M.M.G. sends me another work from her fabulous art collection, and this one caught my eye because it is signed with a female name: Grace Howell, from the 1930s.
During the first two quarters of the 20th century, the California Plein Air School was predominately male, and a career female artist was rather rare, especially one who maintained a studio and sold work for a living.
So I endeavored to find out if Grace Howell was a career artist, or if she was the wife of a wealthy man who could afford to support the expensive and time-consuming practice of painting in oil. A female born in the 19th century who would compete in that man’s world was rare. And she clearly relished signing her name so that there was no missing this artist was a SHE.
Grace Howell was born in 1877, and her work sells today at auction. It’s very pretty work, and in this case, we see delicate eucalyptus trees to the foreground, a field of grass and live oak to the mid-ground, and distinctive mountains of California in the background. I also look at the quality of the sky in Plein Air: the sky should appear both translucent and misty, which is hard to achieve in a semi-realistic way.
Grace Howell captured the California sky well.
Mrs. Howell was born in Denver, but is known as a San Diego painter, journeying to nearby deserts and coasts. When researching a painter, I look up the family genealogy to find any clues to an artist’s daily practice of art. When I see a female painter of the early 20th century, I look to see who her husband was (if any) and if she was considered by the family as a painter, which oftentimes is not mentioned in the genealogy. You will note that genealogies usually include the MAN’S business, but not so often the WOMAN’S.
So, let us meet her husband, the esteemed Edgar A. Howell, who was born in 1874 on a farm in Colorado. By the time Edgar and Grace emigrated from Colorado to San Diego (she was 51, he was 53), he had run a tight ship as a businessman and civic leader in Denver. His genealogical details tell us that he was an active Mason, a Rotarian and a leader in the Civic Association. He was also active in his church and politically active in Colorado.
Here we see a man who was no Bohemian.
Furthermore, he established a thriving business, the first of its kind, in finance, as a rater of businessmen’s retail credit, and for this reason, (because I know men in finance), I would think that he would not have welcomed a renegade painter wife. And indeed, we see Grace Howell’s work as pretty and palatable.
How did the couple come to be Californians?
Edgar came from a farming family who settled parts of Colorado, and up until he opened his credit business, he worked the family farm in fruit and livestock. That farm was over 80 acres; Grace and Edgar married when he was 24, and his business took off. They moved, after almost 30 years in Colorado, to La Mesa, then a fruit farming area, outside of San Diego in 1927, when Mrs. Howell was 50 and Mr. Howell was 53. We can guess they moved to retire.
At this point, Mrs. Howell, a self-taught painter, began to paint her environs and thus is known as a California painter. Edan Hughes, the definitive author of the great book that is the bible of all early California painting “Artists in California 1786-1940,” said Grace Howell painted at her leisure.
We put facts together, looking for the commitment level of a painter: She was married to a wealthy and upright businessperson. They retired to La Mesa, and Grace painted at her leisure.
That’s quite a different painter than Marie Dolph, who I covered in this column in late August, who had to make a living painting, as that was what she was good at, and her husband was not much of a farmer. And her family suffered in the Great Depression. Marie Dolph received a fantastic education at the Art Institute of Chicago, while Grace Howell was self-taught.
Mrs. Howell was a gentlewoman painter — and not a bad one at that. Someday some art historian will write about the lady-painters of leisure of the first two quarters of the 20th century, and perhaps we will see Grace Howell in that book.
The value of this painting at auction would bring no more than $500.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID 19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s new book “My Darling Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chao” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.