Frances Hammell Gearhart (1869-1958) was born in Sagetown (later Gladstone), Illinois, on January 4, 1869, the eldest of three children. Her sisters, May Gearhart (1872-1951) and Edna Gearhart (1879-1974), were also artists, but the work of Frances, particularly her color block prints of California landscapes is much more well known and sought after. She is considered a pioneer of color printmakers in the United States.
Her family moved to Pasadena, California in 1888 when her father bought a ranch close to town. Frances went to the California State Normal School (now UCLA), and upon graduation in 1891 she worked as an elementary school teacher. After getting an advanced degree from Berkeley in 1900, she was able to obtain a position as an English history teacher in the Los Angeles high school system where she remained until her retirement around 1922-23 at age 53 to devote herself full time to being an artist. Her sisters also were teachers in Los Angeles, but unlike Frances they taught art. May became Supervisor of Art for the Los Angeles City Schools from 1903-1939. Frances and her two sisters never married and continued to live together in Pasadena for the rest of their lives.
Frances Gearhart was largely a self-taught artist except for several summers between 1905-1910 when she studied with Charles H. Woodbury in Maine and Henry R. Poore in Connecticut. Initially she specialized in watercolors of California landscapes and in 1911 she had her first gallery exhibition in Los Angeles. She also had a number of other gallery shows in 1911-1914 which were favorably reviewed by Los Angeles art critics and she continued doing watercolors for many years. But this work is not what makes her stand out. Instead, between 1916 and 1919 she began to perfect her skills in the medium of color block prints, using both wood blocks and linoleum blocks. Of the two, she tended to favor linoleum blocks. Unlike etchings which are made from metal plates on which lines have been cut into the surface, block prints are cut in relief, that is the parts that are not to print are cut away using chisel and knife. Gearhart employed the exacting and difficult Japanese technique of color block printing that required the use of a separate carved block for different colors. She used oil paint as ink and applied the ink to the blocks with a mostly dry brush. After a print was rubbed off, the block was re-inked and another print made. After one color was applied this had to be done again with another block for the next color pattern. Gearhart also followed the Japanese style of using a key block that locked in the design and the borders, mostly black but sometimes blue. Because each print was manually run through a printing device separately for each color block and for the key block, each of the final prints of the same image, (she usually made at most 50) may be slightly different from each other.
In the late 1870s when trade with Japan opened up, Western artists were introduced to the works of Hokusai and Hiroshige, who composed color block prints of scenes of everyday life against backgrounds of famous Japanese landscapes. In the United States, the most influential writers and teachers of this new style of creating color block prints were Arthur Dow (1857-1922) on the East Coast and Pedro de Lemos (1882-1954) and Morley Fletcher (1866-1949) on the West Coast. Both of Frances Gearhart’s sisters studied with Dow though she apparently did not. Morley Fletcher, who had published an important book on woodblock printing in 1916 while in London, moved to Santa Barbara, California in 1923 and Frances is thought to have taken one summer class with him soon after his arrival.
Victoria Dailey in her essay accompanying the Cheney Cowles Museum’s 1990 exhibit “Frances H. Gearhart: California Block Prints” suggests that 1915 was a critical year for print artists in California. At that time Pedro de Lemos who had studied with Arthur Dow organized an exhibition of California printmaking at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco. This major art exhibition included a large number of Japanese prints as well as the work of Dow and other artists from the East Coast. But as Ms Dailey also points out in her recent essay "Frances Gearhart and the Development of Artistic Printmaking in California" (see below for reference) there were even earlier shows in California of Japanese color woodcuts that the Gearharts probably attended.
