Friday, January 25, 2013

Where were the Asian Female Artists? Meet Okuhara Seiko.

In the writing of this blog, it is my intention to include female artists of all nationalities. However, it has been a challenge to locate more than a handful of Asian women artists in America that were born much before the end of the nineteenth century. The artists are presented somewhat chronologically, with an attempt to write of the women who were painting, drawing, weaving, quilting, and creating pottery from the earliest period of settlement in the West, but, while white women and Native Americans were creating a variety of artwork, Asian women struggled for place.

Most 19th Century Chinese immigrants were single men.
The Byrom-Daufel family of Tualatin retained this portrait, but descendants no longer have the Chinese family name.
Photo courtesy of the Byrom-Daufel family.
There were few women who arrived during the first wave of Chinese who came to America. In 1850, the Chinese community of San Francisco consisted of 4018 men and only seven women. [1] By 1855, women made up only two percent of the Chinese population in the United States, and thirty-five years later, in 1890, it had increased to only 4.8 percent. The lack of Chinese women in the general population was due, in part, to the prohibitive cost of the voyage and few work opportunities for Chinese women in America. In addition, harsh working conditions and the traditional female responsibility of looking after the children and extended family back in China restricted opportunities for women. Cultural issues such as bound feet, regardless of class, and the expectation of not leaving the home until a marriage was arranged, narrowed women's power to select their own paths. 
Japanese sugar plantation workers in Hawaii around 1890
Japanese sugar plantation workers in Hawaii around 1890.
(Hawaii State Archives)
The history of Japanese emigrating to America begins in the mid-nineteenth century as well. The first Japanese immigrants to the United States, known as Issei, or "first generation," arrived in California as early as 1869. By the mid-1800s, the first major influx of immigrants was recorded as Japanese laborers began working in the sugarcane fields in Hawaii and on farms and ranches in California.

According to the 1900 U.S. Census, 24, 326 Japanese were living in America, primarily on the West Coast. Of that number, 393 were listed their residence in Wyoming. By 1910, the total population of Japanese in America had grown to 72,157, with nearly 2,000 living in Wyoming.[2] During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, white plantation owners imported large numbers of workers from Asia, primarily from China and Japan. The first labor recruits came from China in 1850. By 1887, 26,000 Chinese were working on Hawaii’s sugar cane plantations, however, approximately 38 percent of them eventually returned to China. Between 1868 and 1924, 200,000 Japanese workers came to Hawaii; eventually, about 55 percent of them returned to Japan. During this same period, 7,300 Korean workers came to Hawaii; 16 percent eventually returned home.[3] The pull to return to their home countries, especially with the severe conditions borne by the workers, disconnect from family, linguistic differences between groups thrown together on the plantation, and discrimination, remained powerful.

Asian female artists did exist in the East and in the United States. According to authors Deborah Cherry and Janice Helland in their book Local/Global: Women Artists in the Nineteenth Century, a group of forty-four Japanese women were selected to represent their nation, and exhibited their art at the Chicago World's Fair in 1983. Noguchi Shonin and Okuhara Seiko were part of a large, well established cultural group
in Tokyo with political, literary, and artistic achievements and, like many of their Western counterparts, taught aspiring young artists in their community, 'funded by the Empress and run by her daughter, Princess Yasu Mori.' [4]

In the West, women's artistic endeavors were increasingly in a studio-a "room of one's own" which became a necessary location in which to create. [5] For Asian women, their artistic practice and training often took place in an area of the family home. Families then, as now, varied by number, structure, relationships, region of origin, and dwelling. In addition, the family's attitude towards art and the practice of art by women had a significant effect on whether the woman would, or could proceed. Artistic families made demands that affected an artist's choice of genre or restricted access to her workspace and materials. The family could prove to be both beneficial and detrimental. What a woman artist made, or what she aspired to make, was closely connected to the spaces she inhabited and to her social relationships.

