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 Susan Hely St. John  (1834 - 1913)

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Lived/Active: California/Illinois/Massachusetts      Known for: floral still life and portrait painting

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An example of work by Susan Hely St. John
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This biography from the Archives of AskART:

Susan Hely was born in Ireland in 1834 (see notes below).  She was the daughter of Hilliard and Mary Vowell Hely of Johnstown, Ireland.  Hilliard Hely was a professional portrait painter who pursued his early artistic studies in Paris and graduated from Trinity College with a Bachelor of Arts.  Historical records indicate that Hilliard Hely emigrated to the U.S. in 1837, settling in Racine County, Wisconsin.  Hely encouraged his daughter to paint and tutored her in portraiture.  Hilliard Hely passed away in 1858.

In 1859, Susan Hely was married to Josephus St. John, a native of Vermont.  In the early years of their marriage, the couple resided in Chicago.  Josephus St. John studied medicine at Rush Medical College in Chicago.  Susan worked in the studio of the local artist, G. P.A. Healy (1813-1894).  "It is likely that she applied her considerable and well-recognized talent to some of the portraits hanging in many Chicago manors and museums that carry Healy's name. It was the custom for good technicians to paint backgrounds, draperies, and other necessary detail while the famed artist did the main subject and put on the fine finishing touches."

In 1872, Susan H. St. John gave birth to a son, James Allen.  She encouraged her son to develop his artistic abilities which were apparent at an early age.  Various biographies of James Allen indicate that he often traveled with his mother to Paris as a young child and teenager.  James Allen recollected: "Even as a child, I found delight in the society of so-called bohemians my mother gathered around her, and one of my greatest pleasures was to ramble at will through the Louvre?."   James St. John studied with several prominent artists and eventually became the renowned illustrator of the adventure series by Edgar Rice Burroughs as well as of works by Mark Twain.

Biographical records on James Allen list the early St. John family residences as Chicago (1872-1883), New York City (1883-1887), and Los Angeles (1887-1891).  By the later 1890s, Susan St. John had relocated to Boston.  She passed away there in her studio in Copley Hall in October 1913.

Known examples of St. John's work include floral still life paintings and portraits.  Her florals were often pink or yellow roses strikingly juxtaposed against dark backgrounds.  Smithsonian records show portraits by the artist in the Chicago Historical Society (John Stephen Wright ca. 1866-1870 and Lt. James H. Nugent).  The artist's son reported that his "first recollections are (of) my mother's studio and the eyes of her portraits following me about the place"?.  Susan Hely St. John's work was exhibited in the National Academy of Design (NAD) from 1883-1887.

Notes: Smithsonian records alternately list the artist's year of birth as 1833.  The American Art Directory reports her date of death as October 25, 1913. 


Sources include:
G&W; Art Annual, XI, obit.
American Art Directory by American Federation of Arts, R.R. Bowker Co. - 1914
Various J. A. St. John biographical articles such as "James Allen St. John - Information on the Artist's Early Life and Career" by Arthur B. Estes
Historical and genealogical records (e.g., Memorial and Biographical History of the Counties of Fresno, Tulare and Kern, California - The Lewis Publishing Company, 1892 - p. 496-497)
Other online publications
Compiled and submitted by Tina A. Kasper

This biography from the Archives of AskART:

Susan Hely St. John was active in Chicago in the 1860s and 1870s.  She exhibited frequently at the Chicago Academy of Design throughout both decades. Her studio was located in the Crosby Opera House, which contained a number of artist studios as well as exhibition space.  In 1870 a fire broke out in her studio and ruined all of her works, but did not damage the other studios in the building.

Illinois Historical Art Project

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1834. After studying art in Chicago, Mrs. St John was a resident of NYC during the 1880s. She came to Los Angeles in 1890 and established a studio. In 1892 she went to Paris for further study and by 1898 she had settled in Boston. She died there at her studio in Copley Hall on Oct. 26, 1913 having devoted her entire life to art. The subjects of her rare works include floral still lifes and children. Exh: NAD, 1883-87.
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Southern California Artists (Nancy Moure); City Directory; Boston Evening Transcript, 10-27-1913 (obituary).
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

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