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 Helen Maria Turner  (1858 - 1958)

About: Helen Maria Turner
 

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Lived/Active: Louisiana      Known for: flowers-landscape, portrait, genre

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Helen Maria Turner
from Auction House Records.
The Sisters
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Helen Maria Turner is best known as an American painter of portraits of people in their own homes and women in gardens. She was both an impressionist and a realist in the style of her paintings. Her works incorporated pastels, oils, and watercolors applied to landscapes, portraits, and miniature portraits; most were accomplished without the use of preliminary sketches.

Helen Turner was born in 1858 in Louisville, Kentucky, and lived with her family Alexandria, Louisiana. Much of her time was spent in New Orleans where her family had prominence as well as in their own town. Her painting experience began at about age 22, and she painted portraits as well as bayou landscapes. She attended the New Orleans Art Union before becoming an instructor in Dallas at an Episcopal school for girls from about 1893 to 1895.

She then attended the Art Students League in New York in 1895, studying under the aegis of Douglas Volk and Kenyon Cox. She continued her studies under Volk at the Women's Art School of Cooper Union where she graduated. Additional courses were completed in the Fine Arts Department of the Teacher's College of Columbia University, where she received a scholarship and taught part-time. Her teaching career continued, and in 1902 she taught drawing at the Art School of the New York City YWCA. In 1942, she moved permanently to New Orleans.

Most of Turner's summers from about age 48 to 82 were spent at the artists' colony of Cragsmoor, New York. One of the highlights of her career was her participation with Mary Cassatt, Johanna Hailman, Jane Peterson, Martha Walter, and Alice Schille in a traveling exhibition 'Six American Women'. When Turner was included by the show's organizer, the City Museum in St. Louis, Turner showed little enthusiasm. She wished that a man or two might be 'sandwiched' in. Turner was also unusual in the fact that unlike most American impressionist painters who strove to study abroad, it was her preference to study with primarily American instructors.

Helen M Turner was just the third woman elected to full membership in NAD (1921), and she was the first Academician from Louisiana as well as one of the first persons from the entire South. In 1949, a special exhibition of her work was held at the New Orleans Museum of Art in celebration of her 90th birthday.

Helen Turner died in New Orleans in 1958, ten months short of her one-hundredth birthday.

Source:
Peter Falk, "Who Was Who in American Art"
Neal Auction Company

Biography from The Barnacle Gallery:
Helen Maria Turner, painter, designer, teacher, craftswoman, born in Louisville, Kentucky on November 13th, 1858. Her father Mortimer Turner was a prosperous coal merchant from Alexandrea, Louisiana, her mother, Helen Maria Davidson was the daughter of a noted New Orleans doctor and granddaughter of John Pintard, principle founder of the New York Historical Society, 1804 and the American Academy of Fine Arts, 1816.

Although Turner was born into an environment of "substantial comfort and gentility" this condition was to be short lived. The Civil war was escalating in the southern states and the Turner's were deeply effected by it. Helen lost her mother at this time to a lingering illness and her fathers fortune was wiped out during the course of the war and any hope of regaining it was lost with his death in 1871, this left Helen orphaned at the age of thirteen.

Dr. Davidson, Helen's uncle gathered the Turner children and his own and moved from Alexandria to New Orleans. Not much else is known of her teenage years other than a few recollections of "the unsettling atmosphere, the family's genteel-poverty, some public schooling, and summer visits with her aunts in Louisville."

It is unclear when Turner's first interest in art developed. Various interviews later in life described her uncle's habit of making little sketches for the entertainment of the family and how much enjoyment she got from this. Turner did state that she began painting at the age of twenty-two, coincidentally coinciding with the formation of the New Orleans Art Association. She was later confirmed as being a member as early as 1890 and she was known to have exhibited several works there. Turner was later quoted as saying of those years: "Ladies in those days did not go out into the world to make money, so there only remained for me the tasks of making paper flowers, doing charcoal sketches, and painting palmetto fans, to make money…"

After the death of Dr. Davidson in 1890 Turner realized she needed to fend for herself, she took an instructor job at St. Mary's Institute in Dallas, Texas only to leave two years later due to her "realization what a farce it was for one without education to be teaching others." At this time she bravely left the comfort of familiar surroundings to pursue a serious career in art, moving to New York she enrolled at the Art Students' League under Kenyon Cox and Douglas Volk.

