The Art in Arts & Crafts: Frances Gearhart
This article was one of the first Collector’s Guide columns we ran in January, 2010. We’re really feeling this Spring weather here in Asheville so we thought we’d revive an oldie but goodie on landscape artist and printmaker Frances Gearhart.
Why would a spinster English history teacher – who the Los Angeles Times had crowned “the strongest of the California landscape painters” – lay down her brush and, at age fifty, embark on a totally new career?
The year was 1919, four years after Gustav Stickley had declared bankruptcy and The Craftsman magazine had ceased publication. The Arts & Crafts movement was no longer the fresh, exciting style it had been two decades earlier. Yet Frances Gearhart was ready to sacrifice her life’s work to pursue a new calling.
Nearly one hundred years later, the Los Angeles Times found Gearhart again, calling her life’s story “a compelling, uplifting portrait of female accomplishment and independence.”
Born in Illinois, but educated in California, Frances Gearhart (1869-1958) and her two sisters, all unmarried schoolteachers with exceptional artistic skills, lived and worked together their entire lives. Although she had achieved widespread recognition as a gifted watercolorist, Frances Gearhart found herself entranced by Japanese and American color woodblock prints. By 1919 she was ready to go public with her new medium.
At age fifty, Frances had left behind the canvas and brush to pick up the carving knife and linoleum block. Her age may help explain her preference for linoleum over hardwood, for the linoleum proved easier to carve and lighter to lift and move. In woodblock tradition, Frances carved a different linoleum block for each color in the finished print. A typical print might require as many as eight different carved blocks. After transferring her design to each block, she meticulously cut away the ‘negative space’ before applying ink to the raised surface in preparation for the printing of the sheet.
Researcher Susan Futterman estimates that Gearhart created approximately 250 different scenes. Since Gearhart typically did not number her prints, it is difficult to estimate how many prints she made of each scene. Researchers feel it was generally fewer than fifty; at times as few as twenty were made of a particular scene. Regardless of the number, each print differs slightly from the others simply by the nature of the hand-printing process.
As author Diana Loomis observed, “Frances Gearhart’s use of bold, vibrant colors in the foreground and soft, hazy backgrounds gives her prints a sense of depth and allure that invite the viewer to explore the world beyond.”
While she had changed mediums, her subject matter remained familiar: the California landscape. Gearhart’s natural talent quickly manifested itself in her linocut prints, capturing the attention of both art critics and the general public. By 1921 she was able to retire from the classroom, and to purchase a tract of land in the San Bernardino Mountains for her and her two sisters to spend their weekends. The scenery provided Frances Gearhart with inspiration for several of her prints.
“The ones I love most are those where she leads you through a rocky path up in the mountains,” explains Susan Futterman, a devoted fan of Gearhart’s. “She takes you to the wilderness, and she plops you right in the middle of it. It’s not like some landscape artists where you feel it is very distant. It’s as if I have been hiking myself.”
Awards, exhibitions and acclamation from the Smithsonian Institute, the Brooklyn Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago and other museums throughout the 1920s and 1930s secured Gearhart’s reputation as one of America’s premier color block artists. Failing eyesight slowed her output after 1941. Frances Gearhart died at her home in Pasadena in 1958 at the age of 89.
A contemporary reviewer feels that “Gearhart’s early prints are darker, more clunky and flatter than her subsequent work. As she grows as an artist her canvases tell a deeper story. The images grow more complex, the perspective deepens, and the colors practically glow.”
Art dealer Steven Thomas (www.woodblock-prints.com) added, “Her most sought after prints are her California landscapes, which constitute the largest part of her oeuvre. One can expect to pay $1000 – $8000 and even possibly more these days for large, colorful examples. The appeal is the way she captured the California scenery — mostly her mountains, but also coastal scenes. She has long been appreciated, but her stock will take a big jump as the largest exhibit of her work ever assembled is showing at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.”
The exhibit, entitled Behold the Day: The Color Block Prints of Frances Gearhart, ran through January 31, 2010. The exhibit was accompanied by a 115-page color catalog edited by Susan Futterman, who also released Let’s Play, a children’s book conceived by the three Gearhart sisters in 1927. The manuscript and illustrations remained unpublished until 2009 when, with the urging and efforts of Susan Futterman, it was assembled and released by the Book Club of America.
Information on Let’s Play can be found at www.bccbook.org