Her name is Eleanor Douglas, an artist and she was my maternal grandmother’s aunt—my great-great- aunt. Allow me the honour of introducing you to a woman who is very dear to my heart, even though I never met her. In fact, she was born 90 years and 5 months before I was, and died just shy of 48 years before my birth. Of all my ancestors, I feel an affinity with Auntie Eleanor the most—strong enough, even, to suggest that, in some sort of unearthly continuum, perhaps, we just may have met after all and discovered that we have a great deal in common. She was a nature lover, often spending long hours canoeing or bicycling hours into the forest to draw and paint. I am not a pictorial artist myself; I’m a poet, instead, but I love the outdoors just as much—at least, I did until the “good boon” of age that was denied my auntie depleted my energy stores. Auntie Eleanor was a pianist and a violinist; I am also a musician—the double bass. She was known for her generous hospitality, as am I on the occasions people come over. Perhaps our greatest connection, however, comes over the importance of art in our lives. I was raised admiring the art of Auntie Eleanor; my grandmother had two of her larger canvases in her living room, and my mother owned a smaller painting, which now hangs in my own living room. And while I am only now, in my 54th year, beginning to distinguish myself in the world of art, she, in her 28th year had already begun to make, not just a name, but a series of names for herself in that venerable realm.
As an artist, Auntie Eleanor was known as “The Painter of Trees.” Her work was admired and “respected among local art societies as well as national exhibitions” in what is now known as Aurora, New York (Strong, no page). In fact, her paintings, as you can see below, display a powerful love and appreciation for the tree, both its form alone and its presence among others in a forest scene. As one critic said of her, “The striking characteristics of Miss Douglas’s work consist of the potency of its individuality and her remarkable portraits of the silent monarchs of the woods, whose voiceless stories few artists have been able to relate, either by pen or the master stroke of the brush” (qtd. in Strong, n.p.). Ironically, this comment was expressed by a man whose name was Forest Cheney.
But even though she “tramped the nearby woods every day to find the woodland scenes that were the subjects of most of her paintings” (Ingalls, n.p.), her skills as an artist didn’t end there. Indeed, Auntie Eleanor, at one point, was known as “America’s foremost woman landscape painter” (qtd. in Strong), and, while even I take exception to the sexist emphasis of her gender in this context, for the day in which she lived, praise for any woman—but especially such praise as this—was something to cause anyone’s eyebrows to rise in surprise and admiration. She had her first exhibition with the Ontario Society of Artists and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in Ontario, Canada. Later, after her move to the United States, she had exhibitions in New York with the Buffalo Society of Artists (Strong, n.p.).
To be clear and to emphasize her dedication to her art, subject matter for her was “close to home,” which included hikes or bike rides some thirty miles away (Strong). Impressive for a violinist, wouldn’t you say? She was as robust as any double-bass player I’ve ever met, and she made another name for herself for it: “Lover of the Woods” (Strong).
Apparently, however, while she loved to take daily jaunts into the wild, it wasn’t always necessary for her to do so, because she often camped out for days at a time living out of either a tent or a cabin, whichever was available. As a child she had lived in Port Elgin, Ontario, Canada on the Ojibway Indian Saugeen Reserve, and had learned many customs and skills that she likely used for such trips. She learned to ride horse, to use a canoe, to make moccasins, to string snowshoes and to use tree bark for a variety of survival strategies (Strong). All this while lugging her art supples with her. It’s not surprising, then, that she would come away with yet another title: “Lady of the Forest.”
She was evidently a friendly person, my Auntie Eleanor. As Mark Strong says of her, “Eleanor was well liked in her community and by her contemporaries.” He adds that in her East Aurora studio that she converted from an abandoned schoolhouse, she “created a home and gardens, welcoming friends and patrons into her vine covered studio with an open door policy. . . . Inside, her studio guest book included many signatures of notable people who enjoyed the hospitality of her warm cobblestone fireplace and the music of her piano or violin” (Strong). Indeed, so beloved was she by her Ojibway friends when she was a child, that she earned from them the moniker “Phpence,” a term of endearment that translates to “Laughing Girl.” What a delightful person she must have been. As I write, I am becoming aware of a sense of loss for not having known her.
She was born, Eleanor Maud May Douglass, the fourth child of William and Polly Douglass in Ontario in 1872 and moved to Chicago after a fire burned the farm where she had grown up, eventually finding a permanent residence in her studio in Aurora, New York on 48 Douglas Lane. Around 1900, right around the time that she became known for her pictorial art, Auntie Eleanor changed the spelling of her last name from Douglass to Douglas (minus one ‘s’). I know that my family frowned upon that change. My grandmother discussed it with me with a tone of great disdain, even bitterness. In fact, the phrase Douglass with two “S’s” was almost a motto with her when I was growing up. Historically, it is not clear why Auntie Eleanor changed the spelling of her name, but it seems out of character for her to do so out of contempt or defiance or any such thing. I suspect that it had something to do with the address of her studio on Douglas Lane. It could have been some sort of marketing ploy, I suppose, or it may have been a simple attempt to eschew obfuscation regarding her art. Whatever the reason, it’s of little consequence anymore. Auntie Eleanor died of heart failure at her mother’s home in Chicago in November of 1914, just four months after the beginning of World War 1, and, while her art continued to be praised and sought after for another few decades, she has since fallen into obscurity. I went to have my painting appraised in 2014 for insurance purposes and was told, essentially, “don’t bother.” Alas.
This is a woman whom I have admired since time out of mind, and now I’m told that she has passed away a second time. What is a person supposed to do with that? I know what I will do: I shall use my art of writing to spur enthusiasm back into a great artist. As the sonnet’s popularity died in the 18th century only to be revived again in the 19th century, so may it be with my auntie’s paintings. It may even be that this article in this magazine might breathe life back into the art of Eleanor Douglas, “Laughing Girl,” the “Painter of Trees,” the “Lady of the Forest,” “America’s foremost . . . landscape painter.” Even as the rotted trunk of a mighty fallen oak finally spawns new growth, so that mighty “Lover of the Woods” can also be resurrected and be brought back to the degree of fame and admiration she deserves.
Click on an image for the slides.
Ingalls, Ethel L. “Douglass, Eleanor.”
Strong, Mark. “Eleanor Douglas.” Meibohm Fine Arts.
Additional sources pending.
A. J. Mittendorf does not have a specific degree in art, but he does have equivalent credits in art history, art appreciation and art interpretation, not to mention his continued study on his own for more than two decades. His Master’s degree is in Literature and his undergraduate degree is in English Education.
As an educator, A. J. enjoys writing for Art, Artists, Artwork because he can use his educational background and skills in the field of art that he loves so very well. A. J. also hosts a weekly literary podcast about poetry, and has a series of videos in which he recites poetry: his own and others.
He has taught English to high school and university students in both the United States and Canada. He has two collections of poetry on the market: Carnival of the Animals and From Both Sides of Creation: Poems of A. J. Mittendorf. Three of his short, non-fiction stories have been aired on the national Canadian radio show, The Vinyl Café with Stuart McLean. Two more have since been accepted. He is also working on his third collection of poetry and his first novel.
As a musician, A. J. obtained the position of principal double bass in the Prince George Symphony Orchestra in 2008, and held it until 2011 when he moved from Prince George to be nearer his family. He still plays his bass and has arranged music of Modest Mussorgsky for double bass ensemble that world-renown bassist, Gary Karr, played with his students at the Victoria Summer Music Festival in Victoria, B. C., Canada in 2015.