Okuhara Seiko
Okuhara Seiko
The aforementioned Japanese poet and painter, Okuhara Seiko, was born in what is now the Ibaraki Prefecture, located on the central eastern coast of Japan. Seiko was the daughter of a high-ranking samurai, a highly respected Nanga painter, poet and teacher who lived and worked in Edo (now called Tokyo) in late 19th century Japan. Seiko was an intelligent, educated, woman  who was considered a feminist revolutionary. During the period in which Japan was becoming increasingly westernized, Seiko wore men's clothing, cropped her hair, and explored her interest in martial arts. She was largely self-taught as a painter but did study under the Chinese-style poet Onuma Chinzan (1818–91), the painter Hirata Suiseki (1801–68) of the Tani Buncho school and the Rangaku (‘Dutch studies’) scholar Takami Senseki (1785–1858). [6]Her expressively brushed ink paintings, calligraphy, and loosely washed color paintings of her ‘Tokai Seiko’ period (1870s–1880s) are reminiscent of those of the 18th-century Chinese Yangzhou. Her work attracted a number of patrons, and hundreds of pupils trained at her school of Chinese studies and painting.

File:Okuhara Seiko 1.jpg
Okuhara Seiko
Geese and Autumn Grasses
ca. 1880

Her artwork and her independent lifestyle paved the way for vanguard women artists for generations to come, and the inscription on this painting bears witness to the strength of her convictions: “I, Seiko, have indeed arrived at the state in which I could control my brush at my will and scatter ink at my wish. I established my own style no longer emulating the old masters.” [7]

Seiko retired to Kumagaya, north of Tokyo, where she continued to paint in her country villa studio until just a year before her death. Her works include mokkotsu (‘boneless’; without bounding outlines) landscape, flower paintings, bold calligraphy from the 1870s and shinkei zu (‘true view’ paintings), her screens of the Sumida River in Spring, and a handscroll of the Tsukigase Plum-blossom Valley. Most of her works remain in regional private collections, however, a major collection of her works reside in the Koga City Museum of History, the Tokyo National Museum, the Ibaraki Museum of Modern Art, the Prefectural History Museum, Mito, Saitama Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, and the Municipal History Museum in Koga. [8]

Okuhara Seiko
Crow on a Willow Branch with Orange Sky
c.a. 1930s
11 1/4 x 11 inches

1. Asia Pacific. Chang Phil, Asians in America Timeline. (Accessed January 21,  2013).
2. Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, Coming to America. The Issei: Early Japanese Migration. (Accessed January 23, 2013).
3. Encyclopedia of Immigration, Hawaii. Published December 22, 2011. (Accessed January 24, 2013).
4. Weimann, 1981. 274.
5. Woolf, 1929.
6. Art Fact, Okuhara Seiko (1837-1913). (Accessed January, 25, 2013).
7. Okuhara Seiko Biography. (Accessed January, 25, 2013).
8. Art Fact. (Acessed January 25, 2013).

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Dat So La Lee: Washoe Basketmaker Extraordinaire

Dat So La Lee.jpg
Dat So La Lee
"Louisa Keyser"
Nevada Historical Society, Reno
Dat So La Lee (approximately 1829-1925) was, and remains, the most well-known of the Nevada Indian basket weavers.  Born in the Carson Valley, Lee grew up and lived in the region before the arrival of European settlers, and is believed to have seen American explorer John C. Frémont pass through on one of his many expeditions west. Lee's given name was Dabuda (which means "young willow") and she did not become known as Da So La Lee until approximately 1899 when the Washoe honored her accomplishments by awarding her the name Dat So La Lee, which translates to "The Queen Of Washoe Indian Basket makers."

Just as a number of the pueblos such as San Il Defonso and Santa Clara in New Mexico were known for their pottery, the Washoe were known for their fine basketry. For the native people of the Great Basin, weaving carries both historical and contemporary significance. In their past, the Shoshone, Paiute, and Washoe people practiced a way of life based in part on the seasonal harvest of wild plant resources, and weaving provided most of their tools used to harvest, prepare, and store these foods. As Euro-American people moved west into the lands of the Great Basin Indian people, ways of life were forced to change. Although native people adopted many Euro-American goods, weaving baskets endured as a symbol of native identity and artistic expression. [1]

 As their way of life began to disappear due to the encroachment of the Euro-Americans, the Indians lost their lands, and tribes that were historically unfriendly and who did not speak the same languages were relocated to two reservations at Pyramid and Walker Lakes. Forests were cut down, commercial fishing depleted the fish for the tribes and the Washoe, along with other tribes in the region were decimated. With no support from the government, the Washoe were forced to adapt under the pressures of colonialism. [2]

In 1888, Dat-So-La-Lee married Charlie Keyser, a part Washoe Indian who took his name from the family that owned the Keyser and Elrod Ranch in the Carson Valley. At this time, Lee took the name Louisa Keyser. Charlie was twenty-four years younger than she, and an expert arrow craftsman. [3]

Many women, like Dat So La Lee, moved near white settlements where they could obtain employment. In 1895, Lee began to work as a servant for Amy and Abraham Cohn who owned an Cohn's Emporium from which they sold Lee's unique baskets. The Cohns built a home for Lee and Charlie, and supported them so she could continue to weave and refine her art. From 1895 until Charlie's death in 1928, all of their expenses were taken care of by the Cohns. The couple traveled to Lake Tahoe every summer where Cohn had provided another home for them near Tahoe Tavern and Louisa (Lee) traveled extensively with the Cohns to arts and crafts exhibits.

