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38.
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Helen M. Turner
(American, 1858 )
The Footbath (The Toilet)
1917
oil on canvas, 18" x 14 3/4"
Gift of Mrs. E. L. Tuohy

Helen Turner was born just prior to the Civil War, which wreaked havoc on her father’s prosperous Louisiana coal business, and led to the death of her oldest brother. The destruction of the family home and the death of her mother in 1865 precipitated Turner’s move to New Orleans with an uncle, who was resettling his own family there. Possibly inspired by her uncle’s own art aspirations, she first studied at the New Orleans Art Union in 188o. After teaching art at St. Mary’s Institute in Dallas, she moved to New York in 1895, where she studied and taught art at Teachers College, Columbia University, and later became a student of Kenyon Cox and Douglas Volk at the Art Students League. From 1902 to 1919 Turner supported herself in New York by teaching fashion illustration at the YWCA, and after 1907, she spent summers painting at Cragsmoor, a popular upstate New York art colony, where she eventually built a summer home.

Although she focused on landscape subjects early on and produced many commissioned portraits throughout her career, Turner’s chosen subject was women alone in intimate domestic settings, painted in a modified impressionist style. Like most American painters of the period who were influenced by French impressionists like Claude Monet, Turner did not fully adopt the style’s loose brushwork and sketchy forms. Instead, she combined the impressionist practice of building shapes and forms with strokes of pure color with a more realistic modeling of figures and spaces. Similar in subject and feeling to the paintings of the French post-impressionist Edouard Vuillard, Turner’s interior settings quietly distinguish themselves through qualities of soft dappled light, reposeful, intimate activity, and,especially in the case of The Footbath, patterning and overall texture. Turner’s attention to the details and textures of materials in the everyday domestic environments of women has led critics and historians to view her work as intrinsically feminine. Never married, she lived to the age of ninety-nine and thus had an uninterrupted career that spanned over seventy years.

Despite turn-of-the-century attitudes that persisted in defining women artists as mere hobbyists, Turner was one of a handful of women who achieved a measure of critical recognition in her own lifetime. She was only the third woman ever elected to the conservative National Academy of Design, and received the coveted and even more rare status of full Academician in 1921. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Phillips Collection, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art collected her work, and she was honored with a solo exhibition in 1926, which traveled to six cities. In 1949, the New Orleans Museum of Art organized a special exhibition of Turner’s work, but with the post-war focus on new modes of abstract painting, impressionist and post-impressionist works had fallen out of favor. Turner remained largely forgotten after her death in 1958, until a 1983 retrospective exhibition and catalogue at the Cragsmoor Free Library revived her reputation. Since that time the work of Helen Turner and many other women artists has been reevaluated by art historians, and their contributions to the richness of American art more fully accounted for.

 
 
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