Helen Mary Knowlton (1832-1896)
One of the few professional female artists of the Nineteenth Century, portrait and landscape painter, teacher and writer Helen Knowlton was born in Littleton, Massachusetts in 1832. Knowlton grew up in Worcester, MA, where her father published a newspaper, the Worcester Palladium. She went to Boston in the early 1860s to study painting and established a studio on Tremont Street in 1867. She was one of a small group of women who asked William Morris Hunt to lead a class for them in 1868 at his Summer Street studio. After three years of study with Hunt, Knowlton, Hunt’s protégée, was placed in charge of the class, freeing her teacher to concentrate on his own work. She continued to teach the class until 1875. In that year she wrote a book on her teacher’s instructional methods based upon notes she had taken while in Hunt’s classes, entitled “Talks on Art” published in 1879. Another of Knowlton’s books, Hints for Pupils in Drawing and Painting, was illustrated with charcoal drawings by Hunt. She, like her mentor, lost many of her paintings in the great Boston Fire of 1872. In 1877 Hunt established a summer studio in Magnolia, Massachusetts on Cape Ann to which he welcomed his students. The result was a short-lived, but productive artists’ colony of which it was said, “If William Morris Hunt was the magnet attracting artists to Magnolia, then Helen Mary Knowlton was the glue that held the art colony together.” Knowlton built her own residence, the “Nautilus,” and spent summers there until 1884, establishing a following of her own students in painting and drawing. In that year she moved to Dublin, New Hampshire and continued to conduct her sketching classes. Following Hunt’s death in 1879, Knowlton helped in arranging a memorial exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In the 1880s she studied with Frank Duveneck in Munich and began to turn her attention to portrait painting. As an artist, Knowlton is best remembered for her landscapes in the manner of the Barbizon school, following Hunt, as well as for her sensitive portraiture. She also produced many charcoal sketches. Knowlton was also active as an art critic for the Boston Post from 1879 to 1892. In the Boston City directory of 1890 she is listed as “artist” with a studio in the Harcourt Building, Oxford Terrace. She was a member of the Copley Society, and exhibited regularly at the Boston Art Club; the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the National Academy of Design; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; the Art Institute of Chicago; and many Boston area galleries. Continuing to write, teach and paint, she moved to Needham Mass. to live with two unmarried sisters. Together they continued to publish their father’s newspaper for several years after his death. In 1899 she published “The Art-Life of William Morris Hunt”. She died in Needham in 1918. Knowlton’s works are included among the collections of: the museum at Colby College; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Telfair Museum of Art.
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