Dorothy Gilbert Wilson (1889-1988)
Dorothy Gilbert was born in Portland, Oregon on October 16, 1889, the youngest of five children born to US Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William Ball Gilbert and his wife Julia. As she would recall many years later, Dorothy had the benefit of an upbringing by a father who “was a real feminist without knowing it” and encouraged higher education with his daughters and free pursuit of careers of their own choosing. The spirit of independence he fostered in his daughters was atypical of the provincial social attitudes of early 20th century Portland. On one occasion, a lawyer friend of the family approached Judge Gilbert to ask if he could do anything about Dorothy as “her radical ideas were shocking to him.” Mr. Gilbert replied, “Well...I wouldn’t undertake to change that young woman’s ideas.” One of her earliest recollections of the political and social climate in Portland was that “Portland had a lot of New Englanders, and it was very conservative; they didn’t think much of Seattle. It was too…wild, a little bit wild.”
Dorothy was held out of school due to medical issues until she was nine years old and didn’t learn to read until she was eight. She spent much of her early childhood years out-of-doors and developed an interest in sketching. In fact her earliest surviving diary from 1895 contains numerous crayon drawings. When she finally entered school, it was at the Portland Academy, which was established by a number of early Portland’s pillars of society. This school was essentially a college preparatory school, and though Dorothy was an active student, she found the school to be a joyless experience. However, she mentions in a diary that she received art instruction from Clara Stephens during the summer of 1907. Stephens had been teaching at the Portland Academy at this time, but it is unclear how early Dorothy received art instruction from her. By early 1908, Dorothy was a member of the Oregon Art Students League, studying under Frank Vincent DuMond, visiting Portland on one of his many trips from New York, where he taught at the Art Students League. On her final day under DuMond’s instruction prior to his return home, Dorothy wrote in her diary in late June of 1908:
That last afternoon we didn’t feel as awestruck by Mr. DuMond. He seemed quite human and Olive Failing and I always did imitate behind his back his gestures and way of saying, “Tremenjous!” “Look at those great fall forms!” “Oh, that’s simply corking!”
Advanced members of the OASL at that time included Harry Wentz, Clara Stephens, Lilian Bain, and Edna Breyman. There, Dorothy studied in both the composition and portrait classes. In 1909 she entered Wells College in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. There her talents blossomed and much of her energies became focused on the study of drama and theatre arts. She enjoyed producing plays and contributed her drawing skills to the development of scenery and set design. As graduation neared, Dorothy saw few career paths available to her other than a teaching career. Consequently, in 1913 Dorothy instead decided to return to Portland to explore the possibility of studying art at the Portland Art Museum School, organized in 1909.
Dorothy entered the Museum School in 1914 and continued to pursue her formal art studies. She excelled in her classes at the school as evidenced by her winning the only art scholarship awarded in 1914. She was apparently encouraged to exhibit professionally that year as well, entering a canvas entitled Evening in the Annual Exhibition of Artists of the Portland and Vicinity at the Portland Art Museum in March of 1914. In her fine art studies, she recalled instruction with Harry Wentz:
“[He] was a very nice man, very nice intelligent fellow. He used to invite any artists that were around to come to the life class. You see, the evening life class out there in Portland had both male and female people studying. It wasn’t like the Art Students League where they had a women’s life and a men’s life. We all worked the life class together.”
Additionally, Wentz invited professional artists in the Portland community to sit in on the evening life class. It was in these evening life classes at the Portland Art Museum School that she met artist Floyd Wilson, who had recently moved to Portland after achieving training at the Minneapolis School of Fine Art, Robert Henri in New York, and the Academie Colorossi in Paris. Dorothy recalled: “I was very interested in him from the very first. He was a very good artist, for one thing. And his drawings of the nude were so strong and fascinating.” In a different letter about Floyd she further stated “I was rather frightened by such powerful drawing, but made a great effort to get acquainted with him, as he seemed such an individual.” Floyd Wilson had followed his friend, Carl Walters, to Portland where they quickly gained attention for their work, culminating in a two-man show at the Portland Art Museum in April of 1915. A one-man show for Floyd would follow in September of that year. It is clear from Dorothy’s diaries from this timeframe that no romantic relationship developed between Dorothy and Floyd at this time. This would change 5 years later.