Dat So La Lee at work
Nevada Historical Society
There is no doubt, however, the Cohns took advantage of Lee. Although her basketry was revered, like many Native Americans of the day Dat So La Lee was presented by Amy Cohn as the noble savage through her lectures. "To the whole audience there was no incongruity in having a white woman explain the basket's symbols, while the weaver herself remained silent." [4]  In addition, Dat So La Lee's image was displayed on flyers as a simple-minded, unattractive native with whom Abe Cohn had to deal. Although Lee lived a comfortable life, the Cohns fabricated much of her life to meet their own needs.
Lee perfected the art of basketweaving and is credited with revolutionizing the all aspects of Washoe basket weaving with the invention of a style called Degikup. A degikup basket is a larger basket that has a small, circular base which then coils up and outward to a maximum circumference, which then decreases until the opening at the top is the same diameter as the base. The design on the basket covers most of the surface. In addition, she introduced a dye called Redbud which was used along with a black dye for decoration. Louisa was also influential in establishing the direction for the new curio style and the three coil method as well.
Louisa Keyser (Dat So La Lee)
Degikup Basket


Lee died in 1925 and is buried in the Stewart Indian Cemetery in Carson City, Nevada. Her baskets can be found at the Smithsonian, the Nevada State Museum in Carson City, and the Nevada Historical Society in Reno.
Dat So La Lee with Husband, Charlie
Photographer unknown
Early 1900s

Enjoy a short video about Dat So La Lee -

1. O.N.E. Online Nevada Encyclopedia. (Accessed January 17, 2013).
2.The Washoe Cultural Resources Office. Wa She Shu: The Washoe People Past and Present. (Accessed January 18, 2013).
3. Nevada Women's History Project. Women's Biographies: Dat So La Lee. (Accessed January 17, 2013).
4. Cohodas, M. In R. Moreno (Ed.), The historical Nevada Magazine: outstanding historical features from the pages of Nevada Magazine (Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press). (1998). 91.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Clara Sheldon Smith: Intrepid Photographer

Unidentified Woman Photographer
ca. 1885
Photographs have an uncanny ability to transport us to a moment in time. The fascination with very old pictures never wanes...we can look into the eyes of vibrant people who had lives, families, careers, and homes that are now long gone. Landscapes that incorporate city scenes from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries present a scene unlike the New York, Chicago, or San Francisco of today. Photography differs from painting or drawing in that it truly captures a fragment of reality. The medium not only recorded discoveries that changed our lives, but the banal experiences of everyday life. Those artists who were working when the camera became a working tool, found value in the answers to the debate about what is real and what is not. In addition, the camera challenged traditional modes of representation that had existed since the Renaissance.

Initially, photography was only for professionals or for the wealthy until George Eastman started his company, Kodak. In 1888, he introduced a simple camera to consumers along with the slogan, "You push the button, we do the rest."[1] Eastman created a flexible roll film that led  to the development of a self-contained box camera with a small single lens. The camera was basic, with no lens focusing adjustment and held 100 exposures of film. After the consumers finished the roll, they sent the camera back to the factory for the film to be developed, much like our disposable cameras today. This was the first camera inexpensive enough for the average person to afford.
Advertisement for the first hand-held Kodak Camera
The Photographic Herald and Amateur Sportsman, November, 1889.

As with any new technological invention, some artists viewed the camera as a tool, an auxiliary to painting, while others feared that the photograph would eclipse the painstaking skills developed by artists and render them irrelevant. Photography was perfectly suited to the rapid changes in art and society as patronage shifted from the elite to a broader base of support, and as the rise of the middle class embraced the camera and its lower cost. Making portraits was an important economic opportunity to artists unlike the lengthy process of painting or drawing a likeness. Photography was one of the few nineteenth century professions (along with teaching and nursing) that was considered socially acceptable. It opened doors for women in a field that was not only condoned by society, but could be daring and exciting for those women looking for an interesting, alternative way to make a living. 

