Published: October 2, 2001
By Bob Jackman
BOSTON, MASS. -The Guild of Boston Artists has opened a unique and fascinating exhibition titled “A Woman’s Perspective: Founding and Early Women Members of the Guild of Boston Artists, 1914-1945.”
The exhibition of 54 works is supported by a fully-illustrated color catalog. The show also includes a bonus of several late additions that were not cataloged.
Prominent regional artists such as Laura Coombs Hills and Lillian Hale share the spotlight with fine but hitherto forgotten artists such as Alice Sohier, Lucy May Stanton, Mary Foote Hawley, Elizabeth Paxton and Agnes Abbott. This show should spark more aggressive markets for works by these artists.
The exhibition also places a revolutionary emphasis upon miniature watercolors on ivory that were painted in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. In the market, Twentieth Century miniatures have languished as a “tweener field” – a field between the antiques world and the art field, but not rigorously embraced by either. The remarkable quality and range of miniatures in this exhibition should awaken collector interest, and stimulate both art galleries and antiques dealers to contest for works in this media.
Visitors also have the opportunity to peer through windows into two important institutions of New England academic art. As curator Jean Lightman and other catalog essayists reviewed the careers of these women artists, they also revealed the history of The Guild of Boston Artists.
About three quarters of the works on display illustrate an approach to painting known as the Boston School. Visitors who carefully examine these works have the opportunity to sharpen their eye for recognizing works from it.
Lightman, a landscape painter by profession, rigorously curated this, her first historical exhibition. The 36 artists represented in the show worked in six media – oil paintings, watercolors, pastels, drawings, miniatures and sculpture. They include the most notable of the 45 female guild members during the 32 year span. The most serious omission is Margaret Foster Richardson.
Two years ago, when Lightman proposed an historical exhibition of woman artists from the guild, guild president Tom Dunlay told her that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, was planning an exhibition of women artists from Greater Boston called “A Studio of Her Own.”
Lightman thus scheduled her show to run while the MFA exhibition was up, and she was likewise able to tap the museum for some assistance. For example, MFA curator Erica Hirshler wrote a four page catalog essay about the Boston art community of 1914. MFA biographical researcher Ellen Roberts wrote a five page essay on early women artists of the Boston Guild; she also wrote the individual artists’ biographies.
Ellen Roberts is a conscientious doctoral candidate who researched artists’ biographies according to established museum practices. Substantial archives related to some of the women she researched, such as Gretchen Rogers, are housed in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, but generally files of women artists have not been microfilmed. Therefore, scholars can research these files only by traveling to Washington.
Visitors are encouraged to see both the guild and MFA exhibits, which have substantial differences. For example, 16 artists who are represented in the guild show are not in the MFA show.
The guild’s most prominent women artists during the early decades were Laura Coombs Hills and Lillian Hale. Hills is represented by a large pastel, “Peonies,” and four miniatures. “Peonies” is a fine, large Impressionist floral work by Hills. The unusual compositional element is the use of a circular loop of peonies with blossoms in every conceivable shade of pink, which underscores Hills’s exceptional skill as a colorist.
Hale is represented by the painting “The Sailor Boy” and the drawing “China Astors.” Hale was an American drawing master of the Twentieth Century. Her “China Astors” is so over the top that it appears to have been created with the intention of being her masterpiece. Hale used the entire 20 by 28-inch sheet for the drawing, and employed a full range of grays.
For a few spots on the wallpaper and with some flower blossoms, Hale allowed the pure white of the paper to show. She incorporated a full range of surfaces, from delicate lace to a figurative bronze table standard. Beyond the astonishing display of technical virtuosity, the image creates an appealing portrait.
Gretchen Rogers’s “Girl Reading” does not have the energy of her masterpiece “Woman in a Fur Hat” in the MFA show, but it does share the delicate Impressionist brushstrokes that contrast with muted tones. Rogers has again suggestively understated her subject.
