Laura Coombs Hills: A Retrospective

by Sandra Lepore



In 1897, Hills was the first miniature painter elected to the Society of American Artists, and one of a very select group of women.[7] The next year, she became a founding member of the American Society of Miniature Painters. An active participant in the Society's New York exhibitions over the next two decades, Hills served for a time as its vice president. She was also a familiar figure at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she showed her work on ivory from 1898 to 1934, [8] and at New York's National Academy of Design, where she exhibited ivories from 1907 to 1917.

While Hills employed traditional miniature techniques, stippling and crosshatching, she brought a brighter palette, bravura brushstroke, and decorative motifs to the art form. In The Black Mantle, Hills fused these devices in a sensitive and romantic rendering of her dear friend Karoline Bernheimer. While this miniature was most likely a commissioned work, it has all the daring usually found in Hills' renderings of the models she employed. Titles such as The Flame Girl, Fire Opal, Goldfish, and The Nymph evoke romantic images and illustrate Hills' personal vision.

Always mindful of fmances, Hills was a tireless exhibitor. She used solo shows in Boston, Worcester, and Portland, Maine to generate interest in her miniatures and encourage commissions. The portrait of Mrs. Perkins was commissioned in 1901, and on March 8th Miss E. Hale wrote, "After fourteen or fifteen sittings in all, the miniature is now completed, except as to background and frame and case. Miss Hills' price for the portrait is $300. It was a real pleasure sitting back of Miss H. and seeing her light touches, and the almost magical effects of her work." [9]

The miniatures of Edith Burnside Milliken Perkins and Mary Faxon corroborate Hills' renown as a colorist and designer, as well as her reputation for capturing sitters' personalities. She portrayed Edith Perkins in soft lavender, holding a delicate bouquet of violets, gazing dreamily away from the viewer. In contrast, Mary Faxon directly engages her audience, amid a dazzling palette of rose and orange.

Unencumbered by the traditions of miniature painting, Hills brought a fresh approach and painterly technique to this art form. William Merritt Chase, an influential instructor at the Art Students' League and a prominent turn-of-the-century painter, once quipped, "The bright genius of more than one promising art-worker has flickered and gone out in the walls of the art academy. .." [10] Despite her lack of formal training, Hill's natural talent was rewarded with medals in 1895 (Art Interchange), 1897 (Art Amateur, New York), 1900 (Paris Exposition), 1901 (Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo), 1902 (Charleston Exposition), 1904 (St. Louis Exposition), 1915 (Panama-Pacific Exposition, San Francisco), and 1916 (Pennsylvania Society of Miniature Painters).

By 1903, Hills had moved her winter studio to 66 Chestnut Street, sharing the top floor with her sister, Lizzie, and Karoline Bernheimer. Lizzie handled domestic duties so her sister would be free to pursue her career.[11] Laura and Lizzie spent summers in Newburyport at "The Goldfish", a home Laura designed and built on Sawyer's Hill in 1900, and named for the miniature she painted of Grace Mutell, a favorite model. The miniature's sale partially funded the house's construction. Hills' design and decoration reflect her interest in the Arts and Crafts Movement and The Colonial Revival.

Although Hills' artistic reputation rested mainly on her miniature painting in the period 1893-1920, she never relinquished her work on paper in both watercolor and pastel. She submitted both figurative and floral paintings to Art Institute of Chicago exhibitions from 1902 to 1930. Beginning in 1890, Hills included these works in the annual exhibitions of the Boston Water Color Club, in addition to her miniatures.

