Manthorne, Katherine. Restless Enterprise: The Art and Life of Eliza Pratt Greatorex. University of California Press, 2021. ISBN 9780520355507, £27 (hardback). 352pp.
Art institutions and publishers are currently catering to substantial public interest in historical women artists, as manifested in recent exhibitions and biographies such as By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500–1800, Luisa Roldán, and My Dearest Heart: The Artist Mary Beale,1633–1699. Heavyweight publishers Phaidon Press and Thames & Hudson, to name but two, recently produced a number of encyclopaedic compendia, including Great Women Artists and A World History of Women Photographers. Elsewhere, Eiderdown Books entered the UK market in 2019 to publish pocket-sized Modern Women Artists monographs on pioneers ranging from Eileen Agar to Lee Miller. This art historical remediation continues into 2022 with Florine Stettheimer: A Biography and Mina Loy: Apology of Genius, and joining this exciting new canon is Katherine Manthorne’s recent biography on Irish-American artist Eliza Pratt Greatorex (1819–1897).
“Writing the lives of such forgotten women,” Manthorne explains in her introduction, “is like chasing shadows” (6). This is particularly the case because very little substantial information or ephemera survives on these early pioneers. Greatorex is an example of this. Despite her success and fame as an artist, only handfuls of her works survive and only smatterings of original sources—letters, newspaper articles, diaries, and the like—are available to researchers.
Notwithstanding such barriers, Manthorne “chases this shadow” to craft a robust and, at times, moving account of the life of this painter and etcher, strategically incorporating biographies of Greatorex’s contemporaries, many of whom were her associates, to create a composite portrait of a nineteenth-century ur-woman artist. Lilly Martin Spencer, Emily Osborn, Susan Fenimore Cooper, Julie Hart Beers, Martha Reed Mitchell, and Mary Louise Booth comprise the partial roster of women Manthorne employs to help frame Greatorex’s life and career.
This approach is successful in that it enables Manthorne to better infer the material, political, and sociological conditions under which Greatorex worked, allowing for a fuller and more layered account of her life and times. It also echoes the sororal and collectively produced books published under the artist’s name: her sister Matilda and her daughters Eleanor and Kathleen assisted with the drawing, design, lettering, captions, and selection of images in these publications. For Manthorne, this collaboration represents “a spirit of community and solidarity characteristic of female creativity” (4). Manthorne thus uses gender as a befitting support frame for her biographical and art historical plot lines and arguments, providing the narrative with its intellectual and, consequentially, its emotional through line.
Greatorex’s hard-won career brought her to out-of-the-way locations in Europe and North America to document landscapes, vernacular and religious architecture, and sites of urban destruction. Many of these subjects, as well as the artist’s nomadism, had their roots in her formative years in Ireland. For instance, Greatorex’s father, James Pratt, originally from Rathdowney, Laois, was a travelling Methodist minister who uprooted his wife and eight children frequently, setting up home as far south as Castlebar and Drogheda, but more frequently in villages along the Ulster border.
Greatorex was born in 1819 in Cloonclare, Leitrim, and she emigrated to America in 1848, where most of her siblings and father had settled after the 1842 death of Catherine Pratt, the matriarch (a native of Pettigo, Donegal), and possibly to escape the devastation of the Irish Famine. Within a year of her arrival in America, she was married to the composer-musician Henry Greatorex, who subsequently left her a single mother of four (one child from his first marriage) at the time of his death from yellow fever in 1858.
“Eliza and Henry Greatorex were a nineteenth-century power couple,” Manthorne writes, “mutually supporting each other’s work as they raised their family, attained career success, and socialized with leading figures of the day” (57). However, with Henry’s death, Eliza was forced to become a power widow, though she frequently relied on her siblings for support. “Drawing and painting had been her gift always,” her sister Matilda Pratt Despard wrote, “but not till adverse fortune and her early widowhood had forced her from the dearly loved retirement of domestic life, did she dream of making it her profession and the bread-winner of her four children” (57).
Greatorex began her career producing oil landscapes at the New York Sketch Club established by Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School movement. Though she painted in the style of said school, Ireland often replaced the Hudson River Valley as her subject, particularly her mother’s homeplace of Pettigo. Throughout her study, Manthorne persuasively suggests that home—both the private domestic homestead and the public urban city of New York—is the emotional heart of Greatorex’s life and art. In addition to Pettigo, other homes Greatorex depicted include Mount Vernon, the home of George and Martha Washington (and ergo the first “home” of the American republic), and numerous vernacular homesteads across Manhattan and overseas. Manthorne provides further support for her claim through detailed accounts of a number of episodes that challenged the artist’s sense of home, both personal and public. These included the murder of her son Thomas in 1881; frequent house moves and work trips abroad; and the destruction of Manhattan churches, hospitals, and Dutch homes by William “Boss” Tweed.
