Martha Richardson Fine Art, Boston is pleased to announce the opening of Hilda Belcher: paintings, drawings & watercolors on April 13, 2013. The exhibition, which will be on view through May 31, includes 37 works of art done between 1907 and 1940 in Vermont, Savannah, New York, Mexico and Europe.
Hilda Belcher, one of the country’s leading portrait and genre painters in the early 20th century, was the second woman to be elected to the National Academy of Design. In 1935, Anne Miller Downes, novelist and reviewer for The New York Times, wrote that Hilda Belcher is “one of the most distinguished women artists in America” and that “her portraits are modern in the sense of being completely freed from the old slavery to photographic likeness. They are not colored photographs but works of art, studies which portray the character, the spirit, the individuality of the subject through the artist’s medium, composition, design and color.” (Savannah Morning News, April 9, 1935)
Hilda Belcher, a masterful watercolorist and portraitist, was born in Pittsford, Vermont in 1881. Her mother, Martha Wood Belcher, was an accomplished painter who studied art at the Academy in Munich. Hilda’s father, Stephen Paterson Belcher, owned the Ecclesiastical and Domestic Stained Glass Works, a glass manufacturing company. By the late nineteenth century, Martha’s paintings garnered much attention in the New York art world and she was accepted into the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. Before the turn of the century, the Belcher family moved to Newark, New Jersey, but kept the family home, designed by Martha, in Vermont. Hilda graduated high school in Newark as valedictorian in 1900. After her graduation, she moved to New York to pursue her own career as an artist.
Belcher was among the few female students to attend the New York School of Art. She also studied at the Art Students League and the Chase School, run by William Merritt Chase. Belcher was a student of George Bellows, George Luks and Kenneth Hayes-Miller. However, she drew her greatest inspiration from her studies with Robert Henri, the founder of the Ashcan School. Through Henri, Belcher found her artistic voice; her portraits and subjects of every day life were painted in her own distinctive style of realism. After completing her studies in 1904, Belcher remained in New York. During these early years, like many of the Ashcan artists before her, she earned a living through illustration and cartoon work for magazines such as Harper’s and Woman’s Home Companion, and by designing stain glass for her family company.
1907 was an important year for the artist. Belcher was awarded membership into the prestigious New York Water Color Club based on her watercolor The Checkered Dress (Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College). In this work, she portrayed Georgia O’Keeffe, seated and relaxed, her gaze directed beyond the limits of the composition. The two young artists both roomed at The Eva, an uptown boarding house for women and The Checkered Dress exemplifies Belcher’s long interest in independent women as subjects. The following year, the watercolor was reproduced in International Studio and the young artist’s reputation was secured.
In 1908, Belcher’s The Knitted Shawl was awarded the prestigious Strathmore prize (1st place, $500) at the New York Water Color Club. Her talent with the medium was clear, she was the only female artist among 692 male artists who entered the competition. The following year, Belcher was awarded the William R. Beal at the New York Water Color Club for Young Girl in White, given by the jury for “the most meritorious color in the exhibition” (New York Herald, 1909). Hilda Belcher was the second woman to receive this honor (won the previous year by Adelaide Deming).
After winning the Strathmore and Beal prizes, Belcher enjoyed significant publicity and a measure of financial security. Throughout the 1910s, while an active member in the New York art world, she began to sell her work regularly to private collections, and to exhibit in a number of important museum shows. Like other female students of Henri’s, she taught Saturday classes at the Arts Students League. In 1910, Henri invited her to join a group of ‘rebellious’ artists in the Exhibition of Independent Artists, modeled on the Salon des Indépendants in France. This landmark exhibition was the first non-juried, non-prized show in America and was organized to challenge the conservative values of the National Academy of Design. Belcher submitted three works, including The Bathing Line which depicts a group of children holding onto a large rope at water’s edge–a common safety precaution in the days before children were taught swimming skills. Paintings were hung alphabetically to emphasize the egalitarian philosophy. The other two works submitted by Belcher were Portrait of Miss Tony Nell (private collection) and The Old Ladies (Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College).
In 1910 and then again in 1913, Hilda and her mother traveled to Europe. They first visited Italy, England and Wales and on the second extended trip, the two artists traveled to France, German and Italy, painting and sketching along the way. In 1913, Belcher painted The English Girl (or The Velvet Shoe), a sketch of Nell Cox seated in front of a fireplace. The watercolor was first exhibited at the London Royal Academy in 1914, followed by the New York Water Color Club, the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors and the National Academy of Design in 1915.
