Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted, without illustrations, in Resource Library on December 7, 2005 with the permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact Ms. Lepore directly through the following phone number or Web address:
Laura Coombs Hills: A Retrospective
by Sandra Lepore
The record of Laura Hills' formative years in the seafaring city of Newburyport is surprisingly scant. Born September 7, 1859, Laura Coombs Hills was the third of five children born to Philip Knapp and Mary Gerrish Hills. Her father was an officer of a local bank; though he did not own a residence on prestigious High Street, he would have been considered a successful gentleman. Mary Gerrish came from a family connected to the maritime tradition of Newburyport. There are colorful stories of Hills' maternal grandfather, Enoch Gerrish, who sported a hooped earring and had a flair with a fiddle. It seems likely Hills' love of music and drama was a direct response to her grandfather's influence.
Hills' earliest art teacher was Emily Andrews (sister of writer and teacher Jane Andrews), who taught watercolor painting to local children. Little is known of Hills' training between those early lessons and her first appearance at the Boston Art Club in 1886. Hills was acquainted with fellow Newburyport artist J. Appleton Brown and his wife, Agnes; it would not be surprising to find she was influenced, if not instructed, by Mr. Brown, fifteen years her senior.
Hills studied in Boston with Helen Knowlton, who had taken over the women's art classes of William Morris Hunt; she also spent a brief time at the Cowles Art School. During February, March and April of 1882, Hills enrolled in life-drawing class at the New York Art Students' League.
Within Hills' body of work is a group of Barbizon-inspired oils probably dating from the 1880s. The Old Homestead and The Shaded Stream bear a stylistic relationship with the broadly-painted works of both Knowlton and Brown. However, The Old Hill Burying Ground appears to postdate those paintings in its concern with dramatic lighting effects on the tombstones. Most likely, Hills was exposed, in the late 1880s, to the work of young Bostonians -- Frank Benson, Edmund Tarbell, Willard Metcalf, and John Leslie Breck -- experimenting with Impressionist techniques they learned in France.
While Hills attained a certain proficiency with oil paint in this period, she increasingly favored watercolor and pastel . Traditionally, the mediums of pastel and watercolor on paper were viewed suitable only for preliminary sketches, and rarely exhibited. The American Society of Watercolor Painters and the Society of Painters in Pastel were founded in 1866 and 1882, respectively, to legitimize the art form. These national organizations, based in New York, inspired the founding of a network of satellite clubs in major cities. Two Boston clubs were founded in 1887: The Boston Water Color Club, originally limited to women, and The Boston Society of Water Color Artists, with an all-male membership. Hills first exhibited with The Boston Water Color Club in 1890, at the Fourth Annual Exhibition held at the J. Eastman Chase Gallery.
Her Boston debut was the previous year, at J. Eastman Chase as well. In her first solo exhibition, Hills showed a group of sixteen pastels that revealed her versatility with subject matter, including:The Marshes near Newburyport, Study of a head, Your Face is Your Fortune, Old Fashioned Flowers, and Aunt's Garden.
At this time Hills was also very active as a designer. Employing mainly watercolor, she created cards for L. Prang & Co (Dream Roses in 1897), and illustrated children's books like Anna Pratt's Flower Folk and Kate Douglas Wiggin's The Birds' Christmas Carol. She decorated pottery and drew patterns for embroidery, needlepoint, and cross-stitch as well.
Such work paid well and was more accessible to women than the fine arts. Hills designed late into the teens, even after she was established as a fine arts painter. On the reverse of a cross-stitch calendar, a letter from P.F.Volland & Co., Chicago, dated 1916, apologized to Hills for thinking two hundred dollars was too costly for her design. "You believed that your work was worth more and would not accept $100.00 in payment but decided to take the royalty we offered of $20.00 per thousand.... The tabulation shows that a few over 25,000 Samplers were sold during 1915, and...we are enclosing our check for $500.00."
During a visit to England in the early 1890s,  Hills first saw miniature painting on ivory. Perhaps due in part to near-sightedness, she had always been intrigued by minute scale and fine detail; the miniatures enchanted her. "When I was a child, I used to make tiny figures of paper dolls and infinitesimal things.... So when I took up miniatures I showed perhaps only another form of this obsession for small things."
Hills returned with a number of English ivories, determined to teach herself the technique. Her record book, which begins in 1893, lists nine entries. The first seven were portraits of Newburyport "girls": Ethel Reed, Georgiana Perkins, Harriet Perkins, Mary Huse, Annie Brown, Elizabeth Richardson, and Alice Creasy (collection Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). These ivories, later referred to as "Seven Pretty Girls of Newburyport," were included in The Boston Water Color Club's 7th Annual Exhibition in December 1893. It marked the beginning of Hills' career as a miniature painter. "Twenty-two orders immediately came to me for other miniatures, and they have been coming ever since," she recalled in an 1921 interview.
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