In the summer of 1915, Dorothy’s father invited her to go with him to view the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Floyd Wilson also went down to that city, having had a painting accepted for the exhibit in the Fine Arts building. Harry Wentz and Floyd Wilson were the only Oregon artists who had work accepted for the PPIE fine arts exhibit, though other Oregon artists exhibited separately in the Oregon Building’s Oregon Art Room.
Dorothy continued to reside in Portland and entered four landscape paintings in the Sixth Annual Exhibition of the works of Artists of the Pacific Northwest. The titles of these works were: The Trout Stream, Morning, Bald Butte, and Yellow Pines. In 1918, Dorothy left for New York to study at the Art Students League, remaining there until 1919.
Following his return from his service in Europe, Floyd returned to Minnesota to resume his limited duties on the family farm, however, he found his physical stamina compromised by his heart troubles. He decided to move to New York to find his way as an artist, arriving back in that city in early 1920. Reconnecting there with Carl and Helen Walters who had also moved to New York, Floyd wrote to Dorothy, most likely at the Walterses’ urging and began a long distance romance with Dorothy, culminating in her permanent move to New York where she and Floyd and were married in 1921. They resided in New York City in the small cul-de-sac of Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, where their daughter Mary was born in 1922.
Dorothy maintained close family ties to Portland and continued to be involved in the artistic scene of that city by sending work back home to be entered in Art Museum shows. Prior to her leaving Portland, she entered four paintings in the Eighth Annual Exhibition of the Work of Artists of the Pacific Northwest: Mountain-side, The East Hills, Hecata, and Portrait. The following year she entered four more in the Exhibition of Paintings in Oil by Artists of Portland and Vicinity. These titles were: Mountain Stream, Waterfall, Old Houses, and Mountain Forest. The Portland Telegram review of the show carried a photo of Waterfall and stated:
Dorothy Gilbert Wilson, a young artist residing now in New York City, but formerly a student of the Portland art school, is showing several paintings in the exhibition. The one of a waterfall is typical of Oregon scenery and is in the artist’s best style. Mrs. Wilson spent a month or more in Portland this fall as the guest of her parents, Judge and Mrs. W. B. Gilbert…
In 1922, Dorothy entered two paintings, Small Portrait, and Flower Study, in the Annual Exhibition of the Works of Painters and Sculptors of Oregon.
Around 1924, the Wilsons had moved to Woodstock, residing in one of the rustic cottages on the Maverick, the artist colony started by Hervey White. They eventually bought a small farm in Zena, a small village within the town of Woodstock, and began to raise farm animals. They also became active in the Woodstock Art Association activities, with Dorothy becoming a member. Floyd had never intended to stay long in New York City and had discovered the Woodstock art colony early in his New York stay through artist friends Harry Gottlieb and Arnold Blanch. Floyd’s longtime friend Carl Walters and his artist wife, Helen, also moved to the Woodstock area after a brief time in New York City, where Carl established himself as a world renowned ceramic artist. While Dorothy consistently remained active in the fine arts, it seems that Floyd pursued his art less fervently, as he eventually became known more as a designer and builder in the area, as well as spending most of his time raising and tending the farm animals they acquired.
Dorothy continued her involvement in Portland art activities, becoming a charter member of the Oregon Society of Artists in 1926. She entered two paintings in their First Annual Exhibition in 1927 entitled Flowers and Portrait of a Young Girl. For this show she listed her father’s Portland address as her residence. Throughout the 1920s, Dorothy spent long periods in Portland caring for her elderly father. She exhibited Portrait in the Exhibition of Paintings by Contemporary American artists, which traveled to Portland and Los Angeles in 1929 and 1930 respectively. Floyd Wilson also loaned a painting to this exhibition. Dorothy received a letter from Anna Belle Crocker, principal and head curator of the Portland Art Museum regarding Portrait:
…I enjoy your portrait more and more as it hangs in the gallery. We like Mr. Wilson’s too very much. I wish you could see the exhibition. I am glad to see you are willing that the picture should go into the circuit exhibition about which I think Mrs.Von Seeth has already written you.
Also in 1930, the Portland Art Museum sponsored an exhibit of their former students, where Dorothy entered Dahlias and Portrait. In 1933 she entered Portrait in the Second Annual Juryless Exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. In addition to the many works she exhibited in Portland, she did show one work, Red Sunflowers, in Exhibition of Young Painters held at the Ferargil Galleries in New York City in 1932. Another smaller Exhibition of Paintings: Third New Group was held at the G.R.D. Studio in New York in 1932, established in 1928 by Jean Roosevelt in honor of her sister, artist Gladys Roosevelt Dick, who had recently killed in an equestrian accident. The gallery was short lived, lasting just four years. There, Dorothy exhibited Peonies and Tulips.
