookhill Farm land near Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, where they built a tiny, prefabricated cottage, covered with weathered shingles. A north facing addition provided a studio and, together with her sister, Emily turned the flat acre of land into a little garden of Eden, full of fruit trees, berries, garden produce and flowers galore; all potential subject matter. This was a setting made to order for Emily, feeding her spirit, her love of the earth and her desire to paint.

Emily entered the professional art world in 1904, exhibiting at the Art Institute of Chicago four times by 1915. Two of the oils shown there at the time were among her best, Cloud Shadows (now in the Milwaukee Art Museum collection) and Summer Clouds. Her reputation as a painter of the sky and clouds, which today she is remembered for, came early. In 1906, she began the practice of painting plein air when visiting in New England, Pennsylvania Dutch country, South Carolina and Woodstock. In Wisconsin, she painted outdoors in downtown Milwaukee, Racine, the Kickapoo Valley area, and most of all, the glaciated terrain around Genesse Depot in Waukesha County. She painted in all seasons and in later years carried a little pocket hand-warmer to protect her hands that had been nipped by frost.

Her activity increased, and she received more attention from 1915 to 1930, often exhibiting by invitation. She exhibited ten times and won a number of prizes at the Milwaukee Art Institute (now the Milwaukee Art Museum), where her fellow exhibiting artists were principally from Wisconsin, many of them Emily's colleagues and friends.[1] Some of those who exhibited with her were: Robert von Neumann, Alexander Mueller, Gustave Moeller, Jessie Kalmbach Chase, Peter Rotier, Morley Hicks, Armin Hansen, Carl Holty, Schomer Lichtner, Elsa Ulbricht, George Raab, Ada Walter Schultz, Adolph Schultz, Francesco Spicuzza, Harriet Bain, Frida Gugler, Mabel Key, Burt Barnes, Arthur Colt, Janet Reid Thompson, George Runge, Gerit Sinclair, Hans Stoltenberg and Raymond Stoelzner.[2]

Endnotes:

1. Milwaukee Art Institute, Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors, Eleventh Annual Exhibit, 1924, $100 prize, Twelfth Annual Exhibit, 1925, Florence Faucett Prize, Thirteenth Annual Exhibit, 1926, Bain Prize.

2. West Bend Art Museum materials.

About the author:

Mary Poser had assistance with research and documentation from Elizabeth Groom and Helen Johnston. They all live in Wisconsin and are nieces of Emily Groom. They have undertaken the task of researching and cataloging the works of their aunt, Emily Groom. They have located over 400 paintings and drawings by the artist and are working on a biography of her life.

 

This reprinted text is Copyright © 2001 West Bend Art Museum and is reprinted with permission of the Museum.

Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the West Bend Art Museum.

For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.


This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11

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