Off the Cuff: Why Some, and Not Others

Charles Shepard, President and CEO

Charles Shepard, President and CEO

If asked, out of the blue, to name a short list of famous artists, what would our response be? We all could probably name a handful: Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Louise Nevelson, Georgia O’Keeffe, Dale Chihuly, Andy Warhol, maybe that guy who wrapped Central Park – Christo, right? – and Norman Rockwell, for sure.  But what about DeKooning’s abstractionist friend, Milton Resnick? Or Pop Art guru Don Nice? Or member of the first “class” of Americans to graduate from the Royal Academy, Johnathan Trumbull?  Each of these last three artists were successful on all levels, even though their names rarely leap to anyone’s tongue these days.

Yet, in their respective times, they were among the cream of the crop in the art world.  The art world is fickle, however, and history is unkind.  One can fall out of vogue without even knowing it and, thus, fail to be but a footnote in the history of art. That said, in every generation of artists, a few artists tend to catch our attention and stand out in some way that keeps them on the forefront of our collective consciousness. A wide range of factors contribute to that but, in essence, the ones we remember were all larger than life in some fashion.  And their personalities resisted being contained by “art culture” and spilled over into popular culture. Think about it for a minute: Michelangelo and Picasso both came to be thought of as the personification of genius, little “Raggedy Andy” Warhol became the king of consumer culture, Louise Nevelson’s all black boxes and dramatic appearance made her the natural “face” for Blackglama furs throughout the fashion world, and Norman Rockwell’s endless portraits of the America we wanted to be kept him on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post for years.

I’m bringing all this up because my attention, currently, is directed toward an entirely different type of artist. I’m most interested in the category of artists who had a high measure of regard in their day, but fell into the shadows of history when their candles finally flickered out.  Printmaker Augusta Rathbone (1897 – 1990) is a perfect example of this. A child of privilege due to an inheritance, Augusta was raised in San Francisco by her two French-speaking aunts who urged her to study art in college and then to continue those studies in France at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, which had been founded by Catalan painter Claudio Casteluctio, a colleague of Picasso.  There, Augusta studied painting until a fellow artist, Norah Hamilton (of the Fort Wayne Hamilton family), suggested she switch to etching to better capture the subjects which interested her.

A nun in black dress and white habit kneels with a bowl next to her. A figure stands in the background.
Augusta Payne Briggs Rathbone. American, 1897-1990. Woman Praying. Aquatint and etching, c. 1935. This image used with the permission of the Rathbone Family. Photo courtesy of the Rathbone Family.

The switch was made and in a short period Augusta’s reputation as a leading printmaker was established. Norah introduced her to James McNeill Whistler and his colleagues; gallery exhibitions and salon presentations followed.  She was, as the saying goes, very much “in” with the in crowd and collectors snapped up her work.  A woman of means, she travelled extensively in Europe, Canada, and the United States for subject matter. Her large plates of the Canadian Rockies were breathtaking.  Her popularity grew so that, in 1941, a famous San Francisco department store paid her to sketch their high-end clients and turn each sketch into a full-color etching that the customer could later buy.

With the outbreak of WWII, Augusta moved back to California permanently and set up a printmaking studio for herself.  She was active in various artist circles until the early 1950s, but not long after that, her trail becomes difficult to follow.  I found a reference to her working in the dormitories of Mills College in Oakland – had her inheritances run out?  Was there no longer a market for her work?  We may never know.  At auction last month, however, I found one of Augusta’s finest prints: a 1935 etching of a woman praying, and I prepared to bid hard to acquire this work for our museum.  When her lot number came up, though, I faced no competition – no one else raised their paddle.  Sad to say, but Augusta Payne Briggs Rathbone slipped from the art world’s consciousness.  But not mine – and, now, not yours.

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