Loves Point 1903
Clara Sheldon Smith
Lovers Point Beach, pier and Bathhouse
 Hopkins Laboratory (now, Hopkins Marine Station) in the distance
Pacific Grove, California
ca. 1903

Clara Sheldon Smith was born in California in July 1862. A professional photographer whose work spanned the years 1896 to 1908, Smith was known for her portraits and regional landscapes. Smith's accomplishments included photographing the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake and a fire shot from a helium balloon.[2] Smith worked primarily in Marysville, a small town in the Sacramento Valley where she opened the Ramona Art Studio, her first photography studio, set up in a tent. Her early work focused on portraits and commercial assignments including a contract with the city from 1900 to 1908 for whom she photographed over 500 pictures of local criminals. Her "rogues gallery" included many prisoners who were brought unannounced to her studio, where she simply photographed them using lighting and backgrounds set up for her regular customers! [3]

Clara Sheldon Smith
Claude F. Hankins
Caption reads:
"In 1904 Claude Hankins , aged 14,
was convicted of murder and paroled after serving four years."
 Smith's portraits combined sensitivity with informality to reflect her unique vision, which allowed her to bring out the personality of her subjects. When she sold her studio in 1908, the Marysville Daily Appeal reported that "Mrs. Smith has...built up a business, the volume of which was so great she could not handle it alone" (Sept. 16, 1908).[4] It appears that Smith walked away from photography, as in 1914, she and her husband, Frank, bought a local movie theatre and stayed in that business until Frank died in 1935.

Smith's artfully composed landscapes and commercial photographs remain important from an historical perspective. Visitors to the Community Memorial Museum of Sutter County, will see a photograph of D Street in Marysville or Bridge Street in Yuba City and recognize buildings that still exist, but the unpaved streets with trolley tracks serve as a reminder that more than one hundred years have passed. [5] 

Clara Sheldon Smith
D Street, Marysville, California
Unfortunately, no photographs of Clara Sheldon Smith have been located. Smith's work, however, is documented in Shadowcatchers: A Directory of Women in California Photography 1900-1920 (Palmquist, 1991) and a biographical sketch is also found in Camera Craft: Commercial Photography of the Sacramento Valley (1900-1945), a 1982 publication of the Sacramento History Center. Smith's work is purported to be in a number of private collections. Nine portraits and one outdoor scene are in the collection of the Women in Photography International Archive located in Arcata, California. [6]

1. History of Kodak. (accessed January 16, 2013).
2. Ressler, Susan R., ed. Women Artists of the American West. (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.) 2003. 334.
3. Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: A Cultural History. (Great Britain: Laurence King Publishing, Ltd.) 2002. 224.
4. Ressler. Women Artists of the American West. 334.
5. Sutter County California. August 2011. (Accessed January 16, 2013).
6. Ressler. Women Artists of the American West. 334.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Women at the Lens: Early Female Photographers in the West

Eliza W. Withington
Studio Portrait with Rabbit

Ambrotype, circa 1850s
Photographic authenticity had a long-established tradition in the United States. By the end of the nineteenth century there were three types of photographers: the professional, the artist, and the amateur. The lines between the types were distinct but those in each category could easily move between them. Women were participating in the business of art and photography from its earliest days, but it was when the availability of commercially prepared dry-plate glass negatives in the 1870s followed by the development of rolled negatives on flexible film in 1888 appeared that precipitated a flood of female photographers.[1] Although there existed prevalent gender-bias at that time, artist-photographers were less threatened by the presence of women working in their midst than they were by the amateurs and professional studios churning out photographs for an eager and ever expanding audience.[2]  

The camera, a technological device of incredible consequence for the modern experience was created shortly before mid-nineteenth-century.  The medium, itself a product of science with its relative ease of process, was an enormously useful tool for recording the century’s discoveries seemed a dream come true for both scientists and artists. Artists had struggled for centuries to capture accurate images of their subjects, and photography provided the ability to capture the exact representation of the sitter-if not the soul. Photography challenged the place of traditional modes of pictorial representation originating in the Renaissance.

