Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on May 30, 2013 with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly at the Bryan Memorial Gallery, Jeffersonville, VT at either this phone number or Web address:
Masters of Vermont: Five Women Artists
By Mickey Myers
Masters of Vermont brings to light the artwork and accomplishments of five Vermont women, whose lives and careers spanned 137 years between 1844 and 1981. While better known during their lives than subsequently, each painted during a time when women in the visual arts played a secondary role to their male counterparts.
Undaunted by that fact, each of the five artists overcame a variety of odds to live full lives in the arts, earning education with notable mentors, selling their work, garnering commissions, establishing followings, winning prizes, and initiating legacies that breath life to this day. They are:
Besides the obvious Vermont connection, the common threads that weave through the respective lives and careers of these women artists, begin with education. Each had a voracious appetite to study art, formally or in workshop situations, regardless of the consequences to which a life in the arts would lead. Likewise, integral to each was the determination to maintain family units while exploring aesthetic vistas. For these five women, the virtues of kindness, humor and support of family were timely, no matter the implications.
Martha Wood Belcher's (1844-1930) career as an artist spanned a significant part of two centuries and two continents. She fulfilled the traditional roles of mother, sister, daughter, and wife, as well as what now is considered to be the contemporary role of an equal financial partner with her husband -- by selling her artwork -- through which she supported her mother and sisters in addition to her family with Mr. Belcher.
Martha was born in England, and immigrated with her family to Schenectady, New York, when she was twelve. Less than a decade after their arrival in the US, her brother died in the Civil War, and her father's long, lingering illness left his wife and three daughters with limited resources. The women took in laundry and sewing, and Martha taught art and sold landscapes of the local terrain; when they caught the eye of a New Yorker, Major Thomas B. Brooks, a geologist and mining engineer, he became her patron.
Brooks underwrote Martha's study of art at the Cooper Institute in New York City, after which she taught art at Ripley College in Poultney, Vermont. In 1872, Brooks took Martha on a two year tour of Europe, during which she studied art in Dresden and Munich. Returning to the US, she settled in Pittsford, Vermont. There she designed and built a house on Main Street, into which she moved her mother and sisters, before she married (in 1880 at age 36) and raised her own family.
Martha continued to paint and sell her paintings, contributing to the support of both families, even while her husband's manufacturing business required moving the Belcher family to St. Louis, western Pennsylvania, and to Newark. Ironically in 1910, after the deaths of her husband, mother and both sisters, Martha was surprised to inherit an unexpected but sizable sum of money from a relative in England, thereby allowing her to live without financial concerns for the rest of her life, to travel and to support the art education of her daughter Hilda.
During her lifetime, Hilda Belcher (1881-1963), daughter of Martha Wood and Stephen Belcher, was considered among the country's leading portrait and genre painters in both oil and watercolor, profiling not only specific individuals, but also capturing the cultural milieu of their surroundings and time. Hilda was educated in Newark, New Jersey (she was valedictorian of her high school class), and in New York City at the New York School of Art, one of the few women in her class.
Like many of her contemporaries, Hilda found a mentor in Robert Henri, about whom she wrote, "He was merciless, but I began to see the light, worked like a dog, and came back to life." She studied also with William Merritt Chase, Kenneth Hayes-Miller, George Luks, and George Bellows, though she never studied watercolor technique formally -- an irony which was not lost on her, as she became increasingly well known for her watercolor portraits. In 1926, the New York City Telegraph wrote, "Miss Hilda Belcher is to our mind the best exponent of water-color painting in America."
After studying in Italy in 1910, Hilda returned to New York, giving private art lessons, and teaching at the Art Students' League. She sold illustrations and cartoons to magazines such as Harper's and Women's Home Companion and designed stain glass windows for her family's business. She was the recipient of many prizes and commissions, including the coveted "Strathmore Watercolor Prize," in 1908. about which the New York Times wrote "Girl Painter Wins Prize from 692 Men Competitors."