Belcher continued to win major prizes in national watercolor and painting competitions. The awards included the Alexander M. Hudnut Prize at the American Watercolor Society (1915, Winifred; 1916, Very Blonde Baby; 1918, Bouncing Baby), and at the National Academy of Design, both the Julia A. Shaw Memorial Prize (1926, Scarlet and Blue) and the Thomas R. Proctor Prize (1931, Portrait by Night). In 1932, she became the second woman to be elected to the National Academy of Design. In that same year, after also winning the prestigious Walter Lippincott prize for Portrait by Night, a thief cut the painting from its frame as it hung in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; the painting is still lost.
A turning point in Belcher’s career came in 1913 when she received a portrait commission from the Waring family in Savannah, Georgia. She fell in love with the city and returned frequently throughout the 1920s and 1930s. She taught and exhibited (1928, 1933 and 1935) at the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences and painted portraits of prominent citizens and genre scenes of local southern life including the Wormsloe Plantations, Tybee Island and the Bonaventure Cemetery. Belcher was close to many in Savannah’s vibrant African-American community and she is well known for her elegant portrayals of African-American men, women and children whom she painted with a deep sensitivity and respect.
Belcher’s impressive Go Down Moses (Greenville County Museum), painted in 1936, and the smaller oil study for the work, The Choir (1934), are the culmination of her many watercolors and drawings of African-American life in Savannah. The larger oil was exhibited in 1936 to critical acclaim at the National Academy of Design. In the painting, Belcher portrayed a preacher and his choir singing a spiritual, capturing passion in the dynamic movement of the preacher’s arms. In “Hilda Belcher: A Realist Rediscovered,” Fleming Museum Director Janie Cohen writes that
“It is likely that Belcher’s interest in Savannah’s African American community would have been fueled by contemporary developments in New York culture…Some of the more ambitious genre paintings, such as Go Down Moses, were clearly informed by the contemporary Regionalist painting movement exemplified by Thomas Hart Benton, and perhaps by representations of blacks by popular illustrators such as Edward Kemble.” (American Art Review, vol. VI, no. 4, 1994, p. 96)
Throughout the 1930’s, Belcher remained in New York where she made a good living as an artist. She had been honored with acceptance into the American Watercolor Society in 1921 and, as previously mentioned, she was promoted to full academician at the National Academy of Design in 1932. For a time, Belcher lived with her friend Dorothy Chisholm, a Vermont native who was briefly married to Mortimer Proctor, the future governor of Vermont. Belcher’s watercolor The Letter (private collection, Boston) is an exquisite rendering of Chisholm in the hallway of their apartment at 8 McDougall Alley. Belcher’s loose brushwork and bright palette characterizes her signature expressive realism, and her depiction of Chisholm as a single, independent woman recalls earlier works such as The Checkered Dress.
In 1939, Belcher traveled to Mexico on an extended vacation with her family. She was greatly influenced by Mexican architecture and aesthetics, and made many sketches, watercolors and paintings of the Mexican people and landscape. In the early 1940s, Belcher began to suffer from health problems and became less productive as her condition worsened. She spent most of World War II at the family home in Pittsford, Vermont, and eventually served in the town’s war effort as a blackout warden and airplane spotter. In 1941, she was awarded an honorary master’s degree from Middlebury College. Though Belcher rarely exhibited new work, by 1960 her paintings and watercolors had been included in 21 solo exhibitions throughout the country. In 1963, Hilda Belcher died in Orange, New Jersey.
In recent years, Belcher’s work has been the subject of museum exhibitions at the Telfair Museum of Art (Savannah), the Vermont Historical Society (Montpelier), and the Robert Hull Fleming Museum (Burlington). Her work can be found in numerous private and public collections, including the Greenville County Museum of Art, (Go Down Moses), Robert Hull Fleming Museum (Chicken Pie Supper), Morris Museum of Art (Run Little Chillun), Newark Museum (In the Plaza, Taxco, Portrait of a Young Girl, The Catalapa Tree, Portrait of Armando Bautista), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (The Easter Window) and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College (The Checkered Dress, Old Ladies), among others.