Thursday, December 1, 2016

Grinnell's Famous (but in Grinnell poorly-known) Plein-air Artist...

Grinnell is fortunate to have been the home of several artists of accomplishment, but perhaps none was as successful or well-known as Abby Williams Hill (1861-1943).  At the beginning of the twentieth century and at the invitation of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railways, Hill undertook several expeditions to the startling natural worlds of the American West, dragging along the tools of the artist (as well as her four young children). Although the railroads provided her with free passage, she and her entourage had to hike into the wild, where, surrounded by the landscapes she aimed to paint, she set up her easel. At the height of her reputation, Hill was a featured artist at the 1904 World's Fair at which twenty of her paintings were displayed, and over the next several years she exhibited her work often and gathered much praise.
Abby Williams Hill, "Looking Across Lake Chelan," given to Grinnell College in 1906
(Digital Grinnell, but identified there as "Pacific Northwest Landscape")
When Hill reached this fame, however, she was no longer resident in Grinnell, as she and her husband had settled in Tacoma, Washington soon after their 1888 wedding. Nevertheless, Hill long retained a special affection for and sense of belonging to Grinnell. She returned here often, especially while her father was still alive, and then later to visit her sister's family at Strawberry Point. In 1906 and again in 1907 Hill donated to Grinnell College paintings from her wilderness expeditions, gifts that long hung on the walls of the college's Carnegie Library and which the college recognized by awarding Hill an honorary degree in 1907. Writing President John H. T. Main in the 1920s, Hill expressed the hope that the college might erect a gallery suitable to display works of art, perhaps a hint that she contemplated donating her entire collection to Grinnell. Sadly, this plan did not come to fruition, so that in 1957, fourteen years after Hill's death, her daughter-in-law donated Hill's entire collection to the University of Puget Sound, close to Tacoma where Hill had lived at the height of her artistic output. But if Hill enjoyed a considerable reputation a century ago, today she and her artistry remain poorly-known in the town where she began. With the exception of "Trailblazers: Notable Women of Grinnell," a 2012 display at Drake Community Library that identified several women of note from early Grinnell (and which was later presented as a community bucket course lecture), Hill has fallen from memory in Grinnell.  In this post, we will follow the major way stations of Abby Hill's remarkable life, and point to the ways in which her career as a plein-air artist intersected with Grinnell, Iowa.
Henry Williams, the artist's father, was born in 1829 in Vermont, but was among a group of the earliest settlers in the new community that Josiah Bushnell Grinnell helped establish in central Iowa. Identified in the 1860 census as an "engineer," Henry later claimed as his occupation "cabinet maker," "mill owner," and for a time he sold furniture in Grinnell. His first wife, the former Harriet Porter, had been born in Ohio and married Williams in 1852, a few years prior to their arrival in Iowa. A son was born to them in Ohio, but the boy's life expired before his parents went west. In Grinnell, daughter Nettie (sometimes called Jeanette) was born in 1859, followed by another daughter, Abby (sometimes called Abbie), in 1861. The family settled in a fine home on High Street, both girls growing up and receiving their educations in Grinnell.
1008 High Street, Home of H. W. Williams Family (Digital Grinnell)
Nettie completed public school in Grinnell and attended Iowa (Grinnell) College, entering with the class of 1882. Ill health forced her to interrupt her studies, which she later resumed at Chicago Musical College, from which she graduated.  In late December, 1885, Nettie married Park Buckley, whom she had met when they were both students at Iowa College. Buckley operated the family farm near Strawberry Point, and the couple settled there after the wedding, and there they welcomed their only child, daughter Harriett. Injured in a runaway-horse accident soon afterward, Nettie endured several years of poor health before she died unexpectedly in 1889.
Abby Williams, undated photograph
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
Abby Williams, two years Nettie's junior, also finished public school in Grinnell, and may have attended Iowa College, at least briefly. But she certainly never completed her degree there, opting instead to pursue a career in painting. In 1880 she moved to Chicago to study with H. F. Spread, a founder of what was then called the Chicago Academy of Art where, reports had it, "amateurs can obtain the best possible advantages upon the most reasonable terms." With this preparation she began to teach, first in Grinnell, then at Bertier-en-Haut, Quebec. Some of the paintings she did while living in Canada were exhibited back in Grinnell in 1886 at the studio of the local photographer, A. L. Child. The Grinnell Herald printed an enthusiastic review of Hill's work, detailing the subjects of numerous canvases, some of which apparently depicted scenes around Grinnell.
Grinnell Herald, October 22, 1886
Hill later went to New York where she studied with William Merritt Chase, from whom she seems to have absorbed the latest techniques of the French Impressionists. In the 1890s, during a sojourn in Europe, she studied in Hamburg, Germany with the illustrator Hermann Haase. In 1888, while residing in New York, Abby married Dr. Frank Hill, another Grinnellian. Soon thereafter the couple went west, settling in Tacoma, Washington, where in November, 1889 Abby gave birth to a son, Romayne Bradford Hill, who was born partially paralyzed. Abby and Frank later adopted three more children, and for most of her career as an artist, Hill took all four children along, exposing them to both the wonders and hazards of the natural world she so beautifully depicted on canvas.
Dr. Frank Hill and Abby Williams Hill (1888)
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
For the first half-dozen years after the birth of Romayne (1889-1970), and the adoptions of Ione (1886-1984), Ina (1889-1987), and Eulalie (1891-1978), Hill did relatively little painting. Works from this period give few hints of the artistry that later paintings reveal. Nevertheless, Hill clearly had admirers, and her work attracted attention, as she was commissioned to do a copy of Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington for the State of Washington's exposition at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