The Strathmore prize was the first of many that came her way, culminating in her election to the National Academy of Design, only the second woman to receive such an honor. In 1935, the New York Times called her "one of the most distinguished women artists in America."
Travel was high on Hilda's agenda, always sketching on route, and of particular note was her tour of Europe with her mother, shortly before the outbreak of World War I. She had a long connection to the city of Savannah, Georgia, where she taught at the Telfair Academy, and painted portraits of prominent families, as well as genre portraits of members of Savannah's African-American community, particularly gospel choir singers. When ill health forced her to settle in one place, she went to live with her brother in New Jersey, but continued to spend summers at the family home in Pittsford, where volumes of her studies of feline companions give witness to the humor and tenderness her family remembers to this day.
During her lifetime, Hilda Belcher's work was featured in one person exhibitions all over the country, and is in the permanent collections of many public art collections, including the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Pennsylvania Academy, the Newark Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont. Middlebury College awarded her an Honorary Master of Arts Degree in 1940, reflecting her conviction about herself, that she "always felt herself a thorough-going Vermonter."
Georgia (Wells Stearns) Balch (1888-1981) was a teenager when she immigrated with her family to Johnson, VT, where her parents bought and ran the local hotel. The ebullient teenager had a passion for "dabbling in watercolor" when she married the town's most eligible bachelor, Chester Arthur Stearns, in 1914. They settled in a grand home on Stearns Street (Vermont Route 100C), built by her new in-laws as their wedding present to the young couple.
Georgia began her art education after the subsequent untimely death of her husband in the influenza epidemic of 1918. To deal with her grief and loss, she took her four year old daughter, Joyce, from their home in Johnson, Vermont to Kansas City, where she studied art, presumably at the Kansas City Art Institute.
Returning to Vermont, she married Roman Balch, manager of the family business, and erected a sign in front of her home that read "Paintings of Vermont by Georgia Balch," thus establishing an early example of cultural tourism. For the rest of her life, tourists motoring through Vermont stopped to visit her studio and purchase her oil paintings, sometimes sampling the culinary offerings of the personable artist, who was also a legendary cook, preferring to prepare meals on her wood burning stove than on more modern appliances.
During her lifetime, Georgia exhibited her work at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC; a retrospective of her paintings was held at the Dibden Gallery of Johnson State College, and Georgia is listed in Who's Who in American Art.
A graduate of local schools, Ruth G. Mould (1894-1979) prepared for an early career as a teacher in the Cadys Falls, Vermont district school house, teaching Grades 1-8. The visual arts, however, commanded her interest as a young woman, and an uncle sponsored her further studies at the Institute of Art in St. Paul, Minnesota, from which she graduated with honors. From there, she went on to study at the Art Students League in New York City, before she married Willis Mould in 1919, and returned to Vermont.
Throughout her married life, whether she was teaching art students at Johnson Normal School, tutoring private art students, and raising their son, Channing, Willis Mould made sure Ruth Mould had her own private art studio, wherever his work as a mining engineer took his family. They lived in Vermont in Morristown, Monkton, Johnson, Williamstown, and Barre, and in Keysville, New York, and Ruth had a studio at each location.
Ruth Mould was one of two artists whose work represented the State of Vermont at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. However, she was best known for her oil portraits, including a posthumous portrait of Edna Beard, first female member of both the Vermont House and Senate, which hangs in the Vermont State House, at the top of the right staircase from the front lobby, and portraits of three Vermont Chief Justices in the Vermont Supreme Court Building.
A selection of Mould's work is permanently installed in the lobby at the Dibden Center for the Arts at Johnson State College, and other works are represented in the permanent collections of the Fleming Museum, The Vermont Historical Society, and the Bennington Museum.
