Western Women Artists: An Overview

by Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick



Contemporary writings, city directories, and business gazetteers, as well as extant paintings and sketches of wilderness landscapes, Native Americans, pioneers, wildlife, historic structures, and the like, attest to the presence of women artists in other western locations, from Nebraska to the Pacific Northwest, in the 1870s and 1880s. They ranged from the gifted Harriet Foster Beecher (1854- 915), who was trained in San Francisco and settled in Seattle to become one of its finest artists, to the self-taught Imogene See (1848-1940), a New Yorker whose reputation was based on a series of small Nebraska sod-house pictures. Each in her own way contributed to our cultural heritage by producing visual records of the fast-disappearing western frontier.

The 1870s also witnessed the introduction of Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938) to the West. When Foote left New York City in 1876 to join her husband in California, she was a successful illustrator, a field that was opened to women after the Civil War. In the next nineteen years, while moving from place to place, Foote gained recognition as both an illustrator and a writer. Her depictions of western life in both media reached a national audience through the pages of Scribner's and The Century, and her novels, such as The Led-Horse Claim, The Chosen Valley, and Coeur D'Alene, were widely read. Her fame, due in part to her success as a writer, was unique among women artists in the West, many of whom likewise deserved wider recognition.

Beginning in the early 1890s and continuing into the 1930s, women artists enjoyed greater opportunities for recognition. Their increasing numbers and successes in the fields of art and illustration led to a growing acceptance of them as professional artists. Organizers of many exhibitions, some of which were international in scope, invited women to participate. The first one of real significance to those who worked with western themes was the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. At this event, Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865-1937), a native Californian who has come to be recognized as a major painter of Native Americans, particularly the Porno, became the first of her sex to win an award for a western canvas in an exhibition of this magnitude. Her Little Mendocino, a captivating oil of a crying Pomo baby that had caused a sensation at the Mechanics' Institute fair exhibition in San Francisco earlier that year, hung in the California Building at the exposition and earned the artist an honorable mention and much publicity. The Chicago exposition was also notable because a woman designed the Women's Building, unlike the Women's Pavilion at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876.

In subsequent exhibitions of international scope, other women gained recognition for their offerings. Alice Cooper (1875-1937) achieved celebrity when the organizing committee of the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland in 1905 accorded her life-size sculpture of Sacajawea the place of honor. Ten years later, E. Charlton Fortune (1885-1969) received a silver medal and M. Evelyn McCormick (1862-1948) a bronze medal at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Fortune's works included Carmel Mission, an oil; McCormick exhibited Old Custom House: Monterey, also an oil.

Women who worked with western themes also began to be represented more frequently in exhibitions of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Academy of Design, the American Watercolor Society, the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors (now the National Association of Women Artists), and the National Sculpture Society. Among them, Margaret Longstreth (1864-1918) produced numerous Native American portraits and western landscapes between 1897 and 1909; Georgia Timken Fry (1864-1921) did many views of Arizona's Grand Canyon; Bertha Menzler-Peyton (1871-1947) captured the nuances of the Arizona desert country in her paintings for more than thirty years; and Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel (1870-1954) painted the Native Americans of the Southwest and their environs, but achieved her greatest fame for watercolors of California landscapes. One of the latter, The Sierra Madre, appeared as the frontispiece of the catalogue for the 1911 annual exhibition of the American Watercolor Society.

The entrance of the railroads into the field of western art also was instrumental in bringing attention to the work of women artists. Several companies, seeking to publicize attractions along their routes in order to stimulate ticket sales, began acquiring western landscapes and genre paintings either by purchase or by offering artists passage and lodging expenses in exchange for canvases. The Santa Fe Railway Company was particularly ambitious. It started its permanent collection in 1903 and through the years amassed an impressive number of works, many done by women. During the first decade alone, its energetic chief of advertising, William H. Simpson, seeking realistic and romanticized renditions of southwestern subjects seen along the railway's route, acquired more than thirty-five canvases by women; these were displayed in ticket offices, passenger stations, and Fred Harvey restaurants and reproduced in company literature. By the mid-1930s, the number had more than doubled and included Isleta Indian Home Life by Alice Cleaver (1870-1944); Grand Canyon from Tonto Trail by Grace Betts (1883-1978); Wachtel's California Mountains; Kap-l-T-Wa, Governor of the Zuni by Cornelia Cassady Davis (1868-1920); Navajo Indians at Desert Water Hole by Marjorie Thomas (1885-1978); Prospector's Outfit, Salt River by Jessie Benton Evans (1866-1954); Pike's Peak, Colorado by Zula Kenyon (1873-1947); Menzler-Peyton's Evening on Arizona Desert; Taos Pueblo by Ila McAfee. (1897-1995); and San Luis Rey Mission by Edith White (1855-1946).

Although less involved, the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific railroads also used works by women in their advertising. In its building at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904, the Great Northern displayed twenty-one northwestern landscapes by the Washington artist Abby Williams Hill (1861-1943), completed after arduous treks. into the northern Cascades. The paintings also appeared in 30,000 brochures and were distributed to visitors at the fair. In the following year, Northern Pacific exhibited Hill's paintings of Yellowstone and other places in Montana and Idaho at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition. In 1926 another woman, Kathryn Leighton (1875-1952), figured prominently in the promotional plans of the Great Northern. After sponsoring her summer sketching trip to Glacier National Park, the company purchased her entire output of Blackfoot portraits and sent them on a national tour accompanied by an expert on Native American lore.


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