Dorothy Dolph was a landscape artist who was among the first commercially successful female artists in Wyoming during the first half of the 20th century. Though now virtually unknown, she was widely recognized in her adopted state during her lifetime.
The youngest of four children, she was born in Baraboo, Wisconsin, to a farmer and a school teacher on November 11, 1884. Bright, enterprising, physically active, strong willed and sociable, she showed an early interest in drawing. She also displayed from childhood her lifelong love of outdoor activities, as well as a tendency to step to her own drum.
She finished high school at the age of 16, and by alternately teaching in rural schools and attending classes, she financed herself through two years of language and art at the University of Wisconsin, two years at the Milwaukee Art League school while studying bookkeeping at night, and then a final two years at the Art Institute of Chicago, ending about 1910. Among her teachers in Chicago were Alphonse Mucha (Czech, 1860-1939), the famous illustrator, muralist and painter brought in from France by the school to teach mural painting, and Antonin Sterba (Czech-American, 1875-1963). It would be 15 years before she touched a paintbrush again.
In 1913 she married Royal Jay Dolph, a talented mechanic and electrician, and they moved to Wyoming and homesteaded at Cassa, on the Platte River a few miles southeast of present day Glendo. Three of Dorothy’s four children--Howard, Scott and Richard--were born during the eight years the family lived at Cassa. Dorothy raised horses for sale and RJ worked around the homestead and did electrical or mechanical work for others.
After the price for horses dropped at the end of WWI, they gave up the homestead around 1921 and moved to Casper, where RJ was building the Casper airport. Donald, their youngest son was born in Casper.
About 1925 Dorothy picked up her paintbrushes again. A Casper real estate man commissioned her to do a painting of a ‘dream house’ for him to show during a local real estate convention. She earned high praise for this and next undertook a historical painting of Casper as it had appeared in 1912, which was purchased by the Governor of Wyoming.
In the late twenties the Dolphs settled on another homestead west of Casper, about two miles from the famous Goose Egg Ranch. They raised cattle and had a garden and fruit trees, and the boys attended the local rural school.
As the Great Depression bit down, Dorothy began painting anything that would sell: lots of mountain landscapes, as well as cabins, ranch buildings, horses, cattle, sheep and sheep wagons, pioneer scenes, and lots of trees, especially dead ones, until her boys started calling her the “Stump Painter.” She was able to earn cash for her paintings, but she also frequently traded paintings for tires, gas, groceries and other family necessities.
Her first big commission came when Mr. F. J. Haynes approached her and commissioned paintings for his store in Yellowstone Park. During the next two years she painted 1,465 pictures for him to be sold at the Park’s concession stores.
Starting in the early thirties, she took to the road in search of fresh subject matter, traveling and camping around the state and country, usually accompanied by her youngest son Donald. She kept her bed and easel in the back of her station wagon and camped in and painted from her car. Until 1938 her usual work pattern was to spend summers on the road gathering materials, and winters on the ranch, preparing the next season’s consignments. Through the years she ranged over most of the lower 48 states, Alaska and much of Canada, photographing, talking to people, taking field notes and sketches, and collecting hundreds of plant specimens. After 1938 she began wintering at Twenty-nine Palms in California, where she bought some property.
During the 1930s she exhibited at the University of Wyoming, and at WPA exhibitions at the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis and the Rockefeller Center in New York City. In Wyoming her work can be found in Laramie, Casper, and in the Capitol building in Cheyenne. She did not sell directly to her customers, but sold on consignment through various dealers, such as Wyoming Stationery in Casper, her first agent. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Owen Wister, Tom Waring of the Pennsylvanians, and an English ambassador were among her customers.
She did all her own prep work, spending days at a time cutting and stretching her own canvases and preparing the grounds before starting a consignment. She had her own method of production, especially when making small paintings. She produced paintings in a variety of sizes, but many very small ones since they sold quite well. She would line out six or eight small grounds on her easel. On her palette she would mix the colors for the first object she wanted to paint, for example a dead tree, and then paint the same tree on each ground. Then she would mix the colors for a second object, such as a sagebrush, and added the same sagebrush to each miniature. She proceeded in this fashion until in short order she had produced about a half-dozen small, almost identical paintings in a single morning’s work; however, at the same time she would also keep working on different-sized paintings, all in different stages of completion.
Her most common work method was to make rough field paintings, then finish them later at camp or in her studio. At times she would use her large collections of photographs, plant specimens or other memory aids to visualize studio paintings. Seldom did Dolph work entirely from her imagination.
During her career Dorothy taught both oil and watercolor painting, but according to her son mainly to individual friends or family who expressed an interest.
Dorothy Dolph spent her final years in Post Falls, Idaho, where she could be closer to her sons, but she continued to enjoy an active lifestyle and to paint until her death there in 1979 at the age of 94.
Written by Winifred F. Galloway, Ph.D. and posted with the permission of the Bradford Brinton Memorial & Museum, Big Horn, Wyoming.