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Frances Hammell Gearhart’s Colorful Prints

by Jessica Jokhi,
Cataloguer

 

Frances Hammell Gearhart was one of the most important printmakers in Southern California at the beginning of the twentieth century. Known for her bold and colorful block prints of American landscapes, Gearhart especially loved depicting the coasts and mountains of California. Her work has been called a “vibrant celebration of the western landscape.” On Wednesday, March 2, 2022, Toomey & Co. Auctioneers offered three Gearhart prints in its Fine Art + Furniture & Decorative Arts sale. Click here to view other Gearhart prints sold in recent years at Toomey & Co.  

 

Frances Hammell Gearhart (American, 1869-1958)
Morning on the Elkhorn, circa 1930
color woodblock, signed and titled in pencil lower margin, 8 1/2″ x 10 3/16″
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers, Fine Art + Furniture & Decorative Arts, March 2, 2022, Lot 611
Estimate $3,000-5,000
Sold for $5,312

Stream in a California Landscape, watercolor on paper, by Frances Hammell Gearhart. (Photo courtesy of John Moran Auctioneers)

An Illinois Artist in California

 

Born on January 4, 1869, in Sagetown, Illinois, Frances Gearhart moved with her family to Pasadena at the age of 19 in search of “the California dream.” 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 her watercolors. After seeing her work, Antony Anderson, a critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that she is enamored of color — that she loses her head, so to speak — under the impact of its many beauties — and that she is really a colorist who has not yet found herself.”

In 1916, Gearhart transitioned to color block printing, which had become a popular medium in California, and remained dedicated to it for the rest of her life. It was through this medium that she was able to fully express herself as an artist.

The Influence of Japanese Art and Ukiyo-e

 

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.

Hakone; Kosui, circa(Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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. It was this concept that was a precursor to the magnificent representations of nature in the works of Hiroshige and Hokusai.

Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura), a.k.a., The Great Wave, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei), circa(Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Similarly, Gearhart’s portrayals of the California landscape presented a reimagined representation of a pristine and untouched world. Overlooking 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.

Frances Hammell Gearhart (American, 1869-1958)
Fish Market, circa 1930
color woodcut, signed and titled in pencil lower margin, 11 1/8″ x 9 1/16″
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers, Fine Art + Furniture & Decorative Arts, March 2, 2022, Lot 612
Estimate $3,000-5,000
Sold for $4,687

Arts & Crafts Printmaking

 

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 bring to life the atmosphere of the California landscape. Her vivid colors and bold linework are what make her prints stand out among other woodcuts. Gearhart’s idyllic interpretation of the landscape, along with that of other artists, inspired so many to pursue the dream of living in California.

Frances Hammell Gearhart (American, 1869-1958)
In the Sun, circa 1930
color woodcut, signed and titled in pencil lower margin, 9″ x 8 3/4″
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers, Fine Art + Furniture & Decorative Arts, June 9, 2021, Lot 486
Estimate $3,000-5,000
Sold for $10,000

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 leave teaching in 1923 to devote herself entirely to her art practice. 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 where the work force was dominated by men as well.

Frances Hammell Gearhart (American, 1869-1958)
Untitled (Landscape)
color woodblock, signed in pencil lower margin, 6 1/2″ x 4 1/16″
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers, Fine Art + Furniture & Decorative Arts, March 2, 2022, Lot 610
Estimate $2,000-3,000
Sold for $3,770

 

Artistic Legacy of Frances Hammell Gearhart

 

Frances Gearhart exhibited at over 30 venues nationally throughout her lifetime, receiving various awards including the 1933 Purchase Prize at the International Exhibition of Print Makers. Despite her extensive and prolific portfolio, she has not received the proper acclaim and place in art history. There is still no catalogue raisonné of Gearhart’s work and only a few exhibitions of her prints have taken place in the past 20 years. However, with a resurgence of interest in her work among private collectors, museums and auctions, Gearhart is finally beginning to receive the recognition she deserves, with her color block prints currently in great demand. Gearhart’s exceptional portfolio warrants acknowledgment for its beauty but also for the deeper understanding she brought to a setting that she loved.

Frances Hammell Gearhart (American, 1869-1958)
Valley Ramparts, circa 1932
color linocut, signed and titled in pencil, 10 1/8″ x 12″
Toomey & Co. Auctioneers, Art & Design, December 6, 2020, Lot 166
Estimate $3,000-5,000
Sold for $8,125