Monday, April 8, 2013

Women in the Western Art Scene: Part One

Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel
Long Lake, Sierra Nevada
 Oil on canvas
20 x 26 inches
ca.  n.d.
Collection of The Irvine Museum
          From the nineteenth century to the present day, the American West has been defined as the region west of the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean. The West, however, is not simply a single region, but a set of values and mythologies, germane to the specific areas, and historical period of the United States. In this sense, there are multiple “Wests” that encompass a succession of frontiers, beginning in the northeast, and pushing progressively westward. Where do women fit in this saga of Western exploration amid the masculine narratives of conquest and domination that have come to represent the American West? Exploitation, and alteration of the West, was never part of women’s desires in facing frontier life. It is assumed that women wanted to provide for communal and spiritual needs by gardening, creating quilts, crafting pottery, or engaging in some form of traditional “women’s work.” While Western historians grapple with a 'new' historiography of the American West—rethinking and broadening its scope in terms of race, class, and gender—the production of art by Western women has all but been ignored. Nearly all the attention and focus of art in the West has been directed toward nineteenth-century artwork created by men, and towards the stereotypical imagery of the Old West, conveyed by their work. [1]
Nearly everyone has heard of western artists Frederick Remington, and Charles M. Russell, whose cowboy and Indian art defined the classical western art canon. How many of those same people, artists and non-artists alike, are aware that women artists also worked in what would come to be called the American West, and have done so for as long as humans have inhabited the terrain? Navajo women wove. Pueblo women made pottery. Pomo women shaped baskets. Between 1890 and 1945, women artists of all types worked in the West in great numbers, creating objects that were as extraordinarily abundant and diverse as to defy generalization. [2] 
Hopi woman weaving a basket.
Photographed by Henry Peabody

