Historical Artists | Visual Arts

Roots in a Deep Native Soil: Utah Landscape and the Female Gaze

Mabel Pearl Frazer, “Sunrise, North Rim Grand Canyon,” 1928, oil on canvas, Springville Museum of Art.

“I have always said that great art could not be borrowed or transplanted; it must have roots deep in a native soil. At this moment I am more certain of that than ever before.” – Mabel Frazer, Salt Lake Tribune, 02 Oct 1932, page 42

Utah women artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were formidable: they traveled the world, led art movements and artist societies, and advocated for the importance of artmaking and collecting to a broader Utah public. These women were not wallflowers. They were actively engaged in creating community, meaning and transformation through the visual arts. Though many of them studied, worked, and exhibited in New York, Chicago, and Europe, their roots and lives in Utah were of vital importance to them. As Mabel Frazer noted in 1932, “great art could not be borrowed or transplanted; it must have roots deep in a native soil.” While they traveled the world, these women remained centered in the land they came from. They grappled with the Utah landscape in their paintings and drawings and their work provides an alternative, feminine gaze on the landscape, a necessary counterpoint to traditional male depictions.

Mabel Frazer (1887-1981) embodies this ethos more than any other “settler” woman artist from this time. The influence of Utah, and of the Western landscape was integral to her work. Frazer was a remarkable teacher (she taught at the University of Utah from 1920-1953) and a fascinating figure. Whether fact or fiction, her eccentric qualities have garnered an almost mythical quality in Utah art history (for many of these stories, see Tom Alder’s account). To Frazer, nothing was more inspiring than the Western landscape. She writes in 1928, “If I had my choice of a trip to Europe to study or a trip to the Southern Utah desert, I’d take the desert trip every time. There are things there as vital and as valuable to any artist as he will learn in Europe … I would like to spend the rest of my life in southern Utah, just absorbing its intense, almost unreal beauty, and trying to capture it on canvas.”

Mabel Pearl Frazer, American, “Untitled Landscape,” Circa 1907-1981, estimated, oil on canvas . From the Permanent Collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, gift of Robert A. Larkins.

This fascination with the desert and the literal land of her Utah roots is evident in her work. In paintings, drawings, and sketches she works out her ideas about the West and its land. In a small oil study held by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA), Frazer paints the warm reds and oranges of the redrock formations in contrast to the cool greens and blues of the pine trees below. Her bold, unapologetic color and painterly brush strokes capture the moving shadows and lights. Unlike many depictions of this type of landscape by male artists, Frazer is not interested in emphasizing the imposing or sublime nature of the landscape. Instead, she forces the viewer to look close, to notice the details, to look at the purple shadows and dancing crevices. Frazer’s landscape is dynamic, moving, in flux. She flattens the perspective. There is not a big drop off between the cliff and the canyon, it all melds together. Frazer is inside of this landscape, and encourages the viewer to be too.

In more finished works, Frazer continues to emphasize the dynamism of the landscape and highlight unexpected details. Her 1928 “Sunrise, North Rim Grand Canyon,” currently on display at the Springville Museum of Art, again plays with color, perspective, and form to capture the Western vista. In this painting, Frazer juxtaposes cool and warm, using unexpected blues, purples, and grays to capture the red rock cliffs of the Grand Canyon. Bright orange highlights accentuate the movement of the sunlight as it flits along the cliff’s edge, and dark blue shadows indicate the edges of bluffs and rocks. But again, the landscape is flattened.

Mary H. Teasdel, American, “Springtime,” 1922, oil on board. From the Permanent Collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, University of Utah Collection.

Other Utah women artists from this time also painted the Western landscape in unexpected ways. Mary Teasdel (1863-1937), most famous for being the second Utah artist and first Utah woman accepted into the Paris Salon, painted numerous Utah landscapes. The UMFA’s 1922, “Springtime,” an impressionist depiction of spring trees in blossom against a mountain background, is one example. The influence of James McNeil Whistler, with whom Teasdel studied in Paris, is evident in the tonal quality of the painting. Like Frazer, Teasdel has flattened the perspective, but with colors and values that meld into one another, not the bold fauvist brushwork of Frazer’s more modern work. The trees and blossoms are given just as much weight and importance as the mountain in the background. In fact, the mountain is decidedly unimportant in Teasdel’s landscape. Teasdel emphasizes the blossoms and their ability to blend in with the sky and land. These Rocky Mountains are not striking and monumental. In fact, they are no more important or commanding than the waving cherry blossoms in the foreground.

Florence Ellen Ware, American, “Canyon Trees,” ca 1911-1950, estimated, oil on canvas. From the Permanent Collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, gift of Alice Dick.

