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 Laura Coombs Hills  (1859 - 1952)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts      Known for: miniature floral, landscape and portrait painting, illustration

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Ad Code: 2
Laura Coombs Hills
from Auction House Records.
Peonies and Velvet
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Known for miniature portraits, floral paintings in pastel on ivory and watercolor, as well as oil and pastel landscapes, Laura Coombs Hills was a key person in the revival of miniature painting in America.  In 1904, she was awarded a Gold Medal for her miniatures at the St. Louis Exposition, and in 1916, she earned the first Medal of Honor ever given by the Pennsylvania Society of Miniature Painters.

She briefly studied at the Cowles Art School in Boston, the New York Art Students League, and with Helen Knowlton, but was described as "comparatively self-taught."  Her style was called miniature portraiture, something she learned in England in 1893 when she saw examples there.

Coombs had a long-time career in Massachusetts where she had a studio in Boston and summered in Newburyport, her birthplace.  She painted nearly 400 miniatures between 1890 and 1933, and these works were exhibited in Boston and New York and established her reputation.  She painted both ovals and rectangles and used a magnifying glass for the finishing touches.

Being prolific, she made a good living because her paintings earned her between $300. and $1000., and this income allowed her to build her own home in Newburyport, Massachusetts.  In the 1880s, she was an illustrator for Louis Prang and Company, designing Valentines and other cards.  She also illustrated children's books.

She was active in several Boston art organizations and was an Associate of the National Academy of Design from 1906.  In 1897, she became the first painter of miniatures elected to the Society of American Artists, and she was founder of the American Society of Miniature Painters.

She never married and lived with a sister who kept house for her.  As she aged, her eyesight failed, and the demand for miniatures diminished, so she turned to the creation of floral pastels, often making arrangements from flowers in her own garden.  Her floral compositions were asymmetrical and the backgrounds often silky in textural appearance.

Written by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

Erica Hirshler, A Studio of Her Own
Paul Sternberg, Art by American Women

Biography from Abby M Taylor Fine Art:
An editorial in the November 23, 1939 Boston Herald stated: "Somehow she manages to bring dancing sunlight and vibrant atmosphere within the four walls and to soak her flowers in it.  One artist has said that New England and the United States has never produced her equal."  Indeed, Laura Coombs Hills was one of this country's most sought after flower artists. Primarily self-taught, she was saved from the self-consciousness that one usually associates with formal art training.  As critic A. J. Philpot stated "Laura C. Hills has aways been in a class by herself."

So well known is Laura Hills for her flower "portraiture" we must not forget her very highly regarded miniature painting, which was the basis of her renown in the first place.  By 1920 though, when Laura Hills eyesight began to deteriorate and the demand for miniatures waned, she devoted all of her time to rendering the flowers that she adored.

In addition, what is unique about her depiction of flowers is her capacity to grasp the subtle nuances of "gesture" as the flowers would naturally appear in a vase.  Capturing these qualities on paper required a sureness of touch and mastery of technique that was her hallmark.  Clearly, time was of the essence in creating these compositions before the flowers faded, but there seems to be no artificial rearranging of the shapes and inclination of the flowers.  She was also unrivaled in her fidelity to color and imaginative compositions.  This particular composition is a veritable symphony of the interplay of sympathetic colors.

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1916 (prize)
American Society of Miniature Painters, 1928 (prize)
St. Louis Exposition, 1904 (gold)
Paris Exposition, 1900 (prize)
Society of Washington Artists, 1901 (prize)
Pan-American Exposition, 1901 (medal)
Charleston Exposition, 1902

Society of American Artists
National St. Louis Academy-Associate
Boston Watercolor Club
Copley Society
Boston Guild of Artists
Pennsylvania Society of Miniature Painters

Biography from Blake Benton Fine Art, Artists G - K:
Laura Coombs Hills, miniature painter, was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts on September 7th, 1859.  She was a pupil of Helen M. Knowlton at the Art Students' League of New York and also studied at the Cowles Art School in Boston.

Although she was never taught miniature painting, she learned her style in England.  She became recognized as a most skillful miniature painter and gained honors both in America and abroad in this particular form of art.

Her first exhibit included the paintings, Seven Pretty Girls at Newburyport and The Bride, and these works helped to establish her as one of the best miniature painters of the time.  They were said to represent "the most modern development of all, the essentially pictorial miniature."  Her bold new approach to this age-old genre was rewarded with many commissions.

Hills had a studio in Boston and summered in Newburyport, her birthplace.  Francis Duncan in writing about Hills' work said: "Her portraits are not large portraits done small, but essentially miniature, they have that exquisite jewel-like peculiarity the miniature in the hands of the few masters of this exquisite and lovely art, the quality of which will make miniature a thing apart. . . .She understands the emotion of color and by a graceful dexterity masters its adaptation to its subject."  Her portraits were said to be always big in conception and "she appears to be little hampered by the tiny brushes and the elusive quality of the ivory." (Critic 47:523)

Her subject matter included portraits, Indians, gardens, still lifes and flowers.  Laura Hills work, The Black Hat, is what many consider her masterpiece.  It is owned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  Of this work, the noted miniaturist Alice T. Searle stated: "Miss Hill is never dull but in the center one of her group of three large ovals [at a former exhibition] with the portrait of Miss Isobel da Costa Green, she outshone her own brilliant past."

The Boston Transcript further stated her artworks were: "outstanding examples of the personal style which is the artist's unique contribution to contemporary practice in miniature painting-the personal style that is so full of elegance and distinction, of such charm and fine taste, and, allowing for the diminutive scale, of such astonishing breadth and decorative character."

Hills was compared to John Singer Sargent for the way she handled pigment with "dexterous swiftness, her likenesses an assurance and an apparent ease which are his, too. . . .Her mastery of her medium indeed is beyond comparison with any living painter except with Sargent himself."

The gifted artist John White Alexander once said on looking at a miniature of Hills, "Never since Holbein-! and a silence more eloquent than words finished his sentence." (Scrib 67:384)

Laura Hills was placed in the highest rank among artists who have distinguished themselves in miniature work in the United States.

She was also known for larger works, mostly still lifes, done in pastel and watercolor that demonstrate much of the same mastery and skill employed in her miniatures. Most of these works came later after she established herself as a miniature specialist and at a time when the visual ability needed to continue to do miniatures was failing her.  She did illustrations for Louis Prang and Company, designing valentines and other cards.

She was elected an Associate of the National Academy of Design in 1906.  She became the first painter of miniatures elected to the Society of American Artists.

Memberships included the Society of American Artists, 1897; Boston Watercolor Club; Copley Society, 1992; Guild of Boston Artists; ; American Federation of Arts and American Society of Miniature Painters, which she founded.

During her life she won numerous awards including: Bronze medal, Paris Exposition., 1900; 2nd prize, Corcoran prize, Society of Washington Artists, 1901; silver medal, Charleston Exposition., 1902; gold medal, St. Louis Exposition., 1904; medal of honor, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1920 and others.

Hills' work can be found in many important museums and public and private collections.  She never married and lived with a sister who kept house for her. She passed away in 1952.

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