But in the summer of 1895, prior to departing for a two-year stay in Europe for her husband's further study of medicine, Hill had her first experience of painting in the wilds of America's West. She joined an expedition into the nearby Cascade Mountains, learning first-hand some of the skills she would later practice on trips elsewhere. Taking along her paints, brushes and easel, Hill accompanied a group, most of whose members were intent on climbing Mt. Rainier. Instead of scaling a mountain, however, she found places to set up her easel and paint. Often these perches were perilous, as her journal reports: "I sketched all the afternoon, sitting on a precipice just about a foot wide, and perhaps three hundred down" (Hill's diary, as quoted by Ronald Fields, Abby Williams Hill and the Lure of the West, p. 17), a circumstance that she duplicated numerous times on later expeditions.

Almost immediately after her return from Rainier, Hill embarked on a similar excursion to the Hood Canal at the foot of the Olympic Mountains. Yet another difficult hike presented itself, as the group made its way through virgin forests and across numerous waterways. "After the pools, came the wildest scenery and the most severe climbing, up rocky sides, over boulders and under them, across streams on logs many feet above the whistling torrent, and at last seated to sketch in a place where the roar was so great, I could not make my companion on the next rock hear my voice...It was thought no woman had ventured as far as I did today" (Fields, p. 18).

These two endeavors, shoe-horned into the brief period before the family left for Europe, gave Hill the confidence to deal with the wild, and prepared her for the major commissions that she executed after their return from Europe.
Hill's reputation as an artist depended for the most part upon the four commissions she obtained from the railroads in the first years of the twentieth century. The first, secured from the Great Northern Railway in spring, 1903, was perhaps the most important. Officers of the Great Northern wanted Hill to travel to the area around Lake Chelan in the North Cascades—very difficult to access, and since 1968 part of the North Cascades National Park Complex—and there produce some twenty canvases before autumn weather made the area impassable. The fifty-mile long Lake Chelan, one of the deepest lakes in North America, offers a startling contrast to the mountains around it, and gave Hill some wonderful material to paint. However, as Fields points out, it also constituted "some of the most rugged and inaccessible scenery of the Cascades," which Hill had to negotiate "without the benefit of established, managed camps" (p. 34). 