After studying for four years at the League from 1896-99 she enrolled in the Women's Art School of Cooper Union, continuing to study portraiture under Volk for a total of four years. The need to establish financial security led Turner to enroll in the Fine Arts Department at Teachers College, where she earned a position as temporary instructor on the basis of the quality of work submitted. During her stay she completed a two-year course in "Normal Art Work" and at the age of forty-four she continued with advanced classes for two additional years. She also studied with William Merritt Chase's summer class in Italy in 1904, 05, and 11.

In 1902 Turner took a teaching position in the Art School of the New York Y.W.C.A. as instructor of "cast and life drawing, color, and costume drawing." She maintained this position for seventeen years, all the while working on her art and is credited with assisting a "generation of working girls in learning artistic skills rather… than making paper flowers."

Among all the influences in Turner's personal life and on her work, none could be considered more profound than her association with the Cragsmoor Artist Colony located in Cragsmoor, New York nestled in the Shawangunk Mountains. The well known artist Charles Curran first introduced turner to "the mountain" in 1906 and with the exception of her studies with Chase in Europe in 1911 "Turner does not appear to have missed a single season at Cragsmoor from 1906 through 1941. Finally at the age of eighty-three the trip north from New Orleans during the summer months became too much and Turner had to sell her house and studio in Cragsmoor, a dark day indeed for the artist.

Helen Turner was refereed to as being from the "American Impressionist" school and although she adopted many of the qualities of the French Impressionists "a blond palette, broken color, and a fascination with the play of light and shadow over a variety of shapes and textures" she was entirely American Schooled. Turner's works, particularly her portraits had a sort of mosaic quality as one contemporary critic of Turner wrote, "She seems to build up her effects by swift piecemeal accumulations like the cover of a thick and gentle fall of snow." Her brush strokes were bold and confident, testifying to her impressionist nature and she was especially skillful in the handling the effects of light and shadow. She is considered by many scholars to be counted among the most important Woman Artists in the Country. Noted collector and art authority Duncan Phillips described Turner's work best when he wrote that Turner was "a painter of unpretentious portraits, of landscapes with gentle girls in gardens, of the intimate hours of life in the seclusion of homes." She was a skilled miniaturist known for aiding in the resurgence of interest in that genre during the first decade of the twentieth century.

She was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design, 1913; Academician National Academy of Design, 1921. She was also a member of the New York Watercolor Club; National Association of Portrait Painters; National Arts Club; American Federation of Arts; American Artists Professional League; Southern States Art League and others.

Turner exhibited and won numerous awards for her works including: Elling prize for landscape, New York Woman's Art Club, 1912; Agar prize, National Association of Woman Painters and sculptors; Shaw memorial prize, National Academy of Design, 1913; Altman prize ($500), National Academy of Design, 1921; second prize ($400), National Art Club, 1922; gold medal ($300) National Art Club, 1927; Maynard prize, National Academy of Design, 1927; MacBeth Gallery; Grand Central Art Galleries (of which she was a founding member)and many others.

One of the highlights of her career was her participation in what was at the time, a landmark all-woman traveling exhibition entitled "Six American Women" with Mary Cassatt, Johanna Hailman, Jane Peterson, Martha Walter, and Alice Schille organized by the City Museum in St. Louis. Turner although thrilled at the time to be included stated: "…I wish you could sandwich in a man or two…" perhaps this was indicative of her concern for the show to as widely accepted as possible, we just do not know.

