Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Anna Belle Crocker: Artist and Director of the Portland Art Museum

Anna Belle Crocker
Self Portrait
ca. 1926
Oil on panel
Portland Art Museum
While the first non-native, professional artists were men who arrived in the Pacific Northwest to accompany geographic surveys such as the United States Exploring Expedition of 1842, female artists put down roots and settled. They taught art classes, started art clubs and established a number of the art institutions that are still an integral part of the cultural community of Portland and the region.

Art practice and education were two of the few professions deemed appropriate and were available to women before World War II and, as a result, women generally outnumbered men in those fields. According to Jack Cleaver, curator of collections at the Oregon Historical Society, women had a "tremendous impact..." on the early development of the Oregon art community in three specific areas: "They dominated art exhibits at the Oregon State Fair, various Portland fairs, and county fairs during the nineteenth century. Also during that period, art teachers in Oregon were nearly all female, and, with the exception of the Portland Art Club, women were well represented in early art organizations. 

Anna Belle Crocker (1898-1961) was an artist who worked as both a portraitist and genre painter, that is a painter of scenes of everyday life. Crocker was director of the Portland Art Museum and principal of its art school, which is now the Pacific Northwest College of Art, from the years 1909 until 1936. At that point, courses in museum administration and connoisseurship were nonexistent, so Crocker educated herself by spending time at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, followed by a five-month tour of museums and galleries in England, France, Italy and Greece, where she conducted interviews and studied hundreds of works of art.    

During her lengthy tenure at the Portland Art Museum, Crocker not only continued an ambitious exhibition schedule, she expanded the museum’s permanent collections and helped to oversee the design and construction of the Ayer wing of the present museum building. “In the 110-year history of the Portland Art Museum,” observes art historian Prudence F. Roberts, “few people have exerted as much quiet influence as Anna B. Crocker.” In addition, she founded the docent program which supported her quest to make the museum an educational experience by training knowledgeable tour guides for school visits and for the general public.

Anna Belle Crocker
Leta M. Kennedy
ca. 1917-1918
Oil on board
Portland Art Museum
A dedicated artist, Crocker continued to study and was a member of the Portland Sketch Club in which she specialized in portraits and still-lifes. On at least two occasions, in 1904 and 1908, Crocker took time off from her job to study at the Art Students League in New York with Frank Vincent DuMond, whom she had met in Portland, and with Arthur Wesley Dow, whose theories influenced the work of artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

Marcel Duchamp
Nude Descending a Staircase
ca. 1912
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Crocker sought out and exhibited original works by both local and regional artists, and established ties with other institutions willing to share their collections of European and American prints and paintings. One of her most notable successes was to arrange the loan of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), the most controversial painting of the 1913 Armory Show held in New York. Duchamp’s painting was exhibited in Portland later that year, along with works on paper by Paul C├ęzanne, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and other members of the European and American avant-garde. In her memoirs, Crocker compared seeing the “new” art for the first time to a “ray of daylight let into a shaded room.”    
When Anna Belle Crocker retired in 1936, she had spent 27 years at the helm of the museum and its school. Crocker was praised for her “intellectual integrity, her constant and courageous pressure to attain her ideas, her religious devotion to art, and her ability to use small facilities for great ends.”   
Anna Belle Crocker
Ruth and Jean Reed
ca. 1920
Watercolor on Paper
Portland Art Museum
Women City Builders, Honoring Women's Civic Contributions to Portland, Sandra Hoff, 2003, http://wcb.ws.pdx.edu/?p=105, retrieved May 28, 2014.
Portland Art Museum, Online Collections, Anna Belle Crocker, http://www.portlandartmuseum.us/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=keyword;keyword=anna%20belle%20crocker#, retrieved May 28, 2014.
Independent Spirits, Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945, Patricia Trenton, ed., University of California Press, 1995, p 107-108.
The Oregon Encyclopedia, a Project of the Oregon Historical Society, http://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/portland_art_association/#.U4Tew6Pn_cs

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