“ONCE UPON A time in Washington, one woman’s brilliance with a brush brought art to the frontier.”
This was the introductory line in a December 1987 article in Washington: The Evergreen State Magazine.
The artist featured in the piece was Harriet Foster Beecher, who plied her brushes in Port Townsend and Seattle from 1881 to 1915.
The wife of Capt. Herbert Foote Beecher was a professionally trained landscape and portrait painter who began her career at the California School of Design (now the San Francisco Art Institute) with five years of study, beginning in 1875, when she was 21 years old.
At the institute, Hattie Foster distinguished herself by being the only student in its history to win both the Alvord gold medal for drawing and the Avery gold medal for painting.
She studied with the German portraitist Oscar Kunath and spent one winter in the 1880s in New York studying watercolor with master George Smillie and oil portraiture with Abbott Thayer.
She also received instruction in San Francisco from William Keith, known as the king of landscape painters.
After marrying Herbert in 1881 and moving to Seattle and later to Port Townsend, Hattie maintained her ties with the San Francisco art world and traveled there frequently between 1888 and 1913, painting or sketching the sights seen along the way in a collection of sketchbooks.
As soon as she arrived in Seattle, she opened what is thought to be the first art studio in the city in a small cottage on stilts, located on Commercial Street (now First Avenue South), with a back door that opened onto a beach where Native Americans often camped.
Hattie began giving lessons there to the wives and daughters of many of Seattle’s prominent citizens.
Although she was frustrated that “all were most interested in home beautification, which consisted chiefly in decorating furniture, mirrors and screens — with flowers, birds and butterflies,” she was pleased that “they are willing to study from nature.”
Several of her students achieved success as artists, including Emily Inez Denny, daughter of Seattle pioneers David and Louisa Boren Denny, who later wrote: “I received, in 1882, some sound advice from the artist, Mrs. Hattie Foster Beecher. Then I worked harder.”
Hattie also taught painting and sketching for a year at the Territorial University of Washington.
Their bulletin for 1882-83 announced: “Mrs. Harriet Foster Beecher, one of the most accomplished artists of the Northwest, has been engaged to give instruction in the Art Department.
“She gives instruction in painting, both in oil and water colors, in crayon work, free-hand drawing and sketching from nature.”
The cost was $12 per month, and the classes were extracurricular.
After giving birth to her first two children and moving to Port Townsend in 1883, Hattie remarked that “several years passed with no art progress.”
But she soon began to paint watercolors depicting physical features of the Olympic Peninsula and the beach camps of the Makah and S’Klallam people.
She felt that the natural world allowed her “to use color freely and affectionately, instead of scantily and intellectually.”
Her watercolors often exclude people, or suggest their presence with just a few brushstrokes.
A writer remarked that watercolors “display a fluidity of style and loose brushwork reminiscent of the impressionist movement.”
Soon after the Beechers built the studio extension on their Walker Street home, Hattie again began to instruct female students.
The June 28, 1891, Port Townsend Leader contained a lengthy article about an exhibition of portraits, pastels and painting by her 13 students in the new studio.
[Note: The date of this article indicates that the home was built and occupied a year or two earlier than the 1891 date, from the survey of historic homes, that was quoted in the earlier article on the Beechers.]
The reporter wrote: “… to say that all were highly creditable to pupils and teachers is faint praise. … Mrs. Beecher well may be proud of the work of her pupils … the praise it receives is reflected upon the teacher who has so ably assisted the young artists.”
The new studio is described as “especially well suited to the purpose for which it was planned.
“It is a long irregularly shaped room, perhaps fifty feet long and half as wide, describing a segment of a circle, with most of its windows on the north.
“On the inner side, near the wall, a winding stairway leads to an upper floor, and there are nooks and corners everywhere, in which pictures, casts and various art treasures are displayed to good advantage.
“The light is excellent, and the pictures have been placed so skillfully that none suffer materially from bad position.
“Sixty visitors had registered at the studio yesterday afternoon, but the largest attendance was in the evening when the room was brilliant with numerous incandescent lights, and the ruby glow from a lamp with a crimson shade hung in the winding stairway added a touch of fairyland to the beautiful scene.”
Among the exhibitors were Mollie Brooks, Hattie Brooks, Addie Willoughby, Sadie Downs and Grace Pitcher.
Two still life paintings of “Indian curios” by Mary Fletcher, Hattie Beecher’s mother, were also on display, as well as work by Harriet Foster Beecher herself.
