Friday, November 22, 2013

Ruth Reeves: Art in Fabric Instead of Paint

[Ruth Reeves]
Ruth Reeves
ca. 1947
New York
Over this past year, we have explored painters, sculptors, and photographers. This post, I would like to introduce you to a textile designer who rightfully belongs in the category of Fine Art. Textiles are intimately related to us more so than painting and sculpture-we all wear clothing according to our tastes, climate, country, and ethnicity and, in some cases, our religion. Influenced by ancient civilizations and primitive peoples, Ruth Reeves felt that "The fabrics of our own time express our contemporary life both in actual motif, where fine contemporary forms seem feasible, and in feeling."

Ruth Marie Reeves (1892 - December 23, 1966) was a painter, an Art Deco textile designer, and an expert on Indian handicrafts. Her wall hangings were created for the children's room of the public library in Mount Vernon, New York; the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England; and for the carpet at the Radio City Music Hall in New York.  In that project, she was commissioned by textile designer, Donald Deskey, to create a wall fabrics and "vast carpet that would cover the grand lobby, staircase, and three mezzanines---and be symbolic of theatrical activities. In a mosaic-like configuration, Reeves interwove strong geometric abstractions of musical instruments. The rhythmical patterns, with a colorful combination of geometrically shaped banjos, guitars, accordions, piano keys, saxophones, and harps, hover against clouds of bright orange and yellow in a deep blue sky.  . . .The result is an immense, jazzy carpet that is opulent and urbane. It is perfect for a public pleasure palace." [1]
Ruth Reeves
ca. 1929
Radio City Music Hall Lobby, New York

Born in Southern California, Reeves attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York from 1910 to 1911, and returned to the West to attend the San Francisco School of Design in 1911-1913. Reeves won a scholarship to the Art Students League where she studied with Kenneth Hayes Miller during the years 1914 and 1915. She travelled to Paris and lived there from the years 1921-1928 where she studied with renowned Avant-garde artist Fernand Léger. Her designs displayed a modernist idiom and were influenced by artistic movements in France such as Cubism and other contemporary French styles.

Upon her return to New York, Reeves established herself in the artist's community and began to create hand-printed textiles. She joined the newly established American Union of Artists and Craftsmen which sponsored major exhibitions in 1930 and 1931 to promote modern American design. [2]

A commission to design fabrics for the period furniture retailer, W. & J. Sloan established Reeves' reputation as one of the foremost original designers in the field.
Ruth Reeves
American Scene
Block Printed cotton
105 1/2 x 47 1/4 inches
Yale University
Art Gallery, John P. Axelrod Collection

In her design for American Scene, Reeves combined "imaginary rooms in a country house where her given textile would have meaning." [3] The American Scene pattern recalls eighteenth century textiles with repeating groups of picturesque figures, surrounded by arabesques or foliage however, this particular type of pattern was also typically used in Art Deco fabrics. She took an eclectic approach in her design and choice of fabrics she employed. She elevated simple materials such as billiard-table felt, Turkish toweling, homespun, and unbleached cotton as she glorified those fabrics in a variety of treatments. Reeves also referred to Cubism, Futurism, folk and tribal art for inspiration.

Reeves, like many of her contemporaries, embraced modernism which served to move design away from old-fashioned historical styles and create sleek, abstract forms appropriate for modern life. She was able to incorporate both modern and primitive in her designs that combined "old and new as a synthesis of primitive vitality and machine-age sophistication." [4]

Ruth Reeves
Design for a Child's Room
ca. 1930?
Indianapolis Museum of Art

Funded by a grant from the Carnegie Institute in Washington, D.C., Reeves traveled extensively in Guatemala in 1934 where she visited the most remote villages and studied traditional Mayan textiles. Her intention was to create a set of modern variations that were inspired, not copied, by native work. She collected costumes that became part of an exhibition along with her own Guatemalan-derived designs at Rockefeller Center in March of 1935. Simultaneously, Macy's opened a display of additional costumes from her collection as well as a selection of modern adaptations and accessories using Guatemalan motifs. [5]

Reeves was a perfectionist who refused to compromise her high design standards. She always believed that textile design belonged to the Fine Arts. She also held that it was important to acquire an 'artistic literacy,' a familiarity with art in all forms and histories. Good design, she wrote, "rings a wonderful bell inside me." [6]

