Emily Groom, born on 17 March 1876, lived nearly one hundred years and painted a great part of that time. Her life spanned the American Centennial to the preparations of the Bicentennial, from Presidents Grant to Ford. Although she resided in Milwaukee from early childhood, she avoided artistic provincialism by frequent travel and involvement with national arts organizations (Daniell, 1972). From her birthplace, Wayland, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, Emily arrived in Milwaukee with her parents when she was five. After demonstrating artistic talent in grade school, she received her first training at Saturday morning classes from Alida Goodwin who taught sketching after casts with charcoal. It seems reasonable to assume that as an aspiring art student, Emily would have visited the Art Palace at the World’s Columbian Exposition in neighboring Chicago in 1893. After graduation from Cathedral High School, Emily attended classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she studied under John H. Vanderpoel, a painter, writer, and teacher. However, she described her four years there as “a sort of nightmare. . . . You sat in front of a cast . . . and . . . had to copy it so perfectly that people did not know the difference between your drawing and the cast” (“Now She Is Willing to Tell,” 1960).
Groom returned to Milwaukee in 1902 to accept a position as director of the art department at Milwaukee-Downer College. During the following fifteen years, Groom took various sabbatical leaves, one of which resulted in study under the “academic impressionists” at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. There she studied under members of the Ten, Edmund Tarbell and Frank W. Benson and figure painting under the independent Philip L. Hale. Although she always demonstrated versatility in different media and subject matter, Groom preferred plein-air landscape painting and continued her study in this specialty under Birge Harrison at the summer school of the Art Students League in Woodstock, New York. She became particularly aware of the effects of light and atmosphere, having learned the rudiments of tonalism as promoted by Harrison. By 1910 Groom had balanced influences and assimilated impressionism by rendering her scenes in contrasts of high-keyed pigment. She was especially competent in capturing the effects of light and atmosphere as she made numerous plein-air sketches.
That same year, a somewhat different inspiration was about to permeate Groom’s style of painting when she sailed for London to study under the painter-muralist Frank Brangwyn. There is no question that Groom’s unique ability in watercolor was furthered by her instruction from him, and a slightly increased emphasis on linear design resulted from this study. After a summer on the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, Groom returned to Milwaukee. This marked the end of her formal training except for one more summer in New Hope, Pennsylvania, where she planned to learn more of the styles of Edward R. Redfield and Robert Spencer. She thought that “the old buildings instantly suggested Spencer’s compositions” and reminisced, “anything that I could do seemed like a poor imitation” (“Emily Groom,” 1924-25).
Groom also studied in museums and galleries as she traveled. She was particularly fond of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In 1917, the year of her resignation from the Milwaukee-Downer College, Groom submitted an oil, The River in Spring, to the Northwestern Artists’ Exhibition at the St. Paul Institute in Minnesota. The painting received a gold medal (see American Art Annual, 1917, p. 156). In the following year Groom was awarded an Honorable Mention from the Milwaukee Art Institute, and in 1920 her work was given the purchase prize at the New York Watercolor Club, of which she was a member. At this period in her career Miss Groom had earned a deserved reputation for her impressionistic style in both oil and watercolor. Despite the impressionistic high-keyed palette, there is an objectivity in her color. Moreover, a conscious attempt at selective composition appears evident. In her works Groom avoided being trite or overly sentimental. Her art received particular recognition in 1926 at the Thomas Whipple Dunbar Galleries in Chicago. A year later she co-founded the Layton School of Art. While teaching private art classes, Groom maintained a prolific painting schedule and submitted work regularly to well-known Midwestern exhibitions.
During the peak of the Great Depression, Groom specialized in watercolor. In 1935 she returned to teach at the Milwaukee-Downer College where she would remain until 1957. In the late 1930s and 1940s Groom exhibited in such annuals as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design. Advancing age had no effect on her productivity. In the summer of 1946 and again in the following winter, Groom spent time in Guatemala. “[Her] water colors of Guatemala are flooded with a warm wash of sunlight. Many of them glow with bougainvillea and other flowers in a country where every blossom is opulent and rich in size and color,” wrote a newspaper reporter. Groom was also one of the founders of the New Watercolor Society of Wisconsin in 1952. A retrospective of her works was organized in 1955. Her style became increasingly modernist. During the last twenty years of her career, she came to admire John Marin’s watercolor technique whose manner influenced her though she went more for a linear execution, almost simplistic yet striking. In these late years her brilliantly contrasted floral works in watercolor won numerous awards, including the 1960 Friends of Art Award in 1960. Moreover, the Milwaukee art world frequently expressed appreciation of her years of work. At the age of ninety-seven still an active artist she said, “Inside you don’t feel different: a painter lives in the present with every day a fresh challenge.” She died in Milwaukee on 24 January 1975.
”Emily Groom,” Milwaukee Journal, 6 December 1924 - 4 January 1925; Butts, Porter and Oskar F. L. Hagen, Art in Wisconsin: The Art Experience of the Middle West Frontier. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1936, p. 188; “Now She Is Willing to Tell: Path of Art Was Hard, Long,” Milwaukee Sentinel, 5 March 1960; Daniell, Constance, “Artists Remembers Faces and Places,” Milwaukee Art Journal, 13 March 1972.
Submitted by Richard H. Love and Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.