Western Women Artists

Article excerpt

Discovering a long-overlooked segment of American art history

Following is an excerpt from An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West (1998 University of Texas Press, Austin], a 448-page book illustrated with 264 black-and-white reproductions; foreward by William H. Goetzmann.

Women artists have been inspired by the American West for more than 140 years, producing works of art as varied as the region itself and distinctive for their power and imagination.

Unfortunately their efforts have received relatively little attention until recently, due primarily to a view long held by many that only male artists can effectively capture the true vitality and virility of the West in their work. The lack of recognition also is due in part to some of the earlier women themselves and to the structure of society. Although many rejected the Victorian role for women, few divorced themselves completely from its influence. Thus, even though a substantial number of women went west and painted the landscapes, missions, Native American camps, and flora and fauna, more often than not they failed to promote their work. And frequently they signed their work with monograms, aliases, or some form of their husband's name. Not surprisingly, many of their renderings ended up in family collections and undoubtedly still remain hidden away in attics and other storage areas.

The era of the woman artist in the American West began in 1843 with the arrival of Eliza Griffin Johnston [1821-1896] in Texas, 23 years after Samuel Seymore [c1775c1823] and Titian Ramsey Peale [1799-1885] traveled west as artists of the expedition headed by Major Stephen H. Long of the U.S. Topographical Engineers. It was not Texas, however, but California, and more specifically San Francisco, that became the first mecca for women artists in the West. Turned into a boom town with the discovery of gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, San Francisco blossomed into a financial and cultural center almost overnight. The first women artists to arrive in the 1850s, sailing there via Cape Horn or the Isthmus of Panama, were typical of the many who were to follow or who settled in or visited other centers in the West in subsequent years. Generally they were the wives, daughters, or sisters of business, religious, and professional men; apparently few lacked kinship with people of at least moderate means. Some admittedly were self-taught as artists, not surprising for the time; a number, however, had substantial art training, and many were teachers.

Clearly, the story of the woman artist and the American West in the 1850s and '60s is to a large extent one of art activity in Northern California. In 1857, San Francisco's Mechanics' Institute introduced its first fair, which included an art exhibition. A year later, the event featured the work of almost 50 women among its entrants. In 1858, the state fair exhibition began, providing women another outlet to display their art. The listings from these events, together with the occasional art columns from newspapers and other publications, support the contention that a majority of the female exhibitors and others active in the region at the time, like their counterparts east of the Mississippi River, painted subjects traditionally considered appropriate for womenportraits, still lifes, and local landscapes. Some, however, drawn by the state's scenic wonders and caught up in the fervor of the Hudson River School's adulation of nature, turned to the more untamed and rugged country for themes. Significant among the latter were Abby Tyler Oakes [18231898] and Mary Park Benton [1815-1910], both of whom had works in the Mechanics' Fair exhibitions in the 1850s and, in Benton's case, for many years after.

During her brief stay in California, Oakes, the recipient of several awards for landscapes at these events, also received high praise from local newspapers for her studies of Yosemite and other Sierra Nevada scenes. …