Overlooking Kingston 2
Ruth Reeves
Overlooking Kingston (Hudson River Series)
ca. 1934
Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection

A woman of the world, after 1956, Reeves lived in India, where she served on the All-India Handicrafts Board. She died in New Delhi in 1966.
1. Christine Roussel, The Guide to the Art of Rockefeller Center ( ), 17.
2. On the AUDAC, see R.L. Leonard and Adolphe C. Glassgold, Modern American Design by the American Union of Decorative Artists and Craftsmen, intro. Mel Byars (1930; rpt. 1992)
3.Harry V. Anderson, "Contemporary American Designers," The Decorators Digest (Mar. 1935), 44. 
4. Reeves, "What Creative Design Means to Me," typescript ms., 3, in Ruth Reeves Papers, microfilm reel no. 3093, frame 59, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
5. Marian Wardle, ed., American Women Modernists: The Legacy of Robert Henri, 1910-1945, (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 36.
6. Reeves, "Let's Not Be Timorous," Curtain and Drapery Department Magazine (Mar. 1946): 22; Reeves, "What Creative Design Means to Me," ms., 4-7; Anderson, "Contemporary American Designers," 58.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mary Curtis Richardson: The Mary Cassatt of the West

File:Mary Curtis Richardson - Portrait of Mary Blanche Hubbard.jpg
Portrait of Mary Blanche Hubbard
Oil on canvas
Mary Curtis Richardson (1848-1931) was an impressionist painter and suffragette.

Late nineteenth-century women used  gender to their advantage and claimed the child portraiture genre for themselves. Richardson became one of San Francisco's most celebrated painters of children.

Her father, Lucien Curtis, headed overland to the gold fields of California in 1849, while in the following year, Mary, her sister Leila, and her mother traveled to California via the Isthmus of Panama to join her father. The family settled in San Francisco.

She married Thomas Richardson, a man in the lumber business, who relocated to San Francisco from Canada.

In 1866 Mary and her sister traveled back to New York City to study wood engraving at Cooper Union. When they returned to San Francisco the sisters opened a wood engraving business and by the 1870s, both she and her sisters established the first women-run engraving company in San Francisco. The company became the Women's Printing Union.

When she was fifty years old, Richardson embraced a second career. Convinced by family and friends to pursue painting, Richardson studied with William Sartain at the Art Students League in New York and won the Norman Dodge Prize of the National Academy of Design for the best painting by a woman artist in the United States. After those honors, Richardson received numerous commissions to paint members of San Francisco's elite society and their families. 
Joseph M. Bransten (Son of MJB Coffee Magnate)
Date Unknown
Oil on Canvas
Oakland Museum of California

Richardson's work was forthright and sensitive, but free of the over-sentimentalized style that was popular at that time. By the 1910s, she was known as the "Mary Cassatt of the West" and she was singled out as the most important portraitist in San Francisco by Charles Keeler, ranked with painters William Keith and Thomas Hill.

Mary Richardson exhibited her portraits and paintings of mothers and children at the San Francisco Art Association between 1895 and 1901; the Vickery, Atkins & Torrey Gallery, San Francisco, in 1909; and the National Academy of Design, New York City, in the late 1880s. She and her husband remained in San Francisco in a home they built for themselves in 1888.

Mary Curtis Richardson

The Sleeping Child
No Date
Oil on canvas

 The Sleeping Child was eventually acquired by the Legion of Honor.

Seated Child Holding a Rattle
No Date
Oil on Canvas

Bonhams San Francisco - Mother and Child
The Young Mother
No Date
Oil on canvas

The Young Mother won a silver medal at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

Despite her success and her feminist tendencies, Richardson felt compelled to tell an interviewer: "I am not a woman with a career; I am just a worker."