Early artists such as Elizabeth Withington (active 1857-1876) and Julia A. Rudolph (active 1852-1890) saw it as a mechanism capable of delving into  the character of those they photographed, representing the optical truth of their chosen subjects.[3]   Photography was also perfectly suited to an era which saw artistic patronage shift away from the elite few, toward a growing and increasingly powerful middle class that embraced both the images of the new medium and its affordable cost. By the late nineteenth century, photography had begun to become a recognized art form and was perceived as a vocation particularly suited to the “intuitive” female spirit, a profession in which women could excel, as they had in painting, printmaking, pottery, and woodcarving. [4]

Mrs. Julia Shannon
"Midwife and Daguerreian"
Advertisement, 1850
The history of photography in California begins possibly even before the gold rush when a young woman by the name of Epifania Gertrudis "Fanny" Vallejo, made a daguerreotype likeness of her mother which was mounted in a ring and worn by her father, General Vallejo. During the gold rush, San Francisco was rapidly transformed from a small village of about 200 residents in 1846, to a boom town of nearly 36,000 by 1852. There were very few women and even fewer respectable ladies. The first professional woman photographer, Julia Shannon, advertised herself as a daguerreotypist and a midwife as early as 1850.[5]
In the midst of the influx of newcomers to the city, Shannon, made her appearance advertising in the January, 1850 issue of San Francisco Alta:
"Notice -- Daguerreotypes taken by a Lady. -- Those wishing to have a good likeness are informed that they can have them taken in a very superior manner, and by a real live lady too, in Clay street, opposite the St. Francis Hotel, at a very moderate charge. Give her a call, gents."[6]

The first early female photographer I'd like to discuss is Eliza W. Withington. In 1852, Withington, accompanied by her younger daughter, traveled overland from St. Joseph, Missouri, to join her husband, George (1821-1900), who was operating a ranch in Amador County, California. The challenges of the trip were chronicled in the journal of a fellow migrant, Mary Stewart Bailey (see Jeanne Hamilton Watson, To the Land of Gold and Wickedness: The 1848-59 Diary of Lorrena L. Hayes).[7] In order to learn the art of photography, Withington traveled to the East coast in 1857. During her time in New York City, she visited the Matthew Brady Gallery (one of the most innovative and celebrated photographers of the nineteenth century).

Eliza W. Withington
 In January of  the year1857, Withington returned to California and opened her "Excelsior Ambrotype Gallery." In addition to photography, she offered lessons in Oriental Pearl Painting, a nineteenth-century parlor art popular among women. A 1857 newspaper advertisement described her gallery as having "a large and well arranged skylight." The studio was located on Main Street in Ione City, "first door west of the bridge," open to business on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. An additional comment was made by the newspaper editor: "She is an accomplished lady and most excellent artist... Just think of it -- your picture taken by Lady!" [8]
Withington's second daughter joined her in California later in 1857. After the death of her infant son in 1861, she seems to have stopped working for a time. It was not until 1871, after her daughters left home and she separated from her husband, that Withington's work reappears in print. As she resumed her career, Withington escaped the summer heat by touring small towns and mining sites in the mountains "by stage, private convey" or, when necessary, by hitching a ride on a passing "fruit wagon." Withington devised a uniquely assembled kit of travel-ready camera equipment, including supplies for developing her negatives in the field. Some of her home inventions included eight "dark, thick dress skirts" used as a makeshift developing tent and a "strong, black-linen cane-headed parasol" used to shade the lenses and as a walking stick for "climbing mountains and sliding into ravines." [9]

Eliza W. Withington
Eliza Withington was an intrepid and enthusiastic photographer. In addition to photography she was also a writer. In 1876, she wrote a fascinating article, "How a Woman Makes Landscape Photographs," that was published in the Philadelphia Photographer. Withington died of cancer in March 1877- she was just 51 years old.

