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Rediscovering the Most Famous American Artist You Never Heard Of

By BETH HARPAZ

Art historian Katherine Manthorne was researching American culture in the Reconstruction era when she kept coming across references to a 19th century artist she’d never heard of: Eliza Pratt Greatorex.

“To satisfy my growing curiosity, I eventually succumbed to her call, and began gathering references to her paintings and graphics, published reviews, and the occasional biographical tidbit,” said Manthorne, a professor at The Graduate Center, CUNY.

Her interest became an “obsession” that involved decades of research and travels across Europe and the U.S. in Greatorex’s footsteps. Now Manthorne has turned her “personal crusade” to unearth Greatorex’s legacy and life story into a compelling biography, Restless Enterprise: The Art and Life of Eliza Pratt Greatorex.

Greatorex “lived a life few of her female contemporaries could even imagine, doubling as a proper Victorian woman and precursor to feminists of the 1970s,” Manthorne said. She was an Irish immigrant and a widow with four children, but she managed to “become the most famous American woman artist of her day.”

As a landscape painter, Greatorex (pronounced grater-X) was a “recognized member of the Hudson River School.” She was elected by her male colleagues as the only woman in the National Academy of Design and exhibited at the Paris Salon, preceding Mary Cassatt as the first American female painter to establish an international reputation. She also founded art colonies in Colorado Springs and Cragsmoor, New York, and lived abroad for months and years at a time, including a year in North Africa.

Greatorex’s most distinctive work was as a graphic artist, including more than 100 pen-and-ink drawings of old churches and landmarks that were being torn down in New York’s post-Civil War building boom. The images were collected in an illustrated book, Old New York: From the Battery to Bloomingdale, with text by her sister. But Manthorne’s favorite work by Greatorex is Tullylark, Pettigo, Ireland, depicting her mother’s family home, “a moving expression of the sense of memory and loss that pervades much of her oeuvre.”

Why is Greatorex missing from the annals of art history? Manthorne says it’s partly her gender; partly because landscapes and representational art were eclipsed by impressionism and modernism; and partly because the tycoons who became tastemakers of the Gilded Age promoted “a narrow range of Euro-American artists” to the exclusion of all others.

What survives of Greatorex’s art is dispersed among private collectors, museums, and other institutions. Manthorne is hopeful that her book might “stimulate interest in organizing a comprehensive display of her work.”