Sunday, May 14, 2017

Laura Coombs Hills

Laura Coombs Hills (American,1859-1952) excelled in three fields: portraits, illustration, and flower painting in pastel.

Margaret Curzon Hale, 1907: MFA Boston
After a visit to England at age 22, she figured out the method for painting miniature watercolor portraits on ivory. The painting above is less than 5 x 7 inches.

According to an early article about her, "she had no traditions, she had not studied the miniatures of the earlier masters."

Her formal schooling was limited, and included a brief stint at the Art Students League with William Merritt Chase. 

"Miss Hills was mercifully saved from the self-consciousness so often, unluckily, bred by art school life."

A gallery dealer once “accused her of committing everything short of murder in breaking the accepted rules of color.” Her response was, “I don’t know about the rules, I was experimenting."

Fire Opal (Grace Mutell), 1899, MFA Boston 6 x 4 3/4 in.
Each of her portraits is unique in its conception, with disciplined color schemes and pearlescent skin tones.

She gave some of her originals to the Museum in Boston, but they can't exhibit them very often because of the delicacy of the watercolor-on-ivory medium.

She worked closely with the Louis Prang company to create prints and calendar images. Her images evoke the Art-Nouveau posters of Alphonse Mucha and the Flower Fairies of Cicely Mary Barker

Her "Dream Roses" calendar was immensely popular.

In addition to calendar art, she produced illustrations for St. Nicholas Magazine, and she designed for needlepoint and pottery.

After age 60, issues with her eyesight made the miniatures difficult to accomplish, so she focused more on larger florals. 

She often placed the flowers near a window, or sometimes in the direct sunlight with the enhancement of electric light. “It was the electric light that made the difference," she said. "It woke those lilies up, and made them speak.” 

Typically, she painted cut flowers from her garden in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where she lived with her sister Lizzie. 

She was known in her day as the "Queen of Flower Painters." Fortunately watercolor and pastel were growing in popularity and respectability. Her annual gallery shows sold out quickly, with collectors running through the open doors and putting their hands on the first painting they could reach.

Laura Hills' pastel painting of Larkspur, Peonies, and Canterbury Bells has consistently been the best-selling image in the gift shop of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

A critic in 1921 wrote: “There is something about a pastel as a medium for this particular kind of work that is especially adapted to the purpose; one of its peculiar advantages being the blooming quality of the surfaces, the fineness of the textures, and the combined brilliancy and delicacy of the colors.”

Free resources online
Laura Coombs Hills on Wikipedia
More about LCH in a gallery brochure from the Cooley Gallery
Article about her miniature portraits in The American Magazine of Art, Volume 7, 1916


Unknown said...

Very intriguing and masterful. Those small portraits are stunning even before knowing that they're inside of 5x7". As always thank you so much for introducing us to artists I never knew about. :)

Susan Krzywicki said...

Interesting. Watercolor on ivory? I'd never heard of that...I'd assumed all those old miniatures were painted with oils.

Did she stop them as people began to discover the impact of the ivory trade on elephant populations?

That first image really caught my attention, as dod the Larkspurs. That blue-violet thing. Very appealing to me, even if those are not my normal go-to shades. They seem so fresh and optimistic.

Marina said...

What a talented artist! Difficult to imagine her painting those portraits without any instruction... I enjoyed this post, thanks!

Meera Rao said...

Enjoyed the post ! Watercolor on ivory! - Every single post of yours is a nugget of information :) Thanks again!