Staniar hosts first in-person gallery event in over a year

“To See Color First” showcases work by American artist Louise Herreshoff Eaton

Catherine McKean

“To See Color First” opened in Staniar Gallery on Sept. 1, over a year after its intended exhibition in April 2020, and the art lecture on September 21 served as the first in-person gallery event since March 2020. 

Clover Archer, director of Staniar Gallery, expressed her excitement at having everyone gathered together again to take advantage of the gallery’s many opportunities.

“The mission of the gallery is to be a resource of pure enjoyment for students, faculty and the community as well as a teaching resource for the school,” Archer said. “There are so many different kinds of work that come through here, and we want faculty and staff to be inspired to use the contents of the gallery in their teachings.”

Patricia Hobbs, senior curator of art and history for the Department of University Collections of Art & History, and Tracy Bernabo, curator at Try-me Gallery, curated the exhibit as a comprehensive study of Louise Herreshoff Eaton’s watercolors.

This exhibit is unique because the displayed works come from the univerity’s permanent collection. Former university treasurer James W. Whitehead discovered Eaton’s paintings amongst the ceramics gifted to the university in 1967 that make up the Reeves Collection. 

Whitehead published “A Fragile Union” in 2003, a biography which popularized Eaton’s early life and marriage to Washington and Lee alumnus Euchlin Reeves. 

Whitehead consulted art historian William Gerdts about Eaton’s paintings after their discovery. Impressed by the talent he found, Gerdts featured Eaton in his 1990 book, “Art Across America,” where he called her a “leader of Post-Impressionism in America.” 

Despite this, Eaton’s work has largely escaped critical study until now.

Hobbs presented listeners with an introduction to Eaton’s life as a female artist of the late 19th to early 20th centuries, which Hobbs called “a time of change, not just in the arts, but in the world.” 

Hobbs went on to discuss the groups and places that influenced Eaton’s art, including the Providence Art Club and art colony that formed in Cape Ann, Massachusetts. 

Following Hobbs, Bernabo focused on Eaton’s transition from impressionism to modernism, catalyzed by Eaton’s stay in Paris and exposure to famous Fauves like Henri Matisse and Emilie Charmy.  

Bernabo described the Fauvist movement and how Eaton’s later work fits within it. 

“Fauvism is the freedom of brushwork and expression of creative impulses,” Bernabo said. “The artists seek to paint a reality that is ardently expressive and captures the ecstatic truth.”

When asked what they hope viewers gain from the exhibit, Archer and Hobbs reflected on the values of persistence, new perspectives and joy expressed through Eaton’s art.

“There’s something really lovely about the way that [Eaton] is revisiting the same subjects with the idea of looking at something in a new way, even if it is mundane, and then portraying it as something fresh and new,” Archer said.

“Just looking at the colors inspires,” said Hobbs. “Not all of [Eaton’s] paintings are great, but they are individually hers, and they are from her studio. Pure joy of painting and a different way of approaching thinking can be conferred to anybody.”  

Michelle Morgan, ’24, who plans on majoring in anthropology with a minor in art history, found herself intensely inspired by Eaton’s works.

“As someone who enjoys painting and writing poetry, I appreciate Eaton’s honest and pure simplification of the world around her,” Morgan said. “I’m inspired to embrace authenticity and be genuine in myself and everything I create, to celebrate the mess and disorder inherent in living and our world, to see the beauty in plein air as she did.”

When asked how “To See Color First” differs from the exhibits of last year, Michelle Morgan said that the posthumous exhibition focuses more on color and technique rather than content.

“[The exhibit] encourages the viewer to contemplate and absorb more from a painting than just the image itself – what is the feeling? What brings it to life?” Morgan said. “Eaton asks the viewer to consider the ever-changing fluidity and motion of life.”