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Song of Summer, circa 1915
Helen Turner (1858-1958)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
30 x 40 inches
Signature Details: Helen Turner
Status: The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, but raised in New Orleans, Helen Turner began painting around 1880, when the New Orleans Art Union was formed. In 1895 she moved to New York City and enrolled at the Art Students League. She also studied at the Design School for Women at Cooper Union, and privately with William Merritt Chase. From 1902 through 1919 Turner taught life and costume drawing at the Y.W.C.A., and exhibited impressionistic landscapes and figurative works in the local museums and galleries. In 1906 she made her first appearance at the National Academy of Design. From that point through the 1920s the list of exhibitions in which she participated grew to include most of the major juried museum annuals across the country, and her work was avidly collected (Rabbage, p. 5). During this period of success, Turner maintained two studios, one in the city, and the other at Cragsmoor, New York, a summer art colony in the Shawangunk Mountains. There she built a modest house, “Takusan,” and surrounded it with gardens. The sunlit scenes she painted at Cragsmoor are considered her best work.    

This painting, with its textured surface and dappled light, is typical of Turner’s adaptation of the impressionist style, characterized in 1927 as “luminist, with fine resources of color and handling” (Mather, p. 173). The girl, dressed in white and posed before a glowing tapestry of foliage, is Dorothea Storey, an art student who modeled for Charles Courtney Curran as well as Turner. She also appears in Dorothea Knitting (1914; private collection), Girl with Lantern (1914; Greenville County Museum of Art), and two small oil studies of 1913, The Guitar and After the Concert, both featuring a guitar as an accessory feature.

Turner’s paintings of women in floral environments coincide with her move to Cragsmoor in 1906. Gardening was a serious pastime among the summer residents, and the artist developed a passion for it. Turner’s garden climbed in rock-bordered terraces behind the porch of the house she built in 1910. She filled the beds with masses of peonies and delphiniums and phlox, which together formed a brilliant blur in the backgrounds of many of her outdoor scenes (Hill, p. 133).  The intimate style and leisurely pace of life in Cragsmoor can be sensed in paintings like Song of Summer. The sunlight filtered through the leafy green foliage and the contemplative mood of the musician breathe tranquility, and draws the viewer into the velvety warmth of a mid-summer day. Nancy Rivard Shaw

The artist; by bequest to Mr. and Mrs. William Stone Leake, Sr.; Dr. James W. Nelson, Gonzales, Louisiana; private collection, Greenville, South Carolina.

Exhibition of Paintings by Emil Carlsen, Helen M. Turner, and Daniel Garber, Macbeth Gallery, New York, January 19-February 1, 1916, no. 8.

Second Annual Exhibition of Selected Paintings by American Artists, The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan, May 4-June 4, 1916, no. 89.

Annual Summer Exhibition of Selected Paintings by American Artists, The Toledo Museum, Toledo, Ohio, June-August, 1916, no. 169.

Paintings by American Artists, Syracuse Museum of Fine Art, Syracuse, New York, November 1-December 1, 1916, no. 5.

Landscapes and Figures by Miss Helen M. Turner, City Club of New York, March 15–April 1, 1917.

Paintings by Helen M. Turner, Rehn Gallery, New York, February 1920; Boston Art Club, 1920. 

Paintings by Contemporary American Artists, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts, February 29-March 21, 1920, no. 43.

Helen M. Turner, N.A.: A Retrospective Exhibition, E.L. Henry House, Cragmoor, New York, July 2-17, 1983, no. 55, ill. Traveled to the Akron Art Museum, Ohio; Jersey City Museum, New Jersey; and the Owensboro Museum of Fine Arts, Owensboro, Kentucky.

Rabbage, Lewis Hoyer. Helen M. Turner, N.A: A Retrospective Exhibition. Cragsmoor, New York: Cragsmoor Free Library, 1983, no. 55, ill.    

Hill, May Brawley. Grandmother’s Garden: The Old-Fashioned American Garden, 1865-1915. New York: Abrams, 1995.

Mather, Frank Jewett, Jr., “Recent Visionaries-The Modernists,“ in The American Spirit in Art. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1927.

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This essay is copyrighted by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission.

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