 1. Cornelia Butler and Alexandra Schwartz, eds., Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art. Essay: Sarah Hermanson Meister, Crossing the Line: Frances Benjamin Johnston and Gertrude Käsebier as Professionals and Artists. (New York: Department of Publications, Museum of Modern Art. 2010).
2.  On the surge of female photographers, see Peter E. Palmquist, Camera Fields and Kodak Girls: 50 Selections by and about Women in Photography, 1840-1930 (New York: Abbeville Press, 1994).
 3. Kleiner, Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 884.
 4. Naomi Rosenblum, A History of Women Photographers (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1994).
5. Palmquist, Peter E. Women Artists of the American West. 100 Years of California Photography by Women, 1850-1950. (Accessed January 14, 2013).
6. Brown, Mary. Found SF, A Woman's View 19th Century San Francisco Women Photographers: Historical Essay. 1997. (Accessed January 14, 2013).
7. Palmquist, Peter. Clio: Visualizing History. Elizabeth W. Withington. (Accessed January 14, 2013).
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
Additional Reading
Palmquist, Peter E., and Gia Musso. Women Photographers: A Selection of Images from the Women ln Photography International Archive 1850-1997. Kneeland, California: Iaqua Press, 1997.
Palmquist, Peter E.. "Pioneer Women Photographers in Nineteenth-Century California," California History (Spring 1992), pp. 111-127+.
Palmquist, Peter E.. Shadowcatchers: A Directory of Women ln California Photography Before 1901. Arcata, California: Published by the author, 1990.
Palmquist, Peter E. (editor). Camera Fiends & Kodak Girls: Writings by and About Women Photographers 1840-1930. New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1989.
Palmquist, Peter E. "Stereo Artist, Mrs. E. W. Withington; or, 'How I Use My Skirt for a Darktent,'" Stereo World, vol. 10, no. 5 (November/December 1983), pp. 20-21+.
Withington, Mrs. E. W. "How a Woman Makes Landscape Photographs," The Philadelphia Photographer, vol. 13, no. 156 (December 1876), pp. 357-360.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mary Park Benton: One of the "First Ladies of Painting."

Mary Park Benton
August 10, 1815 to December 6, 1910
Dozens of lists of female artists working since the beginning of record-keeping are available for any researcher or curious scholar from which to select a name. Hundreds of women, unfamiliar to the average reader, created beautiful paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs, but there is little information about their work and their lives, unless one digs deeper to learn more about these remarkable people. They are artists who, in many cases, managed to achieve a notable reputation, an impressive body of work, and awards that validate the quality of their oeuvre.

The earlier in time the artist's life and work, the more challenging it is to uncover anything but the most basic information with regard to them. In addition, societal attitudes, women's changing names through marriage, divorce, widowhood, and, perhaps, remarriage, clouds the research. And when is it appropriate for girls to be creative, and to continue to use that creativity for more than the creation of a great recipe? An article by Janet Piirto written in 2000 entitled "Why Are There So Few (Creative Women: Visual Artists, Mathematicians, Scientists, Musicians)?" addresses some of these concerns.

Piirto states..what Loeb called the If I haven't dusted the furniture and made-the-beds-do-I- have-the-right-to-begin- carving?-syndrome afflicts many women. The profession of artist demands an extraordinary commitment in terms of willingness to take rejection, to live in poverty, and to be field independent. Those are traits of committed males, but not of committed females, who usually choose careers as art educators, but not as artists. [1] Even today, well into the twenty-first century, women are still called upon, and expected to sacrifice career to be wives and mothers, to be the primary caregivers that support the careers of their husbands. However, women have more choices and opportunities today than ever before in history including whether or not they choose to marry, have a family, or focus solely on a career.

If we step back one hundred years to the early twentieth century, women's roles were much more clearly defined in the days of pre-suffrage, reliable birth control, participation in higher education, and the women's movement. For a number of years feminist historians and scholars have published diaries, letters, and books written by women in the West including Martha Sunnerhays's Vanished Arizona, Susan Shelby Magoffin's Down the Santa Fe Trail, and Lillian Schlissel's Far From Home.[2] Those recollections provide a particular point of view by the women who lived through those times-that of loneliness, longing for family, friends, and comforts left behind, loss of husbands or children along the trail or at a remote frontier outpost, and sometimes terror, frustration, or disgust with their new lives.

The vision of the West, through the eyes of the greater than 1,100 women who drew and painted it, presents quite a different picture than the written word. Women artists were, in turn, awed, stunned, amazed, and enthralled by the beauty and unusual landscape. They were seldom interested in the depiction of the melodrama and violence of the region. For the most part, female artists were compassionate to the plight and conditions of the Native Americans and they portrayed them respectfully.

As early as the 1850s women were exhibiting regularly in San Francisco. Women also played a tremendous role in the development of art communities in the West through their affiliations with art schools as artists and educators, art associations, art colonies, and public art exhibitions.[3] Since the arrival of one of the first ladies of painting over one hundred years ago, women have supported and promoted the arts in the West.

