An entry in the Wyoming State Museum of Cheyenne might mean the world to E.F., whose mother has turned 98.
A friend of hers found two paintings in a thrift store marked MD Dolph, in Western themes (two horses in a paddock, and a stone barn and outbuilding with red roofs in the snow) that she picked up for that 98th birthday party because E.F.’s mom had lived in Wyoming in the late 1920s.
The back of the horse image shows the label: “MD Dolph, Goose Egg Ranch.” Below that, we see a paper address return label that says Dorothy Dolph in Post Falls, Idaho. We see a price of $15 penciled on the back.
The entry I found at the Wyoming Museum states that this is the work of Marie Dorothy Dolph, a State Treasure, born 1884, died 1979. She painted what she lived into her mid 90s — Western scenes: California deserts, wild horses, buffalos, Mount Hood, Yellowstone, Oregon wilderness, the Grand Tetons and Wyoming ranches.
This is a remarkable tale of an enterprising female outdoorswoman and artist who achieved national recognition at the age of 52 in 1936, when she exhibited at Rockefeller Center in New York with the National Exhibition of American Art. She had had shows back West, and sold through shops and trinket dealers at Yellowstone, but nothing like this.
Her life began in the countryside, in Baraboo, Wisc. She studied at the University of Minnesota from 1901 to 1903 after she saved enough money by teaching school in Wisconsin and North Dakota. She also studied business and art in Milwaukee.
Her break was in 1908 when she was accepted to study at the Art Institute of Chicago under Alphonse Mucha and Antonin Sterba. This was in the first years of the 20th century.
To give you a sense of how rare this woman was, in 1917, nine years after she had entered the Art Institute, only California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Kansas, Montana and Washington had given women universal suffrage. When Dolph was studying in Chicago, women couldn’t vote, and waited another nine years for the opportunity to vote in a presidential election.
Winnifred F. Galloway, Ph.D., of the Bradford Brinton Memorial and Museum in Big Horn, Wyo., writes that Dolph was among the first commercially successful female artists of the state, widely known in Wyoming, which may not have been such a reach in 1929. Wyoming’s population was 200,000. She was a true pioneer in any event.
After leaving the Art Institute, she married a mechanic named Royal, and left art to homestead on the Platte River in 1913, where she both raised horses for sale and bore children. Royal moved the family to Casper, Wyo., when he heard of work at a new airport being built there. Now, having had three boys, she found the time to paint again. However, she must have longed for the homestead life, because they moved to the area around Goose Egg Ranch and raised cattle in the late 1920s.
Who originally owned Dolph’s two paintings, and where were they originally purchased? She was painting in the late 1920s, and when the Depression hit, cattle were not selling.
Biographer Galloways says Dolph began to paint to trade for tires, groceries, gas and household necessities. Dolph’s work was noticed by the proprietor of the Yellowstone Concession Store, and she was commissioned to paint 1,500 canvases for tourists’ sales.
But she had a wandering soul, and she gathered up her youngest boy in her station wagon. The next 10 years they lived out of the station wagon in the summers, traveling to most of the lower 48 states. She gathered imagery for her paintings, returning to her homestead in the winters to paint her commissions. American grit at its finest.
In 1938, she bought land in Twenty Nine Palms and settled there in the winters to paint, perfecting a kind of mass production of small paintings for consignment, which is why I found a similar painting to E.F.’s mom’s for $300 at auction.
Dolph is a remarkable artist: a pioneer on many levels, not the least of which is that she developed a circle of collectors that included Franklin Roosevelt and the ambassador to England.
That return address label shows where she retired, so these paintings were in her own possession into the 1970s. She moved back to rural beauty, still painting, to live close to one of her boys.
Her life reads like a movie script. Santa Barbara is filled with writers; any takers?