Women Painters of Washington

  • By David F. Martin
  • Posted 2/14/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7644
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Women Painters of Washington (WPW) began as one of the earliest arts organizations in this region and remains among the very few statewide women’s arts associations in the country. The group formed in 1930 after several prominent regional women artists attended a class conducted in Seattle by the Canadian painter Frederick Horsman Varley (1881-1969), a member of the celebrated Group of Seven. Several of the six founders had achieved some national and international recognition, but felt the necessity to expand their local opportunities. Although the Seattle Fine Arts Society had sponsored regional exhibitions since 1914, the Seattle Art Museum would not be constructed until 1933. The six founders of Women Painters of Washington were Myra Albert Wiggins (1869-1956), Elizabeth Warhanik (1880-1968), Lily Norling Hardwick (1890-1944), Dorothy Dolph Jensen (1895-1977), Anna B. Stone (1869-1950), and Helen Bebb (1878-1947), who acted as an administrator and was not an active painter.

Myra Albert Wiggins

The most renowned of the founders was painter/photographer Myra Albert Wiggins, who was probably the first internationally known artist from the Northwest. Wiggins had gained her reputation as a fine art photographer who became an associate member of Alfred Stieglitz’s exclusive Photo-Secession as well as London’s The Brotherhood of the Linked Ring  as early as 1903.

She had started her career as a painter, having left her native Salem, Oregon, to study at the Art Students League of New York beginning in 1891. At the League she studied with some of the major artists of the period including William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), who exerted a lifelong influence. In photography, she was best known for her constructed Dutch figurative imagery that was inspired by Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Jan Vermeer (1632-1675). In painting, she concentrated on the still-life, often incorporating  glass and metal objects in the manner of her mentor, Chase. By 1909 she had won more than 50 international awards in photography, but ceased her activity in that medium by the 1920s.

Wiggins moved to Washington state in 1907, settling first in Toppenish and finally in Seattle by 1932. She continued painting and was even active with the Public Works of Art Project in Seattle as an easel painter. Wiggins was esteemed in the Northwest art community, where she was known as the “Dean of Northwest Women Painters.” Her active and successful career culminated in a retrospective of her paintings and photography at the Seattle Art Museum in 1953.

Elizabeth Warhanik

Elizabeth Warhanik had been actively painting for decades by the time WPW was formed. Originally from Philadelphia, Warhanik attended Wellesley College and studied with Charles Woodbury (1864-1940). She lived in Japan as a missionary for several years before settling in Seattle by 1907. 

Her paintings include landscape, floral, and marine imagery, often utilizing a bold and expressive technique in her color and brushwork. Like many other members of WPW, Warhanik was also an excellent printmaker and was the foremost regional practitioner of the white-line or Provincetown color print. Warhanik came from an artistic family and her sister, Eleanor Campbell (1894-1986), became well-known for her illustrations of the Dick & Jane reading primers.

Lily Norling Hardwick

Lily Norling Hardwick produced a unique body of work dedicated to the depiction of Northwest Native Americans. Born in Ellensburg, Washington, Hardwick attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and studied with Audubon Tyler in New York. Around 1921 she painted her first Native American portrait and proceeded to live and work throughout the state’s reservations at Colville, Nespelem and LaPush. 

She created numerous portraits of tribal figures, both male and female, painted in a vivid, modern style. This collection is now housed at the Yakama Nation Museum in Toppenish, Washington.

Dorothy Dolph Jensen

Dorothy Dolph Jensen was among the finest landscape and figure painters ever active in the Northwest. The granddaughter of a U.S. Senator from Oregon, Joseph Dolph, Jensen left her native Forest Grove, Oregon, to attend boarding school in Europe before World War I. At a young age she attended the Academie Julian, where she studied with Jean Paul Laurens. At age 13, she learned etching techniques and would later produce a fine body of work in that medium as well, being the first woman artist in Washington State to have an etching press. In 1914, she left Europe and moved to Seattle, leaving briefly to study in Portland, Oregon, and returning to Seattle a few years later where she remained for the rest of her life.

Anna B. Stone (1869-1950) was renowned for her floral subjects executed in both a realistic and Modernist style. Born in Dewitt, Iowa, Stone lived most of her adult life in Seattle. She studied at the Boston School of Art, Scripts College in Claremont, California, and the University of Washington. Besides being a Founder of the Women Painters of Washington, she was also an active member of the Northwest Watercolor Society and the National League of American Penwomen.

