Helen Maria Turner
(Louisville, Kentucky, 1858 - 1958, New Orleans, Louisiana)
For Helen Turner, a life in art was conducive to a long life. An active artist into her eighties, she died just months before her hundredth birthday. Her successful career path took her from the Deep South to New York and ultimately back to New Orleans, where she was a respected member of the art community.
Turner was the daughter of a prosperous coal merchant from Alexandria, Louisiana. Her father’s business was ruined in the aftermath of the Civil War, and her mother succumbed to a lingering illness in1865. Her father’s death in 1871 left Turner an orphan at age thirteen, and she was sent to live with an uncle in New Orleans. In 1895, seeking an independent life and a career, she moved to New York to study at the Art Students League, where she took lessons from Kenyon Cox (1856–1919) and the portrait painter Douglas Volk (1856–1935). Turner then enrolled in the Fine Arts Department of the Teachers College at Columbia University, and in 1902 was hired by the New York Y.W.C.A. as an art teacher.
Turner’s specific assignment in this position was “cast and life drawing, color, and costume drawing.” Apparently the garment industry offered jobs to women with these skills, and Turner wanted to prepare her students for practical employment not simply as sketch artists, but as fashion designers. She remained in this teaching position for seventeen years, retiring in 1919. (1)Her own works—many depicting women and girls in domestic environments—reflect her interest and expertise in depicting apparel and in devising poses for her models that accentuate their fashionable clothing.
Turner’s handling of paint has led to her categorization as an Impressionist: she applied distinct, independent brushstrokes in thick layers to achieve the effect of dappled, filtered light. She also responded strongly to the environment and residents of Cragsmoor, an artists’ colony in the Shawangunk Mountains, about eighty miles from New York. Painter Charles Courtney Curran (1861–1942), who had first visited in 1903 and found the natural beauty of the mountainous terrain appealing, invited Turner to Cragsmoor in 1906, and in 1910 she built a house and studio there. (2) She also designed a garden adjacent to the house, which she often used as the setting for her paintings. Between 1906 and 1941, Turner spent almost every summer at Cragsmoor, making many paintings in that hospitable environment.
Turner exhibited regularly in the early 1920s, and in 1921 became only the third woman to be named an academician of the National Academy of Design. Not long after, however, in 1926, she closed her New York studio and returned to New Orleans, where she continued painting portraits until her eyesight began to fail in the 1940s.
(1) 1. Lewis Hoyer Rabbage, Helen M. Turner, NA (1858–1958): A Retrospective Exhibition (Cragsmoor, NY: Cragsmoor Free Library, 1983), p. 5.
(2) Ibid., p. 6.
American Paintings from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 2006, cat. no. 36