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 Margaret Moffett Law  (1871 - 1956)

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Lived/Active: Maryland/South Carolina      Known for: genre, figure, landscape, graphics

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Biography from The Johnson Collection:
Margaret Moffett Law’s art education led her to the most prestigious academies and influential teachers of the day. And while these studies took her far and wide—domestically and abroad—she spent much of her notable career in her hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. Born into a prominent Southern family, she first attended Converse College, the local women’s college. Following her 1895 graduation as the institution’s first art major, Law enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she took classes from William Merritt Chase, the American impressionist and most important teacher of his generation. She followed Chase to New York; there, her studies continued under his direction at the Cooper Art School, Art Students League, and New York School of Art. Over the years, her other instructors included F. Luis Mora, Charles Hawthorne at the art colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts; André Lhote in his Paris atelier; Lamar Dodd at the University of Georgia in 1946; and leading muralists in Mexico City. Of all her instructors, however, it was Robert Henri whom she identified as the most influential on her creative development. Henri, leader of the Ashcan School, encouraged Law and other artists to find inspiration and expression in ordinary life.

A highly independent woman remembered for her keen intellect and lively spirit, Law enjoyed a part-time career as an illustrator in New York during her student days. At the conclusion of World War I, she served with distinction on the art faculty at Bryn Mawr College in Baltimore for nearly twenty years. In 1936, Law returned permanently to Spartanburg, where she worked as Superintendent of Art in the public school system for a decade. A vocal arts advocate, she co-founded the Spartanburg Arts and Crafts Club with fellow artist Josephine Couper, which evolved into the Spartanburg County Museum of Art. Despite her removal from major art centers, Law actively exhibited her work, showing at the Society of Independent Artists (1917-1931); Corcoran Gallery of Art (1918); Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1921); Southern States Art League; and other venues.

Law’s aesthetic approach became more free and gestural as she matured. Her paintings of the 1930s and 1940s—executed in a vivid palette and featuring simplified forms in rhythmic compositions—reflect her adoption of a modernist technique, while their subject matter connects her to the American Scene movement. Law’s unsentimental depictions of rural laborers, often African Americans, established her reputation. Working in the same vein, Law captured the residents and routines of the local textile mill communities that were central to Spartanburg’s economy and her own family’s prosperity. No matter the medium—watercolor, pastel, oil, or prints—Law portrayed the Southern experience in a signature style that was at once familiar and fresh, unidealized yet somehow affectionate. Of her own efforts, Law stated: “I put down what I see, wherever I am, and the result is a record of life in a small Southern town.”

Law participated in a number of important arts organizations including the Baltimore Watercolor Club (of which she served as president for three years); American Print Society; League of Professional Artists; and National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Morris Museum of Art, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and University of South Carolina.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:
Margaret Law was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who was a former chaplain in the Confederate Army. Her family was prominent in upstate South Carolina, and Law was well-educated before she began her career as an artist and teacher. After graduating from Converse College in Spartanburg in 1895, she continued her studies at the Art Students League and later at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Among her teachers were William Merritt Chase, Charles Hawthorne, Robert Henri, and Andre L'Hote.

Her first job after World War I was as an art teacher at Bryn Mawr in Baltimore. While living in Maryland, Law’s style became more expressive and spontaneous. Most of her work began on-site with a palette knife. These studies were then refined in the studio into finished prints or paintings. Though clearly devoted to the themes of American Scene painting, Law incorporated modernism into her work through her repetition of forms, simplified composition, and vibrant color.

Interest in real-life situations is common among students of Ashcan School founder Robert Henri, and this interest is reflected in the titles of Law’s works, most of which were created long before the American Scene idealization of the worker during the 1930s and 1940s.

In 1936 Law returned to South Carolina where she taught school and was eventually named art supervisor for the Spartanburg School District. Remembered by friends and family as a person of "boundless enthusiasm," Law frequently did what were considered outrageous things for a lady of her upbringing. During her seventies, she learned to tap dance, and she drove across Mexico alone. It is said that she would paint on anything available, including the cardboard from shirt packages.

Taken from: Worksong, The Greenville County Museum of Art, 1990.

Margaret Moffett Law was born in Spartanburg, South Carolina to parents of prominent and wealthy Southern lineage. She graduated from Converse College in 1895 and then went on to advanced study at some of the nation’s most respected art institutions. For her era, Law manifested an unusual degree of dedication and independence in pursuing her career.

Upon her graduation from Converse, Law continued her training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Cooper Art School, Art Students League, and New York School of Art, studying with leading teachers, including William Merritt Chase, F. Luis Mora, and Robert Henri. She also studied in Provincetown, Massachusetts with Charles Hawthorne; in Paris, with André Lhote, a progressive artist associated with cubism; with Lamar Dodd at the University of Georgia; and in Mexico City. Of the artists with whom she studied, Henri’s impact was strongest, inspiring her to paint subjects from the world she knew.

After the conclusion of World War I, Law worked as an art teacher at Bryn Mawr College in Baltimore. She also continued to develop her own artistic style—a style that increasingly favored a modernist approach, more freely conceived and suggestive than her earlier efforts. Her work of the 1930s and 1940s, employing a vivid palette of color and bold, simplified forms, reflects her energetic assimilation of modernist principles.

Law is best known for her unsentimental depictions of African American subjects in rural and routine settings, usually executed in colorfully stylized watercolors and prints. As she observed, “I put down what I see, wherever I am, and the result is a record of life in a small Southern town.” Though she studied with important and influential artists, Law developed her own individual style and became a chronicler of black experience in the South, attesting to her independent spirit and approach to life.

This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Hicklin Galleries, LLC.

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