Friday, September 5, 2014

Fra Dana: Artist, Range Rider and Rancher's Wife

Fra Dana
ca 1900
Now that summer vacation is over (sigh) and school has begun in earnest, I went on the hunt for another wonderful painter to bring to you. I discovered artist Fra Dana, a talented impressionist painter who was not only well-trained, but well-traveled.
Born in 1874, Fra Marie Broadwell (pronounced "Fray") grew up in Rockville Indiana. She studied with Joseph Henry Sharp at the Cincinnati Art Academy (founder of New Mexico's Taos Artist's colony), William Merritt Chase then considered the most important American artist and art instructor of the age (his Chase School of Art is now the Parsons New School for Design), and Alfred Maurer and Mary Cassatt in France. Sharp considered her a superb painter, once bestowing upon her the ultimate compliment in his eyes: "she paints like a Man!"

A talented youngster, Fra was encouraged by her stepfather to pursue her art studies. While still a student at the Cincinnati Art Academy, she made her first trip to the West in 1891, traveling by stagecoach with her mother and half-sister, Edna. The trio journeyed to visit land owned by her stepfather's family near Parkman, Wyoming and in 1893, they returned to settle there. The contrast between the urbane art world of New York City and the isolated rural life of late 19th century Wyoming was an enormous adjustment for the refined young woman. She was not one who romanticized the west. It was difficult to find others who shared her interests and had much education or travel experience such as she.

William Merritt Chase
Fra Dana
 ca 1897 
University of Montana Museum of Fine Arts 
Oil on Canvas 
19 1/2 x 23 1/2 inches 
Fra met a fascinating man who peked her interest. Edwin L. Dana, ten years her senior and a successful Montana cattle rancher. They married at her mother's home in 1896. The rancher's holding grew, and by 1919, the Dana Ranch located in northern Wyoming and southeastern Montana, was possibly the largest cattle ranch of its kind in the United States. Legend says that Fra signed a pre-nuptial agreement before her marriage that permitted her to continue her art studies and to spend a portion of each year studying in New York and Europe. In reality, her husband supported her artistic endeavors in a way that was unusual for the times and encouraged her travel and her study.

As a rancher's wife, however, Dana rode the range, knew every phase of the business, served as secretary, bookkeeper, as well as hostess to ranch visitors. Fra was conflicted with her life in the Rocky Mountain West, but appeared to be unable to sever her connection with the region. Excerpts from her diary show the deeply felt tensions between her desire to be an artist and her role as a rancher's wife.

"Today is (Diego) Velazquez's birthday. I always keep it in my heart. But I speak no more of my vanished dreams. We spayed sixty-eight heifers this morning. It took from six o'clock until eleven of hard work. I tallied and got hungry and sleepy-so sleepy that I fell over against the gate post of the corral. This is life and the thoughts that I used to think were dreams. Beauty of any kind is a thing held cheap out here in the land of hard realities and glaring sun and alkali..." She was often lonely for the company of other artists and literary conversation such company would inspire.

Although Wyoming Territory first granted women the right to vote in 1869, long before the country ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920, political emancipation did not always lead to social liberation or professional autonomy. Dana was not accepted by many of her neighbors who judged it scandalous that she would be permitted to travel to Europe without her husband. There was no art community in her region, so she was without a support group with which to identify or be taken seriously as an artist.  

Because of her position and the wealth of her husband, Dana had studios in both Wyoming and Montana. She made as many as nine trips to Europe, looking for the nuances and beauty that she could not seem to find in Montana and Wyoming. The couple also kept and apartment in New York City. After suffering a nervous breakdown in New York in 1911, Dana reduced her travel. New movements such as Cubism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Futurism were consuming the world of art, and while she read and sought about these new forms, Fra maintained her allegiance to the aesthetics and principles of Impressionism.

Dana painted a wide variety of subjects including self-portraits, portraits of ranchers and Native Americans, landscapes, animals and still-lifes.

Fra Dana
On the Window Seat
ca 1909
Oil on Canvas
 16 x 19 inches

Fra Dana
Turkeys and Hollyhocks
Oil on artist's Board
ca 1940 -1945
  18 x 24 inches
University of Montana

Fra Dana
White Peony against Red Background
ca n.d.
 oil on panel
University of Montana
In 1937, Fra Dana moved from the ranch to Great Falls, Montana, where she became good friends with novelist, Mildred Walker. Edwin visited often over the next nine years. When he retired from the ranch, he moved into the apartment with Fra. Although by then she was ill herself, Dana nursed Edwin until he died in 1946.

Shortly before her own death, Dana donated her paintings and her collection of work by Chase, Maurer, and Sharp, to the University of Montana. In a brief letter she wrote, "I do not know that there is anything to tell you about my life. My annals are short and simple. I was born, I married, I painted a little, I am ready to die."

Fra Dana
ca n.d.
Oil on panel
University of Montana
Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945, Patricia Trention, ed.
An Encyclopedia of Women Artist of the American West, Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick
Art Montana,, retrieved September 4, 2014
Missoulian,, retrieved September 5, 2014
University of Montana, MMAC: Montana Museum of Art and Culture, retrieved September 5, 2014

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