The wanderer, a portrait of Abby Williams Hill
The collected work of this pilgrim with a paintbrush was remarkably intact when her descendants gave it to Puget Sound. Now many of her canvases have been restored and are on display for the first time in decades.
By Ronald Fields
In July 1895, aspiring painter Abby Hill joined a 26-day camping expedition to Mt. Rainier. She was new to the wilderness, and her inexperience quickly showed. On the first night her tent collapsed twice. Her knee-length skirt and leggings required some “getting used to,” she said. More knowledgable hikers in the group had to fit her shoes with cork for comfort and hobnails for grip. But Hill was not put off, writing in her daybook after a particularly bitter night: “All were ready to go home in the morning but me. I felt I could endure much for a few days of such grandeur.” And stay she did. Abby Hill had in the vast and varied landscape of the American West at last found the place where she thought she belonged.
Abby Rhoda Williams Hill was the second daughter of a cabinetmaker who had, in 1855, joined Josiah Grinnell’s pioneer community in Iowa. She was reared in an austere Christian atmosphere, which may have contributed to her uncommon confidence, her extraordinary independence and her admiration for the natural world (its rugged and dramatic aspects in particular) as the benign handiwork, even presence, of God.
As a young woman, Hill acquired as good an education in art as was available to any woman of her era in America. Her earliest training, conventional for young women, was in botanical watercolors. At age 19 she left her home in Grinnell to study in Chicago at the school that was to become the Chicago Art Institute. Dissatisfied with the living arrangements made by her parents, she took residence with a Lutheran minister’s family, where she gained fluency in German. Four years later, she taught painting at Bertier-en-Haut, a small finishing school for girls in Quebec, where she learned French. In the late 1880s, she enrolled in the Art Student’s League in New York, where she studied with William Merritt Chase, a celebrated painter and former director of the league, and the most distinguished teacher of the period. She was later to study at the Corcoran (records indicate she made a marvelous copy of Bierstadt’s Mt. Corcoran, hanging in the Corcoran gallery) and a year in Hamburg with the illustrator Hermann Hasse. Hill was entirely self-supported in all these efforts to gain the education and skills needed to pursue her career as an artist.
As she was finishing her work at the League, she married Dr. Frank Hill and in 1889 they moved to Tacoma, the same year that Washington Territory became the 42nd state in the Union. In Eastern newspapers the region and the city had been extravagantly advertised: “Famed throughout the world for beauty of situation and environment, unsurpassed mountain scenery, greatest timber belt in the world.” Hill had longed to see snow-capped mountains; as a child on the prairie, she had often imagined the cloud formations as mountain peaks.
But she was not to enjoy the scenic grandeur of the Northwest immediately. In November, her only child, Romayne, was born with partial paralysis. For six years, all her attention was directed to his care. Only when she felt she could safely leave him in the care of others did she indulge her personal interest in Northwest scenery and take the 1895 trip to Rainier. She stayed at the mountain for nearly a month, setting the pattern for the rest of her life. As soon as she returned to Tacoma, she joined another group headed for a camping excursion on Hood Canal. Hiking into the area of what is now the Olympic National Forest, she reported, “It is thought no woman has ventured as far as I did today.”
Europe was next on the Hills’ agenda. Leaving their son in Iowa with relatives, Dr. Hill did medical research for a year in Hamburg, followed by another year meandering through central Europe on a tandem bicycle.
When they returned to Tacoma, Hill decided that her son would not succeed in public school and, acknowledging that he needed the company of other children, she determined to solve both issues by adopting three little girls as companions and educating the lot by herself. (Later, when they applied for college admission, the only subject lacking in their preparation was mathematics.) Her first classroom was a campsite she established in 1899 near the southern tip of Vashon Island; later she bought a small house and had it moved to the beach. Hill came to town only on important social occasions and Dr. Hill joined the family on weekends when he was not on call; he did not share the family’s enthusiasm for camp life.
It was an ideal situation for Hill and her children, although she came in for a good deal of criticism from her social peers in Tacoma for the negligence of her own attire and, in particular, the clothing of her girls. Hill was emphatic when it came to matters of dress:
I am not at home in the world of fashion, and I cannot reconcile myself to spending on the stylish at the expense of the practical and good. I should like to wear cloth like men do, made simply and of styles that change but little. I should like to wear it until it is worn out and that is considered mannish. I am utterly spoiled by my ideas about dress. People are ashamed of my looks when I have on a gown of the best material, fitting well, well made but dating two or three years back.
“I was cut out,” she proclaimed, “for the wilds,” and in the summer of 1902, she took her trio of pre-teens to the untamed wilderness of King’s River Canyon in California, followed by a lengthy stay on the Columbia River, ending with a camping excursion at Trout Lake in southwestern Washington. Bears, cougars, rattlesnakes, range-free cattle herds, swarms of yellow jackets, forest fires, all were taken in stride. Importantly, the paintings produced at these locations were the impetus for her contracts with the railway companies.
In 1903 Hill heard that railway companies were hiring artists to advertise landscape scenery for the purpose of attracting tourists, so she took a number of the works from the previous summer to the Great Northern agent in Seattle and secured a commission. Money, however, didn’t change hands. The contract permitted the Great Northern use of the canvases to advertise, at the St. Louis World’s Fair, the beauty of the Northwest scenery along its lines. In return, she received four 1,000-mile tickets and repossession of the canvases after the exhibition.