Her pastels and miniatures were also exhibited with an association of women painters called "The Group", organized in 1916 by Boston painter Lucy Conant. [12] Its core membership included Margaret Patterson, Jane Peterson, Mary Bradish Titcomb, Elizabeth Wentworth Rogers, Lucy Conant, and Laura Coombs Hills.[13] "The Group" exhibited together only briefly: at the Worcester Art Museum in 1917 and 1918, the Detroit Institute of Art in 1918, [14] and the Doll and Richards Gallery in Boston in 1918 and 1919.[15]

By 1920, failing eyesight and decreasing demand for miniatures prompted Hills to give greater attention to her pastels. "Mr. Henry Vaughn, who is having his miniature painted, went to New York for three days, so I am kicking up my heels on a pastel. It certainly is bright," she exclaimed in 1924.[16]

As a miniature painter, Hills gained respect for her drawing expertise, as well as her talent as a colorist and composer of interesting backgrounds. Combining these abilities with her passion for flowers, she created a new niche for her talent. Hills was very particular about the freshness of the floral specimens and the quality of the pastels (which she imported from Paris or Dresden). There is "no place in art for slipshod careless work," she told interviewer Florence Spaulding.[17]

For the next twenty-five years, rendering flowers in pastel became Hills primary artistic concern. Lizzie carefully cultivated and nurtured favorite specimens -- peonies, lilies, larkspur, Van Fleet and tea roses, zinnias, and dahlias -- at "The Goldfish." Cut early in the morning, still glistening with dew, the blooms were carefully arranged in full sunlight for optimum vibrancy and contrast. Hills occasionally added an electric bulb to enhance the lighting effect. "It woke those lilies up," she said, "[and] made them speak." [18] Hills worked quickly, laying colors with her pinky poised for selective blending. She paid considerable attention to backdrops: employing scarves, tapestries, and fabrics she had collected on her various trips to Europe.

Beginning in 1921, Hills began an almost unbroken string of annual solo exhibits in Boston, each extremely successful from a sales standpoint. In her 1927 Copley Gallery exhibition, only five of forty-five floral pastels remained after noon on the first day. Later reports told of fierce competition to purchase the pastels; some collectors bought several examples.

By 1932, the show's venue had moved from Copley to Doll and Richards; in 1941, the Guild of Boston Artists became its host. In a review of Hills' last exhibition -- thirty-one pastels at the Guild, in 1947 -- critic A.I. Philpot referred to her as the "Queen of Flower Painters", previously known as the "Queen of Miniature Painters." "Laura C. Hills," he stated, "has always been in a class by herself. Here she is eighty-eight years of age painting with all the enthusiasm of a woman of fifty." [19]

Her still lifes fall into two broad categories: tabletop compositions, marked clearly by the artist's intervention, and floral arrangements, which appear to exist in nature. Iris, White Lupins, and Peonies, purchased from the Copley Gallery exhibition of 1930, and Larkspur and Lilies fall into the latter category. Flowers fill the picture planes and appear to burst at the seams of the frames.

Peonies and Summer Flowers are successful examples of the tabletop category. They illustrate Hills' deft handling of textured backgrounds without diverting attention from the foregrounds. Breakfast is one of her more ambitious pastels. Hills arranged the implements of a morning meal with such care as she would have shown in orchestrating a floral arrangement. Brilliant sunshine enters the window, resonating from porcelain objects, bathing the picture's plane in warm glow.

Laura Coombs Hills' style falls within a broad classification referred to as the Boston School. After the turn of the century, a prominent group of Boston artists concentrated primarily on romanticized figure painting. From the execution of portraits to the depiction of genteel people in affluent settings, the Boston School made a conservative statement to the rapidly changing world, and the advent of modernism.

In keeping with the "cult of the beautiful,"[20] Boston School painters were interested in still lifes. Frank Benson, Edmund Tarbell and William Paxton included paintings of fruit, flowers, and decorative objects in their oeuvre, while Hermann Dudley Murphy, Elizabeth Paxton, and Laura Coombs Hills made still life their signature subject matter. Hills, however, successfully created high-key florals, unrivaled by fellow flower painters. She singled herself out as Boston's leading pastelist early in the century.

Until her death in 1952, Hills maintained a verve beyond her years. An inveterate correspondent, she filled letters with comments about the latest Symphony or a novel she found delightful. Her handwriting remained steady and deliberate; her sureness with pastel belied the decline generally associated with aging. "It was all over too soon," she wrote at age ninety to her dear friend Mildred Howells.[21]


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