We know few details of the expedition since Hill documented her work only in a sparsely-worded daybook. But the railroad published some thirty thousand copies of a pamphlet of Hill's twenty paintings, all of which were displayed at the 1904 fair in St. Louis. Two paintings had Tumwater Canyon as subject, and five others represented scenes around Mount Index. The bulk of the commission, however, centered upon Lake Chelan and the mountains beyond. 
Title Page of pamphlet reproducing Hill's paintings from the Great Northern Commission
Although Hill's contract entitled her to reclaim the paintings after the World's Fair, and although she seems to have made copies of some of the works, not all the canvases of this commission survive. Hill gave two to what was then Washington State College, today's Washington State University; today only one of those works—"Spruce Trees"—is known. Hill gave two other works to a friend, and two more disappeared—one presumably kept by the railroad, and the other lost after the University of Puget Sound acquired the collection.
"Spruce Trees" (1903) from Hill's Great Northern Commission
(photo courtesy Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections,  Washington State University)
For Grinnell, however, "Looking Across Lake Chelan" represents the greatest interest, since it was this painting that in 1906 she gave to Grinnell College (see the illustration at the top of this post), and which the college displayed in what was then the newly-built (1905) Carnegie Library.
Grinnell Review vol. 1, no. 9 (June, 1906)
Interior of Carnegie Library Lobby (undated photo courtesy of Grinnell College Special Collections)
Hill's expedition to the Northern Cascades demonstrated how plein-air artists had to struggle with the conditions in which they painted. Discussing her work at Chelan Gorge, Hill reported that "It has been the most difficult sketch I ever made owing to the heat and its being so out of the way...." When beginning her painting of Horseshoe Basin, Hill wrote: "Pitch[ed] my awning on a rock, very windy, have to sit astride" (Fields, p. 37). Then an autumn snow storm caught the artist and her children; living in a tent with no heat, they were obliged to endure the cold and live off raw foods for two days.

Happily, Hill and her children survived these trials, and her paintings from the North Cascades succeeded wonderfully, earning Hill enviable praise when they were first shown in Tacoma. Her renown even made its way to distant Grinnell, where in late December, 1903 the Grinnell Herald reprinted from the Tacoma Daily News a most favorable review of Hill's canvases, soon to shine at the St. Louis exhibition.
Headline of article in Grinnell Herald, December 29, 1903, p. 1
More important for Hill's career, her fame also made its way to the headquarters of the Northern Pacific Railway, which in 1904 issued her the first of three new painting contracts. The first called on Hill to travel to and paint Mt. Rainier and the Monte Cristo Mountains, along with sites in Idaho and Montana. The eleven canvases that resulted from this commission were exhibited at the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, and included "Cliffs at Eunice Lake" and "Basaltic Rocks," both of which still hang on the walls of the First Presbyterian Church of Tacoma, Washington.
"Basaltic Rocks" (1904) (photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA)

