by Linda Osmundson
(Author, freelance writer, and historian, Linda Osmundson is a good friend of mine who inspires me with her knowledge of the American West. Her expertise is art of the Old West. She has written three books in her How the West Was Drawn series: Cowboy Charlie, Frederic Remington, and Women's Art (the last one is my favorite).
I was privileged to be a member of the same critique group as Linda for a number of years and learned something new and fascinating every time she read one of her pieces. This post highlights a little knowns but extremely talented artist of the the 1900s: Edith Hamlin.
You can learn more about Linda and her books at: www.LindaOsmundson.com or find her on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.)
When researchers want to know how the Old West really looked, they study the art of Charles Russell or Frederic Remington. Russell lived what he painted and sculpted. Remington, on the other hand, visited the West, collected artifacts, photographed and sketched. He returned to his upstate New York home to produce images and sculptures. Researchers would do well to study western women artists, who also painted what they lived.
As the western frontier drew men to search for gold and adventure, their wives followed and portrayed the life around them with painted images, bronze sculptures and the written word. Although women artists were supposedly limited in subject matter to portraiture and/or still-life, western women artists broke the rules and painted what they wanted – arid landscapes, portraits, desert flora/fauna and architecture.
If asked to name a western woman painter, who comes to mind? Most likely, Georgia O’Keeffe. You’ve seen her close-up flowers, landscapes, sculls and/or churches. Yet, there are hundreds of women who portrayed the West. During March, Women’s History Month, consider seeing and learning about the West through women’s eyes.
You might begin with my How the West Was Drawn: Women’s Art picture book. It serves as a “looking at art” book for ages 7-107 through the images of fourteen western women artists, who attained success during their lifetime. Once your interest is peaked, check Phil and Marion Kovinick’s An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West. You’ll find names like Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865-1937) who painted over 600 Pomo Indian men, women and children. She said, “My desire is that the world shall know them as I know them, and before they vanish.” And Kathryn Leighton (1875-1952), who of her 700 Indian portraits said, “I am trying to put on canvas the nobility of the old Indian as I see him, the beauty of the colour, the dignity of tradition and the fundamental beliefs of our first American people . . . . . . .”
Indian portraits were only one subject of western women artists. Other women specialized in horses, pueblos, churches, western movement. They congregated in places like San Francisco, Denver and Colorado Springs. They organized art shows for women only. Edith Hamlin (1902-92) exhibited in those shows.
Hamlin grew up in California and during her life she lived in various parts of the state from north to south. Her musician father (an amateur artist) often took her on sketching trips. The California School of Fine Arts offered her a scholarship after viewing her charcoal drawings. Two years later, she gave up school in order to make a living.
I came across her work at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad office in Fort Worth, Texas, when I searched for images for my book. Pueblo-Eagle Dance Mural: The Eagle Dance at Taos, covered one whole wall, floor to ceiling, corner to corner – 9’4” by 17’5”. The BNSF loaned its use to me at no cost for my Women’s Art book. The Fort Worth location houses a museum quality collection of western art. Unfortunately, it isn’t usually open to the public.
Hamlin in 1929 embarked on a cross country driving trip to New York via a northern route. She stopped often to sketch areas of the Columbia River, Yellowstone Park, Teton Rockies and Hudson River. She went home to California in 1930 but soon returned to New York. Two years later she again struck out on a cross country driving trip via the southern route which took her to Taos, New Mexico. She and some friends rented an Indian adobe ranch house. She gained a new perspective on western landscape and Indian culture.
Home again, Hamlin established a studio in San Francisco and was one of 26 artists selected to decorate Coit Tower. The project stemmed from the government’s Public Works of Art Project (PWPA) to help starving artists. They hired artists of either gender to decorate public buildings. While working for the PWPA in Coit Tower, Hamlin met Maynard Dixon. Years later in 1937, they married. He was 27 years older than she.
Her husband called her “Speedy Edie.” Her stepsons said she “whooped with laughter and bounced with energy.” They said she never looked where she was going when driving.
Hamlin specialized in large murals. For the PWPA Hamlin painted murals for Mission High School. The website provides an article with more information about Dixon and the background of the school’s murals.
The Dixons moved to Tucson, Arizona, for the winters and his health. They summered in Mt. Carmel, Utah. When Maynard died in 1946, Hamlin returned to California. Click this link to view more of Hamlin’s western paintings.