Florence Ware (1891-1971), Louise Richards Farnsworth (1878-1969) and Rose Howard Salisbury (1887-1975) are other early-twentieth-century artists who grappled with the Utah landscape. Florence Ware’s “Canyon Trees,” in the UMFA’s permanent collection, emphasizes the trees and their leaves instead of the immenseness of the mountain behind them. There is so much movement in the painting that it seems impossible for the tree trunks to exist at these angles. Again, the movement, and changing nature of the landscape is the focal point. The seemingly less important details, like leaves and branches, overshadow the imposing structures in the background. Louise Richard Farnsworth’s landscapes “Edge of the Desert” and “Blue Shadows” play with unexpected colors and contrasts to depict the Western mountains and desert. In “Blue Shadows,” Mount Olympus juts out into the cloudy sky, showing its impressive size and scale, but the way Farnsworth handles the paint emphasizes its messiness and lessens its monumentality. Rose Howard Salisbury brings the desert into the domestic in her painting “Night Blooming Cereus.” This Utah plant is a type of cactus that only blooms at night. Salisbury makes it larger than life in her painting as it transcends the picture plane. Like her contemporaries, Salisbury emphasizes its movement and shadows. The fleeting flowers (they usually wilt by morning) are given center stage and import. Through sheer scale and emphasis, Salisbury elevates this desert plant, choosing to aggrandize the ephemeral instead of the monumental.

Louise Richards Farnsworth, American, “Blue Shadows,” ca 1898-1969, estimated, oil on canvas. From the Permanent Collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, gift of Mrs. Robert B. Mee.

 

Rose Howard Salisbury, “Night Blooming Cereus,” c1930s, oil on board. Springville Museum of Art.

These depictions of Western land show the affinity these women had for their surroundings and their desire to work it out on paper or canvas. The land was an integral part of the work they were doing. Complicating their depictions, though, is the fact that none of these women were Native. They were painting the land of indigenous tribes and peoples including the Shoshone, Goshute, Southern Paiute, Ute, Pueblo, and Diné. Their access to this land and ability to paint it was a direct result of settler colonialism. Despite these complications, their work is important and enlightening. Their interpretations of the Western landscape suggest the ways settler identity and Utah society were gendered in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

This is significant because the landscape of the American West has often been seen and interpreted as masculine, embodying the ideals of — as art historian Sarah J. Moore describes it — a “rugged male individualism.” The West, in the popular imagination, is a place that exemplifies masculinity. The best-known images of the American West emphasize this interpretation. Famous paintings by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran that defined the West for those in the Eastern United States emphasized its otherworldliness. Their Western landscape was bold, ominous, and awe-inspiring. It was an unforgiving place that only men could enter. Landscapes by Utah’s male artists of the time period also emphasize the awesomeness and ruggedness of the land. John B. Fairbanks’ 1920 “Bryce Canyon Utah,” stands in stark contrast to Mabel Frazer’s red rock study. Fairbanks’ rock formations are supposed to tower and impose. There is no flattening of the perspective. The inaccessibility of the land is emphasized. The danger of the landscape is what makes it important. Likewise, John Hafen’s “Lake Mary, Brighton Cottonwood Canyon” shows a formidable, traditional mountain. There is no fauvist color or shadow work to complicate this structure. Its grandeur, and largesse, are its most important features.

John B. Fairbanks, “Bryce Canyon, Utah,” 1920, oil on canvas. Springville Museum of Art

 

John Hafen, “Lake Mary, Brighton Cottonwood Canyon,” 1901, oil on canvas mounted. Springville Museum of Art.

These contrasts are what make the depictions of the Western landscape from women artists so illuminating. The American West is usually seen and depicted from a male perspective. In the most widely consumed depictions, the Western film, there are few examples of a female protagonist. The lone cowboy is the only one who can (usually) access this terrain. But, these Utah women artists complicate this narrative and complicate our visual understanding of the Western landscape. They are deeply invested in depicting the land where they are rooted, and equally invested in showing its complexity. To them, the land is dynamic and ephemeral. The small blossoming plant has as much consequence as the towering cliff or the majestic mountain. The women emphasize the messiness, movement, and details. They show, even through painting the landscape, that it can be accessed by women. It is not the rugged landscape of the isolated cowboy, but a surprising, complicated land, with ever-changing details and shadows. Their landscape does not divide and insulate, but flattens what is often read as imposing and cut off, taking away some of its power. As such, it performs settlement differently albeit equally problematically.

Louise Richards Farnsworth, American, “Edge of the Desert,” ca 1898-1969, estimated, oil on canvas. From the Permanent Collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph J. Palmer.

Though probably not their intention, these complicated depictions of the landscape become a metaphor for the role of these women in Utah art. Often overshadowed by the male institutions and peers that “towered” above them in the media and popular imagination, these women persevered, changed, and navigated society. They blossomed in the desert and made important, influential, and integral contributions to Utah art and culture. In a series of forthcoming articles, made possible through the University of Utah’s Fellowship in Collections Engagement, I will examine the ways in which women artists c1890-1950 navigated Utah’s art world and advocated for themselves and their peers. Future articles will focus on the role of women in art societies and social clubs, as gallerists and art dealers, their travels and studies abroad, and the ways in which they challenged and navigated institutional sexism. In all examples focusing on the ways their work and their lives were engaged with their “native roots” and their homes and lives in Utah.

This article is funded through the University of Utah’s Fellowship in Collections Engagement.

Emily Larsen is currently working with Dr. Heather Belnap of BYU on a research project focusing on Utah women artists c.1880-1950. If you are a descendant or have any information, documents, or other relevant items about the artists in these articles, or Utah women artists from this time, please contact her at emilylarsenart@gmail.com.

 

Emily Larsen is a Utah-based curator and collage artist. She currently works as the Head of Exhibitions and Programs at the Springville Museum of Art and is pursuing an M.A. in U.S. History at the University of Utah.

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