"Cliffs at Eunice Lake" (1904) (photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA)
During this expedition Hill painted two canvases that ended up in Iowa (although the original of one remains with the Hill Collection at Puget Sound): "Yellow Pines" (done near Eddy, Montana) and "Morning in an Aisle of a Tamarack Cathedral" (also done near Eddy). In 1907 Hill donated both these paintings to the Botany Department of what was then called the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts—today's Iowa State University. Although both paintings were known to a 1941 university inventory (even if both were then in storage), today both are lost.
Personal communication from Allison Sheridan, University Museums, Iowa State University
Hill's work in 1904 evidently pleased officials of the Northern Pacific, who in the spring of 1905 extended her yet another commission, this one taking her to Yellowstone Park where, in the course of about a month, she produced three paintings—two of Yellowstone Falls and one of Yellowstone Canyon. As with her earlier expeditions, Hill found the going tough:
"The view I selected [to paint] was from a cliff extending over the canyon. It is not over three feet wide and [has] a very sharp descent to reach it. I thought to pitch my little tent on it, but after sitting there till noon, there came up such a wind we crawled off between gusts and concluded a tent with a floor in it would fill and carry us with it" (Fields, p. 66)
Identified as "Hill Children on Edge of Yellowstone Canyon" but might include Hill herself (1905)
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
When painting Yellowstone Falls, calamity very nearly did strike:
"Got out on my perch and painted a few hours...when suddenly there came a roar and without more warning, a big twister struck us, wrenching the picture from its fastening, jerking it under the poles and away down the canyon, which is at least 400 feet deep and the sides almost perpendicular..." (Fields, p. 67)
The next day volunteers descended by rope more than 100 feet along the canyon walls, retrieved the canvas, and thereby wrapped the painting in a wonderful story.
"Yellowstone Falls (From Below)" (1905)
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
Over and above the excitement that pertained to Hill's 1905 visit to Yellowstone, Grinnell has special reason to be interested in this venture, because in 1907 she gave the College one of her paintings of the Falls; this work, too, went on display in Carnegie Library.
Grinnell Review, vol. 2, no. 8 (May, 1907)
Unfortunately, no one seems to know what happened to this painting, which was probably lost when the College opened a new library in 1959. But it was clear that the College appreciated her gifts as well as her fame, because at the 1907 commencement Hill received an honorary degree.
Hill's honorary degree conferred at commencement, June 12, 1907
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
Hill's third and final commission from the Northern Pacific took her back to Yellowstone in 1906. The details of the contract remain unknown, but we know that before reaching the park, Hill visited both Minneapolis (where she took part in a meeting of the Congress of Mothers, antecedent to the National Parent Teacher Association), and then on to Grinnell, where in April her father had died. Besides settling details of her father's estate, Hill met with the Grinnell College class of 1882, to which she evidently had briefly belonged before setting out on her career as an artist. While in Grinnell, Hill worked out the details of the trip to Yellowstone, writing her husband to make arrangements for the entire family to meet in Montana.

The subject matter of the last railroad commission evidently centered on Yellowstone's geysers, but Hill preceded her visit to the park with a stop at the Flathead Reservation, a reminder of her interest in and defense of native Americans, causes that she pursued more vigorously later in her career. Once settled within sight of Yellowstone's remarkable geysers, Hill found herself unhappily close to the main tourist circuits of the park. Moreover, because the tent within which she normally worked proved a fright to teams of horses, she often had to do without it. Finally, there were the bears and other animals so abundant in Yellowstone. Thinking the bears in the main harmless, Hill often fed—and photographed—those that appeared at camp during daylight. Tourists she regarded as more harmful, and she did what she could to avoid them. Another damper on the experience was the unusually wet summer weather that interfered with her painting and often diminished the available natural light.

Fields deduced that Hill completed fifteen paintings that summer in Yellowstone, but only a few are known to the Puget Sound collection and none has a connection with Grinnell. In the opinion of critics, work from this last railroad commission was not as successful as the earlier paintings, perhaps a reflection of Hill's overall unhappiness with the expedition. After leaving the park, Hill remained for a time in Montana, again visiting with and painting at the Flathead Reservation where she observed regretfully the incursion of destructive outside influences. The paintings of native Americans represented a new direction in Hill's work, increasingly devoted to individual portraits and to documenting native American cultures. As a result, Hill developed strong bonds among the Salish (known to some as Flatheads), the Nez Perse, the Yakama, and others, and her paintings provided a unique and sympathetic introduction of these peoples to Hill's audience.
In the years after completing the last of her railroad commissions, Hill's painting faced some challenges. She did exhibit at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exhibition in 1907, and she won at least one gold medal (possibly two) at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition in Seattle. At about this time the Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific railroads both expressed interest in acquiring her services (Hill declined their offers). Nevertheless, over the next two decades Hill faced significant challenges that restricted the freedom to travel and paint that she had earlier so much enjoyed.