Another rather well known artist in the exhibition is Lilla Cabot Perry, whose “Theatre Posters, Ikao, Japan” is an Impressionist landscape in blues and greens with touches of pink and yellow. While the scene is dramatic, it is Perry’s command of color that unifies and orchestrates the painting.
At the same time, the work underscores the American obsession with form over light when working in the Impressionist manner. Although Perry worked nine summers with Monet in Giverny, she rarely surrendered form to obsess over light.
Within the New England market, there are collectors who already enjoy the distinctive portraiture of Marion Boyd Allen. While most Boston portraits depict elegantly attired aristocrats at leisure, Allen was more inclined to depict either aristocrats or working people involved in daily pursuits.
Her approach to painting was deliberately in the American tradition of limners. Although fully modeled with careful attention to light sources, Allen’s works have the tonality of early Nineteenth Century American portraits. Had she painted outside New England, Allen’s distinctive approach would have attracted far more attention. Her painting “Enameling” depicts an Arts and Crafts artisan, most probably her friend Elizabeth Copeland.
Mary Brewster Hazelton is more widely remembered as a teacher of women artists than as an artist in her own right. Her circa 1894 Impressionist oil painting “Two Sisters at the Piano” may, however, push collectors to rethink Hazelton’s work. Although working in tight and proper Boston, Hazelton pushed the bounds with this portrait. It is painted in a loose Impressionist manner with an unusual combination of light source and composition. It is more outwardly creative and assertive than many Boston paintings.
Surprises on Display
The most surprising work on view is Alice Ruggles Sohier’s “Nude, Back View,” which also illustrates the catalog cover. Rather than being an erotic nude, this work superbly captures the play of light and shadow over skin. A second Sohier painting on display, “Old Rose and Black Lace,” portrays a young woman with a black lace veil that indicates mourning. The sitter’s downcast eyes suggest grieving reflection. She wears a shimmering deep rose blouse.
In recent years, Sohier’s work has been relatively obscure. For example, she is not mentioned in the MFA catalog for the exhibition “A Studio of Her Own.” Yet, these two strong works indicate a woman having both substantial technical skills and the confidence to attempt difficult subjects.
“On the Beach” by Agnes Abbott is another surprise. Her works that appear on the market are usually watercolors, but this is a boldly painted oil. The scene was painted in quick, broad strokes with pure color and a thick impasto. The use of a board foundation and rapid technique are consistent with open air painting on location.
The Boston School is often criticized for failing to record the lives of commoners. Marion Boyd Allen and her contemporary Marie Danforth Page did, however, paint women at work, both inside and outside of the home.
Page’s “The Tenement Mother” was prominently displayed over the mantel in the guild’s 1914 exhibition, and it has returned to that location for this show. Page preferred models from the working class, free of pretension and excessive grooming. For example, in one image the baby’s hair is disheveled and his clothes are a size too large. The painting is both beautiful and genuine.
Some women with works in the exhibition were married to or otherwise related to prominent male artists. One of those is Elizabeth Vaughan Okie Paxton whose husband, William Paxton, was among the founders of the Boston School. In price range, William Paxton’s work sells in the tier below that of Frank Benson and Edmund Tarbell.
It is interesting to note that Elizabeth Paxton’s work demonstrates a technical mastery very similar to her husband’s, although her subjects appeal more to women. In this exhibition, her “Still Life with Teapot and Lemons” is as accomplished as her husband’s work, but until this time the market for her work has been less aggressive.
Generally within married couples, the spouses painted different subjects in different styles. One couple that rendered similar images was Nellie Littlehale Murphy and Hermann Dudley Murphy, whose watercolors can sometimes be distinguished only by reading the monograms. At other times, however, they painted rather differently.
In this exhibit, Nellie’s watercolor “White Lilies” is distinctly in her manner. Although nominally a painting of flowers on a shrub, she took an Impressionist leap and captured the lively play of brilliant light (probably California) over the foliage, twigs and branches. It is a fine example of American Impressionism.
