M. Elizabeth Price, AKA Mary Elizabeth Price, was a prominent American painter in the early twentieth century. And yet I hadn’t heard of her, nor do I remember ever seeing her work until I stumbled upon her Flower Border II (undated) quite by accident on the internet a few weeks ago. The work struck me for its unusual marriage of styles—Arts and Crafts meets Impressionism meets Byzantium—and I was stuck, upon doing research into her life and career, that she is not a household name but is instead relegated to relative obscurity.
Price was born into a Quaker family in West Virginia and later moved to the Philadelphia area. She was educated at the prominent Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) and later worked and taught in New York. Her work was exhibited at some of the country’s most prominent museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Corcoran Gallery. She was also a member of the Philadelphia Ten, a group of women artists who exhibited their work together in Philadelphia and around the East Coast.
Okay, so Price is—and was—not obscure. But still, she is not one of the more common names you hear in discussions of American art or Impressionist art or women artists. But I think it should be.
Take that lovely detail I stumbled on the other day: Delicate, brittle-looking flowers stand out in brilliant colors against a gold background. The details are fantastic, with each leaf and flower petal given a distinct personality, a unique role in this symphony of flowers. And yet in spite of (or perhaps because of) their individuality, the flowers also convey a wholeness. Taking in the whole, we can imagine that this is part of a scene from the larger context of a garden or meadow. The ethereal gold background complicates and enhances all of this, for wherever we imagine these flowers to be—a back yard, a meadow, a city park—the gold contradicts that, instead suggesting the otherworldly. (See most of Early Christian and Byzantine art.) Price connects the dots for us. Flowers are natural but often so beautiful that it is easy to forget their practical function. They can seem like a magical gift from beyond. And so Price visually brings together the two worlds, reminding us of the splendor of the natural world while also reminding us, perhaps, that the spiritual is in fact all around us, tangible in our own lives, rather than in some fantastical “heavenly realm.”
Other of Price’s paintings, such as Picking Flowers (1916), are delightful examples of her more straightforwardly Impressionist work. In contrast to the more abstract subject matter in Flower Border II, this scene here is utterly specific. We can imagine turning down a lane and seeing this quiet, unassuming scene of a young girl and a pair of chickens. Like the Impressionists before her, Price creates magic in the sense that she has captured a precise moment in time. It’s like we’ve traveled back in time and are seeing a real scene, which is thus suffused with a certain sense wonder. This painting is equal parts eerie and lovely. Not unlike Flower Border II, there’s a slightly uneasy but captivating marriage of the earthly and the spiritual, the mundane and the profound, the fleeting and the permanent.
Was Price alone in her ability to do this? In her interest in doing this? Of course not. But she’s every bit as good at doing this as other artists who earned greater fame. She is not just a “woman artist”—I hate to put qualifiers on people—but an artist. Full stop. Still, I can’t help but think that the fact that she was a woman working in the first half of the twentieth century had something to do with the fact that she didn’t make it in to my college textbooks. So here’s my small attempt at bringing her work to wider acclaim.