Mary Taylor Bryan (1906-1978) moved to Connecticut from New Mexico with her parents at an early age, and was always the top in her class in art, particularly leaning toward sculpture. She studied in workshop situations with some outstanding sculptors of the time including Laura Fraser and Carl Illiver, and then at the New School of American Sculpture.
In 1938, she moved with her husband, painter Alden Bryan, and their young son, Alden, to Gloucester, Massachusetts, where they returned for many summers. There she began her career as a painter. She and Alden operated the Bryan Gallery on Rocky Neck, exhibiting their work for over 30 years, and Mary had her own art school for students of watercolor. While there, she studied painting with the legendary American artist Emile Gruppe, and also attended classes with Eliot O'Hara at his school for watercolor in Goose Rocks Beach, Maine.
The Bryans settled permanently at Windridge Farms in Jeffersonville, Vermont, in 1939, again drawn to an area which had been a mecca for New England landscape painters for decades. An insatiable student, Mary Bryan expressed herself masterfully in a variety of artistic media. Her hands were never idle. Early to rise, she would often be at her easel before drinking her morning coffee.
During her career, Mary Bryan won two prizes at the American Watercolor Society, three awards at the National Association of Women Artists, two prizes at the Silvermine Guild, three first prizes at the North Shore Arts Association and two at the Allied Artists of American, including the Gold Medal of Honor for the Best in Show. In Boston, Mary Bryan was a member of the Guild of Boston Artists and the Copley Society, at both of which she and her husband had two-artist exhibitions. In 1984, the Mary Bryan Memorial Gallery was built in her memory at Jeffersonville, Vermont, by her husband, to show the finest Vermont and New England painters, and is now in its 23rd year.
In a show that defies the perceived limitations of a rural forum, Bryan Memorial Gallery in Jeffersonville brought the work of these five artists together, each represented by at least 15 examples of their artwork. While the work exhibited varies in media, perspective, viewpoint, and subject matter, all clearly their circumstances and masters of their art, and obviously ahead of the prominence afforded to women artists during their respective careers.
These five women made their artwork work for them, eager to share it with strangers, fellow artists, students, family, people known and unknown to them. Their marks on paper and canvas are proof of their strength, their charm, their playfulness, their unique vision and their fearlessness in expressing themselves -- characteristics that make them worthy of the title, Master.
In putting together this exhibition, the Bryan Gallery was gratified to work with members of the respective families of the artists, all of whom, in one form or another, maintain the legacy of their once celebrated mothers, aunts, and grandmothers.
Masters of Vermont has been presented at Bryan Memorial Gallery with the cooperation of the Vermont Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts and Vermont Woman Newspaper.
by Mickey Myers, Executive Director, Bryan Memorial Gallery
These remarks, originally given on March 26, 2007 at the Vermont State House at an event to launch the Vermont Women's History Website, have been expanded to include more complete biographies of each of the artists.
On behalf of the Bryan Memorial Gallery in Jeffersonville, I am pleased to introduce you to the featured women artists of the gallery's upcoming exhibition: Masters of Vermont. This exhibition, presented in cooperation with the Vermont Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, with Vermont Woman Newspaper as its media sponsor, features the artwork of five Vermont women, whose lives and careers spanned 130 years between 1844 and 1981, and whose influence continues to this day. Please meet:
Besides the obvious Vermont connection, the common threads that weave through the respective lives and careers of these women, begin with education. Each had a voracious appetite to study art, sometimes against particular odds, and regardless of the unknown consequences to which a path in the arts would lead. Likewise, integral to each of their stories, was the determination to maintain family units while exploring aesthetic vistas. For each of these five women, the virtues of kindness, humor and support of family were timely, no matter the implications.
Martha Wood Belcher
Hilda Belcher with her mother, Martha Wood Belcher
Georgia Balch on her front porch in Johnson, VT.
Ruth G. Mould in front of her house on Park Street in Morrisville.