The primary challenge came from her husband's failing health. Frank suffered from melancholy, which today might be diagnosed as depression, a condition that grew so worrisome by 1909 that Frank closed his medical practice. When things got even worse, he was hospitalized in California. Hill and the children had managed a trip to Europe in 1908-9, and she had also visited Yosemite about this time, leaving behind some memorable landscapes. But once Frank was hospital-bound, Hill moved to southern California, too, and invested much of her time in these years in her husband.

When Frank rallied and was released from hospital in 1924, Hill bought a nine-passenger Hudson automobile, and with the family embarked on long automobile journeys across the American South and West, regularly wintering in Tucson, Arizona. With the idea of securing a contract from the Park Service to paint all the national parks (in effect, reproducing the idea behind her railroad commissions), she and the family visited the Grand Canyon, Bryce, the Grand Tetons, and Zion National Park, among others. Fields thinks that Hill's work from this period, which he calls her "gypsy years," was among her best: "Her palette became lighter, brighter, and richer" (Fields, p. 105). Nevertheless, Hill's painting did not attract much attention. The Park Service declined her proposal, and no new exhibitions presented her work. 

Meanwhile, Frank's health deteriorated, and in 1931 he was readmitted to Patton State Hospital (near San Bernardino), and Abby moved to be near him. Frank never left that hospital, lingering until his 1938 death. Her husband's long and difficult illness had evidently drained Hill of all her energy, and she remained bedridden the rest of her life, dying in San Diego in 1943.
1929 Letter from Grinnell College President, John H. T. Main
(Abby Williams Hill Collection, Collins Memorial Library, University of Puget Sound)
Even in these last, rather disappointing years, however, Hill retained a lively commitment to Grinnell. Indeed, it appears that, just prior to Frank's re-hospitalization, she approached the college with a proposal. In a December, 1929 letter the college's president, John H. T. Main, responded to Hill, whose own letter has not survived, but which had evidently proposed that the college erect a fireproof art building with "provision...for pictures and art objects." Main promised to do his "utmost to see that a building such as you propose is provided," pledging to strive to "meet the condition you propose." Main did not articulate the "condition" to which he referred, so we cannot be certain about her intentions, but it seems likely that Hill had pledged to donate her paintings in return for the college constructing a building sufficient to display and house them. Main's effort to fund such a building was not enough, however, especially once the weight of the Great Depression landed upon the college's best supporters.  When Main died in 1931, all thought of an art gallery died with him, and no gallery appeared on campus until the very last year of the twentieth century.

Consequently, by the time of her death in 1943 Hill's painting collection remained, for the most part, in family hands, until in 1957 Ina Hill donated it to the University of Puget Sound where numerous examples of Hill's painting have regularly been on display in the years since. Recently Hill's work has also attracted attention elsewhere, with examples of her painting included in exhibitions at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, Fullerton, CA (1976), the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings, MT (1982), the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC (1987), the Boise Art Museum (1990), the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles (1995; 2004-5), and the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, WA (2010), among others. Ronald Fields's book, to which I have referred several times in this post, was published to accompany a well-received 1989 solo exhibition of Hill's work at the Washington State Historical Society. Portions of Hill's oeuvre have also been exhibited at the White River Valley Museum, Auburn, WA (2007) and recently at the Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds, WA (2015).

Back in Grinnell, where Hill was born and began her career, the artist's legacy has been less happy. After the 1929 exchange between Hill and President Main, memory of Grinnell's famous plein-air artist waned. A Grinnell Herald article from October 15, 1929 (titled "Grinnell Had Music and Art From the Beginning") mentions Hill briefly and somewhat condescendingly, commending her "dainty pencil work." But gradually Hill and her reputation slipped from public consciousness. Hill's two landscapes that had long hung from the walls of Grinnell's Carnegie Library lost their context, so that when the college erected a new library in 1959, even these last two traces of Abby Williams Hill fell from view, carrying with them the memory of one of Grinnell's most talented daughters. 

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