Mary Curtis Richardson died on November first, 1931, at her home and art studio in Russian Hill.
Further Reading and Sources
Ask Art: The Artist's Bluebook,
American Gallery: Greatest American Painters,
Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945
Artists of the American West, Volume I, Doris Ostrander Dawdy
"San Francisco Women who have Achieved Success," Overland Monthly 44 (November 1904), 517

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sarah Ladd-Pioneering Portland Photographer

By the turn of the twentieth-century, the visual arts became an established part of Pacific Northwest culture. Artists worked and lived there. The wealthy, whose money came from banking, law, timber, and railroads, began collecting European, Asian, and some American painting, prints, and sculpture. Artists and supporters began to form organizations to exhibit art, some of which was on loan and shown expressly for the purpose of enhancing the cultural sophistication of the community. Instruction in the arts became available. Early local magazines such as The Westerner and The Week-End, covered the arts and the visual arts. And, more important to this researcher, local female artists were featured in The Westerner magazine.

The 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition's exhibitions of international, national and local artists brought art to everyone. During this twenty-year time period, from 1890 until 1910, the expansion of railroad service to the Puget Sound region (Northern Pacific Railroad to Tacoma in 1885 and Great Northern Railroad to Seattle in 1893) and the discovery of gold in Alaska/Yukon,1896, resulted in a tremendous population boom. The influx into this stunning region brought artists (and people whose children would become artists), patrons, art appreciators, writers about art, and art educators.

Sarah H. Ladd
Early Morning above Vancouver
 Published in Pacific Monthly, Volume 14 No 1, 1905

Sarah Hall Ladd (13 April 1860 – 30 March 1927) was an early 20th-century American pictorial and landscape photographer. Ladd was born Sarah L. Hall in Somerville, Massachusetts, the daughter of John Gill Hall and Sarah Cushing. Little is known about her childhood. In 1881, Ladd relocated to Portland with her new husband, Charles, the son of leading Portland businessman William S. Ladd. The couple settled in a home that overlooked the Willamette River and began a comfortable life together.

It is not known or documented precisely when Ladd developed an interest in photography, but sources claim she joined the Oregon Camera Club in September 1899, and, by early 1901, a number of her works were on exhibition in San Francisco. In 1903, New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz formed Photo-Secession, an early-20th century movement that strove to elevate photography as a fine art. The group never numbered more than 105 members and were from various cities across the United States. Sarah Hall Ladd, Gertrude Käsebier, Edward Steichen, Clarence H. White, and Lily E. White were included among the select membership.

Sarah H. Ladd
Columbia River
Early 1900s
In 1903, the adventurous Ladd and White began to take extended trips on the Columbia River on White’s custom-built houseboat, the Raysark, a vessel that contained a darkroom. Both women excelled at photography and became internationally known for their pictorialist-style landscapes of the Columbia Gorge filled with soft light, clouds and atmosphere. Their photographs illustrated travel brochures and magazines helping draw tourism to the area.  

featured image
Sarah H. Ladd
Submerged Forest
Early 1900s
Ladd took this photograph of the “submerged forest” on the Columbia River between 1902-1904. The remains of trees in the river are found 25 miles above Cascade Rapids. Most of this area is now submerged behind Bonneville Dam, 40 miles east of Portland. In those days, travel was a challenge as roads were not paved and the terrain was unfriendly to motorized vehicles.

By 1904, Ladd’s social and familial responsibilities kept her away from her photography. She was invaluable to her husband when he became part of the preparations for Portland’s 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition. In 1910, the Ladds moved to the town of Carlton, Oregon, after Charles became president of the Carlton Consolidated Lumber Company. In spite of these additional obligations, however, Ladd managed to exhibit fourteen photographs at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

Ladd became a prominent member in the Christian Science movement beginning in 1911. After Ladd’s husband died in 1920, she moved to Carmel, California in late 1924 to join her long-time friend, Lily White. Ladd lived in Carmel for the rest of her life. She died there on March 30, 1927.


Further reading:

James V. Hillegas, Oregon Historical Society, Oregon History Project,

 Carole Glauber, “Eyes of the Earth: Lily White, Sarah Ladd, and the Oregon Camera Club,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 108:1 (Spring 2007), 34-69.

Richard L. Hill, “Science-Landslide Sleuths,” Oregonian May 15, 2002.

Jim E. O’Connor, “The Evolving Landscape of the Columbia River Gorge: Lewis and Clark and Cataclysms on the Columbia,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 105:3 (Fall 2004), 390-421.

Oregon Experience, The River they Saw, Photographer Profiles,