ca. 1900
Until the 19th century, the western United States and the California landscape had not been painted.  Foreign explorers of the Pacific Coast in the early 1800s brought artists to record both their discoveries and interesting sites along both coast and inland. Later, government surveys enlisted artists to record the geology and geography, vegetation and inhabitants of this westernmost region. There were not, however, any female Audubons, women explorers, or government survey teams. Even in the “wild” West, social restrictions prevented women from traveling alone, or with expeditions, into the wilderness, or to record the landscape. That was a male concern with which women were not encouraged to participate. [3] As women traveled west with their families, the bulk of their artistic narrative left behind were letters, diaries, cookbooks, crafts, and quilts. Yet, there were women painters working among the early settlers—and by the time the frontier closed in 1890, there were more than 1100 women artists and art teachers active in the west. [4] Although many of the paintings of these early artists are regarded more as historical documents, rather than works of art, they represent the beginning of a Western visual heritage.
The discussion of art in California, in particular, must address the differences between the Northern and Southern regions of the state, because each area is distinct geographically, climatically, and culturally. Although the north and south have no legal borders, for the purposes of this blog, Southern California refers to the lower third of the state, with its primary boundaries from south to north being: the cities of San Diego, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara, (each founded during the Spanish period) Palm Springs, the Mojave desert, and the southern Sierra Mountains. Northern California encompasses the region beyond Santa Barbara including San Luis Obispo, the Monterey peninsula, San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, and the northern Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Southern California is climatically different from the north, with a much more temperate climate and mostly sunny days, which attracted health seekers, winter tourists, artists, and those seeking to “reinvent” themselves. According to Henry Hopkins, museum director, curator, and educator, the colors most representative of the painters in the southern area of the state are white, blue, and yellow, and the art in general is “clean, intellectually clear, high-colored, light filled.” [5] The natural setting of San Francisco encompasses the bay, green and gold hills, forested ridges and foggy coastline. The colors used in general by the artists reflect the climate in richer, more saturated colors of silver, gray, and green. In both areas, according to Hopkins, the paintings have always expressed the ambience of light. [6] As the fashion in landscape painting moved away from large Romantic panoramas of dramatic scenery, smaller canvases of intimate pastoral themes became popular, themes of which included inland farms and towns that celebrated man’s taming of the land.
Annie Harmon
,Mendocino ranch Rock Pile
 11 1/2 x 17 1/4 inches
Oil on canvas
ca. 1911
 Collection of the Hearst art Gallery
San Francisco was an established city by the turn of the last century. Women artists were not only greater in number, but enjoyed a stronger voice in the artistic community, and they were organizing themselves. The Sketch Club, an exclusively female group, was founded in 1887. The San Francisco Society of Artists, as it was later known, merged in 1915 with the San Francisco Art Association (also founded by women in 1916) bringing about the forerunner of today’s San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. During the early 1920s, the two groups reorganized as the San Francisco Society of Art, and included both men and women. By 1925, the women of the Society branched off as a separate entity, known as the San Francisco Society of Women Artists.
The urge by Western artists to paint and photograph nature was pegged by the East Coast art establishment as an impulse of endearing, almost folksy, eccentricity, by those who lived largely without vast expanses of open space. But artists in the West, wherever they lived, were surrounded by deserts, coastal hills, canyons, valleys full of fruit orchards, redwood forests, and/or beaches every day. To live in the West was, and still is, to have a preoccupation with the landscape, since it is almost impossible to be oblivious to the beauty of nature surrounding those who live there. The variety of  the landscape, ethnic mix of peoples, ideas, events, religious and social attitudes have all influenced the West, in general, and California’s unique landscape art form. Women of every ethnicity were working as artists up and down the coast.
Anna Hills
Laguna Clouds
ca. n.d.
Oil on board5 x 7 inches
The art scene in the West includes those artists who migrated to Southwestern states, such as Arizona and New Mexico. They were charmed by the native inhabitants, who had lived for centuries in the surrounding pueblos. The native culture was beautiful to see and to paint, and their own local artistic heritage was evident in pottery, weaving, and architecture, as we examined Maria Martinez at the Pueblo San Ildefonso in New Mexico. Artists with considerable reputations before they arrived in the west came to work among the beautiful landscapes of the region. Those artists were not entirely cut off from their Eastern markets, and many of them divided their time between East and West, or made annual trips to New York City, importing New Mexico to the East Coast as well as exporting their talents to the frontier. The Taos Founders arrived at the end of the nineteenth century. They formed a cohesive group of educated Easterners in a tiny, remote village seventy miles north of Santa Fe, preceding the early Santa Fe artists by only a couple of decades. In many ways, their arrivals overlapped—there was much cultural interchange between the village of Taos and the provincial capital of Santa Fe, and artists visited both places before settling in one or the other.

Georgia O'Keeffe
Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico/Out Back of Marie's II
ca. 1930
Oil on canvas mounted to board
24 1/4 x 36 1/4 inches
 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
Although Georgia O’Keeffe is the most famous female artist to call New Mexico her adopted home, she is by no means the only one. In the first half of the twentieth century, the state was a sanctuary for women, where they could escape the overcrowding and social restrictions of more formal East-coast cities, wear trousers, and ride their horses across the sage-dotted desert. Like their male counterparts, these painters, sculptors, printmakers, and photographers found a welcoming network of like-minded pioneers who drew inspiration from the landscape and the spiritual life of the Hispanic and Native American people. Unlike the male artists, these artist’s names are largely unknown. [7]



  [1] Virginia Scharff, "Introduction: Women Envision the West, 1890-1945," in Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945 (Autry Museum of Western Heritage in association with the University of California Press, 1995), 3.
  [2] Sylvia Moore, ed. Yesterday and Tomorrow: California Women Artists (New York: Middlemarch Arts Books, 1989), 66.
  [3] Ibid., 65.
  [4]Patricia Trenton, Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945 (Autry Museum of Western Heritage in association with the University of California Press, 1995), xi.
  [5] Harry Hopkins, Fifty West Coast Artists: A Critical Selection of Painters and Sculptors Working in California (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1981), 10.
  [6] Ibid., 10, 12.
  [7] Dottie Indyke, The Collectors Guide: Sharing the Art of New Mexico. Women Artist Pioneers of New Mexico. http://www.collectorsguide.com/fa/fa093.shtml (accessed November 15, 2011). Article originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos, and Albuquerque, Vol. 16.