Historical Artists | Visual Arts

Florence Ware: Big Pictures, Big Ideas

Florence Ellen Ware, American, History of Printing (What Man Hath Wrought), ca. 1911-1971, estimated, oil on canvas. From the Permanent Collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, gift of Porte Publishing Company.

Florence Ware aimed big. A stalwart of the Utah art community in the 1930s and 1940s, Ware was anywhere you looked. She was the first president of the Associated Utah Artists, taught art at the University of Utah and at venues in the community, showed in galleries from Ogden to Provo, designed interiors for local businesses and was a notable participant in shows at the Art Barn and with the Utah Art Institute. She was a prolific artist and art advocate with big, ambitious ideas.

Ware’s work as an interior designer influenced her paintings. Works like “The Nose Gay and the Dresden China” and “Moon Flowers in Wedgewood” showed her decorative savvy by combining high-end objects with flowers in compositions that emphasized beauty. Many of Ware’s contemporaries also painted these types of works — small-scale landscapes, still-lifes and florals meant to beautify the home. Titles in mid-century exhibition catalogs demonstrate these subjects were popular among both men and women artists in Utah.

Unfortunately, in the history of Western art, these subjects have often not been given their due. Since the beginning of the hierarchy of genres, developed by Italian Renaissance artists and formalized by academies in France and Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, florals and still-lifes played second (if not third or fourth) fiddle to the more prestigious genre of history painting (paintings of religious, mythological or historical significance), artworks that documented the big deeds of big men. Classical hierarchies were gendered. Portrait paintings, genre paintings, and landscapes followed history painting in significance and prestige, with still-lifes, and especially floral paintings, at the very bottom. The most respected, usually male, artists in the Western canon ignored flowers and focused on history. For centuries, women were not accepted into the formal academies where history painters were trained. So, whether by inclination or constraint, women were relegated to less prestigious genres. Furthermore, women could more easily access work painting small-scale still-lifes and florals without challenging gendered norms. In turn, the association of women with these subject matters relegated them to a lower status.

Florence Ware in her studio, 1949. Salt Lake Tribune Negative Collection, Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society

What’s so interesting about Ware, though, is she did both. She was the master of the floral, the small-scale painting for the home emphasizing beauty and flowers and décor; but she also painted some of the most ambitious works by any Utah artist in the first half of the twentieth-century. She was a productive mural painter who did not shy away from lofty, difficult subject matter. Of course, by the time Ware was creating these paintings, the genre had lost some of its power. Artists challenged the hierarchy as modernism developed and new styles emerged in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. But for artists like Ware, who privileged traditional academic painting, the classical hierarchy held true.

By the mid 1940s, Ware had painted at least 18 different murals in Utah, Wyoming, and Wisconsin, including her most-well known project, “The History of Drama” at Kingsbury Hall. This commission was a coveted Works Progress Administration (WPA) project (Ware was one of the only women artists in Utah to receive work from the Federal Art Project). These two 18-foot murals took five years to finish and Ware faced significant logistical challenges bringing them to completion. In 1944, as Ware finished the murals she told The Salt Lake Tribune that the work had progressed under “adverse conditions.” The work was too big for her studio so Ware had to work on the murals in a “barnlike structure” where she said she “froze in the winter and cooked in the summer.” Funding from the WPA stopped mid-project so she had to continue working on the pieces in her spare time. The murals depict the history of drama from Ware’s American perspective. She depicts various dramatic art forms from Africa, Egypt, Medieval Europe, and Renaissance England, among others, placing the most prestige and importance on the later European and American art forms. The murals hang on the East and West halls of Kingsbury Hall and demonstrate Ware’s dedication to complicated, large-scale designs, compositions, and subject matter.

Florence Ellen Ware working on the Kingsbury Hall murals, December 1937. Used by permission, Utah State Historical Society

In addition to her work for Kingsbury Hall, Ware painted murals documenting pioneer history for Utah high schools, depictions of the Madonna for Salt Lake City churches, a pioneer map for the Salt Lake City Public Library, and an altarpiece for a Japanese Buddhist Church. Additionally, the Porte Publishing Company commissioned Ware to paint a series of three murals on the history of printing.

These murals, now in the UMFA’s permanent collection, are especially interesting because of their ambitious depiction of Western history.  The series includes three panels: one depicting the William Caxton Press, one depicting the Gutenberg Press, and one Ware titled “What Man Hath Wrought.” The former are more straightforward depictions of a historical event. William Caxton is believed to be the first person to bring a printing press to England, in 1476. Ware’s depiction of the event shows Caxton in an English Gothic cathedral surrounded by a group of workers who marvel at the newly printed sheets of text. Notably, Ware included a woman coming in through the door at the right side of the composition. Ware’s depiction of the Gutenberg press is similar, though the workers are in a more austere building with no ornate decoration, possibly foreshadowing the Reformation that Gutenberg’s press would help introduce. In this scene, too, Ware included a woman: one of the central figures in this moment, she looks down at the paper standing on the right side of Gutenberg. However greatly they may be outnumbered, Ware’s inclusion of women in these historical moments is a significant insertion of her own gender in what was considered a man’s world.

Florence Ellen Ware, American, History of Printing (William Caxton Press), ca. 1911-1971,
estimated, oil on canvas. From the Permanent Collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, gift of Porte Publishing Company.

