Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on November 22, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Zaplin / Lampert Gallery. The essay, written in 2001, was previously included in an illustrated catalogue for the exhibition Virginia True. Images accompanying the text in the illustrated catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the catalogue please contact Zaplin / Lampert Gallery through either this phone number or website:



 

Virginia True

by Robin West

 

While it may never have occurred to her, Virginia True epitomized the pioneer spirit of the United States in the early twentieth century. She broke ground as a woman, as an artist, and as someone who embraced the West. At that time in American history, the East was considered conservative and traditional, but the West symbolized freedom for women and artists; it was a source of limitless inspiration for both. For Virginia True; the West would kindle the best work of her career and her most productive time as an artist. The vast natural beauty of the landscape inspired True from the first time she visited the Southwest. This passion would transform her art and technique from that of her realist training; the West moved her to paint more what she felt than what she saw with her eyes.

Virginia True was born in 1900 in St. Louis, Missouri -- ironically enough, "The Gateway to the West." Her mother had been classically trained in piano and her father had been a concert violinist. Virginia's efforts to follow in the family's aesthetic tradition met with limited success in music, but her innate talent in the visual arts was clear from a relatively early age. Her parents instilled in their daughter Christian Science values, making for an upbringing that was somewhat sheltered, but, at the same time, intellectually stimulating. True entered the College of Education at Butler University in Indiana in 1919. Any thoughts she may have entertained about becoming a teacher, however, quickly faded. Virginia chose instead to follow her true interests, and enrolled in the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis.

This move fostered True's natural talents and placed her in an environment that helped hone her technique. At that time, Indiana was the setting of an active art community, with residents including William Merritt Chase, Gustave Baumann, and Frank Duveneck. The Herron Institute, subsequently known as the Indianapolis Museum of Art, had been founded in 1902 by a group of artists trained at the Munich Royal Academy. The German tradition was carried on at the school through a teaching philosophy that embraced the egalitarian treatment of women. The Institute became known for having one of the strongest curriculums in the United States for training artists in the realist tradition. Virginia thrived in this atmosphere and her mentor, William Forsyth, provided her with an excellent foundation in drawing and the technical aspects of painting and composition. True's exposure in this period to the work of John Twachtman, Charles Prendergast, Robert Henri, and John Sloan, among others, energized her and broadened her artistic horizons.

When her father's business failed in the mid-1920s, financial concerns for the first time became a factor in Virginia's life. She was now forced to make a living. True was hired as an instructor at Herron, allowing her to support herself while she finished her studies. After a few years, Virginia began to enjoy teaching and proved quite popular with her students. She supplemented her income with commercial work, fashion illustration, and portraiture.

True was graduated from the John Herron Art Institute in 1925, and she then partook of a one-year scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. A recommendation written by John Forsyth attests to Virginia's evident innate abilities at the time. He wrote that "I can say without exaggeration that she was one of the best pupils I ever had during the 25 years I was a teacher at the John Herron Art School."

For a short while, True thought about studying abroad and advancing into Post-impressionistic technique; instead, she returned to the Midwest and began exhibiting her work at various venues in Indianapolis, including the Herron Institute, the Artists of Indiana Exhibition, and the Hoosier Salon in Chicago. Among exhibitors at these shows were Baumann, Victor Higgins, and Olive Rush. Associating with these artists and exchanging ideas about their work, Virginia began to develop a curiosity about, and an appreciation for, the grandeur and inspiration to be found in the Southwest.

Virginia's first trip to the region of Colorado and New Mexico was in the summer of 1928, when she traveled to Boulder to visit two friends from the Herron Institute. Francis Hoar and Clement Trucksess had moved there the previous year and were now teaching at the University of Colorado. Virginia's vacation with them sparked a relationship with place that would forever recast her art; True's bond with the Southwest would be the source of the finest creative output of her career.

Virginia and her hosts took a road trip from Colorado to New Mexico, where they were mesmerized by the primitive, yet culturally rich, land suffused with brilliant light. Photographs from True's scrapbooks of the trip reveal the freedom and fun the group enjoyed as it made its way down the High Road from Taos into the Rio Grande Valley, and up into the hills of Santa Fe. By this time, Mabel Dodge had moved to Taos; she was to lure many other female artists and writers to the region, including Georgia O'Keeffe, Rebecca Salsbury James, and Willa Cather, all of whom were deeply influenced by the setting.

Virginia True was similarly stirred; her attraction to the Southwest was immediate. An excerpt from her journal shows Virginia's reaction to the vistas she encountered on her trip into New Mexico:

Longing unallayed! And pray, what is that? I am like an erect tent whose sides flap in the breeze for want of an anchor. Such queer thoughts and feelings struggling for expression. They cannot always be suppressed. Some day they will find utterance. Might I preserve on canvas my thrill and deep feeling of the grand things of nature I have beheld today. "There is a wideness in God's mercy, like the wideness of the Sea." There's a wideness in God's country that expresses peace to me.

