Western Women Artists: An Overview

by Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick



Relatively few women artists of any importance were active in other regions of the West during the 1850s and 1860s. The most unique exception was the French-born Eugenie Aubanel Lavender (1817-1898), a well-trained painter who sketched Texas scenes as early as 1851. Other significant regional artists of the time were Mary Achey (1832-1886) and Margaretta Favorite Brown (1818-1897). Achey, an 1860 arrival in Colorado, became the territory's first resident female artist, noted for paintings and drawings of subjects ranging from fruit studies and portraits to Rocky Mountain landscapes and Native American buffalo hunts. Brown, who settled in Idaho in 1862, apparently was not a prolific artist, but after a decade in the territory she gained a reputation as one of its most important painters, recognized especially for her primitive renditions of mining scenes and pioneer portraits.

Ironically, the only woman artist of the time to have her western pictures seen by a national audience was Fanny Palmer (1812-1876), who herself never traveled west of New Jersey! Her lithographs, particularly those done for Currier and Ives, such as Rocky Mountains, Emigrants Crossing the Plains (1866) and Across the Continent, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1868), effectively captured the spirit of the western frontier as perceived by easterners, despite their inaccuracies.

The completion of the Union Pacific-Central Pacific Railroad in 1869 and the subsequent construction of other transcontinental railroads and numerous trunk lines opened up the West to artists. California, with its burgeoning population still heavily concentrated in the San Francisco Bay area, continued to be the place most frequented by women artists. Its appeal was enhanced in 1871 with the formation of the San Francisco Art Association, the first such organization in the West. Three years later, it could boast of another first, the establishment of the California School of Design, whose first class of sixty students included forty-six women.

During the 1870s and 1880s, many women in California continued to find Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy valleys, Lake Tahoe, the redwood country of Mendocino County, and Santa Cruz's Boulder Creek region desirable sketching areas. Others preferred the historic missions, adobes, and other themes. The listings of the annual exhibitions of the California State Fair reveal a variety of topics and the participation of many women.

Without a doubt, the single most important event for California women artists in the nineteenth century was the First Annual Exhibition of the Lady Artists of San Francisco. The event, sponsored by the San Francisco Art Association in December of 1885, featured more than 270 works by eighty-one artists. Although relatively few of the items shown were of western subjects, the exhibition was the first in the West to focus such attention on women artists and demonstrated to the public that many of them were more than mere "Sunday painters."

Colorado was another important location in the West that began to gain converts among the women artists. Like California, it had experienced rapid growth following gold and silver strikes. Denver and Colorado Springs were particularly popular places. The list of early visitors included Rose Kingsley (1844-1925), who produced some sketches while visiting during the winter of 1871-1872 in Colorado Springs (and briefly in 1874) and later wrote of her experiences; Eliza Greatorex (1819-1897), an associate of the National Academy of Design who produced etchings of landscapes in and around Colorado Springs in 1873; Rosina Emmet Sherwood (1854-1948) the prominent New York artist and illustrator who painted in the Rocky Mountains during an 1881 trip; and Georgina de L'Aubiniere (1848-1930), a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy in London who did mountain scenery during a mid-I880 visit before going with her husband to paint in California and British Columbia.

Colorado's most important resident woman artist of the period was Helen Henderson Chain (1848-1892). She settled in Denver in 1871 and by the time of her death had become a major landscape painter in the West. Not only was she the first women to paint the Mount of the Holy Cross on site (1877), just two years after Thomas Moran executed his famous canvas, but she was also the first to exhibit New Mexico pueblo scenes at the National Academy of Design (1882) and more than likely was the first to sketch the Grand Canyon of Arizona on location (c. 1883). Although no other contemporary woman in the state matched her fame, so many artists turned to the mountains for subject matter that a writer for the Denver Tribune, commenting on the art display at the Mining and Industrial Exposition of 1882, lamented, "Sometimes we wish there never was a Pike." To their credit, Chain and other Denver women formed the all-woman Le Brun Art Club in 1891, which, although short-lived, helped to bring an art consciousness to the city and had much to do with the founding of the Artists' Club of Denver two years later.


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