CR Muse: Rebecca Salsbury James, Self-Made Woman

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

When searching for images of Rebecca Salsbury James’ work, one will find that it is much easier to find pictures of her than of what she made. Part of this is because not much of her early work survived; another part is because she was muse to not one, but two photographers of the early 20th century: Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, her first husband. But the person who cast the widest shadow in James‘ life was her close friend, Georgia O’Keeffe.

This is not to say that the two women were rivals. In fact, quite the opposite was true. O’Keeffe is said to have been the first to encourage James to paint. The pair even traveled to New Mexico for the first time together—a trip that would be influential to both of their lives and work. But in the male-centric art world of the early 20th century, there was little room for several women, and O’Keeffe dominated the light.

James was born in London to American parents in 1891. Her mother was a singer and her father was the manager of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. After the death of her father, the family moved to New York City. It is unclear what James’ artistic leanings were before she met Strand (she never received formal training), but after they married, she was thrust into a world of creatives who pulled her in.

James and O’Keeffe met through their husbands. Strand was the protégé of Stieglitz, and the couples became close. Whether or not Strand was inspired by Stieglitz, who often photographed O’Keeffe, he began to take photos of James. Eventually, both men had a series of photographs of her, ranging from stoic portraits to intimate nudes.

The painting style that James came to work in, and later become known for, is based in folk art. Her work may have looked simplistic, but its execution was quite difficult. She painted in reverse on glass, a folk art method that required her to “think in reverse” of a normal painter when it came to filling in her colors: highlights and details came first, and the background last. Looking at paintings like „Fire and Air“ or „White Hollyhocks and Polar Ice Gladiolas,“ one can see her technical skill—the way the paint is blended, one might never guess she was building in the opposite direction.

Unfortunately, critics were often dismissive, calling her work “decorative.” Stieglitz said her early work lacked “creative seeing.“ Although he eventually included her in shows, her pieces were relegated to the back, where they didn’t receive much attention. Like O’Keeffe, she found new energy in New Mexico. After divorcing Strand in 1933, she moved there permanently, continuing to paint.

James‘ legacy is not forgotten today. Though she does not bear the same name-recognition as O’Keeffe, she has carved out an important place in art history. Her work has even fetched beyond expectation when auctioned off at Christie’s. But her story begs the question: Who could she have become had men not dictated what was considered “valuable” art?

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createdAt:Mon, 14 Jan 2019 12:27:30 +0000
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