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
1855
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.
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1. Piirto, Jane. Why Are There So Few? (Creative Women: Visual Artists, Mathematicians, Scientists, Musicians). 2000. http://personal.ashland.edu/~jpiirto/why_are_there_so_few.htm. (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.