Object of the Week: Day into Night

In 1945, the first work by a Black American artist entered the Seattle Art Museum’s collection. The watercolor, by Blanche Morgan Losey (1912–1981), is titled Day into Night. First exhibited in the museum’s 31st Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists, the work was purchased from the artist with funds from the Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, and officially entered the collection on October 3, 1945.

Having lived in the Pacific Northwest for only three years, I will be the first to admit my deficiencies when it comes to knowing the breadth of the region’s 20th-century artists. However, I imagine I am not alone in knowing little about Losey. In the dominant narratives of American art history, the household names of Northwest artists such as Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, and Guy Anderson have been canonized at the expense of the region’s vibrant communities of women artists, Indigenous artists, and artists of color.

Born in Los Angeles but raised in Olympia and Tacoma, Losey studied architecture and interior design at the University of Washington.[1] After graduating in the 1930s, she turned to art while working at Seattle’s Frederick & Nelson department store, going on to hold the position of Senior Interior Designer from 1939 to 1977. As if that weren’t enough, she maintained a consistent studio practice––producing crisp, precise watercolors such as Day into Night––and worked on design projects for the Seattle Opera House and, later, the Seattle World’s Fair. She was an active member of many associations: the Women Painters of Washington, the Northwest Watercolor Society, and the National Association for Women Artists, to name only a few.

The geometric precision and realism evidenced in Losey’s work was influenced by the rise of Cubism, and––known as Precisionism––quickly became integral to American Modernism, and a visual analog for the industrializing cities of the United States. In this work, the view looks west onto the Grand Pacific Hotel, a historic building located just blocks south of SAM at 1115 1st Avenue.[2] Not only does this watercolor capture part of the city’s architectural history, but connects to another aspect of Losey’s civic engagement and prominence within Seattle’s Black artistic community.

During the Great Depression, the Works Project Administration funded the Federal Theater Project and its Negro Reperatory Company, for which Losey designed sets and costumes. While a few Black theater companies operated in other cities through the Federal Theater Project, it was Seattle’s unit, along with New York’s, that gained national recognition and acclaim. Originally conceived as temporary (mounting two productions in five months), the Negro Repertory Company continued on until the end of the Federal Theater Project in 1939. As noted by one critic who reviewed the 1937 production Androcles and the Lion, “better mention goes to Blanche Morgan [Losey], who design[ed] colorful scenery and effective costumes” for the play. Like her set designs, such as the set for One Third of a Nation (1938), Day into Night evokes a strong sense of time and place.

It is important to reflect on this milestone acquisition for many reasons, not least of all for what it tells us about SAM’s past and Seattle’s history. This acquisition is just one example of Dr. Fuller’s commitment to supporting Seattle artists, but, as the first acquisition by a Black artist, it is disappointing that it was made twelve years into the museum’s operations.

As museums across the country contend with the structural racism that has shaped their collections and organizations––SAM included––it is time to seriously reflect on the individuals and communities represented in these collections, and who is not. In the decades since acquiring Day into Night, SAM has certainly collected more artworks by Black artists, Indigenous artists, and artists of color, but that is just the beginning of the anti-racist work that needs to be done. Structural changes are rightly being demanded of our institutions, but the least we can do to begin this anti-racist work can start here: by researching, sharing, and acknowledging the stories of artists in our collection whose biographies and artistic practices have been occluded by insidious forms of racism and white supremacy.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

[1] The Blanche Morgan Drawings and Watercolors Collection is housed in the University of Washington’s Special Collections.

[2] The building was constructed in 1890 following the 1889 Seattle Fire. The hotel is a four-story building, constructed from brick and stone in a Richardsonian Romanesque style.

Images: Day into Night, ca. 1945, Blanche Morgan Losey, watercolor, 18 1/4 x 23 1/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 45.95 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. One-Third of a Nation, ca. 1938, Blanche Morgan Losey, ink and watercolor on paper

Object of the Week: Illumination from the Book of Kells

No celebration of Women’s (or Womxn’s, if you prefer) History Month would be complete without a mention of International Women’s Day, a holiday in March celebrated worldwide with roots in early 20-century Socialist demonstrations for increased visibility and support for female workers.[1] Although International Women’s Day 2019 has already passed, Theodora L. Harrison’s meticulous reproduction of a medieval illumination is a wonderful reminder of the value of artistic work created by women.

Harrison (born in Ireland in 1890) lived in Seattle for over 20 years and enjoyed a prolific career as an illustrator, watercolorist, local art gallery director, and president of the Women Painters of Washington association. Throughout her life, Harrison achieved international success as an illustrator, and championed diverse artists at the Little Gallery in the Fredrick and Nelson department store, right here in Seattle.

This illustration is a precise rendering of the Latin text “Tunc crucifixerant,” from folio 124r from the Book of Kells, one of the most famous illuminated manuscripts in Western European Medieval History, created sometime in the ninth century.[2] The original work is famed for its intensely detailed illustrations, featuring teeming organic forms which bring its religious text to life. These illustrations were incredibly labor intensive and show an undeniable level of devotion, labor, and skill. A millennia later, Harrison’s renderings demonstrate an equal level of devotion and exertion, though for a different cause. Her vibrant pigments sharply contrast with the blank white background, forcing the viewer to focus on minuscule details and dizzying intertwined forms, which she recreates deftly.

Her fantastic illustration, along with numerous other reproductions of medieval manuscripts, was sponsored as part of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) in an effort to instill public confidence in government-subsidized projects following the Great Depression. Along with changing public perception, this federally funded project also aimed to catalog and elevate the work of artists in the United States, showing a commitment to the social and economic value of artistic labor. Along with works of so-called fine art, this project also elevated other types of art production in the United States, including illustration and arts and crafts, which featured far more works by women.

Harrison’s valued contributions to the PWAP show an estimation of her time, effort, and skill as a female working artist. Her work in the Seattle Art Museum’s permanent collection help continues to celebrate her contributions to the artistic community in Seattle, and participate in the long legacy of hard work and dedication of women artists.

Siri Benn, Curatorial Intern

Image: Illumination from the Book of Kells, from the Series, Examples of Illumination and Heraldry, Federal Public works of Art Project, Region #16, Washington State, 1934 or 1935, Theodora Harrison, ink and watercolor on simulated vellum, sheet size: 7 3/4 x 10 3/4 in., Federal Public Works of Art Project, Region #16, Washington State, 2013.6.8 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

[1] “International Women’s Day History | International Women’s Day | The University of Chicago,”  https://iwd.uchicago.edu/page/international-womens-day-history#1909TheFirstNationalWoman’sDayintheUS

[2] “Book of Kells,” https://digitalcollections.tcd.ie/home/index.php?DRIS_ID=MS58_003v