Margaret Gove Camfferman

Some of the charter and early members of WPW were also noteworthy within the arts community both locally and nationally. Three were among the earlier Modernists of the region. Margaret Gove Camfferman (1881-1964) was originally from Rochester, Minnesota, and attended art school there before going to New York to study with Robert Henri (1865-1929). After her 1914 marriage to artist Peter Camfferman (1890-1957), she relocated with her new husband to Langley, Whidbey Island, Washington, where they remained for the rest of their lives.

The Camffermans dedicated their entire life to making art and teaching. Their international travels exposed them to many of the Modern movements of their time. In 1932, she and Peter studied in Paris with the influential painter Andre L’hote (1885-1962) whose Cubist style had a lasting influence. The Camffermans' property, dubbed "Brackenwood," included a group of small studio’s to accommodate visiting artists

They taught generations of students and hosted local and internationally known artists such as Amedee Ozenfant (1886-19-66) and Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964), visiting instructors from the University of Washington. Camfferman, like many women married to other artists, subjugated her own ambition to promote her husband’s career. Nine years older than Peter and a more seasoned artist at their meeting, she nevertheless continued to paint and exhibit locally and nationally.

Elizabeth A. Cooper

Elizabeth A. Cooper (1877-1936) was born in England and came to America, settling first in the San Francisco area where she attended the Mark Hopkins Art Institute (now the San Francisco Art Institute). In California, Cooper was exposed to Asian art and upon her move to Seattle in 1915, created a body of work that shows a confluence of varied cultural influences such as Japanese blockprints and European Modernism.

Along with Camfferman, Cooper was a member of Seattle’s progressive Group of Twelve, an association of 12 regional artists dedicated to exploring modern art techniques. As a group, they exhibited together to strengthen their cause and in 1937 produced a catalogue booklet that included their biographies and artistic statements as well as illustrations of their work. Other members of the group included Morris Graves (1910-2001) and Kenneth Callahan (1905-1986).

Dorothy Milne Rising

Dorothy Milne Rising (1895-1992) was  born in Tacoma and after studying locally,  attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the Cleveland Art Institute. After studies back East she returned to Seattle, attended the University of Washington, and became an early proponent of Modernism in the Northwest, writing articles in local and national publications in defense of Modern Art.

In 1940, she along with two other WPW members, Florence Nesbit (1910-2001) and Vara Grube (1903-1994), founded the Northwest Watercolor Society, an organization that is still flourishing today.

Z. Vanessa Helder

As the 1930s progressed and the country was mired in the Depression, several members of WPW became employed by the Federal Art Projects. One of the most accomplished was Z. Vanessa Helder (1904-1968) one of the state’s few Precisionists.

Helder was born in Lynden, Washington, and attended the University of Washington before going to New York to study at the Art Students League. While still in artschool, she began exhibiting her work with the American Watercolor Society. Her talent was recognized in New York and she began to show her work at the prestigious Macbeth Gallery, which handled many of the leading artists of the day.

Returning to Seattle, she was hired by the local Federal Art Projects and accepted a position as an instructor at the Spokane Art Center, where she taught painting and lithography. During this period of 1939-1941, Helder produced her spectacular series of 22 watercolors depicting the construction of Grand Coulee Dam and its environs. This celebrated series is in the collection of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane.

A high point in her career came in 1943 when she was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s American Realists and Magic Realists exhibition. Helder exhibited 12 of her watercolors in the show and her work hung alongside some of the major American artists of the period. After her marriage in 1943, Helder moved to Los Angeles and became known in California art circles, teaching at the Otis Art Institute and the Los Angeles Art Institute.

Blanche Morgan Losey

Another artist associated with the Washington state WPA was Helder’s friend and fellow Precisionist, Blanche Morgan Losey (1912-1981). Unlike Helder, Losey ‘s involvement in the WPA was as a stage and set designer for the local Federal Theater Projects and most notably, the Negro Repertory Unit.

Like Helder, Losey’s watercolors utilized a crisp, hard-edged realism that she exhibited locally and in exhibitions sponsored by the National Association of Women Artists, based in New York. Her painting style segued into Surrealism in the 1940s with many of the paintings depicting elements of her conflicted identity and abusive marriage.