Stylistically, these paintings are comparable to other murals from the same period. Ware adopts the blocky figures and social realist style popular during the WPA. She illustrates the development of the printing press in Early Modern Europe in a straightforward fashion similar to how other WPA artists depicted local and regional history. Though interesting for their subject matter, they are not that different from other murals done at the same time.

Her third mural in the series, however, is much more complex and unusual for Utah —and American — art in the 30s and 40s. “What Man Hath Wrought” is not a simple illustration of a historical event, but a complicated symbolic representation of Western civilization. In this mural, the largest of the three, Ware depicts acts of writing and recording from ancient history, going back all the way to the Lascaux-like cave paintings represented by two cavemen chiseling their pictures on a rock. Ware includes nods to Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Mesopotamia. Figures on the left of the composition work to pull a large inscribed block on what could be a Roman chariot. An Egyptian scribe stands directly in the middle of the composition using a harp-like instrument to record or count in the background and a woman in Greek dress is seen from behind on the right side of the canvas. Greek and Egyptian architecture set the scene.

Though ambitious, Ware’s painting is far from perfect. Her depictions of race are problematic. The only black and brown figures in her composition are the ancient Egyptian and Roman slaves on the far left of the composition. Figures representing the Middle East and Asia are in the center of the canvas, but pushed to the bottom and much smaller than those figures representing the history of Western civilization. They sit directly below the figures from Ancient Greece and Ancient Egypt, and this compositional device privileges white and Western history and contributions to text and printing as literally above the others.

Despite these problematic representations, Ware’s mural is noteworthy because this is the type of painting that in the hierarchy of genres only the most accomplished and most sophisticated artists would even attempt. Ware saw herself as an artist capable of taking on ambitious subject matter. She did not shy away from this huge, multi-figure work but embraced it. She did not relegate her third painting in the series to another typical narrative of social realism but instead painted a complex, multi-figural, symbolic history of man. Her title for this piece, too, indicates the bigger symbolic meaning she felt it held: it was not simply a history of printing, but “What Man Hath Wrought,” a commentary on the progress and development of mankind. This was no simple painting, but one of the boldest paintings by a Utah artist at this time. Significantly, Ware again included a female figure, signifying that she saw women as an important part of this history, too.

Florence Ellen Ware, American, History of Printing (Gutenburg Press), ca. 1911-1971, estimated, oil on canvas. From the Permanent Collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, gift of Porte Publishing Company.

Ware’s subject matter was more akin to works by the Renaissance masters she saw while traveling through Europe in 1928 than works by her contemporaries, indicating both her confidence and her boldness. Ware’s travel diaries show that she was invested and interested in Classical art and architecture and documented what she saw thoroughly. Her notebooks include detailed descriptions and drawings of columns, molding and features she saw in European architecture. She took in these details as she traveled, writing about the architecture she saw. This attention to detail is obvious in her mural as she goes back to these classical architectural forms to convey the symbols of Western civilization.

Compared to what many might see as the most ambitious mural project in Utah in the 1930s — the painting of the Utah State Capitol rotunda by Lee Greene Richards and his team of male artists: Gordon Cope, Waldo Midgley, and Harry Rasmussen — Ware’s ambitions, in many ways, were bigger and bolder. The rotunda, though definitely ambitious in scale and scope, only depicts local history. It is a quintessential WPA project — with blocky American scene figures and an emphasis on local and regional history. It aggrandizes moments like the settler discovery of Utah Lake by Father Escalante and the driving of the Golden Spike. Ware’s project in comparison was much more unique for the time, and arguably more ambitious. Muralists all over America were depicting scenes of local and regional history for public murals because of the Federal Art Project and WPA monies. It was much rarer for a work to capture the ancient history of Western Civilization, which Ware aimed to do.

Of course, Ware was not the only woman muralist in Utah at this time. Irene Fletcher also received federal funds, to paint a mural for the library in Cache Valley. E. Merrill Van Frank was hired by both ZCMI and Auerbach’s department stores to paint murals, her most ambitious series depicting Utah culture and history for the centennial celebration in 1947. Minerva Teichert, a Utah born artist with strong ties to Alice Merrill Horne and the Utah art scene, also painted murals, including those in the Manti temple. Historian Marian Wardle has documented Teichert’s love for painting big, bold scenes inspired in part by her training at the Chicago Art Institute and the influence of teacher and famed muralist John Vanderpoel. There, Teichert adopted Edwin Blashfield’s admonishment that public art must be created so plainly that “he who runs may read” and this ethos influenced the way she painted. Mabel Frazer, as discussed in my last article, also painted at least one mural for an LDS chapel.

These women were not content with painting small-scale florals and still-lifes but wanted to paint bold ambitious works that showed their chops as professional artists. They wanted meaty subject matter that allowed them to delve into visual metaphor and symbol. Ware’s piece is especially significant for how ambitious it is. I know of no other painting in mid-century Utah that attempts such a big subject matter. Even those who sculpted large public monuments, like Avard Fairbanks and Mahonri Young, never attempted a history of western civilization, and for that Ware should be commended. It takes courage and confidence to attempt such a work, to paint like the old masters with allusions to Classical history, art, and architecture, and to do it as a woman.

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