That summer, True created a group of watercolors that was subsequently exhibited in a one-woman show at Lieber's Gallery in Indianapolis. The styles of these pieces vary and reveal Virginia's art to be at a transitional stage between the realist techniques she had learned at Herron and the more abstract style she would eventually make her own. Truchas (plate 12), for instance, is largely representational and only begins to hint at the use of color and form that would come to define True's work a few years later. Church at Ranchos de Taos (plate 11), on the other hand, pays service to the use of line, but only to a point. Its use of color and shading are far more striking; the geometry becomes interpretive, more of an emotional response to the subject than an actual, precise depiction.

In the summer of 1929, True was offered an instructor's position on the faculty of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The town was by now a thriving arts community and Virginia fit in easily. Thanks in large part to the 1923 founding of the Boulder Arts Association by Jane Sherwood, the works of Santa Fe artists such as B.J.O. Nordfeldt, Frank Applegate, William Penhallow Henderson, Gustave Baumann, Willard Nash, and Jozef Bakos were finding a market and gaining a national reputation, The West clearly had an artistic vitality that had difficulty taking shape in the East.

Jane Sherwood was also instrumental in the establishment of the Boulder Artists Guild, which, along with the University, comprised the hub of the local arts community. Guild membership was by invitation only and was limited to working artists whose portfolios were reviewed by a selection committee. Francis Hoar and Clement Trucksess were invited to become members in 1929, joining charter member Gwendolyn Meux. Virginia True's membership was conferred a year later.

In the spring of 1931, Virginia exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Rain Finds the Mountains (cover), painted during her first visit to the Southwest in 1928, stands out among the pieces in the show. The strident use of color, particularly the streaks of cobalt blue, beautifully captures the mood and dynamism created by isolated sheets of rain drenching an otherwise stark landscape. True's work caught the eye of a reviewer for The Santa Fe New Mexican, who wrote:

While the Modernists dominate the March exhibit at the art museum, there are several other exhibitions of unusual charm, Miss Virginia True, art instructor at the University of Colorado, has shown a large number of etchings and paintings .... of Colorado and New Mexico subjects, many of which are done in a very pleasing manner.

Regarding a one-woman show of True's in Santa Fe a year later, the reviewer called Virginia's work "outstanding" and said that she "paints with a boldness and strength of purpose that leads one to think of a man's work."

The success True enjoyed at these shows, and the attachment she felt to the West, pushed her to embrace Regionalism, a school of art that stressed a strong sense of place and community. In late 1931, True and four other artists who taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder (Francis Hoar, Clement Trucksess, Gwendolyn Meux and Muriel Sibcll) formed The Prospectors, a Regionalist art collaborative. The group promoted itself with a glossy sheet of images by each artist, all centered around a three-paragraph manifesto. The proclamation established The Prospectors as proponents of art growing our of the spirit of a place. They called attention to the inspiration received from both the geographic characteristics of Boulder (the snowy peaks and rolling plains of cottonwoods) and the spirits and ghosts of those who had inhabited the land (the Indians, Mountain Men and settlers). The group attempted to gain recognition for both the artists and Boulder.

The Prospectors aggressively promoted their work and participated in various shows around the country. Critics generally regarded True as the most accomplished of the group. She won honors in several competitions, including a first prize designation at the Mid-Western Artists Exhibition at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1935. The award was for an oil painting, The Wood-Chopper, a vibrant portrait of a man whose years of labor are reflected in the etched planes of his face and in his gnarled hands. The principal image is effectively contrasted to the background landscape which appears smooth and untouched.

Virginia distilled her reactions to her subjects into pure forms and colors. Watercolors like From Gray's Peak (plate 9), Chapel Inn (plate 10), New Mexico - June Landscape 1936 (plate 16), and Three Peaks (plate 17) leap from the paper with a vibrancy that remains undiminished over time. The rounded mountains rolling into each other, and the valleys below, are both majestic and modest at the same time. They evoke a sense of wonder at how such shapes and colors are created in nature. Hallet's Peak (plate 24) is notable for the effect it achieves through the use of negative space. It conjures up an expansive landscape through a spare use of lines and color.

In her watercolors, True follows in the steps of Modernist artists in the "plein-air" tradition, most notably Victor Higgins. Higgins had been creating watercolor landscapes for years prior to Virginia's arrival in the Southwest. True was encouraged by friends to seek him out, and it is clear that their meeting had an effect on her work. This is evident in Virginia's Mountain Lake (plate 15) and New Mexico - Fall Landscape (plate 26). Higgins' dry-brush technique is echoed in the landscapes, with composition favoring shape and form over subject matter. True reflects Higgins' style in the graceful arc of the edge of a mountain lake and in the juxtaposition of the soft hues of the sky against the jagged ridges of the mountains.

True's best landscape work was not limited to watercolor sketches. In fact, two oil paintings are particularly striking. Red Cliffs (plate 21) and Rocks (plate 13) demonstrate her ability to keenly observe and depict the land. In both works, Virginia paints an impressive and impenetrable topography. Red Cliffs places a brightly illuminated and visually arresting natural form at the center of a darkly sublime vista. The eye is drawn to these central cliffs through the use of color, and by the shapes of an intricate composition. With its grand, geometric blocks of color, Rocks is reminiscent of Andrew Dasburg's style. The desolate ponderosa pines serve to emphasize the enormity of the craggy rocks in the foreground. The seemingly insurmountable rocks give way to an autumn backdrop of golden mountains and a crisp blue sky.