Helen Turner never married. She lived with her "devoted" sister Lettie,(a gifted craftswoman)for her entire life. Turner's works can be found in numerous important public and private collections across the country. Helen Maria Turner died in New Orleans on January 31st, 1958, less than one year shy of her 100th birthday.

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, but raised in New Orleans, Helen Turner began painting around 1880, when the New Orleans Art Union was formed. In 1895 she moved to New York City and enrolled at the Art Students League. She also studied at the Design School for Women at Cooper Union, and privately with William Merritt Chase.

From 1902 through 1919 Turner taught life and costume drawing at the Y.W.C.A., and exhibited impressionistic landscapes and figurative works in the local museums and galleries. In 1906 she made her first appearance at the National Academy of Design. From that point through the 1920s the list of exhibitions in which she participated grew to include most of the major juried museum annuals across the country, and her work was avidly collected (Rabbage, p. 5).

During this period of success, Turner maintained two studios, one in the city, and the other at Cragsmoor, New York, a summer art colony in the Shawangunk Mountains. There she built a modest house, “Takusan,” and surrounded it with gardens. The sunlit scenes she painted at Cragsmoor are considered her best work.

Turner’s paintings of women in floral environments coincide with her move to Cragsmoor in 1906. Gardening was a serious pastime among the summer residents, and the artist developed a passion for it. Turner’s garden climbed in rock-bordered terraces behind the porch of the house she built in 1910. She filled the beds with masses of peonies and delphiniums and phlox, which together formed a brilliant blur in the backgrounds of many of her outdoor scenes (Hill, p. 133). The intimate style and leisurely pace of life in Cragsmoor can be sensed in paintings such as "Song of Summer". The sunlight filtered through the leafy green foliage and the contemplative mood of the musician breathe tranquility, and draws the viewer into the velvety warmth of a mid-summer day. NRS


Biography from The Johnson Collection:
In the companion exhibition to the Dixon Gallery and Garden’s 2010 retrospective of Helen Turner, Helen M. Turner: The Woman’s Point of View, the Kentucky-born artist is lauded as an “enduring impressionist” whose greatest talent was “her ability to portray ordinary women doing everyday tasks in everyday places.” Though she did not realize professional recognition and commercial success until her fifties, Turner, who lived to the age of ninety-nine, did enjoy significant critical acclaim in the second half of her career. In 1921, she became only the fourth woman (and the first artist from Louisiana) elected to full membership in the National Academy of Design. Six years later, Turner served as the only female juror of the Twenty-fifth International Exhibition, an honor closely followed by a solo exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia.

Born to a gentile family who sustained daunting personal and financial setbacks during the Civil War, Turner was raised largely in New Orleans by an uncle who adopted Helen and her siblings following their parents’ deaths. Despite her youthful aptitude and interest in art, financial realities limited Turner’s pursuits. Following free studies at Tulane University, Turner worked as a teacher to earn money for her eventual enrollment at the Art Students League in New York. As a student there from 1895-1899, her instructors included Kenyon Cox, Douglas Volk, and Arthur Wesley Dow. She supplemented this coursework with classes at the Cooper Union Design School for Women and traveled to Europe with William Merritt Chase on three separate occasions. From 1902 through 1919, Turner taught at the art school of the New York Y.W.C.A., training women for careers in the applied arts. The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased a portrait of Turner’s in 1914, an endorsement that opened the doors for participation in important exhibitions across the country, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Corcoran Gallery of Art, and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Beginning in 1906, Turner spent her summers at the art colony in Cragsmoor, New York, where her colleagues included Edward Lamson Henry. Like other select American impressionists of the day, Turner enjoyed the patronage of the collector Duncan Phillips.

In portraits, interior scenes, and serene genre paintings set against lush natural backdrops, Turner captured women at work and leisure. In Song of Summer, a large work likely executed on the porch of her summer home in Cragsmoor, the artist’s model is immersed in her instrument. Turner often employed music as a motif in her canvases, a common theme among American impressionists.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina
www.thejohnsoncollection.org

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Helen Turner is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915
Women Artists

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