The New York Draft Riots of 1863, in which African Americans were attacked, displaced, and killed, deeply concerned Greatorex, who turned her creative attention to New York City as a symbol of war in both individual and collective experience. Substituting landscapes for cityscapes required Greatorex to replace her oil paints for pencil and ink—a more portable and immediate medium. The destruction of buildings, whether by city bosses or rioters, and Greatorex’s depiction of these vanishing spaces, also connected to the widespread devastation and division caused by the Civil War. However, despite these economic and militaristic contexts, Manthorne argues that in addition to the theme of home, Greatorex was keen to capture the subtext of women and their presence in society. Here Manthorne supports her argument by turning to the work itself. The artist’s first book project, Relics of Manhattan (1869), included illustrations of hospitals and churches, establishments where women played active roles. One caption, written by her sister, reads: “Here many of the devoted and efficient women, who served as nurses in the civil war, went through their preliminary training” (80).
Loss and history are adjacent themes, Manthorne argues, that Greatorex expressed in her images, as she traversed Manhattan, and then Oberamergau and Nuremberg, depicting city architecture and soon-to-be-demolished churches. Stepping away from her studio, her documentarian method—art by way of reconnaissance—foreshadows the work of later women artists such as photographer Berenice Abbott, who also turned the female gaze on New York. Like Abbott, Greatorex is a prime example of a flâneuse, and if her nostalgia for the past seems orthodox, her presence in urban public spaces was recusant, even if to twenty-first-century eyes Greatorex’s New York looks bucolic. Manthorne, again: “She was constantly wandering the city alone, traversing its busy thoroughfares and lingering in remote lanes. Taking possession of New York’s private homes and public thoroughfares through the act of drawing them was a form of emancipation” (180).
As with Old New York (1875), Greatorex experimented to find the best way to reproduce her work, often using the most up-to-date photographic technology available (in this instance, Heliotype). She also marketed her work with picture dealers such as Goupil & Co. (later M. Knoedler & Co.) to garner pre-sales to cover the cost of printing. The artist’s affection and respect for old New York was evidently immense. She did more than try and capture the twilight-hour likenesses of historical buildings; she rescued bricks, mortar, panelling, and iron objects from destruction and installed them in her studio, and she painted directly onto wooden debris from churches, creating what Manthorne calls “memory panels” (209). The Old North Dutch Church, the Fulton Street Meeting House (1876) is one such example. Manthorne uses works like to this support her argument that Greatorex “claimed”—literally, in this example—”the city for herself and her sex” (180).
It is surprising that Greatorex remains mostly forgotten today. She was a key member of the Etching Revival in the U.S. and a decorated academician, she played an important role organizing the women’s art exhibition at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exposition, and she was a close friend of the activist Susan B. Anthony and Harper’s Bazaar editor Mary Louise Booth. Her journey to becoming, in Manthorne’s words, “the leading woman artist of her historic moment” (5) was restless and enterprising, incorporating a number of media (oil, pen and ink, etching), forms (painting, books, prints), subjects (architecture, landscapes), partnerships (with artist-teachers, galleries, associations, publishers), communities (Irish diaspora, Washington D.C., New York, feminist, literary), and relationships (in particular with her daughters and sister). In this way, Greatorex carefully built a reputation that culminated in her 1869 election to the National Academy of Design (NAD). At the time, Greatorex was only the second woman artist to be elected to the academy.
In the present-day art world, where success for artists is often indicated by the price of a work, quantity of Instagram followers, or blue-chip gallery representation, it’s refreshing to be reminded, via Greatorex, of other values for a successful (albeit forgotten) career: collaboration, experimentation, travel, community, freedom, and independence. Restless Enterprise, and Eliza Pratt Greatorex, demonstrate how artistic autonomy itself makes a successful and rich career. While, like present-day artists, Greatorex was anxious about art sales and reproduction techniques, she was more interested pursuing new vistas and pushing boundaries than she was at being remembered in the future. Indeed, this might be one root of the difficulties of researching artists like Greatorex who, busy trying to make a living, did not have the time or resources to safeguard their legacies. Even so, with this publication, Manthorne has assembled a blueprint that enables us to appreciate the wider foundations of art history, which as a discipline should always be restless and enterprising, rather than inert and definitive.
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Straussman-Pflanzer, Eve, and Oliver Tostmann. By Her Hand: Artemisia Gentileschi and Women Artists in Italy, 1500-1800. Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 2021.
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