By 1934, Dorothy became an active artist in the various New Deal art programs including the PWAP and WPA. Her art activities now became increasingly focused on Ulster County, New York subjects and she seems to have relinquished her habit of sending work back to Portland for exhibit. Perhaps her most famous work from this period is the oil painting Farm in Winter which was selected for the National Exhibition of Art by the Public Works of Art Project held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Farm in Winter was also illustrated in the American Magazine of Art’s April issue, which focused on works from this particular PWAP exhibit. No doubt due to influences with the Woodstock art colony, Dorothy’s style of painting gradually evolved from a sketchy post impressionism utilized in her early 1910s Portland period and early New York City period to a more modern scene painting approach adopted by many in Woodstock.
By the middle 1930s Dorothy had become an active participant in the WPA. Winter Landscape was shown in the October, 1936 Ulster County Federal Art Project exhibition at the Woodstock Art Gallery. A Federal Art Exhibition held at the Woodstock Art Association in December of 1937 had two of Dorothy’s paintings on display: Farm in Winter and Burning Leaves. In August of 1938 she had two oil paintings, Melodeon and Flowers and Rhinebeck Fair allocated to the City Hospital in Syracuse, New York. In December of 1938 Goats was allocated to the Board of Education in Newark, New Jersey. In early 1939, Saugerties Waterfront was allocated to the Rockland State Hospital in Rockland County, New York and in July her painting The Farm was allocated to the Board of Education in Newark, New Jersey.
During the WPA era in Woodstock, Dorothy found herself a part of a liberal and progressive community of people as well as artists. As an artist in the WPA, she had joined the artist’s union and both she and Floyd became members of the Communist Party, though it seems her initial entry to the party was somewhat serendipitous:
In Woodstock, I belonged to a group that were [sic] sort of progressive people. They wanted to discuss problems, and they thought up the idea of a meeting in which one person would give the point of view of democracy, and one would give the fascist’s point of view, and one would give the communist’s point of view. Well, they selected me to do that. I said, “Well, I’ll try to find out.” I asked a friend, who was a Communist, and she said, “Oh, they always want someone who doesn’t know anything about it to talk about it.” There’s a man who lives about 40 miles from Woodstock. There wasn’t anyone nearer who was a well-known Communist. He knew…everyone around there admired him. He was a very fine person. So I asked him to come and speak. He came and spoke, but they didn’t like him very much, the Woodstock people. But because I had shown this interest, the Communist Party took an interest in me. I became, well, I took the paper The Daily Worker, and finally Floyd and I both joined the Communist Party. That was in 1938.
As early as the mid 1910s in Portland, through artists such as Floyd Wilson, Carl Walters and others, Dorothy had found herself exposed to the world of radical politics. For the remainder of her life, she became an outspoken and active pacifist who at age 80 marched in Washington D.C. against the Vietnam War. While world peace was her primary concern, she was also active in consumer, conservation, progressive politics, and women’s groups. She also found herself consistently involved in activities that essentially entailed helping others. The subject matter and themes in her paintings were conversely mostly devoid of social or political content, and rather became expressions of her experiences with everyday life.
Floyd Wilson died in 1945 of a heart ailment due to the lingering effects of injuries he received during World War I. Dorothy continued to remain active in exhibitions following the conclusion of the WPA. She exhibited Banana Boat at the 14th Annual Regional Artists of the Upper Hudson at the Albany Institute in 1949. Raccoons was exhibited at the 22nd Annual of the same show in 1957. She became a world traveler and began to favor work in watercolors, which were easier to transport on her trips. She returned to Portland to participate in the 50th anniversary of the Portland Art Museum School, where she was the earliest student in attendance. The Portland Art Museum honored her long career with a one person show in 1971. In 1974, she sold the Zena property and moved south to New Paltz, New York. She continued to exhibit work in smaller venues throughout Ulster County and remained active in the causes she held dear. She died in New Paltz in 1988 at the age of 98.
Phone and in-person interviews with Mary Wilson, daughter of the artist, and Jane Howell. Wilson family papers (letters, diaries, ephemera) and Woodstock Art Association Museum archives.
Copyright 2008 Mark Humpal all rights reserved.