Editor's note: The following brochure essay was reprinted in Resource Library on November 23, 2007 with the permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University directly through either this phone number or web address:
Amanda Snyder: Structures
by Roger Hull
The Oregon artist Amanda Tester Snyder (1894-1980) is well known for her paintings of birds, dolls, clowns, and still life, but her renderings of architectural structures are less frequently seen. This exhibition presents a selection of Snyder's paintings of houses, farm buildings, and other structural formations. Combining vigorous brushwork and rich color, these works reflect the emotional intensity of this self-effacing and reclusive artist. They also link her to a core group of early Oregon modernist painters including her friends C.S. Price, Charles Heaney, and Arthur and Albert Runquist.
Amanda Tester was born near Mountain City, Tennessee, in the heart of Appalachia. She was the oldest of the five children of William Jefferson Tester and Della Lee Hull Tester. Snyder's memories of her childhood in rural Tennessee remained vivid throughout her life, and she recalled that "we lived on a poor little old rocky farm" and that nearby was "the spring-house . . . made of heavy stones with a heavy door of moss-covered wood." The structure enclosed a natural spring. This combination of nature and architecture can be understood as a primary inspiration for Snyder's paintings of structures, which are often rural and interactive with the landscape that surrounds them.
In 1903, when Amanda Tester was nine years old, she moved with her family to Roseburg, Oregon. She began to draw and paint with sufficient promise that her teacher said, "Amanda, you are going to be an artist." The statement impressed itself in her memory and remained central to her self-realization as an artist. Her younger brother, Jeff, also showed aptitude for artmaking. Jefferson Tester (1899-1972) became a well-known illustrator, portraitist, and landscapist who worked in New York for twenty years. His career was far more extroverted and public than that of his sister, who confided that she found it daunting to be in a gathering of more than three persons.
Amanda Tester married Edmund Snyder in 1916. He was a descendant of the pioneer religious settlers who established the Aurora Colony in Oregon. Like the rural architecture of Tennessee, the nineteenth-century woodframe structures of Aurora captured her imagination. One of her early paintings of a structure is Birthplace, which depicts the Aurora farmhouse in which Edmund and his four siblings were born.
Edmund and Amanda Snyder lived in nearby Portland, where their son Eugene was born in 1918. Amanda Snyder took art classes at the Portland Museum Art School in 1917. In 1925, she and her brother studied occasionally with Sidney Bell, an academic portrait painter from England. Otherwise, she was self-taught, developing her own versions of Impressionist and then Expressionist styles, arriving independently at a mode of painting somewhat similar to the work of the French painter Georges Rouault. When she eventually learned of his work from C.S. Price, she initiated a correspondence with Rouault, whom she recognized as a kindred spirit, that lasted until his death in 1958. Discovering collage on her own, she made a number of mixed media works including Moon Over City, in which she combines oil pigment and burlap collage. In various ways, she independently established herself as a modern artist, working in isolation in her studio at her home in Portland. Suffering from spells of dizziness that were later diagnosed as symptoms of Meniere's disease, she rarely left the premises, stating that she found all the stimulation she needed in her house, garden, imagination, and occasional visitors (she painted over seventy portraits of people who sat for her, including several newspaper delivery boys).
Snyder first exhibited her work in the 1930s, when she was approaching the age of forty. She entered a still life in the Oregon Society of Artists exhibition in 1931 and won a blue ribbon. The next year she was represented in the "Artists in Portland and Vicinity" show at the Portland Art Museum. From then on, she exhibited steadily for the rest of her lifein thirty-two solo exhibitions and numerous group exhibitions including Annuals at the Portland and Seattle art museums. Though primarily a painter, she also made and exhibited blockprints, sculptures, and pottery, as well as collages.
Snyder's paintings of structures are a subset of her landscapes and also relate to her still life studies. As early as 1930, she created structures out of cardboard and used them as models, painting them as she would still life objects. "I built my little city of cardboard houses. And junk. They were my models. That is what Price used to do. But I did it even before I knew Price." Clayton Sumner Price (1874-1950), generally recognized as Oregon's pioneer modernist painter, settled in Portland in 1929, and Snyder met him that year. Price, Snyder, and their mutual friend Charles Heaney (1897-1981), who also painted from architectural models, became artistic soul mates beginning in the 1930s.
Structures in general and domiciles in particular were meaningful subjects for Snyder. Her signature on the bottom of a vase that she created in 1933 is accompanied by a monogram of a house on a hillside, suggesting that she saw herself and her creations in terms of homes and households. Generally her paintings of structures are devoid of human figures, evoking an atmosphere of solitude, quietude, and reverie. By subduing the anecdotal, she uses the subject of structures as the occasion for a study of forms and shapes. Whether working with a single structure or a hillside full of houses, she uses the rectangularity of walls, windows, and doors to echo the rectangularity of the painting itself. Some of her renderings are cubic if not Cubist in their sense of form. Like her friends Price and Heaney, she is heir to Cezanne.
When she was taking lessons from Sidney Bell in the 1920s, he told her that she had more color in her work than anyone else painting in Portland. Her color is intense and rich yet muted, subtle in the way it registers light and atmosphere while clearly remaining paint as such. Snyder is a modernist in her emphasis on paint as a vehicle for texture, planarity, and flatness, and one category of her work is almost totally abstract (Awning Stripes, comprised solely of vertical lines of paint, is painted on wood from the siding of an old barn). In most of her later paintings of structures, the instinct for abstraction is strong. In such works as the two variations of House by the Lake she paints with a freedom that pulls architecture and surrounding landscape into a blur of paintwork, reckless texture, and smoldering color.
Snyder's earliest paintings are of still life, and at times there is close affinity between her paintings of structures and her paintings of objects. When C.S. Price died in 1950, Snyder inherited his work table, easel, and cans of paint. In His Dear Old Paint Cans, she depicts Price's canisters in the form of a monument, piling them as if they were blocks of masonry in an edifice. They are made to form a solid and enduring structure in memory of a friend.
Amanda Snyder's first-person statements in this essay are quoted from Carl Gohs, "Birds, Clowns and Rag Dolls: An Artist Alone," Sunday Oregonian Northwest Magazine [Portland], 4 May 1969. For information on Snyder and her work, I am also indebted to conversations with and unpublished writings by Eugene Snyder as well as his monograph Oregon Originals: Amanda Sndyer and Jefferson Tester [Portland: Oregon Historical Society, 2006].
About the author
Roger Hull is Professor of Art History at Willamette University and Faculty Curator at the University's Hallie Ford Museum of Art. He earned his Ph.D. in art history at Northwestern University and has written articles on American photography and American art of the Pacific Northwest. He has curated exhibitions and written monographs on four Oregon artists: Eden Again: The Art of Carl Hall (2001), Intersections: The Life and Art of Jan Zach (2003), Charles E. Heaney: Memory, Imagination, and Place (2005), and George Johanson: Image and Idea (2007). The monographs are available by contacting the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Salem, Oregon.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on November 23, 2007 with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on November 19, 2007. Please click here to return to the Resource Library article concerning the exhibit Amanda Snyder: Structures.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to John Olbrantz, The Maribeth Collins Director, Hallie Ford Museum of Art for his help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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