Virginia also expressed her affinity for the shapes of a landscape in charcoal and ink drawings. In these, she reveals sharp contrasts between light and shadow, curved and jagged edges, and open and enclosed spaces. In We Search for Horses (plate 49) and New Mexico - Pine Tree (plate 40), the monochromatic images evoke the desolation and grandeur of the vistas, and, at the same time, they convey a sense of celebration of the natural world.

Through cartoon-like imagery, a number of True's drawings display an ease and familiarity with the scenery. Shrine (plate 5), with its whimsical distortion of line and a foreshortening of perspective, is inviting and lighthearted. Pueblo (plate 6), executed during a visit to San Ildefonso in 1930, also makes use of a stylized and familiar effect to provide an inviting glimpse of a typical New Mexico sight - a pueblo on a non-feast day. The houses are shut to the world and the streets are empty, but somehow the viewer still feels welcomed into the scene.

Virginia's works depicting man-made structures set into the landscape reveal her take on the human condition and its relation to nature. With their illustration of structures bereft of human presence, pieces like Red Roof- Bare Tree (plate 14) and Old Mine - Ward (plate 20) remind one of the works of Nordfeldt, Bakos, and Kenneth Adams. True, however, was able to inject a feeling of intimacy and warmth into the starkness of the scenes. One senses that Virginia was able to find a pleasing "connection" wherever she was. Greenhouse (plate 33) underscores this quality through its bold, exuberant use of color and form. The jungle of plants dominant in the foreground, paired with the landscape paintings tacked on the wall make for an ironic contrast with the empty exterior scene viewed through the window. Nature is brought indoors -- not just the plants, but also the bright sunlight that illuminates the interior scene. Despite their contrasts, and the man-made repositioning of the natural world, the two spaces, inside and out, are somehow seamless; and both are cheerful and inviting.

A journal entry may provide an insight into Virginia's philosophy of life:

When you come to the end of a perfect day and you sit alone with your thoughts... A pleasant reverie it is tonight -- not disturbed by any discontent or uneasy longing for some unknown something. A bit of the humorous in the reflection before the eye -- humanity -- its forms and phases. Why does a lovely little girl spoil her pretty, pouty, rose lips with screeching cerise rouge -- the blindness of mortals, I suppose. Why look down on the hillside at a vulgar display of petty sensuousness when God's great earth lies out before you to make you draw in your breath and know how big the real things are in this world!

This basic honesty, an appreciation and delight for the natural, is what informs Virginia's images. Her art was perhaps an answer to this spiritual side of herself, instilled in her since childhood.

The Prospectors had a busy agenda and the demand to put out increasing amounts of work was high. However, given Depression-era economics, the ability to turn much of a financial profit was not possible, and True did whatever she could to earn extra income. With only a Bachelor of Arts degree, she was not eligible to move up the faculty ladder at the University of Colorado, and, in 1935, Virginia returned East to begin the Master of Fine Arts program at Cornell University. Her goal was to return to Boulder once she obtained the proper credentials. In True's two years as a student at Cornell, she visited Boulder during the summers and maintained an active partnership with The Prospectors.

Unfortunately, when Virginia finally received her Masters degree, there were no positions open at the University of Colorado. True still made the most out of her Cornell experience. In 1937, True's painting professor secured her a commission for a mural on "home economics" to hang in the Martha Van Rensselaer Hall at Cornell (plate 8). Funded usually by public institutions with a community-minded message, murals had become a prevalent art form during the Depression. The work, a significant honor and achievement for True, may mark the point in her career when she began to feel the pull between service to the community and her desire to pursue more freedom in her art. These opposing forces paralleled Virginia's other internal battle -- her practical need to remain in the East and her emotional need to be back in the West.

From this point on, True's focus turned increasingly to academic work. Cornell was able to pay her substantially more than she had previously earned, and her teaching skills blossomed. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, her creative talent enjoyed a surge with her New York Series. These striking images of Manhattan, especially New York - 42nd and 5th (plate 56) and New York - Times Square (plate 55) capture the excitement of a metropolis brimming with energy. Virginia's incisive use of ink conveys the staccato immediacy of the whirlwind pace of New York at that time. It is true that the spirit and charm of her Western pieces can be found here as well, but they are expressed differently, with bucolic simplicity giving way to a far more sophisticated form.

While True's spirit remained in the West, she became a lasting and integral part of the Cornell community, eventually becoming head of the Department of Housing and Design. She retired in 1965 and lived on Cape Cod until her death in 1989.

Virginia True once said that "to be an artist is a very upsetting thing, because you must come to grips with what you really think and what is really basic and what is truly you.." Her own answers to these questions must have come to her when she discovered the Southwest. For, at that early stage in her career, she was clearly at ease; she was able to paint with an assuredness, spontaneity, and "trueness" that was, after a long life and career, to remain her enduring legacy.


About the author

Robin West is a freelance arts writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
 


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