In 1919 Frances Gearhart joined the Print Makers Society of California (original name Print Makers of Los Angeles) and had seven of her color block prints shown at the Society’s annual exhibition. Well received by critics, from then on she was acknowledged as one of the most original and skilled color block print artists in the United States. In addition to other exhibits, Gearhart continued to show her work at the Society’s annual spring exhibition in Los Angeles until 1938. She also served as secretary and treasurer of the organization and edited its monthly newsletter for several years. In fact, her original studio at 18 West California Street in Pasadena became the headquarters for the Print Makers Society of California. It was soon after she developed her expertise in color block prints that Gearhart retired from teaching and opened an art gallery attached to her studio.
The annual show of the Print Makers Society of California, although always first displayed in Los Angeles, also traveled to the San Francisco Bay area each year so she became more well known throughout California. In addition, five of her prints were included in the California Society of Etchers' eighth annual exhibition in 1919 in San Francisco. In the early 1920's she spent part of the summers in the Monterey/Carmel area and her work was displayed in various shows there. In 1923 she and her sister, May, had a two-person exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The Smithsonian included examples of her work in exhibitions in 1924 and 1928. She served on the jury of the 1926 International Print Makers and some of her prints were displayed at an exhibition in Paris in 1928. The American Federation of Arts circulated a national exhibition of her block prints in 1930. In 1933 she received the Purchase Prize at the International Exhibition of Printmakers. Around that time she was also included in exhibitions of American color block prints at the Brooklyn Museum and at the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Unfortunately, owing to failing eyesight, she had to stop her printmaking around 1940.
Most of Gearhart’s prints depict dramatic landscapes of the Sierras, the Pacific Coast, and the area around Big Bear Lake in California where she had a vacation home. Her skillful layered compositions combining snow capped mountains, forests, and lakes in vivid and striking colors make her stand apart in the world of color block print artists. There is a depth to her compositions that is not often seen in woodcuts or linocuts. Gearhart captures each season in her prints as well as the transition between seasons, especially fall to winter and winter to spring. She liked to draw mountain crags with and without snow cover. In addition, she had an affinity for depicting sentinel trees and groves of eucalyptus, pines, oaks and Monterey cypress alongside ocean inlets and mountain lakes. At other times she turned to valleys and canyons using wonderful shading and earth colors to convey the beauty of this landscape. She also produced a small series of desert landscapes and a small series of floral images. Only a very few of her prints include human figures.
Gearhart obviously loved the California landscape. No other artist working in color block prints has ever done a better job of portraying both its serene and stark beauty. The images are finely drawn and striking, and the colors are vibrant. She not only renders the beauty of the landscape, but like any superior artist, she also interprets it. One can usually look at a Gearhart color block print over and over without ever getting tired of the image.
Currently, Frances Gearhart’s color block prints are in great demand, and her work can be found in the permanent collections of many museums, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Fine Art, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Johnson Museum of Arts at Cornell University, and the USC Fisher Gallery. Most recently a large exhibition of her color block prints was mounted at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (October 4, 2009-January 31, 2010). An excellent catalogue showing the prints on display at the exhibit and containing several scholarly essays was published by the museum and edited by Susan Futterman, who along with Roger Genser co-curated the exhibition.
Acton, David. (1990). A Spectrum of Innovative Color in American Printmaking, 1890-1960. Worcester, Mass: Worcester Art Museum; and New York: W.W. Norton.
Dailey, Victoria. (1990). Frances H. Gearhart: California Block Prints. Spokane, Washington. Cheney Cowles Museum.
Seaton, Elizabeth (Ed.) (2006). Paths to the Press: Printmaking and American Women Artists, 1910-1960. The Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas. Distributed by University of Washington Press.
Dailey, Victoria . Frances Gearhart and the Development of Artistic Printmaking in California, Pp 9-17, In Susan Futterman (ed)(2010), Behold the Day: The Color Block Prints of Frances Gearhart. Pasadena, Pasadena Museum of California Art.
Green, Nancy, E. Western Grandeur: The Art of Frances Gearhart, Pp 27-41, In Susan Futterman (ed) (2010), Behold the day: The Color Block Prints of Frances Gearhart. Pasadena. Pasadena Museum of California Art.