The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1996, Volume 42, Number 3
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945.

Patricia Trenton, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Notes. Plates. Index. 304 pages. $60.00 cloth, $29.95 paper.

Reviewed by Martin E. Peterson, former Curator of American Art at the San Diego Museum of Art and author of Second Nature: Four Early San Diego Landscape Painters (1991).

This well researched and informative volume was published on the occasion of an exhibition of the same title organized by the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles. It functioned as a catalogue for museum’s 1996 exhibition’s venue which included showings at the Gilcrease Museum, Oklahoma City; the Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico; and the Brigham Young University Museum, Provo, Utah.

Through ten essays by almost as many authors, the book represents a seminal in-depth account of selected women artists working in the western United States until World War II, a time “during the development of our country’s so called last frontier.” While the ambiguous term “early western artist” — either implied or stated — may confuse the non-westerner, the reader should remember that California had yet to celebrate its centennial and some western states were waiting admission into the union during the first decades of the twentieth century. Three essays deal with the painters of California while others cover Northwest, Southwest, Great Plains, and Rocky Mountain artists.

Scholars have received the book with accolades and enthusiasm as “offering convincing evidence of real women’s contributions to the cultural life” west of the Missouri River, generally, and documenting the achievements and innovations of women in pictorial art.

Although the reader is informed that critical feminist discourse is limited but recognized by the authors, it is suspect that the articles would be totally objective. Undeniably, each author has her own bias, at times obvious. It would be difficult to deny feminist points of view, however, since the text is by women about women artists. The text contributors are curators, directors, professors and independent scholars who have lectured and published extensively in the area of American art including the American West. In addition to Patricia Trenton, the editor, they include Sandra D’Emilio, Erika Doss, Ilene Susan Fort, Vicki Halper, Joni L. Kinsey, Susan Landauer, Sarah J. Moore, Betty Duval Reese, Virginia Scharff, and Sharon Udall.

Many of the artists, subjects of the book, will be little known except to the specialist. International stylistic movements, especially around the first of the twentieth century, and predominant personalities — male and female — that are mentioned are more familiar. Women have long been accepted as colleagues in the regions discussed. During the time in discussion, the gender factor seemed less important in the West. While women have generally been recognized for creating a cultural milieu, spearheading group organizations, teaching, and exhibiting, their significance as artists and influences has yet to be comprehensively examined and established. Even the well known Georgia O’Keefe left no school or followers. Admittedly, she was unique and international. This volume pursues the question offering a solid basis to build upon. A great deal of art has been resurrected but remains to be assessed in terms of aesthetic and historical merit. It is believed that Spirits of Independence will remain a standard reference and a seminal work.