Hill was given general directives as to subject but was apparently allowed to use her discretion for specific views. Some destinations proved fruitless because of the smoke from forest fires—the Monte Cristo Mountains in Washington and the Coeur d’Alene and Pend Orielle lakes in Idaho. But she was able to work in the Cascades at Leavenworth, on Lake Chelan and in the mountains above Lake Chelan. She completed 20 canvases in 18 weeks.
Exhibited in the Masonic Lodge and the city library in Tacoma before they were shipped to St. Louis, the extravagant praise in the local papers brought the works to the attention of agents of the Northern Pacific Railway Company. With a similarly negotiated contract, Hill secured her second commission, in 1904, for landscapes in Idaho and Montana, but chiefly the scenery around Mt. Rainier. These were to be exhibited at the Lewis and Clark Exposition the following year. Again, camping with her children, she completed these works in time to take them to the St. Louis fair.
The success of this commission resulted in two additional years of contracts with the Northern Pacific with a focus on Yellowstone Park. Altogether, Hill produced 55 landscapes during the summers of 1905-06.
Yellowstone was an immense delight to Hill. She was fascinated by the scenery, particularly the geysers and grotto pools, but it was the animals that charmed her most. Bears entered her camp, eagles soared overhead and deer nuzzled her as she worked. Too, her contract with the railway company gave her license to move about at liberty in the park, to camp, to tramp or bathe wherever she wished. When the summer work was completed, Hill left the park and went to the Flathead Indian Reservation, where she worked on her collection of Indian portraits.
Throughout this period (1903-06), Hill maintained an active role in the Congress of Mothers, forerunner to the Parent, Teachers and Students Organization. She was active in its programs, speaking at both regional and national meetings, and was elected to the International Conference as U.S. delegate in 1910. Her efforts to organize local chapters in Washington state earned her election as first president of the Washington state chapter, a post she held from 1906 to 1911. The railway mileage passes made it possible for Hill and her children to attend the national meetings held in winter or spring and it also permitted her to visit urban centers—New York, Boston, Washington, D.C.—for gallery visits, concerts and other sites of educational interest.
Hill was approached by the Union Pacific Company to produce paintings of Zion and Bryce national parks, and by the Canadian Pacific Company for scenes in the Canadian Rockies, but she declined these opportunities in order to take her children (now in their late teens) to Europe as a capstone to the education she had been providing. They toured western Europe on bicycles in 1908-09.
The European tour came to an end when Hill was notified that her husband was too ill to continue his practice. He suffered from a melancholia that at times left him completely helpless. His physicians recommended a sunnier climate, and from 1913 to 1921 Hill lived in an isolated beach house at Laguna Beach, Calif., while her husband underwent periodic confinement in a mental hospital nearby.
Dr. Hill was released from treatment in 1924. Still longing for the wilds, Hill, now 63, embarked on her last sustained camping venture. She purchased a Hudson touring car and for the next seven years she and her husband spent the winters camping in Tucson, Ariz., and summers in various Western national parks. She continued to paint, hoping to produce a series of canvases from each of the parks that would be exhibited by the National Park Service. Although she completed a large number of paintings, their exhibition was never realized. The Hills retired in San Diego in the early 1930s. Dr. Hill died in 1938; Abby Hill in 1943.
Among frontier artists, Abby Williams Hill was exceptional. She was commissioned to paint landscapes of some of the most rugged terrain in the country; perhaps the only woman to be so employed. Working on the last Western frontier, she realized her own aspirations to live in the wilds and gained prestige through the wide exposure of her paintings. Her early canvases are of significant historical value, for they stand as testimony to the promise of economic prosperity and scenic riches that cities and railway companies alike touted to entice numberless pioneers to the Northwest.
Still, she never achieved the recognition afforded other period frontier artists such as E.S. Paxton or C.M. Russell, both of whom she knew. There were several reasons for this. Apart from the fairs, Hill did not participate in commercial or competitive exhibitions. She also did not wish to sell her work, claiming she painted for her family. (In fact, though, she was the victim of the era’s peculiar value system, which considered it degrading for women of position to earn money.) After 1909 she became more and more involved with the Congress of Mothers. And, finally, family responsibilities brought rather lengthy but temporary halts to her painting.
It is tempting to try to read Abby Williams Hill as being unique among women of her era, but her qualities of strong will, determination, ambition and concern for the social ills of her day were consistent with the character of many of her contemporaries. Her disdain for fashion must have been shared by similarly sensible women, and surely there were legions of women whose ambitions were curbed by family responsibilities. However, few left such a rich legacy of art, and an even richer legacy of letters and diaries providing one of the most thorough self-portraits of any woman artist of the era.
Ronald Fields has been a member of the art department faculty for 34 years and has been working with the Hill Collection for 20 years.
Professor Fields’ beautifully detailed book on Abby Hill, produced by the Washington State Historical Society for the first large-scale exhibition of Hill paintings in 1989, is out of print, but the Puget Sound Bookstore still has copies available. Get them while they last by calling 253.879.3270.