H.N. from Santa Barbara has an oil portrait of a dark lady in a dark hat, richly dressed, along with a wonderful story of a collection's survival. Over a series of years, H.N. purchased upwards of 20 semi-decaying portraits by Santa Barbara artist Antonia Greene, beginning with a few from the late Robert Livernois, followed by others after some were damaged in the 1992 floods.
H.N. doesn't know much about the artist — he welcomes any insight from local residents. His collection is dated mainly to the 1930s, and all seem to be executed locally. The images he owns are similar to the one you see pictured: portraits of women, full frontal, keeping both eyes on the viewer, in nice dress or at least wrapped in something fine.
H.N. says he has what he believes to be Antonia Greene's self-portrait; it's the only one signed twice — once in red and once in black oil. Interestingly, the other works in his collection are signed AJ Greene or A Greene. This does not surprise me as female artists were seldom thought of as collectible as male artists. H.N. thinks that the artist painted here in Santa Barbara from 1929 to 1957.
Born Antonia Joanna Clara Manruschat in Germany in 1881, the artist came to New York City in 1900 and Santa Barbara in 1929 with her American husband, Winfield Wardell Greene. A son, also Winfield, was born in 1919 and joined the U.S. Army during World War II at 20 years of age.
Delving into the archives at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum, H.N. found newspapers covering the 1930 opening of the Faulkner Memorial Gallery, where a piece, "The Ethiopian," by AJ Greene hung on the wall. She showed in 1931 and 1939; she was also featured in a one-woman event at the Montecito Country Club. I suspect that many of H.N.'s ladies were painted in advance of that show. A gallery sticker on the back gives the artist's address in the 2400 block of State Street.
H.N. writes that his interest in this unknown artist has grown along with his commitment over the years. Fate led him back to the Livernois collection after Robert passed away in 2013. H.N. purchased a few more of his ladies, which he has restored over the years.
H.N., putting a value on this portrait is difficult because you own most of the extant work and no records of sale were found. This is often the case when an undiscovered artist is discovered.
I can suggest a few facts of cultural history to influence your thoughts. H.N.'s collection shows female faces on the eve of WWII. This war changed the way women saw themselves, at home, as workers, as wives, as mothers, as warriors, as lovers — almost every face of female experience. Not only did the type of work change her experience of herself, but the intensity and volume of work increased. If the portraits in H.N.'s collection speak of a bygone "portrait of a lady," that's because the female face was interpreted differently after Rosie the Riveter.
Scholars use words like "evolutionary" when describing the "face of womanhood"; after December 7, 1941, that face changed. H.N.'s portrait shows refinement, confidence, serenity, distance and fine clothing — not to mention a hothouse corsage. Silk ribbons and a touch of lipstick float over a silk blouse and gabardine suit coat; it's the face of a woman well taken care of, with a non-aggressive, calm smile, a direct asexualized gaze.
Contrast this with WWII posters such as "Join Us (Women) in a Victory Job!," where several women are pictured in service uniforms. They smile a sexy, broad, white grin. And serve we did! Hundreds of thousands of women served in non-combat roles; nevertheless, 160,000 lost their lives to enemy fire. Women replaced men in the roundhouses, on the factory lines, in mechanical and munition trades requiring small, dexterous hands.
The silk and fine wool we see in H.N.'s portrait by 1943 would have been either scarce or rationed; a painted black line running up the leg would have replaced stockings.
How fascinating to see a collection of Santa Barbara women's faces pre-WWII. If H.N. were to mount a group show, the value of each portrait might increase as a narrative is built alongside the career and keen descriptive eye of this local 1930s artist, Antonia Greene. Email me if you have any further information on her.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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