Monday, October 12, 2015

Pauline Powell: Oakland Painter and Pianist

There's so little information about the earliest female artists and much of their work is lost. The lack of recognition has to do with a variety of factors including the structure of society during the Victorian era that drove independent women west. The era of the woman artist in the American West began as early as 1843 in the San Francisco bay area where the town exploded as a result of the discovery of gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The women who arrived were the wives, daughters, or sisters of business, religious or professional men; some self-taught, while others had substantial art training. Pauline Powell's story is unique.

Pauline Powell
Pauline Powell was among the first African Americans to enter the professional ranks of painting in California. Her grandmother, Isabella Fossett, was sold from where she lived with her family at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's estate in Virginia. Isabella was only eight years old, but she succeeded in escaping to Boston in the 1840s using a free pass forged by her brother, Peter. Always afraid and at risk of re-enslavement because of the Fugitive Slave Act, Isabella was finally able to join the rest of her family in Cincinnati by 1860. 

After Isabella’s death in 1872, her daughter, Josephine Turner, moved to Oakland with her husband, William W. Powell, a porter on the new transcontinental railroad. Their daughter, Pauline, demonstrated artistic and musical talent at a young age and pursued years of study of both painting and piano. She gave numerous public recitals in the Bay Area and was hailed as “the bright musical star of her state.”  

Pauline would go on to become the first African American to exhibit artwork in the state of California. The California School of Design was open to blacks but few had the advantages of a middle class life that would permit them to pursue such an uncertain career. 

Pauline Powell
ca. 1890
Oil on canvas
In 1890, when she was just fourteen, Pauline exhibited her paintings including Champagne and Oysters, (I could not locate a copy of this painting) at the Mechanics Institute Fair in San Francisco. Burns’s work is extremely scarce, not only because of the time in which she lived, but also because she lived a relatively short life, dying of tuberculosis in 1912. She and her husband, Edward E. Burns, both cultural leaders in their community, left no descendants.
Independent Spirits, Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945, Patricia Trenton, ed.,University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1995,  p. 12. 
Swann Auction Galleries,, retrieved October 12, 2015.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Pauline Powell Burns,, retrieved October 12, 2015.

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