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 Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones  (1885 - 1968)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania/Maryland      Known for: genre, figure, marine and surreal painting

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Elizabeth D. Jones is primarily known as Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Late twentieth-century scholarship that focused on American women painters has stimulated a new interest in the career of Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones.  She was born in 1885 in Baltimore to Mrs. and Reverend John Sparhawk-Jones (d. 1910), a Presbyterian minister who returned to Philadelphia to accept a position as pastor when Elizabeth was nine.   During a formal study period between 1902 and 1909, Miss Sparhawk-Jones attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where she received criticism from Thomas Anshutz, William Merritt Chase, and possibly from Cecilia Beaux. 

Almost a prodigy, Elizabeth created early works in which skillful brushwork, an awareness of natural light, and an inherent quality of compositional design are all evident.  Sparhawk-Jones was awarded the PAFA’s Mary Smith Prize of 1908 for her painting entitled Roller Skates (see Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art, 1976, p. 493), now in the Art Institute of Chicago.
 
The artist not only combined various technical and stylistic procedures from her American instructors but also managed to interpolate Degas’ compositional methods.  Sparhawk-Jones actively pursued and assimilated ideas, including French impressionist aesthetics via many sources from her vantage point in Philadelphia.  The influence of Degas should not be over-emphasized, indeed, it is subtle, but not greater than her debt to various older Americans such as Anshutz, Beaux, Cassatt, Chase, and even Robert Henri, as D’Harnancourt has pointed out (Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art, 1976). 

Nevertheless, such works as Shop Girls (ca. 1912), in the Art Institute of Chicago, indicates a distinct relationship to Degas’ laundress theme.  Sparhawk-Jones has candidly observed these American working women, who like Degas’ French women, are depicted without pretension, engaged in their labor.  Like Degas, Sparhawk-Jones has effortlessly grouped the figures à contre-jour to maintain an effective balance of forms in limited space and to allow an interplay of light upon textures.  D’Harnoncourt, in her discussion of Shop Girls (p. 493) described the work as “. . . a prosaic subject for a Chase student brought up on his fashionable portraits and lavishly decorated studio interiors. . . .  There is nothing of the fin-de-siècle elegance in this cheerful study of girls absorbed in the mundane activity of unfolding and cutting lengths of cloth.”  The interesting heightening of spatial contrasts is achieved by the painter’s use of a shallow foreground, a favorite device of Degas, and an overlapping of animated and non-animated forms.  An exaggerated sense of confinement is also evident.  James Huneker (1912, p. 8) commented on Sparhawk-Jones’s technique,  especially admiring her “broad splashes and gorgeous tones.”

For the most part, the impressionistic phase in Sparhawk-Jones’s career was over shortly after the Armory Show.  When she once again submitted works to national exhibitions in 1926, after a prolonged illness, one of these was sufficiently distinctive to have received the Kohnstamm Prize in Chicago.  Reviewing a group exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1929 in which her work was included, Marguerite B. Williams (Parnassus, November 1929, p. 10) stated: “Perhaps Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones’ little picture of a nude mounting a horse, called Lady Godiva, strikes the keynote of the new attitude. Here a natural looseness of painting, which this artist has always had, has been pushed to something like the emotional freedom of Segonzac. . . .”  Another version is illustrated in Soby and Miller’s Romantic Painting in America (1943, p. 121).  

In 1938, one observer accounted for two distinct trends in the oeuvre of Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones (Philadelphia Art Alliance Bulletin, February 1938).  By this time her work had changed from a forceful impressionism of her first period; as she continued, her pictures became progressively introspective, mystically symbolic with a radical departure from tradition. Henry McBride (Art Digest, 15 April 1937) saw and referred to these paintings as “imaginative compositions of fire and smoke and drifting clouds.” Sparhawk-Jones took part in the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939, and in 1956, when her first one-woman show was held at Frank Rehn Gallery, her painting concept, mood, and subject matter had been transformed considerably. Later a modern art historian referred to their style as one that “verged on expressionistic violence.” (Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art, 1976, p. 493). 

Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones continued her imaginative ventures in painting, gaining the quiet admiration of Marsden Hartley and a select group of collectors who purchased her work, but it is her early impressionist style that has awakened a renewed interest in her oeuvre.  She died in 1968.

SOURCES:
Huneker, James Gibbons, “Things Seen in the Art World,” New York Sun, 7 January 1912, sec. 3, p. 4; Williams, Marguerite B., “Art News and Exhibitions in Chicago  Parnassus 1 (November 1929): 10; Soby, James Thrall and Dorothy C.  Miller, Romantic Painting in America. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1943, pp. 46-47, 121, 141; Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art: Bicentennial Exhibition, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1976, pp. 493-494.

Submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.


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