One of the most dramatic paintings on display is “Japanese Lanterns” by Margaret Stuber Pearson. Against a jet black night, Pearson painted four brilliantly colored lanterns hanging above a garden and bouncing their richly colored light off peony blossoms. The brushwork is fast and Impressionistic. The painting is very successful.
It is fitting that a show of The Guild of Boston Artists rekindles interest in Twentieth Century watercolor on ivory miniatures. Its members were among the founders and office holders of the American Society of Miniature Painters, and they won numerous awards across the nation.
Today, Hills is remembered primarily for her floral pastels, but, she turned to that medium when her sight began to fail. Her major success during her lifetime was as a miniaturist. She painted 369 watercolors on ivory that have sold for prices ranging from $300 to $1,000. These portraits vary in style and mood, but each is a fine painting. Her four miniatures in this show range from a meticulous and precise rendering titled “Mary Faxon” to the Impressionist “Portrait of a Young Woman.” In the past couple months, the market of Hills miniatures has turned aggressive.
Lucy May Stanton was possibly the most creative miniature painter of her generation. Stanton sought to express mood rather than precisely depicting her subject and she accomplished that by inventing a technique she named “puddling.” After creating a small pool of watercolor solution on the ivory surface, she left the work stationary – allowing the water to naturally evaporate.
While the effects were not controllable, the outcome was unique and appealing. Puddling conferred both texture and Impressionist glow to her miniatures. The glow was produced by a combination of mixed pigments, thinned pigment deposits, and light bouncing off the supporting ivory back at the viewer. She exploited this technique with very different effects in the human portrait “Aunt Liza” and the dog portrait “Chum Wee.”
Mary Foote Hawley painted about 400 miniatures that usually have a soft focus and strong color. This approach was especially well suited to rendering pretty young girls. Her “Mary Foote in Yellow Dress” captures a niece with soulful brown eyes that are deepened by their contrast with a pink face and yellow-orange dress. Hawley won national acclaim and served as president of the American Society of Miniature Painters.
Evelyn Purdie was a miniaturist who painted remarkable still lifes. She worked in an Impressionist style that defined objects by their colors rather than exacting form. Yet she also incorporated fine lines that are a succession of Impressionist flashes of light. These lines are straight, continuous and uniform in width even under magnification. Her works such as “Bowl of Fruit” are remarkable achievements.
The artist who first appeared in literature as Sally Cross later became Sally Cross Bill. She painted many miniatures, but also produced full size oils and watercolors, and even murals. Her miniatures such as “David Lane Darling” (in this exhibition) have an overall soft focus while the eyes, nose and mouth are precisely rendered.
Annie Hurlburt Jackson’s traditional miniatures were produced after studying under some of New England’s more venturesome artists – Eric Pape, Hermann Murphy and Charles Hawthorne. Her greatest success was in painting young boys with a skill for conveying some sense of their inner essence. When painting matrons, she poured her skill into depicting fabrics, as can be seen in her portrait “Amy L. Boyden.”
Other guild members also painted miniatures during this period. Jean Nutting Oliver (1859-1946) was primarily known for her watercolor miniatures although in this exhibition she is represented by an oil on canvas depicting a woman sewing. Heloise Redfield was a founder of the guild and a miniaturist, but she is not represented in this show.
The Guild of Boston Artists was organized in 1914 to provide members with gallery space to sell their works. Forty-two founding members included nationally and regionally prominent artists as well as some young artists who were attempting to establish themselves. Prominent founders included Frank Benson, Edmund Tarbell, Lillian Hale and Laura Coombs Hills.
Some of the younger founders who went on to distinction were Gretchen Rogers, Alice Ruggles Sohier, and Howard Smith. About 30 percent of the charter members were female, and that is close to the current percent of female membership.
Artists had two situations that motivated them to form the guild. In 1912, Benson and Tarbell resigned their teaching positions at the Museum School of the MFA to protest the appointment of an administrator rather than an artist to run the school. Also, young and developing Boston artists were having difficulty finding galleries willing to exhibit their works.
