“Fra Dana: American Impressionist in the Rockies” is a new contribution to the growing body of research on regional artists. An accomplished painter whose active period was brief, Fra Dana (1874-1948) has long deserved the attention that Valerie Hedquist and Sue Hart at last provide. Dana is unique in Northern Rockies art history and notable within the larger arena of overlooked American women artists who pre-date the era of Abstract Expressionism, when American art assumed a role of unprecedented international leadership.
Hart sets the stage by describing the social context in which Dana found herself. Here we learn much about the position and image of women with particular reference to ranch life. Readers will even find a recipe for Canadian meat pie, an inclusion that certainly sets this narrative apart from the usual artist’s biography. Hedquist describes the art world at the time, emphasizing the Cincinnati art scene where Dana received varied formal art training. Her associations with William Merritt Chase and Joseph Henry Sharp receive special notice.
The baton passes back to Hart, who examines Dana’s marriage and her time as a ranch wife. Using well-chosen quotes from Dana’s journals, both authors capture the duality of Dana’s allegiances and the slow-burning and often bitter realization of her sacrifice. If there is a theme that unites these two authors’ chapters, it is the conflicted nature of the life that Dana lived. In Dana, we see an individual who came to a part of the country known for and proud of its independent spirit only to find her own brand of independence shunned.
Hedquist provides fascinating insight regarding the published advice, study opportunities and travel amenities tailored to the turn-of-the-century aspiring female artist. Also included is a lengthy examination of Dana’s own collecting interests, among them her library, which makes one involuntarily turn to one’s own shelves and wonder what might be revealed about the life of the collector. She assesses Dana’s artistic achievement, although in this reader’s view she undersells a bit Dana’s abilities as a landscapist. Dana’s tepid response to the latest European trends in 20th-century art such as Fauvism and Cubism reinforces the fact that, as skilled a painter as she was, Dana did not break new ground stylistically. Still, one wishes she had found it in herself to paint more.
Hedquist and Hart have given us a thoughtful biography and a strong contribution to regional women’s history. The study reads like a kind of authorial tennis, with the authors passing the artist back and forth between them in a series of alternating chapters. The chapters align with each author’s strengths and reflect their different styles of writing. This approach results in some repetition of subject matter, which does serve to reinforce the aspects of Dana’s life that both authors deem most significant. Errors and inconsistencies in the editing are occasionally distracting but do not prevent this book from being a welcome addition to the body of knowledge about the life and achievements of a singular artist.
Robyn G. Peterson has been executive director at the Yellowstone Art Museum since 2006. Previously she held curatorial and administrative positions at Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, Calif., and at the Rockwell Museum in Corning, N.Y., where she pursued special interests in vintage photography, ecological art and the art of the American West.