Mary Park Benton was born in Boston and raised in New York. She was interested in art at a young age and began her drawing studies at eight years old. By fourteen, she began to paint, and, after completing her education, continued her study of art as she opened a studio and exhibited frequently. A Progressive, Benton also gained recognition for her interest in prison reform, helping the poor, and raising delinquent children out of the slums. In 1850,at thirty five years of age, Benton married the Reverend John Eliot Benton. In 1855, Benton and their three year old daughter joined him in San Francisco where he had moved to organize a church in the Mission district (known as Mission Valley at that time) of the city. They worked to raise money where John Benton founded San Francisco's first Protestant church. Benton continued to paint, teach art in the San Francisco and Oakland public schools, and held Sunday school classes for boys at the Blake Seminary.[4]

Mary Park Benton
A View of Yosemite Valley
Oil on canvas
32 x 52 inches
Benton worked in oils, pastels, watercolor, and pencil drawings as she created landscapes, still lifes, and missions, many with western themes. Her painting style was realistic, she did not embrace the California Impressionist plein-air style, nor was she a tonalist. Written records of her paintings include Indian Vespers (1856-57), Mission Dolores (1857), Yo-semite Falls (1859), and Donner Lake (1868), but this researcher was unable to locate visual copies to include in this post. Active in the Bay area art scene, especially as a founding member of the Ebell Society of Oakland, Benton exhibited widely and achieved a reputation as both artist and philanthropist. Her studio, the site of exhibitions and displays, served as the society's first home. Benton died on December 6, 1910 in Oakland.
1. Piirto, Jane. Why Are There So Few? (Creative Women: Visual Artists, Mathematicians, Scientists, Musicians). 2000. (Accessed January 11, 2013).
2. Kovinick Will and Yoshiki-Kovinich, Marian. An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West. (Austin: University of Texas Press), 1998.
3. Moore, Sylvia, ed. Yesterday and Tomorrow: California Women Artists. (New York: Midmarch Arts Press). 1989. 64.
4. Lekisch, Barbara. Embracing Scenes about Lakes Donner and Tahoe: Painters, Illustrators, and Sketch Artists, 1855-1915. (Lafayette: Great West Books) 2003. 13. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel: Painter of Western Landscapes

Marion Ida Kavanaugh Wachtel
June 10, 1870(6?) - May 22, 1954
 At the end of the first post of this Blog, I included a photograph of Marion Wachtel along with one of her pieces. As a well-known tonalist, plein-air watercolorist, and later, painter with oils, Wachtel deserves a post of her own.

Wachtel was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to a family that was fully committed to the pursuit of art. Her mother, Jean, and her great grandfather, who had been a member of the Royal Academy in London, were both artists.[1] Jean was a leading Milwaukee painter and teacher with whom Wachtel studied at a young age. She went on to study with Henry Spread in Chicago, with John H. Vanderpoel, Pauline Doane, and Frederick Freer at the Art Institute of Chicago, and with William Merrit Chase in New York. [2]

In her early career, Marion Wachtel taught in the Chicago public schools and at the Art Institute where she established a reputation as a portrait painter, but she was unhappy in the classroom. In 1903, one of her landscapes made an impression on a vice president for the Santa Fe Railroad. When he offered her free passage to California in exchange for murals of Western landscapes for their San Francisco ticket offices, she eagerly accepted the proposition.

Fairly well traveled, Wachtel had already visited California, however, the 1903 trip proved to be pivotal to the future of both her life and her career. In order to encourage tourism, the Santa Fe Railway crossed the desert and stopped at scenic spots such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona where Wachtel took advantage of the rugged beauty of the areas and sketched along the trip. In these locations, Marion was exposed to the Pueblos of Zia, Cochiti, Santa Clara, and San Ildefonso (home of Maria Martinez), places she would return to and paint in later years.

 When she reached California, Wachtel visited the Cooper Ranch in Santa Barbara,owned by Ellwood Cooper (1829-1918), an agriculturist and horticulturist who not only published several treatises on California produce but grew olives, grapes, English walnuts, European almonds, oranges, lemons and Japanese persimmons. He was the first farmer in the U. S. to produce and market olive oil. [3] Wachtel spent several months on the ranch enjoying the beauty of the Santa Barbara area, making sketches of the coastal range and eucalyptus trees cultivated by Cooper who was convinced that it was the "tree of the future for California." [4]