Ebba Rapp

Ebba Rapp (1909-1985) was born and raised in Seattle and became a first-rate painter by the early 1930s. When Alexander Archipenko gave one of several visiting classes at the University of Washington, Rapp attended and introduced sculpture into her work. She assisted Archipenko in his classes and was asked to start the first sculpture department at her alma mater, Seattle’s progressive Cornish College of the Arts, in 1938.

One of the only female sculptors active in Seattle in the 1930s and 1940s, Rapp was recognized nationally when one of her sculptures was included in the American Art Today exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Besides painting and sculpture, she was an accomplished craftswoman and was one of the founders of the Seattle Clay Club. She mastered the art of enameling and also worked with Peter Voulkos (1924-2002) at the Archie Bray Foundation in Helena, Montana, during the 1950s. In addition to her national exhibitions, she completed numerous portrait and architectural commissions throughout the state.

Peggy Strong

A noted painter and muralist in the Northwest, Peggy Strong (1912-1956), was born in Aberdeen and studied at the University of Washington with additional studies in the East. In 1933, Strong had been seriously injured in an automobile accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. However, her physical limitations did not hinder her activities. Her large-scale murals were painted in the studio with the assistance of a hand-operated elevator, designed by her engineer father, allowing her to work independently. She exhibited nationally in New York as well as at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Exposition in 1939. Her easel paintings almost always focus on the human figure, either portraiture or in powerful works that display a sensitivity to social issues.

Strong worked briefly in San Francisco before her untimely death at 44. Her extant murals include The Saga of Wenatchee at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and Paul Bunyan Themes now housed at the University of Puget Sound.

Yvonne Twining Humber

In 1943, Boston WPA artist Yvonne Twining Humber (1907-2004) relocated with her new husband to Seattle. She had achieved a measure of success in exhibitions associated with the Federal Art Projects, which had employed her as an easel painter from the inception of the PWAP in 1933 through its demise in 1943. Humber worked primarily in oil and brought a hard-edged realism that was uncommon in the Northwest. Her style of Formalist Realism united influences of the Italian Primitives with the naïve or folk painters of her native New England.

Humber had attended the National Academy of Design and Art Students League in New York, as well as working in Provincetown with Charles Hawthorne (1872–1930) for two summers. She won two consecutive Tiffany Foundation Fellowships in 1933 and 1934. Humber had a successful solo exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum in 1946 and resumed exhibiting nationally and attained a significant reputation in Seattle as a painter and teacher.

After a series of unfortunate tragedies beginning with the death of her husband in 1960, Humber ceased painting to recover her emotional and financial stability. When the public’s renewed interest in the WPA began in the 1970s, Humber resumed painting and worked into her 90s. In 2001, she endowed the Twining-Humber Award for Seattle’s Artist Trust, which gives a yearly Lifetime Achievement award of  $10,000 to a Washington state female artist over the age of 60.

The World's Fair and After

With the beginning of the turbulent 1960s, Seattle began its rocky climb toward becoming the international city that it is today, beginning with Seattle's Century 21 World’s Fair in 1962. The fair introduced the iconic Space Needle and also featured many of the best local artists in exhibitions and displays that included WPW members P. K. Nicholson (1894-1978), Blanche Morgan Losey, and Ebba Rapp, who had exhibited her sculpture at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

After the 1970s, many of the earlier members ceased working or passed away. The activities of current members carries on the high standards set by the founders and reflects a diverse group with a wide range of styles and techniques in the painting tradition. In addition to regional shows, the organization held international exhibitions in Japan in 1987, in Germany in 1990, and in Kuwait, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Washington, D.C., in 1999.


David F. Martin, An Enduring Legacy: Women Painters of Washington, 1930-2005 (Bellingham: Whatcom Museum of History & Art and University of Washington Press, 2005); Kitty Harmon, The Pacific Northwest Landscape: A Painted History (Seattle: Sasquatch Press, 2001); Phil and Marian Yoshiki Kovinick, An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the West (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998); Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945 ed. by P. Trenton (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
Note: This essay was corrected on February 12, 2008, to note that Peggy Strong was born in Aberdeen.

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