Editor's note: The following text, reprinted in Resource Library on September 22, 2005, was excerpted from pages xvii through xx of the book titled An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West: A Biographical Dictionary, by Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, foreward by William H. Goetzmann, Copyright © 1998. Reprinted courtesy of the University of Texas Press. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the University of Texas Press directly through either this phone number or web address:
Western Women Artists: An Overview
by Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick
Women artists have been inspired by the American West for more than 140 years, producing works of art as varied as the region itself and distinctive for their power and imagination. Unfortunately their efforts have received relatively little attention until recently, due primarily to a long-held view that only male artists can effectively capture the true vitality and virility of the West in their work. The lack of recognition also is due in part to some of the earlier women themselves and to the structure of society. Although many rejected the Victorian role for women, few divorced themselves completely from its influence. Thus, even though a substantial number of them went west and painted the landscapes, missions, Native American camps, and flora and fauna, more often than not they failed to promote their work. And frequently they signed their works with monograms, aliases, or some form of their husband's name. Not surprisingly, many of their renderings ended up in family collections and undoubtedly still remain hidden away in attics and other storage areas.
The era of the woman artist in the American West began in 1843 with the arrival of Eliza Griffin Johnston (1821-1896) in Texas, fully twenty-three years after Samuel Seymour (c. 1775-c. 1823) and Titian Ramsey Peale (1799-1885) went into the West as artists of the expedition headed by Major Stephen H. Long of the U.S. Topographical Engineers. (Eliza Hart Spalding, wife of the Reverend Henry Harmon Spalding, had gone west with her husband in 1836. She was artistically inclined and painted some religious subjects to assist Reverend Spalding in teaching Native Americans, but nothing has been found, other than a western scene by an unknown artist allegedly copied from a Spalding work, that she did western subjects.)
It was not Texas, however, but California, and more specifically San Francisco, that became the first mecca for women artists in the West. Turned into a boom town with the discovery of gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, San Francisco blossomed into a financial and cultural center almost overnight. The first women artists to arrive in the 1850s, sailing there via Cape Horn or the Isthmus of Panama, were typical of the many who were to follow or who settled in or visited other centers in the West in subsequent years. Generally they were the wives, daughters, or sisters of business, religious, and professional men; apparently few lacked kinship with people of at least moderate means. Some admittedly were self-taught as artists, not surprising for the time; a number, however, had substantial art training; many were teachers.
Clearly, the story of the woman artist and the American West in the 1850s and 1860s is to a large extent one of art activity in northern California. In 1857, San Francisco's Mechanics' Institute introduced its first fair, which included an art exhibition. A year later, the event featured the work of almost fifty women among its entrants. In 1858, the state fair exhibition began, providing women another outlet to display their art. The listings from these events, together with the occasional art columns from newspapers and other publications, support the contention that a majority of the female exhibitors and others active in the region at the time, like their counterparts east of the Mississippi River, painted subjects traditionally considered appropriate for women -- portraits, still lifes, and local landscapes. Some, however, drawn by the state's scenic wonders and caught up in the fervor of the Hudson River School's adulation of nature, turned to the more untamed and rugged country for themes. Significant among the latter were Abby Tyler Oakes (1823-1898) and Mary Park Benton (1815-1910), both of whom had works in the Mechanics' Fair exhibitions in the 1850s and, in Benton's case, for many years after. During her brief stay in California, Oakes, the recipient of several awards for landscapes hung at these events, also received high praise from local news. papers for her studies of Yosemite and other Sierra Nevada scenes. Benton, who arrived in the state in 1855 and remained a resident until her death, also earned medals and produced canvases of the mountains and missions.
Others from this early California period to gain local notice were Anna M. Wells (1804-1894), Delia F. N. Brown (1819-c. 1901), Marianne I. Mathieu (1827-1897), and Helen Tanner Brodt (1838-1908). Wells was perhaps the first trained woman artist to arrive in the state, living initially in Monterey in 1854 before settling four years later in Santa Cruz, where she specialized in paintings of the region's Spanish period. Brown, who painted under the name Mrs. W. E. Brown, was active from the late 1850s and exhibited frequently, earning several premiums, among them a state fair award in 1870 for a view of Half Dome and the Merced River. Mathieu arrived in 1860 and gained her reputation primarily as a painter of still lifes -- vegetables, flowers, and fruit. She also executed some landscapes and studies of wildlife. Brodt followed her husband to California in 1863 and, during her subsequent career of more than four decades, produced numerous landscapes, scenes of missions and ranches, pioneer portraits, and illustrations for San Francisco publications.
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