A century later, in 1998, an exhibit mounted by the Jefferson County Historical Museum featured paintings by all of these same female artists.
In their own lifetime, Beecher and her pupils were honored by being invited to exhibit artwork at the 1892 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition.
Of 150 paintings on exhibit in the Washington pavilion, 36 were the works of Beecher and her pupils, chosen by Mrs. Samuel Slaughter, the superintendent of the fine arts exhibit for Washington, who remarked that “the fact is, the paintings of Mrs. Beecher, Miss Jones and others I have seen will be some of the rarest pieces in our state exhibit and I am proud of them and so ought Port Townsend to be.”
The Leader later reported: “Port Townsend will have an exhibit at the World’s Fair and to Mrs. Captain Beecher is due all the thanks in the matter.
“She has planned a wonderfully convenient water-color easel, whose table can be raised or lowered at will, tipped at any angle desired and reversed at pleasure.”
“A small material table, with drawer, brush rack and waterglass is conveniently arranged at each end of the easel,” it continued.
“The one she will exhibit is made with a brass stand turned out at the Port Townsend Nail Works and beautiful curly maple woodwork of wood grown in the Leland valley and prepared by the Hastings Lumber Company.”
By around 1904, the Beechers began living part of the time in Seattle, and Hattie turned more and more to portrait painting, creating portraits of many Washington state notables.
Her portraits were praised in the Washington magazine article as having “a precision about them that suggests the work of her contemporary John Singer Sargent. … She had an eye for the play of light across a lady’s gown, worked for hours to make skin tones just right.
“Even her most formal subjects had a soft edge, one that probably would not have come out in a photograph. … Her two renderings of [Washington pioneer] Ezra Meeker show discrete sides to the man — one, the wily adventurer and writer who would live to age 97; the other a more tired, bent shouldered gent.”
The Seattle art scene had become very active in the early 1900s.
The Society of Seattle Artists was formed in 1904, and Hattie Beecher was a charter member.
It became the Seattle Fine Arts Society, which later founded the Seattle Art Museum.
In 1906, artists from Port Townsend and Seattle organized an exhibit in the lobby of the Port Townsend Masonic Temple at the time of a women’s federation meeting in Port Townsend.
The May 10, 1906, Port Townsend Daily Call reported that “the visiting women from every section of the state showed great interest. … Mrs. Herbert F. Beecher showed a new portrait of her mother, Mrs. Mary Fletcher, which has not before been exhibited.”
A 1907 article in The Westerner, a Seattle monthly publication, included Hattie in sketches of “Western Women”: “Mrs. Herbert Beecher of Port Townsend is favorably known in the cities of the Pacific Coast as an artist of distinction. Her annual exhibits in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle are events in art circles, and her work is much appreciated.”
For the San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, Beecher was the only female among the five jurors for the Washington State Hall of Fine Arts, and she was one of few women artists serving on the exposition’s Advisory Committee for the West.
Her oil painting of Ezra Meeker was exhibited at this exposition, and much later, in 1989, four of her paintings were hung in the Washington governor’s mansion during the State Centennial celebration.
In 1987, the Museum of Science and Industry, in Seattle, included 12 of her paintings with 60 works by other “missing artists” in an exhibit titled “The Regional Painters of Puget Sound, 1870-1920: A Half-Century of Fidelity to Nature,” meant to reintroduce the works of painters who helped establish the Northwest’s fine arts tradition during the last half of the 19th century but were later overlooked as the attention of the art world shifted to such artists as Mark Tobey and Morris Graves.
In publicity for that exhibit, James R. Warren, the museum director, stated: “A century ago, Harriet Foster Beecher was the most talented artist living on Puget Sound.”
In her later years, she was described by a local art critic as “not only an artist of distinction, but also a charming, cultivated woman, who commands the admiration and affection of a large circle of friends and acquaintances not only in her home town [Port Townsend] but in Seattle, where she is so well known and appreciated.”
The Sept. 17 Back When column will tell the story of what became of the Port Townsend Beecher family members.
Linnea Patrick is a historian and retired Port Townsend Public Library director.
Her Jefferson County history column, Back When, appears on the third Sunday of each month, alternating with Alice Alexander’s Clallam County history column on the first Sunday of the month.
Patrick can be reached at lpatrick@ olympus.net. Her next column will appear Sept. 17.