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Frances Gearhart (1869-1958)

Art and the Aesthete
By Chet Baker
December 2009 blog

Frances Gearhart Frances Gearhart

I have come across a lot of Frances Gearhart works over the past decade, and I was always dazzled by the dizzying prices that her works fetched. I was clearly confused by what I considered to be work of varying degrees of ordinary matched by varying degrees of thousands. Over time and with research I have come to understand some of the magic that makes up her work, and also the skills that she developed as an artist. I am sure many American readers of this blog know her works, but for those outside of the USA, she is probably unknown.

Gearhart was born in Illinois but raised in Pasadena, California and it is California that was the source of much inspiration for her works. Gearhart trained as a teacher, and it is generally suggested that she was self-taught. It is possible that she was and it is also possible that she learned the technique of woodblock printing from the seminal Fletcher "Woodblock Printing by the Japanese Method". It is entirely possible that Gearhart knew Fletcher after he moved to California. The 20's were the peak period of Gearhart's productivity and her printworks were beautiful and she also dabbled in linocuts during this period. She was heavily active during the twenties and was a champion of printmaking in California as well as being a member of the Prairie Print Makers of which Norma Bassett Hall was a member. If this all seems very "Six Degrees of Fletcheration", well it is.

No doubt Gearhart also knew Bassett Hall, and it is probably that she knew Mabel Royds as well. Gearhart was instrumental in encouraging British proponents of the woodblock to exhibit works in California and also for them to join the Print Makers Society of California. No doubt Fletcher himself participated somewhat in this promotion, but Gearhart was certainly the leading light. By 1933, Gearhart's works were exhibited in her first solo performance, and in cemented her name as a star of the print.

Her works owe a lot to the refined Edwardian aesthetic of Frank Morley Fletcher, and his influence in her work is clear. Now, let me say I don't necessarily like all of the printworks that Gearhart created, and although she greatly contributed to the technique in the USA, some of her works lean towards the dull. A little of the hype surrounding Gearhart I think is more related to her contribution to public knowledge rather than necessarily being about her works. I think the strongest and most innovative aspect of Gearhart was her ability to depict spatial depth using multiple colour.

This is not to say that all her works have this depth, some of her images are rendered in flat one-dimensional, and I don't think this was intentional. The works that are vertically proportioned are probably my preferred pieces because they are more evocative of the Japanese style, and certainly a style mastered by Fletcher. Some of the horizontal depictions however, are the ones with the greatest sense of depth. Although she flattens out the lines and the planes, she does it purposefully but using the colours to create the sense of space. This is something much more reminscent of the Western approach to the process. Her visually complex images are ambitious and reflect the colours of California, and give us a visual feast.