'Fra Dana: American Impressionist in the Rockies,' by Valerie Hedquist and Sue Hart

"Fra Dana — American Impressionist in the Rockies," by Sue Hart and Valerie Hedquist.


"Fra Dana — American Impressionist in the Rockies"

University of Montana Press

Over the past century, the visual arts changed from appreciating art as skill to discovering how one sees and expresses oneself that is more fascinating. The realization being that while something can be interesting to look at, it may not have anything to say.

This new awareness can be traced to the emergence of French Impressionism in 1873, which was more readily accepted in the United States than in France. In fact, the first major collections of Impressionist paintings were acquired by Americans, whose thinking was more in keeping with the new, rather than Napoleonic battle scenes, Greek myths and scenes from ancient Rome.

By the early years of the 20th century, Impressionism had taken such a hold in the U.S. that many distinctive, regional varieties of it were in play — from Connecticut to California and Pennsylvania.

In Montana, there is evidence of Impressionist color applications in the paintings of C. M. Russell.

Another little-known Montana Impressionist of that time was Fra Dana. The new book, "Fra Dana — American Impressionist in the Rockies," by Valerie Hedquist and Sue Hart, tells her story.

Fra (pronounced "fray") was born in 1874 in Terre Haute, Ind., to Julia and John Broadwell. Julia, an independent-minded woman, divorced John while Fra was a toddler. She then married a man named James Dinwiddie, and the couple encouraged Fra to pursue her interests in art.

Fra's stepfather personally took her to the Cincinnati Art Academy, where she studied from the age of 15 to 18. Among her teachers was the renowned painter Joseph Henry Sharp.

James Dinwiddie died in 1874, the year Fra began her studies. The Dinwiddie family owned some land near Parkman, Wyo., which brought Fra, her half-sister and mother out west by stage coach in 1891. In 1893, the three of them moved and settled in Parkman, where Fra met Edwin L. Dana, a young man who was developing a working knowledge of the cattle business.

They were married on July 1, 1896, under an arrangement where Fra was permitted to continue studies at the Art Students' League in New York and in Europe.

Fra participated in managing the Dana ranch, located on Pass Creek below the Bighorn Mountains, which had additional ranch holdings near Cascade Montana. The ranch operations prospered to the extent that it was considered the largest purebred Hereford ranch in America.

The prosperity enabled Fra to travel, collect and express herself as a painter on her own terms.

In many ways, the story of Fra Dana could mirror an Annie Proulx novella set against the backdrop of Wyoming and Montana. One aches in thinking about a culturally aware, handsome woman who, living in a rural, isolated setting, is apparently content but yet ...

As she notes in her journal from September 28, 1911:

"New York, Glad, glad, glad. It's noisy. It's dirty. The people in the streets are horribly rude but I am happy to get back in the midst of life. Anything but the sage brush and jack rabbits. And it is a city where I have dreamed dreams."

Neil Jussila is a professor of art at Montana State University Billings.