July 3, 2024

Frances Gearhart's Block Prints

         The Gearhart sisters lived together in Pasadena, California, where they never married and often collaborated.  The youngest, Edna, was a painter, poet, and author, while the middle sister, May, was most known for etchings.  But for this blog I’m focussed on the oldest sister, Frances (USA, 1869-1958) who did block prints.  Frances was largely self-taught, but she apparently took a summer class with Morley Fletcher and was influenced by her sisters, who studied with Arthur Wesley Dow.  She certainly was also influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and the exhibitions of Japanese block prints that were making a splash in the art world at the time.  You can see a little more about this background in a previous post that features another of Gearhart’s woodblock prints: Gearhart’s Sky.
        Although she made some black and white prints, Frances Gearhart became famous for her color wood block prints.  The vast majority of her pieces depict landscapes of California, which means there are certainly a lot of recurring themes: sky, mountains, ocean…  There are also some recurring themes in her composition, and I start with two common compositions.  One is a low horizon with a large sky and interesting clouds over the landscape.  Gearhart does beautiful skies, with bold clouds and subtle colors.  In the case of this first piece, the low landscape shows a meandering river leading to a lake or arm of the ocean between distant mountains which melt into the clouds and sky.  The colors are especially beautiful.
        The second piece is an example of another common motif: magnificent trees in front of a beautiful vista.  In this case we’re looking down to the sea.  You can see clearly in this one how Gearhart uses the Japanese style of painting watercolor ink onto her blocks in gradients.
        The third piece splits the compositional difference by adding a dramatic tree to the large-skied view across a bay.  This time the weather is overcast with rushing, busy clouds gathering.  The muted colors are masterfully selected to evoke incoming rain.
        Another characteristic of Gearhart’s work is that her landscapes don’t usually include people or even signs of people.  However, there are exceptions, and this fourth piece includes a very dramatic bridge.  The California landscape requires some spectacular engineering to make it accessible to humans, so in some sense the fact that Gearhart can show us all the other beautiful views implies the existence of roads and bridges to get her there.  Personally, I don’t usually like to include people in my landscapes, either, but I do love this bridge, which springs from the sides of the streams much like the trees that Gearhart loves.  The background is only faintly evoked, but the rocks and ripples of the foreground are much bolder.
        Next up is a mountain view which demonstrates another trick that Gearhart often uses.  The final, darkest block of the piece is not black but dark blue, which gives an interesting effect.  Also interesting in this piece is that the distant mountain is almost more detailed than the foreground, at least in terms of the number and complexity of colors.
        The final piece has a different color palette, warmer and higher-contrast.  The yellow sky and yellow greens combine with the very black shadows to look like afternoon of a hot, still day.
        Although Gearhart depicted California throughout the year, I’ve picked some images that seem very summery to me, and make me want to get out and take a hike!

[Pictures: This Joyous World, wood block print by Frances Gearhart, 1928;

Above the Sea, wood block print by Gearhart, ca. 1932;

Rain Tomorrow, wood block print by Gearhart, ca. 1930;

Below the Bridge, wood block print by Gearhart, 1920;

High Country, wood block print by Gearhart, ca. 1927;

A Shrine to Pan, wood block print by Gearhart, ca. 1930 (All images from Harold Leitenberg’s page on Frances Gearhart).]

1 comment:

MFH said...


I passed this post on to Michelle. She did serigraphs back in the '90s, but still has an interest in printing.