DescriptionHELENA ADELE M. DUNLAP (American, 1876-1955)
Oil on canvas
21-1/4 x 17-1/4 inches (54.0 x 43.8 cm)
Signed lower right: H. Dunlap
S. Vure, Circles of Influence: Impressionism to Modernism in Southern California Art, 1910-1930, Orange County Museum of Art, no. 22, reproduced p. 76.
Helena Dunlap, considered in her day to be one of the most important women Modernist painters working in Southern California, suffered the fate of many avant-garde artists who were removed from New York, and were marginalized, in part, because of their gender. An artist of remarkable talent and exceptional training, dubbed by one critic as "one of the gifted native daughters of the Golden West," Dunlap's paintings reflect a personal interpretation of a number of Modernists aesthetics and the impact of her own studies here and abroad (unidentified newspaper clipping, Dunlap Family Archives, hereafter known as DFA).
Dunlap was raised at her parent's walnut and orange ranch near Whittier. Little is known about her early artistic training, however, she attended The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the School of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Transcripts from both reveal an artist trained in the academic tradition and in tenets of Impressionism by some of the most significant teachers of the period. In Chicago she took classes in "perspective," " nude life drawing," the building blocks of an academic education, with a focus on figurative painting that was modeled on the great traditions of the academies in France-most importantly the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and the Academie Julian.
From Chicago, Dunlap spent three additional years training (1903-1906) at the School of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Founded in 1805, the school had a long history of training in the academic tradition, but had become more progressive toward the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. By the mid-1880s, women accounted for nearly half of the school's enrollment (Betsy Fahlman," The Art Spirit in the Classroom," in American Women Modernists: The Legacy of Robert Henri, 1910-1945, Utah, Brigham Young University, 20005, p 3). The great realist painters and teachers, Thomas Eakins and Thomas Anshutz, left their indelible footprint on the school's curriculum. Dunlap studied "head and life drawing, composition, illustration, perspective and anatomy." However, among excellent instructors, including the Cecilia Beaux and Henry R. Poore, it was the influence of William Merritt Chase who may have had the greatest impact on Dunlap during this period.
Although Chase was based in New York-he taught at the Art Students' League and eventually opened his own school, The Chase School of Art in 1896 (later renamed the New York School of Art)-he traveled weekly between New York and Philadelphia to conduct classes in figure painting and still life. Chase's bravura brushwork, interest in Impressionist tenets, rejection of traditional salon painting, and focus on plein-air painting undoubtedly had an influence on Dunlap, although she would later move in another aesthetic direction. Dunlap's talents were recognized, and she was awarded the academy's prestigious Cresson Traveling Scholarship for the years 1904-1905, which she spent in Paris before returning back to Philadelphia.
It appears that Dunlap returned to California briefly after graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy, but left once again for Paris in 1908 where her address is listed as Rue Scribe (Peter Falk, Annual Exhibition Record of the Art Institute of Chicago, Soundview Press, 1990). In Paris, Dunlap would have been exposed to the most avant-garde trends. Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, Orphism, Symbolism-all movements falling under the great umbrella of Modernism-as artists in Paris were charting a new course in the history of art. Dunlap could not help but be influenced and moved by what she saw, even if her own art never pushed the boundaries of avant-garde strategies to its outer limits. While living in California and abroad, Dunlap exhibited at both the Art Institute of Chicago (1908, 1911, 1914-1919) and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1912, 1914, 1918-19).
In Paris, Dunlap's work was accepted to a number of different exhibitions, including the Societé National des Beaux Art (1910-1911); the Societé Des Artists Francais (1910-1911), and the Independent Salon of 1911. Her accomplishments were noted by an American critic who observed "Miss Helena Dunlap. . .is reaping the honors as the result of her recent work and just received word that her largest and most prestigious work will be hung in the forthcoming Paris Salon, which is seventh heaven for any artist, particularly an American woman ("Art Notes: Miss Dunlap Gains Honors,"DFA).
Dunlap returned to California in 1911, and immediately organized a show in May at The Steckel Gallery. It was met with great anticipation, Antony Andersen noted that "Helena Dunlap is a talented Whittier girl who has been working for some years in Paris. She has just returned to Southern California after many notable successes in the great French metropolis. She will show twenty-four canvases on the present occasion, which promises to be a brilliant one." (Antony Anderson, " Art and Artists," Los Angeles Times, October 8, 1911, sec. 3, p. 18).
The critic Alma May Cook offered glowing accolades: "Los Angeles art lovers have been given the pleasure within the last year to welcome back a California girl who has won name and fame in the art center of the world and also to welcome a new artist whose name is well known in many parts of the country-one returning almost a stranger after a long residence abroad . . . . Her work is strikingly interesting, strong n feeling and color, and always laid on with a sure hand." (Alma May Cook, "California Girl Returns From Paris Art Triumph: Miss Dunlap Makes Exhibition Debut here with Canvases of Striking Interest", DFA.)
Fortuitously, a copy of the attendance book is extant. The show was attended by some of the most important painters and critics of the day, including William and Julia Bracken Wendt, Franz Bischoff, William Swift Daniell, Benjamin C. Brown, Jean Mannheim, and Fannie Duvall. Perhaps one of the most astonishing aspects of Dunlap's success was her ability to successfully bridge the growing chasm between Modernism and more traditional art. Traditional critics, such as Antony Anderson, as well as the Modernist critic Williard Huntington Wright, equally admired and respected her work.
In 1916, Dunlap became founding member of the Los Angeles Modern Art Society. Following in the footsteps of the infamous artist-organized jury shows, such as The Eight, the organization hoped to provide exhibition opportunities outside of the mainstream. Its members included Meta and Bert Cressey (both students of Robert Henri), Helena Dunlap, Edgar Keller, Henrietta Shore, and Karl Yens. The society disbanded after the second exhibition, but the impact of its presence was significant. Even though many of the paintings were far from the radical avant-garde experiments populating European exhibitions, it was still a shock for the more provincial Los Angeles public.
However, many critics showed tremendous support, one declaring : "Don't miss [this exhibition], for it is one of the interesting exhibitions of the year, vivid and stimulating. The LAMAS are not, of course, anti-classical in their ideals, but they are dead set against form that has become merely formal against picture making that has become mechanical, and they uphold, with keen eyes and vigorous brushes, their search for sincerity of expression . . . . They are discoverers more than iconoclasts, builders rather than wreckers." (DFA). Another critic noted that: "This little group of artists, all modernists have formed this society not to teach the public, nor yet to be apart from other painters, but to place modern art before the public that it may speak for itself. . . . Personally I hope the interest of the public may take a practical turn in the purchase of one or more canvases by a few discerning and appreciative persons." (Mary N. Dubois, "LA Modern Art Society," Graphic, Dec. 2, 1916, p. 4., DFA). Even though the organization disbanded after the second exhibition, a new organization, The California Progressive Group, was founded in its wake with Dunlap as a member.
Dunlap left for Paris in 1919, where she lived and traveled--especially to India in 1920. That trip is reflected in works such as the Two Men of Agra. Back in Los Angeles by 1922, she continued to travel extensively during the 1920s. Helena Dunlap was a champion of Modernism and a firm believer in experimentation-even writing reviews on art shows in Paris that were published in the Los Angeles Times in 1925. Although she never crossed the boundaries into non-objective art, her pioneering work laid the groundwork for a number of women artists in America to help to change the face of Modernism.
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