Fra (pronounced “fray”) Dana (b. 1874), later Mrs. Edwin Velazquez, was a student of Joseph Henry Sharp in Cincinnati, before enrolling under William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League in New York. Dana took further instruction in Paris under Mary Cassatt and Alfred Maurer. According to Erika Doss (in Trenton, 1995, p. 218), Dana made her husband sign a prenuptial agreement that would permit her to spend a part of each year to study art in New York and in Paris. From her diary we learn that Mrs. Velazquez was unhappy tending to her duties on the ranch (including the spaying of heifers), and she longed for the more refined joys of New York and Paris: “Beauty of any kind is a thing held cheap out here in this land of hard realities and glaring sun and alkali. There are no nuances” (quoted from Kern, “Fra Dana”). Although she was tied to her husband, Fra confessed that he “will always pull against me in the life that I desire” and for the rest of her life she rarely painted. She died at Great Falls, Montana in 1948.
Two of Dana’s known paintings, On the Window Seat (ca. 1909) and Breakfast from a year later (both in the Museum of Fine Arts, University of Montana, Missoula), have their obvious source in Chase’s technique. Both are believed to be self-portraits in which the artist dressed herself in an elegant kimono. In the former, light streams in through the window to define forms in a spontaneous manner. As a comparison, Frank Wadsworth’s Girl Reading by a Window, another interior scene by a Chase student, comes to mind. Whistler’s Japonisme is evoked in Breakfast with the asymmetrical composition, free, calligraphic brushwork, and graceful Oriental accessories. The way in which the teacup hides half of the sitter’s face immediately recalls Cassatt’s Five O’Clock Tea (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
Kern, Dennis, “Fra Dana, Artist and Collector,” exh. brochure, University of Montana Museum of Fine Arts, 1994; Trenton, Patricia, Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, pp. 218, 222-223.
Submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.