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The Professionalization of An American Woman Printmaker: The Early Career of Grace Albee, 1915 – 1934
Grace Thurston Arnold Albee (1890–1985) stands as an important American Regionalist printmaker of the twentieth century. Her career spanned more than sixty years, during which she produced more than two hundred and fifty prints from linocuts, woodcuts, and wood engravings. These graphic works, created between 1915 and 1983, record her careful observations of her surroundings near the various locales in which she lived: Providence (1915–1928); Paris (1928–1933); New York City (1933–1938); Bucks County, Pennsylvania (1938–1962); Kew Gardens, New York (1962–1974); and finally in Barrington and Bristol, Rhode Island (1974–1983). In spite of the importance of Grace Albee’s early work to her professional career, these early prints are scarcely known and rarely reproduced in monographs about twentieth century American printmaking. This exhibition will illustrate those factors from 1915 to 1933 that kindled the professionalization of Grace Albee’s career, as it was shaped by outside forces affecting the American art scene and as viewed through the lens of her personal life and early works.
Although Grace Albee’s professional legacy as a printmaker is grounded primarily upon the images she created of rustic Pennsylvania barns and the rural countryside during the 1940s and 1950s, her works that predate this period were formative to her career and laid the foundations for the success she would achieve later in her life. Between 1915 and 1933, Albee was forced to balance her familial duties as a wife and a mother of five sons with her artistic aspirations. In an article that she co-wrote for American Artist magazine with another printmaker, Ernest Watson (1884–1969), Albee admitted the difficulties of managing career with family during these early years:
Grace Albee is not a ‘career woman’ in the accepted connotation of that term. Unlike those who, with singleness of purpose, completely sacrifice domestic life to professional pursuits, Mrs. Percy F. Albee first distinguished herself as the mother of five sons…For about fifteen years after her marriage in 1913 to Percy F. Albee, mural painter and lithographer of Providence, her art had to take second place. That period was pretty much occupied with home and family duties.1
Despite this juggling of roles and her downplaying of these years, she managed to produce approximately sixty-four prints of increasing competence, gradually moving towards becoming a professional artist. While living in Providence and Paris, Albee honed her technical skills, exhibited her prints with greater frequency, received critical acclaim, and bolstered her desire to continue a career in printmaking.
Grace Albee’s thirteen years of artistic production in Providence from 1915 to 1928 formed the cornerstone upon which her subsequent artistic endeavors were built. Although her central focus in Providence was on raising a family, Grace Albee remained current in the art world through vicarious involvement with the career of her artist husband, Percy Albee (1883–1959), and her own sporadic forays into linoleum block printing. As Percy shifted his professional goals away from the large mural commissions that engaged him during the 1910s and into the 1920s, towards lithography in the 1920s, Grace found an advantageous opportunity to work on her printmaking passion together with her husband and to gain exhibition exposure alongside him in graphic arts shows.
Progressively, Grace metamorphosed from a dabbling, but talented amateur who fashioned relatively anonymous and disposable promotional posters for a marionette show that she operated with her husband into a more technically proficient artist who crafted serious works and whose prints were displayed in prominent exhibitions. As time passed in Providence, she moved beyond Percy’s artistic sponsorship and developed an individual career track as a skilled practitioner of relief printing. Even though she was principally an amateur artist in Providence, Albee’s perseverance, intensity, and natural talent signaled her potential to become a professional artist.
The next period of Grace Albee’s life, a six-year sojourn in Paris, France from 1928 to 1933, represents a crucial time of artistic flowering in her printmaking career. Albee’s years in Paris encapsulate the pivotal moment when she shifted away from working according to amateur artistic standards and turned towards a model of artistic professionalism. This transition commenced in March of 1928 when Grace Albee traveled, along with her husband and her five sons, then ranging in age from five to fourteen, from Providence across the Atlantic Ocean to Paris, the undisputed center of the art world. Along with her husband, Grace expected that joining the expatriate community in Montparnasse would advance her career and teach her valuable lessons about her art. With her several young children, unusual at the time due to the severe loss of young men in World War I, Albee at the beginning of her stay in Paris was recognized in the French community more through her identity as a mother, called la mère à cinq fils; she became increasingly known professionally for her art as her technical skills improved and her exhibition presence expanded. Embarking upon one of the most productive periods in her career, Grace advanced and perfected her art to include wood engraving and gained entry into the French salons, exhibited her works at independent French galleries and at art shows back home in the United States. All of these venues gave her opportunities to receive significant positive press from French and American art critics, which was instrumental in strengthening her professional reputation. The pinnacle of her artistic career in Paris is embodied in her first one-woman show at the American Library in Paris in March of 1931.
Once Grace Albee arrived in New York City in 1933, she was able to dedicate herself to full-time printmaking and her art began to command serious national attention. Albee’s work from this point forward demonstrates the confidence that developed as she became more personally secure as a professional artist. Her prints also became increasingly recognized in the American art community as on par with the best professional wood engravers in the field. During the 1930s and 1940s, the most prolific decades of her career, Albee won prestigious awards and was showered with accolades from art critics. Through numerous purchase prizes, her prints were accessioned into the best print collections in museums throughout the United States and abroad. The greatest indication of Grace Albee’s success as a professional printmaker was her admission to the highly selective membership of the National Academy of Design as an Associate in 1941 and as a National Academician in 1946. Not only was she the second woman in this history of the Academy to receive the Associate distinction in the class of Graphic Arts, but Grace Albee was also the first female graphic artist ever to attain full Academician membership.2
- Christina M. Weyl (C'05), Guest Curator
1 Grace Albee, with commentary by Ernest W. Watson, “Wood Engravings by Grace Albee,” American Artist 10 (December 1946): 24. Grace Albee Papers, Archives of American Art/Smithsonian Institution, roll 2977, grid 1283.
2 Eliot Clark, History of the National Academy of Design: 1825-1953 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953). These findings are based upon listings of all members of the Academy since its founding in 1825. Eliza Greatorex (1820–1897), an etcher, was the first female graphic artist to earn Academy membership as an Associate between 1869 and 1888.
For additional reading
Eric Denker, Grace Albee: 1890–1985, An American Printmaker (unpublished manuscript; Washington: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1999); and Denker, Grace Albee: An American Printmaker, 1890-1985 (exhibition brochure, National Museum of Women in the Arts, July 26–November 21, 1999).
About the guest curator
Christina Weyl is a senior in Georgetown College majoring in American Studies with minors in Art History and French. This exhibition is based on her American Studies Senior Thesis, The Professionalization of an American Woman Printmaker: The Early Career of Grace Albee, 1915-1933. This choice of thesis topic, the focus of its research, and the decision to be the guest curator this show reflect Christina’s longstanding goal to pursue a career in museum work and fine arts management after graduation in May 2005. Christina has prior work experience at Sotheby’s, Inc., the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Grace A. Albee, 1962 (62.674.97)
All rights reserved, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photograph courtesy Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
Photograph courtesy William C. Albee
The following persons are acknowledged for their support for and assistance with this exhibition:
LuLen Walker and David C. Alan in the Georgetown University Art Collection
William and Kay Albee
Professor Ed Ingebretsen, Director of the American Studies Program
Professor Elizabeth Prelinger
Professor Alison Hilton, Department Chair of Art History
Professor Ricardo Ortiz
Hubert Cloke, Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences
Dr. Eric Denker, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art
Angel Dean, Assistant Archivist at the Providence Art Club
Andrew Martinez, Archivist at the Rhode Island School of Design
Judy Throm and Wendy Hurlock Baker at the Archives of American Art
Jane and Alan Weyl