The guild acquired a property at 162 Newbury Street, and redesigned the building for guild use. The main exhibition gallery is on the lower floor. The architect C. Howard Walker designed the space to have splendid natural illumination and neutrally colored walls. The upper gallery that is used for group exhibitions has artificial lighting.
To assure an opportunity for Boston artists to have exhibition space, the guild has also limited its membership. After having 42 members when founded in 1914, the membership rose slightly each year for the next couple decades. Currently there are 70 members. From its founding, the guild has limited its membership to artists either living in the Boston area or having trained in Boston.
Curator Jean Lightman captured the unique role of the guild when she noted, “The guild is not simply located in Boston. Since its founding, it has been the primary institution advocating the Boston School of painting. The founders were not just Benson, Tarbell, and Hale, but also their former students at the museum school [MFA]. Eventually, the only teacher carrying on that tradition was R.H. Ives Gammell. His teaching saved the Boston School, but he only taught men. Some of his students now teach, such as Paul Ignbertson, Robert Cormier, David Curtis, Robert Douglas Hunter, David Lowrey and Robert Moore. Fortunately they all accept women students, and I studied under Paul Ignbertson.”
Lightman then commented on the paradox of Boston School paintings. “Works created by members of the Boston School of painting are characterized by a remarkable unity that extends across the image. Viewers find the images so immediately accessible that they infer the paintings were created with a similar ease. Actually, artists find this effect requires arduous training and effort.”
Lightman then enumerated the steps. “Training in the Boston approach follows a series of steps that go back to the Nineteenth Century French system. Beginning students learn values. The student makes charcoal drawings of plaster casts. She learns that where the contrast is the strongest the edges are crisp, and in halftone areas where the light is dimmer, edges are lost. While learning values, the student also learns to perceive shape and proportions. After a student has learned value relationships, then she will be more able to understand color.
“The next step,” Lightman continued, “is to learn figure drawing and still life painting. The figure drawing is to understand human form, and continue to perceive shape relationships. The purpose of still life painting is to learn composition and color relationships. During this time the student continues improving skills in drawing, form, and edges.
“The final step is portrait painting. Portraiture is considered a most difficult challenge. It is extraordinarily difficult to incorporate the correct skin tones, form, proportions, values, and edges. The student needs learn to make paint do what she wants it to do. That is difficult.”
Lightman also explained the Boston School’s emphasis upon painting compositions and scenes directly, saying, “Getting the relations is the reason that it is so important for Boston School artists to paint from nature. All through the painting process, the artist evaluates the scene, and determines relations. She is thinking about value relations, shape relations, and color relations. Ultimately she is thinking about how to balance each of these with the other two. The goal is a unified effect. Intense concentration is required.”
Lightman then offered an interesting contrast. “Sometimes people see a realism in the Boston School that resembles the photo realism school, but the two schools are very different. The Boston School is a branch of Impressionism that depends upon the artist’s eye to determine the most important element and use relationships to the most important element forward. Ultimately, a Boston painting is all about relationships. That is very different than the point by point precision of the photo realists. One is Impressionism, the other is Realism.”
Both the guild and the Boston approach to painting remain strong in the current market. The guild currently has 70 members and many applicants for new openings. The guild gallery produces good sales and contacts.
The lower gallery is used for one-person shows, while the upper gallery features works by a variety of members. In addition, there are numerous art dealers in the Boston area who handle contemporary Boston School artists. Those include Al Walker, John G. Hagan, Powers Gallery, Diane Jensen and the Vose Galleries.
The 44 page catalog for this exhibition can be purchased by mail for $23 $(20 plus $3 shipping). The catalog includes four essays and 36 artists’ biographies as well as illustrating each of the 54 works in color. Mail checks to Guild of Boston Artists, 162 Newbury Street, Boston, Mass. 02116.
For information on the Boston Guild of Artists exhibition, 617-536-7660. For information on the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston exhibition, 617-267-9300.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm