ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 95 Esther Ruble Richardson
Esther Ruble Richardson of Lockport is a powerful argument against the well established theory that an energetic practitioner of the science of art education can’t hope to be a significant artist. Mrs. Richardson’s watercolors, fr4equently exhibited in various Chicago shows, are among the most sensitive being produced anywhere in America today.
And yet her record as art instructor, in theory and in practice, at the Joliet High School and Junior Colleges (4,800 students) in Joliet, Ill., whither she went as a pioneer in 1926 after a year of instructorship at the University of Chicago, is one of the phenomena in the art life of the Middle West.
Esther Richardson’s watercolors have none of the “labored” suggestion of the work of the professor of art. There are painters who take pupils into their studios and even painters who teach classes incidentally in art schools who manage to keep clear of the “professorial” in their own work. But with them, teaching is secondary — their intellects and their emotions expend the best that is in them on their own canvases.
Robert Henri, Charles W. Hawthorne, and Andre Lhote, who have been “educators” in dead earnest, are examples of men who would have painted better had they never been slaves to their classrooms.
Esther Ruble, a young schoolteacher from Kansas, having accumulated a little money teaching in Wichita, entered the University of Chicago with the intention of preparing herself for the writing of the Great American Novel. She had been successful selling to magazines poetry and short stories. She brought with her a year’s credits from the College of Emporia, Kan., and so she was accepted in an advanced course in the contemporary English novel.
Queerly enough, however, for the one course in English she signed up for two courses in art. Her mother was a painter and had encouraged the dabbling of her daughter from earliest girlhood, in the hopes that some day Esther might grow into a fame as artist that had been denied her, married in her middle ‘teens and the other of a big family.
In her two courses in art, Esther Ruble found herself spending four hours daily in the studios, quitting only when dusk got so deep it was impossible to work any longer. The evenings she devoted to her beloved novels — becoming, however, for some strange reason, less beloved.
Prof. W.G. Whitford, in the art education department, studied the girl teacher closely, and one day suggested (confessing he had no right to meddle) that she switch “majors,” making English a “minor.” Esther protested vigorously but finally succumbed to the suggestion.
Ultimately, she graduated in “art education,” the first in that department at the University of Chicago to be adorned with a Phi Beta Kappa key. The University found her a job in its “laboratory school,” teaching children “industrial art.” Only she offered them more — she stimulated them to express themselves through wood, clay, and paper, instead of merely learning set craft.
Then came the call to Joliet, where there “wasn’t any art” and where she was supposed to create a department. In the 13 years that have ensued, she not only has made the art departments of the high school and junior college patterns for national study, but she has been a leader in the establishment of the Joliet Artists League, now numbering 40 painters (besides the lay members), a very active force in the cultural life of the city. Last summer, the Joliet group exhibited in Chicago at the Drake Hotel.
Meanwhile she had married a Chicago neighbor, William Farrell Richardson, a Northwestern man from a pioneer Chicago family.
They took over a stone house, a century old, on a bluff overlooking the Des Plaines River, just out of Lockport, neighboring Joliet, and they call it Stonehaven Studio.
Mrs. Richardson, even in the early period of the founding of the art department in the Joliet schools, didn’t give up the ambitions fostered four hours daily in the art studios at the University of Chicago. She would be an artist — of note!
She came into Chicago weekly to the classes of Frederic M. Grant. She fell under the magic of Grant’s exotic still life setups — fine Oriental objects and exquisite and costly fabrics.
This continued for four years, and then Grant journeyed into the South Seas to see in their native surroundings the Oriental treasures he had so long collected and painted.
When he came back, Mrs. Richardson again eagerly enrolled, but not many weeks went by before she began to feel a sort of revulsion against all this exoticism. She confessed to Grant.
“Well, Esther,” he replied, “I’ve been wondering when you would wake up!”
He had sensed before she had that the Oriental was not basically in her nature.
So Mrs. Richardson went on her own. She had a sudden expansive feeling she was out of prison. She discarded oil paint that somehow seemed symbolic of her bondage, and began doing watercolors in broad sweeps — the old “wash drawings” of the 8th century masters before watercolor developed (or degenerated) into something meticulous. In violent reaction from Grant’s elaborate setups, she painted simple things around her — apples, table tumblers, a little potted palm.
These watercolors it is that have established the reputation as an artist of Esther Ruble Richardson in Chicago.
Her advent was amusing. About the period of A Century of Progress, there was a financial slump in Illinois so severe that even the State couldn’t pay its way, and teachers were paid in checks that couldn’t be cashed except by philanthropic banker souls willing to hold the paper until “better times.”
Mrs. Richardson had accumulated about $600 worth of these checks, and still had $10 in spendable money. Hearing of the open-air art fair in Grant Park, she and her husband loaded a lot of her watercolors into an automobile they had bought on payments (she was angry because the dealer wouldn’t take her school checks) and came over to Chicago and set up a booth in the Grant Park fair.
Her watercolors caught on with the visitors from the Loop who strolled the noon hour out there, and her sales were among the brisk ones that rolled up for the artists the astonishing total of $18,000. After the Grant Park fair, the pretty, demure Phi eta Kappa moved her wares in the “art colony” on the grounds of A Century of Progress, and luck moved wither. Though prices weren’t high, she paid for the car, paid up an accumulation of back bills, and had left her $600 in State checks that ultimately became real money.
In 1934, she had a picture accepted for the International Watercolor Show at the Art Institute, and felt giddily that she had “arrived.”
About the same period, she began to register with the active Hoosier outfit in Chicago who have the famous annual salon at Marshall Field’s and the year-round gallery on Wacker Drive. She qualified as a “Hoosier” by acquiring a summer studio cabin in Brown County at Beanblossom, still more “aristocratic” than Nashville. There, she still paints for a few weeks of summers. The Hoosier patrons have bought her pictures most generously.
The All-Illinois Society also took her up, along with others of the Joliet group. And in July an August of last summer, she was given a one-artist show at the Chicago Galleries Association. The Towertown Galleries also staged an exhibition, and some of her things have been shown informally at O’Brien’s and at Carson, Pirie, Scott’s. Malcolm Franklin, director at Carson’s, indeed sold for her her first picture through a Chicago gallery back in 1930.
Esther Ruble was born in the village of Nevada, Mo., in 1895. She is American for six generations back, both sides of the family. Remotely, she is of Scotch and English descent, with a little mixture of German. She grew up in Iola, Kan., and when college time came, entered Emporia. She had to quit after a year to make her own way. She taught four years in village schools and then got a job in the Wichita schools — her first professional “thrill” — after Wichita, the University of Chicago, as has been related, with her year of credits from Emporia College.
She hasn’t written the novel yet to top Gone with the Wind but with her dynamo energy, she hasn’t given up hope. She has recently written a book on art education, with refreshing slants, based on her own experience.
She still writes poetry. Not long ago, she produced a sonnet cycle commemorating the death a few months before or her mother, who had been her companion through all her up-and-coming years. At the same time, she painted a picture, “Spring in Arcady,” in which many beholders sensed a pleasing melancholy usually not associated in a painter’s mind with spring. It is of the texture of her sonnets, a pictorial tribute to her mother.
Stonehaven, the century-old house on the Des Plaines River, is her retreat from the schoolroom and from the confusion of modern city life. The flowers she paints are form her own garden. Her landscapes look up and down the river from her studio windows.