Western Women Artists: An Overview

by Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick



Between 1893 and the 1930s there was a dramatic increase in the number of art schools, art associations, and art colonies founded in the West. Of particular importance were the art colonies in Taos and Santa Fe. Although the best-remembered artists in these colonies at the time were men, the list of women, both as residents and visitors, is long and impressive. One of the earliest was Ethel Coe (1878-1938), an accomplished painter who made her initial visit to New Mexico in 1915 to study and sketch among the natives. Grace Ravlin (1873-1956), whose impressionistic studies of Native American ceremonials were widely acclaimed, arrived the next year. A host of others followed, including Catharine Carter Critcher (1868-1964), the gifted portraitist of Native Americans and the only woman member of the original Taos Society of Artists (1915-1927); Eugenie Shonnard (1886-1978), the talented sculptor of Native Americans and animals; and Gene Kloss (1903-1996), the National Academician who was long known for the velvety richness of her etchings, particularly of Native Americans and landscapes of New Mexico.

The Great Depression of the 1930s and the consequent lack of funds to patronize art severely affected the careers of many artists, both men and women. Conversely, however, the country's malady prompted the federal government to sponsor emergency programs to provide work for artists. As a result, numerous women painters gained opportunities to paint murals in post offices and other public buildings throughout the country. What is impressive about this fact is that many of the commissions for the projects were awarded "blind" -- without knowledge of the name or sex of the applicant. Some of these post office murals with typically western themes were Olive Rush's (1873-1966) Osage Treaty (Pawhuska, Oklahoma); Elizabeth Lochrie's (1890-1981) The Fur Traders (St. Anthony, Idaho), and Jenne Magafan's (1914-1952) Cowboy Dance (Anson, Texas).

Sculptors, who also benefited from these programs, included Gladys Caldwell Fisher (1906-1952), who created Kiowa Travois for the post office in Las Animas, Colorado, and Eugenie Shonnard, whose Cattle and Indians was done for the post office in Waco, Texas.

Modernism, which made its initial impact on the American scene at the Armory Show of 1913, enjoyed efflorescence to about 1925, reappeared in newer forms in the late 1930s, and by the 1940s had become a dominant art trend in the country. Its emphasis on method rather than subject matter seriously limited the opportunities of many traditional artists to hang their works at important exhibitions. This factor, along with the increasing demand by buyers for paintings and sculptures ranging from the semi-abstract to the nonobjective, caused many western artists to go beyond representationalism to express western ideas. Some, such as Gene Kloss, were apparently little affected by the movement during its peak years (1940s-1960s) and sustained their earlier styles through productive careers. Others, such as Ethel Magafan (1914-1994), gradually changed their styles from literal to semi-abstract. Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), a modernist almost from the beginning, continued to paint New Mexico subjects in her highly individualistic way and gained recognition during her lifetime as one of the country's foremost artists.

The dominance of the new modernism continued virtually unchallenged until the early 1960s, when the resurgence of interest and nostalgia for America's past, especially the era of the frontier and the settling of the West, led to a dramatic increase in the popularity of western realism and, for the first time, its acceptance in eastern circles. Since then, the number of art museums and galleries featuring western art has grown dramatically, as has the number of artists, both men and women, depicting its varied historical and contemporary themes.


About the authors:

In 1999 Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki Kovinick received one of the Cowboy Hall of Fame's Western Heritage Awards -- in the category of art books -- for their Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West. They attended the ceremonies held at the museum at the end of April and received a 14-inch high bronze titled "Wrangler" by American Indian artist John Free of Pawhuska.[1]


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text, reprinted in Resource Library on September 22, 2005, was excerpted from pages xvii through xx of the book titled An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West: A Biographical Dictionary, by Phil Kovinick and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, foreword by William H. Goetzmann, Copyright © 1998. Reprinted courtesy of the University of Texas Press. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the University of Texas Press directly through either this phone number or web address:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Ms. Peggy L. Gough of the University of Texas Press for help in obtaining permission to reprint this text.

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About An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West:

An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West: A Biographical Dictionary is a 405 page illustrated volume containing a foreword, essay and biographical dictionary of over 1,000 women artists. The Library Journal says "...The multitude of adventurous, mostly U.S. women painters, graphic artists, and sculptors presented here worked in or created images of the 17 westernmost contiguous American states from 1840 to 1980. Research for this volume, which took 20 years, included extensive interviews and the investigation of original documents, obituaries, and grave markers.... [The artists'] styles range from representationalism to early modernism, while their works depict everything from bold landscapes and scenes of intensive action to studies of Native Americans, pioneers, ranchers, farmers, wildlife, and flora...." ISBN: 0292790635.


1. from Dustin Publications' californiaart.com, July 1999, Nancy Moure, editor

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