Marion Wachtel - Coastal Eucalyptus
Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel
Coastal Eucalyptus
Oil on canvas
28 x 32 inches
Wachtel exhibited her work in San Francisco and studied there with William Keith. It is also where she likely met her future husband, Elmer Wachtel, a talented violinist and painter. In less than one year, they courted and married in Chicago, then settled in Pasadena, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. Although Pasadena became her home, Wachtel used the Western United States and Mexico as her studio. For 25 years, she and her husband painted together in California, Arizona, the High Sierras, the sea coast, and Mexico where Elmer died in 1929. [5]

Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel
Lake Mary, Sierras
Oil on canvas
28 x 36 inches

Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel
Monterey Coast
Oil on canvas on board
13 3/4 x 18 inches
The artist exhibited her work from the early 1900s until her death in 1954. Wachtel demonstrated a love for the natural light in the West and for beautiful forms in nature. Her painting style evolved over time as she began her work with a tightly controlled brush with meticulous detail, and moved to a more organic, painterly style of rendering. She was a popular painter in both California and in the East where her work was featured in galleries in St. Louis, Detroit, Arizona, Rhode Island, Brooklyn and in California from San Francisco to San Diego.

Wachtel was elected to the New York Water Color Club in 1911, was elected an associate of the American Water Color Society in 1912, and was a founding member of the California Water Color Society in 1921. She also held memberships in the Pasadena Society of Artists and the Academy of Western Painters. [6]

In her final years, she continued to paint the landscapes around her home including the Arroyo Seco and the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Marion Wachtel died at home in Pasadena on May 22, 1954. 

Wachtel, Marion - Spring In The Foothills - Impressionism - Oil on canvas - Landscape
Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel
Spring in the Foothills
Oil on Canvas
Private Collection


1. Stern, Jean.  Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel: 1870-1954. Published in Resource Library on July 14, 2010 with the permission of the Hearst Art Gallery at Saint Mary's College and the author, (Accessed January 7, 2013).
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel: 186-1954. (Accessed January 8, 2013).
6. Stern, Jean.  Marion Kavanagh Wachtel: 1870-1954.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Bertha Stringer Lee: A California Impressionist

Bertha Stringer Lee
Amidst the Lupines also Yellow and Purple Lupines
Oil on Canvas
18 x 14 inches

Bertha Stringer Lee
 Bertha Elizabeth Stringer Lee was born into a wealthy San Francisco family that, fortunately for her, encouraged her pursuit of making art. At only 14 years old, Stringer mounted her first exhibition. She grew up as a socialite in San Francisco and attended the University of California at Berkeley. After graduation, Stringer studied privately with William Keith and with Arthur F. Meadows at the California School of Design. [1]

As a young woman of means, Stringer had the freedom that most other young female artists of her time did not and that is, the ability to paint and study with the best instructors wherever she chose, including in New York, Germany, and Paris. She did marry in 1894 to a young electrician, Eugene Lee, who further encouraged Lee in her work.

Bertha Stringer Lee
Golden Gate Park
Oil on canvas
 8 x 4.75 inches
 Stringer Lee's preferred medium was oil, and she painted primarily California Impressionist landscapes and tonal scenes, generally of the San Francisco Bay or the Monterey Peninsula. Financially secure, she never felt the need to commercialize her work so, most of her pieces were given as gifts to friends and family members. Sadly, a great number of her  artworks were lost in the fires that directly followed the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.[2]

Lee claimed that "one could find all any artist could demand in variety and beauty of subject" in California. [3] She sketched and painted not only the Bay Area and the Monterey peninsula, but Lake Tahoe and other scenic areas in the state as well.

An impressive list of exhibitions by the artist included the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, the San Francisco Society of Women Artists, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, the Alaska-Yukon Exposition, the World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago, the Sequoia club, the Golden Gate Park Museum and the Richelieu Gallery. Her work is included in the permanent collections of St. Mary's College, the Oakland Museum and the De Young Museum, Mills College, Oakland, and the Shasta State Historical Monument, California.

A lifelong resident of San Francisco, California, Lee died on March 19, 1937.

Bertha Stringer Lee
Carmel Beach, California
Oil on canvas
20 x 30 inches

Bertha Stringer Lee
Carmel By the Sea
Oil on canvas
16 x 24 inches

1. Kovinick, Phil and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick. An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998), 186.
2. Taos and Santa Fe Painters. Bertha Stringer Lee: 1869-1937. (accessed January 1, 2013).
3. Kovinick. An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West. 186.