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HELENA STURTEVANT (1872-1946) was among the most significant landscape and marine-themed painters to emerge from the state of Rhode Island during her lifetime, and remains best known for her light-filled paintings of the historic buildings and scenic coastline of her native state, as well as her depictions of the sailboats partaking in the International Cup Races held in the waters off Newport. Her dramatic, Impressionist-oriented stylings of the sky and clouds dominate the background of much of her work, whose locational subject-matter extends well beyond New England to Paris and the Caribbean, where she executed several of her most highly-regarded paintings.

Sturtevant’s formal artistic education took place at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School and at the Colarossi Academy in Paris. In Boston, she studied under the tutelage of Edward Tarbell (1862-1938), a leading Boston Impressionist whose influence upon a generation of students led to his disciples becoming known as the “The Tarbellites.” Though he gained his early recognition through figural works, especially interiors featuring fashionably-dressed, well-bred upper class women posing at leisure, later in life he became a much sought-after portraitist, whose subjects included Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover. He won many prizes and medals, and was elected a full member of the National Academy of Design in 1906, followed by his selection in 1927 as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He also established a reputation as one of the most eminent art instructors of the period. The well-respected American art historian William Gerdts considers Tarbell's work to be “among the most advanced in color and aesthetic of light of any American artist of that period.” After completing her studies with Tarbell in Boston, Sturtevant traveled to Paris, where she enrolled in the Colarossi Academy, an avant-garde art school regarded as a progressive alternative to the conservative, government-sanctioned Ecole des Beaux Arts and which, unlike the offical Ecole, accepted female students and allowed them to draw from male nude models, considered unthinkable in some circles at the time; the Academy also had the distinction of being the first art school to hire a female instructor (Francis Hodgkins). Sturtevant’s mentors there were two renowned French painters: Lucien Simon (1861-1945) and Jacques-Emile Blanche (1861-1942). Simon, a graduate of Lycee Louis-le-Grand who also attended l’Academie Julian, was a member of Charles Cottet’s “Baude-Noir,” a group which espoused the principles of Impressionism, but in darker tones. He became one of the founding teachers at Martha Stettler’s Academie de la Grand Chaumiere in 1902, around the same time he was teaching at Academy Colarossi. Simon gained election to the Academie de Beaux Arts in 1929, and in 1937 won first prize at “l’Exposition universelle de Paris” for his work on the Luxembourg Pavilion. (In Simon’s Wikipedia entry, Sturtevant is praised as one of his most noteworthy students.) Her other main instructor in Paris, Jacque-Emile Blanche, was a primarily self-taught French painter who became a very successful portraitist, incorporating the styles of Gainsborough, Manet, and Sargent into his technique. He exhibited at the Paris Salon and at the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts.  One of his closest friends was the immortal French novelist, Marcel Proust (author of the 7-volume masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past), who sat for Blanche for what turned out to be one of the artist’s most famous portraits, and who edited several of his publications. (An author as well as a painter, Blanche wrote Portraits of a Lifetime: the Edwardian Pageant: 1870-1914 and More Portraits, 1918-1938.) Blanche was also acquainted with Henry James, and is mentioned in Gertrude Stein’s seminal work, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In 1902, Blanche took over the directorship of the Academie de la Palette, where he would remain until 1911. Sturtevant’s time at the Colarossi Academy, under the tutelege of Simon and Blanche, was lauded in the artcentric website, www.tfsimon.comwhich listed her as one of the Academy’s most notable graduates.

Following her schooling, Sturtevant returned to Rhode Island and set up a studio on the grounds of her grandparents’ estate in Newport. In 1909 she became a member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. Her other memberships included the American Federation of Arts, the College Art Association, the International Society of Arts and Letters, the American Artists Professional League, and the Newport Art Association. (Later in her career, she became director of the School of the Newport Art Association.) Her exhibition history, notwithstanding any gender-induced biases, was extensive and wide-ranging. In a review of one of her early exhibitions, at the Copley Gallery in Boston in 1909, the critic noted, “Miss Sturtevant has a liking for the effects of light in nature. Indeed, it is among the best of her qualities. One feels that the artist has a genuine interest in nature. There are two large studies of Newport scenery, looking over the land to the sea, which have excellent qualities.” (possibly Boston Evening Transcript, November 15, 1909.) Her work was displayed in the 1902, 1911, and 1943 annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design. In five of the years covering the period 1905-1917, her paintings were selected for the annual exhibitions of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1912, her work was featured in the inaugural exhibition of the Newport Art Association. One year later, she was chosen for inclusion in the Annual Exhibition of Watercolors by American Artists at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Paris Salon paid her homage in 1927 by including her work in that prestigious annual event. In 1930, an exhibition, Scenes of the International Race Week, Paintings by Helena Sturtevant, was presented at the Montross Gallery in New York City. Her efforts were also put up for view in the 1939 Golden Gate Exhibition in San Francisco, and that same year she exhibited in the American Art Today Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair.

Over the course of her long career Sturtevant’s output was prodigious, containing such highly-valued paintings as Children in the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris; Couple on Horseback; Second Beach; Caribbean Scene: Road to Market; People in the Park; Paradise; International Race Week, 1937; and Tropical Street Scene. Today, her work can be found in some of the country’s most distinguished private collections, as well as several important public venues, including the Newport City Hall, the New York Public Library (etchings), and the Berkeley Memorial Chapel in Newport (Sister of Louisa alter piece). 

Written October 2015 by Brian Flon, author of "Hell's Kitchen Requiem" (2014), available as an e-book at Amazon, ITunes, and Barnes & Noble.

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