Frances Gearhart

Born in 1869 in Sagetown, Illinois, Frances Hammell Gearhart moved with her family to Pasadena, California at the age of nineteen. Although she initially focused on watercolors, it was printmaking that became her passion. She specialized in woodcut and linocut prints to create her interpretation of the California landscape. Before discovering printmaking, Gearhart had a few successful shows exhibiting watercolors. In 1916, Gearhart transitioned to color block printing, which had become popular in California, and remained dedicated to it for the rest of her life. Through this medium, Gearhart was able to express herself fully as an artist.

Gearhart's style drew on Japanese printmaking traditions. Like many other American artists at the time, Gearhart was influenced by Japanese artwork and ukiyo-e. Printmakers like Hokusai and Hiroshige influenced her compositions and techniques. She melded their methods with the simplified principles of the American Arts & Crafts movement. This approach was lauded by American artists like Bertha Lum and Arthur Dow, who were similarly influenced. It was ukiyo-e that shaped American perceptions of Japanese art. Ukiyo-e encompassed various subjects of Japanese life, but in the 1770s Utagawa Toyoharu created a number of prints that incorporated Western-style perspective techniques and helped to pioneer the idea of the landscape as a ukiyo-e subject rather than just a background for figures. This was a precursor to the magnificent representations of nature in the works of Hiroshige and Hokusai.

Similarly, Gearhart's portrayals of the California landscape presented a reimagined representation of a pristine and untouched world. Witnessing the rapid development and changing scenery, Gearhart illustrated the West with lush greenery, minimizing or removing any trace of humanity's impact on the land. She rarely included figures in her compositions, hoping to preserve the serenity of an unexplored landscape. With influence from the Arts & Crafts movement, Gearhart featured strong linework in black or dark blue, outlining and emphasizing her compositions. She frequently incorporated paths, roads, or waterways, which brought a depth to her compositions that is not often seen in woodcuts. She could convey seasons changing through beautifully intricate details. With a mastery of color from her background in watercolor painting, Gearhart's use of color and light in her prints bring to life the dreamlike California landscape.

In 1919, Gearhart became a member of the Print Makers Society of California (PMSC), a partnership that would help to advance her knowledge and network. After working as an English teacher for many years, Gearhart was able to devote herself entirely to her art practice starting in 1923. She and her sisters, May and Edna, opened a gallery together. Gearhart's sisters were also talented artists and teachers. Over time, their involvement in the PMSC grew. The sisters' gallery became its headquarters and Frances took on the role of Secretary and Treasurer for the group. Frances Gearhart was able to establish a successful career, in not just a male-dominated profession, but during a time in which the overall work force was primarily made up of men.

Throughout her lifetime, Gearhart exhibited at over thirty venues nationally and received the 1933 Purchase Prize at the International Exhibition of Print Makers. She passed away in 1958 and was largely overlooked until the late 20th century. In 2009, the Pasadena Museum of California Art held a major Gearhart retrospective. Despite her extensive portfolio, Gearhart has not been sufficiently acclaimed for the mark she made on art history and there is still no catalogue raisonné for Gearhart. However, with a resurgence of interest in her work among private collectors and museums, Gearhart is finally beginning to receive greater recognition.

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