Painting of Mary Bryan by Marion Steele
For the next two months, between April 15 and June 17, Bryan Memorial Gallery in Jeffersonville will present these five artists, each represented by at least 15 pieces of their artwork, plus some photographs and mementoes. While the work to be exhibited varies in media, perspective, viewpoint, and subject matter, all clearly gives evidence of women who were masters of their lives, masters of their circumstances and masters of their art.
These five women made their artwork work for them, were eager to share it with strangers, fellow artists, students, family, people known and unknown to them. Their marks on paper and canvas are proof of their strength, their charm, their playfulness, their unique vision and their fearlessness in expressing themselves - characteristics that make them worthy of the title, Master.
On behalf of Bryan Memorial Gallery, I invite you to join us in getting to know -- through their artwork -- Martha, Hilda, Georgia, Ruth and Mary, Masters of Vermont.
(above: Hilda Belcher, Portrait by Night - Preliminary Study)
(above: Hilda Belcher, Go Down Moses, 1936)
Masters of Vermont: Five Women Artists was on exhibit at Bryan Memorial Gallery in Jeffersonville, Vermont through June 24, 2007.
Martha Wood Belcher, a Hudson River School style landscape painter, was born in Birmingham, England in 1844 and died in 1930 in Pittsford, Vermont at age 86. Her daughter, Hilda Belcher, best known for her cultural portraits, was born in Pittsford in 1881 and died in Pittsford in 1963 at age 82. Georgia Wells Stearns Balch, a plein air painter of the Vermont landscape was born in Frelighsberg, Quebec, Canada in 1888 and died in Johnson, Vermont in 1981 at age 92.
Ruth G. Mould, born in Morrisville in 1894 and died in Morrisville in 1979 at age 84, has portrait paintings hanging in this State House and the Vermont Supreme Court building, and Mary Taylor Bryan, in whose honor the Bryan Memorial Gallery was founded, born in Carlsbad, New Mexico in 1906 and died in Jeffersonville, Vermont in 1978, at age 72.
Over 110 paintings, spanning 130 years, capture the determination of spirit, and the love of paint that compelled each of these Vermont artists throughout their lives. Presented in cooperation with the Vermont Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, with Vermont Woman's Newspaper as the show's media sponsor, Masters of Vermont is the first in a series of exhibitions that will be presented annually in the spring by The Bryan Gallery, bringing Vermont art history to life. The exhibit was curated by Bryan Gallery Executive Director Mickey Myers and managed by Bryan Gallery Assistant Director Jim Gallugi.
From Martha Wood Belcher's Hudson River School style paintings, to her daughter Hilda's genre portraits, from Georgia Balch's plein air paintings of the Lamoille County landscape to Ruth G. Mould's intense renderings of the people around her, and from the warmth and passion of Mary Bryan's expertise in a variety of media, Masters of Vermont champions five women artists who were masters of their media and their circumstances.
About the author
Mickey Myers has been Executive Director of Bryan Memorial Gallery in Jeffersonville, Vermont since 2006. An exhibiting artist in pastel and printmaking, Myers is originally from Los Angeles, where she studied with Corita Kent. Under Myers' direction, Bryan Memorial Gallery presents a biennial Vermont art historical series called Masters of Vermont (2007: The Women; 2009: The Men: 2011: The Watercolorists.) She is assisted in this endeavor by the gallery's Assistant Director Jim Gallugi. For Travels with Alden, Alden T. Bryan, son of Mary and Alden Bryan, and Fiona Cooper Fenwick, the gallery's Exhibitions Chair, collaborated on curating the exhibit. Myers lives in Johnson, Vermont, in an historic home originally built for the Vermont artist Georgia Balch (1888 -1981).
(above: Mickey Myers, Executive Director, Bryan Memorial Gallery. Photo courtesy of Bryan Memorial Gallery)
Resource Library editor's note:
The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on May 30, 2013 with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on May 29, 2013. A condensation the article was published in the May-June 2007 issue of American Art Review.
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