Sue Slick, Collection Information Specialist
We recently purchased a lovely small lithograph that portrays a little girl, head resting on her arms, as she leans on a windowsill gazing out with a dreamy look on her little face. The print, by Marion Greenwood (American, 1909-1970), is titled The Window and is dated 1950.
For Marion Greenwood, who was white, the portrayal of people of other ethnic and racial backgrounds was a particular passion. Greenwood would become known as a social realist painter and muralist who was driven to portray humanity in all of its diversity of ethnicity, culture, and pathos.
“I’ve always had an absolute consuming passion for other races and faces and the beauty of different kinds of races in the human being, and just people. I just love to paint people.” Marion Greenwood, 1964
Marion Greenwood was born an artistic “natural” into a supportive and creative Irish-American family in Brooklyn in 1909. She dropped out of high school and was riding the Brighton Beach subway line from Sheepshead Bay into Manhattan at 15 to attend classes at the Art Students League on 57th Street. Greenwood had “won” a seat in a popular drawing class by successfully producing a quality drawing from a live model – and this in just one try. Other applicants often languished on a wait list to get a prized seat in this class. The League had welcomed women and minorities from its inception, and would have exposed young Marion to a worldliness and diversity that may well have directed her future art motivations. While there she studied under John French Sloan, George Bridgman, Emil Ganso, and Alexander Archipenkpo. Winold Reiss, a German-born portraitist, who was also drawn to painting ethnicities unlike his own European demographic, began lecturing at the League in 1915.
At 18, Greenwood made the first of many visits to the artists’ retreat Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. Yaddo, a place of “rest and refreshment for authors, painters, sculptors, musicians and other artists, both men and women, few in number but chosen for their creative gifts”, was launched in 1900 by financier Spencer Trask and his wife Katrina.
At 19 Marion was on her way to France with funds from the sale of a portrait of Spencer Trask she had done at Yaddo. While in Europe, Marion studied at the Academie Colarossi in Paris, honing her painting and drawing skills. One of her classmates was Isamu Noguchi, who sculpted a bust of Marion in 1929. Academie Colarossi, which closed in the 1930s, was controversial for admitting female students and permitting them to draw from the nude male model. This was not allowed at the much more conservative Ecole des Beaux Artes, Paris.
Interesting sidenote: Decades earlier, in the late 1880s, American portraitist Cecilia Beaux studied at Colarossi. Beaux would later be the first woman to teach painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where the young Hamilton cousins of Fort Wayne were her students.
In 1930 Greenwood returned to New York, where she spent a year sketching theatre portraits for The New York Times. Ever a wanderer, she then set out for the southwest United States where she was captivated and inspired by Native Americans and their cultures.
In 1932, still on the move and eager to explore, Greenwood joined two writers she had met at Yaddo who were driving to Mexico to meet up with American expats and Mexican artists in Mexico City. There she met artists Pablo O’Higgins, Leopoldo Mendez, and Alfredo Zalce, who encouraged her to travel to Taxco, an unspoiled colonial city of artisans and beautiful architecture. Marion sketched everyday people in the zócalo, or town square, daily. She eventually summoned the courage to ask the owner of a hotel, the Taxqueña, if she could paint a mural on one of its exterior walls from the local sketches she had. At this time the murals of Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco were getting enormous attention and had inspired young Marion and many other artists working in Mexico to join the movement. Ambitious young Marion also wanted to explore the ancient and difficult medium of fresco and her mentor, O’Higgins, set her up with instructions, a formula, translations, and a local plasterer to help her carry out this plan.
“You see, the plasterer has to come at dawn and put on the section so that it’s just wet enough to paint on, and not too fresh, and yet dry enough to paint on. It’s very, very complicated, and it’s a terribly demanding technique because you have to finish that section for ever and ever. It has the time element, well, the nervousness of having to finish it. You have to tear all of it off and put new plaster up if you make any mistakes. It’s as Delacroix said, oil painting is a lazy medium but not fresco. It was the true wet technique which Michelangelo had used and Giotto.” Marion Greenwood, 1964
The project was a success and led to a larger, more complicated fresco at the University Michoacána de San Nicolás Hidalgo in Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacán. The university funded her time sketching and researching the Tarascan Indians who lived in and around the villages near Lake Pátzcuaro as subjects for the mural. When she returned to Morelia, anxious to begin the fresco, students who believed she was painting a politically motivated mural harassed and threatened her, insulting her with the put-down “la gringuita”. When their candidate, Lázaro Cárdenas (president of Mexico, 1934-1940), visited and praised her work – he was a Tarascan Indian – they relented and she was able to finish the project.
“I picked the wall, which was a beautiful pink plaster arcade of seven arches in the inside patio of the university and went to live in the tiny little town of Pátzcuaro where I constantly started sketching. All day I’d go out — on burros, old Fords, canoes on the lake — to all these tiny little villages. It was just marvelous because I didn’t have anything to worry about; I could just explore and sketch and look and then come home and go to sleep. That’s the way I spent the whole summer, almost the whole summer. I probably made about a thousand sketches of just the Indians weaving and making pottery and fishing, just the primitive, simple way they lived. Then I finally tried to compose it all on this long wall. It was quite a problem because it still had to be composed so that when you looked through each arch it had to be a picture in itself and yet remain one long running scene.” Marion Greenwood, 1964
While Greenwood and other expats enjoyed the affordability of a simple life-style in Mexico, Americans were struggling through the lean Depression years. When Marion returned to the U.S in 1934, various federally-funded works programs had gotten underway. With her new-found fame as a muralist, Marion found employment in the Public Works of Art Project creating several small murals in public buildings. When this program wrapped up, she returned to Mexico City as a member of a large mural team led by Diego Rivera. Marion’s sister, Grace, was also a member of this group of artists who were commissioned by the Mexican government to decorate the walls of the Abelardo L. Rodríguez Market in Mexico City. In 1936, Diego Rivera told The Washington Post that Marion and Grace were “the greatest women mural painters”.
When Marion and her sister returned, again to the U.S., in about 1936, they were both employed as muralists in public works settings, though refraining from the revolutionary propagandist imagery they had joined in painting under Rivera. Marion’s work in this era tended to sympathetically convey the American laborer, the underdog, and diverse family themes in an optimistic light.
During WWII, Marion worked as an artist-correspondent in the US Army Art Program, including two years documenting wounded soldiers returning from the battlefield. This project, funded by Abbott Laboratories, also recorded the medical treatments and therapies received by soldiers which took Marion into operating rooms where she painted scenes of surgeries. The work completed under the US Army Art Program is in the archives of the United States War Department.
After the war, Greenwood traveled extensively in Asia with her husband, continuing to make art wherever she traveled. In the 1950s, she was a visiting lecturer and artist-in-residence at universities in Tennessee and New York. Her last mural was completed in 1965 at Syracuse University – a depiction of women of the world based on her many years of sketching and painting around the world.
Marion Greenwood died in Kingston, New York on August 20, 1970.
Her work is held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Hirschhorn Museum, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, among others. Her many prizes and awards include: 1944 – Second Prize for Painting In The United States, at the Carnegie Museum of Art, for the painting, Mississippi Girl (1943); 1946 – Lithography Prize from John Herron Art Institute; 1951 – First Walter Lippincott Prize at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; 1952 – First Altman Prize for figure drawing from the 127th Annual National Academy of Design; 1956 – Second Purchase Prize at the Butler Institute of American Art, for the painting, Elegy; 1959 – The Grumbacher Prize from the National Association of Women Artists (NAWA); 1959 – Election to the National Academy of Design organization.