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Rebecca James

 (1891 - 1968)
Rebecca Stroud Salsbury James was active/lived in New Mexico.  Rebecca James is known for botanic on glass painting, colcha embroidery.

Rebecca James

    STRAND    click to hear

Biography from The Owings Gallery

It was indeed something quintessentially American in Rebecca James' character, a link with the American frontier myth, that attracted people to her. She wore trousers, cursed like a mountain man, loved all-night poker games and community dances, and could drink men under the table. James' father was none other than showman Nate Salsbury, creator of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show that disseminated the myth of the American West throughout the world.

Rebecca was in fact born in London, England, during one of the Wild West Show's appearances there, and as a child she spent much of her time with characters like sharpshooter Annie Oakley. James married photographer Paul Strand in 1922, and he brought her into the heady atmosphere of Alfred Stieglitz's avant-garde art group. Through the 1920s, she discovered her own calling as an artist and began to teach herself to draw and paint. She spent summers at the Stieglitz home in Lake George, New York where Stieglitz frequently photographed her, and she painted with Georgia O'Keeffe solidifying what would become a life-long friendship.

With no formal art training, James simply had to work harder, and she did, side by side with O'Keeffe. She adopted her already famous friend's habit of using a pane of glass for a palette and, by a fated kind of chance, noticed the effect of color seen through the bottom of a palette she was cleaning. She was also influenced by example of the early American colonial folk art of reverse oil-on-glass painting (on store windows, for example), and by the modernist experiments in this medium of her friend Marsden Hartley and the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky.

James set out to master this demanding technique, in which pictures are literally created backward, with fine surface details laid down first and then layered over with background colors behind a gleaming glass surface. James tended to use flat, almost decorative areas of color on her glass canvas to represent flowers, landscapes and religious images. She made sensitive use of simplified detail and patterns of precise-edged shapes. James' stunning paintings seem a culmination of the ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement, infused with the individual expressionism of modernism.

The word "luminous" is often used to describe her work: "We speak of these pictures as luminous; they are almost as luminous as though painted in clear dispassionate rays of light." (Donald J. Bear)

Color is limited and subdued in James' flower paintings which, in some instances, suggest her friend O'Keeffe's similarly conceived large-scale compositions of like subjects. Art historian Van Deren Coke writes, "Although both fill their pictures with large flower blossoms, there is a distinct difference in the feeling between a painting by Georgia O'Keeffe and one by Rebecca James. The forms of the latter's work are waxen, emotionally charged, aggressive, flat, and wiry in outline, yet often frail and elegant. On the other hand, O'Keeffe's smoothly brushed flowers are ripe with vitality but formalized and detached in feeling."

James first visited Taos in 1926 with her husband, and in 1929 she returned, this time with O'Keeffe, to spend the summer with Taos socialite and arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan. James and Strand returned to Taos annually in 1930-32, as their marriage deteriorated. In 1933 they traveled to Mexico, where they toured the countryside and made some of the best art either of them ever made - and divorced. James returned to Taos, where she married Bill James in 1937.

In this Northern New Mexico village, the artist continued to paint on glass, and in 1940 she discovered colcha embroidery. This is the other medium upon which her reputation rests. In glass and colcha, James found her own expression and was not burdened by comparisons with the work of her illustrious friends, who were among the finest artists then working. But her choice of what were generally considered folk art media was also from a belief, influenced by Kandinsky's thinking, that there were no hierarchies in art.

James exhibited widely in her lifetime with one-woman shows at such venues as Stieglitz's legendary gallery in New York, An American Place, the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, the Denver Art Museum, and others.

But in the 1960s, James was stricken with arthritis, which so crippled her hands that she could no longer manage the meticulous work of either glass painting or colcha. In 1967, her husband died unexpectedly, leaving her alone in constant pain and unable to find solace in her art. The master of her own destiny to the end, James settled her affairs, distributed her possessions, and in 1968, at the age of 76, took her own life with sleeping pills.

The effect of New Mexico on James was profound and multilayered - she never returned to New York completely. The light, the air, the landscape, the Hispanic culture, and her connection to the pioneer modernists, fueled a distinctly personal Rebecca James style that was both sophisticated and naïve, and infused with a spirit of New Mexico.

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About  Rebecca James

Born:  1891 - London, England
Died:   1968 - Taos, New Mexico
Known for:  botanic on glass painting, colcha embroidery

Essays referring to
Rebecca James

Taos pre-1940