Ellen Burpee Farr: Pasadena’s Entrepenurial Artist
2011/05/18 § 2 Comments
Ellen Burpee Farr
Early Pasadena Still Life Painter
by Jeffrey Morseburg
Ellen Burpee Farr (1840-1907) was an Early California painter who is known for her still lifes of California poppies, Indian baskets and California citrus and pepper trees, which was her favorite subject. Farr, like a number of other talented women painters, had to delay her artistic career because of the demands of marriage and child rearing, in her case for twenty years. However, after she moved west to Pasadena, she forged a successful career as a fine artist and became a vital member of its cultural community.
Ellen Frances Burpee Farr came from an old New England family, members of which had fought in the American Revolution. She was born on November 14, 1840 and raised in New Hampton, New Hampshire, where her father, Augustus Burpee, was a prominent citizen. She was an artistically talented and independent young woman who went on to graduate from the New Hampshire Institute and the Thetford Academy, near Thetford, Vermont.
The Thetford academy was founded in 1819, and from the beginning it accepted both young men and women. While the purpose of the academy was to prepare boys for college and girls for domestic life and social responsibility, the curriculum was very intense for both sexes, with classical instruction in Latin, Greek and French, English courses and higher mathematics. Because Ellen Burpee was culturally inclined and artistically talented, Thetford’s courses in drawing, painting and music would have appealed to her and enhanced her artistic abilities.
While Burpee excelled in her art classes and clearly had the drive and talent to succeed as a painter, an artistic career wasn’t then considered an option for girls from good families, especially when even the best male painters still struggled financially. She probably graduated with her class in July of 1859, becoming engaged to her future husband, Evarts Worcester Farr (1840-1880), whom she had met at the Academy, the next year.
Evarts Farr was a brilliant young man who enrolled in Dartmouth College after he graduated from Thetford, joining the college’s class of 1864. Unfortunately, the Civil War interrupted his education and the idealistic young Evarts Farr became the first volunteer for the Union Army from his hometown of Littleton, New Hampshire. Evarts Farr and Ellen Burpee were hurriedly married on May 19, 1861, just weeks before the young solider and the 2nd New Hampshire departed from Portsmouth for Washington, on June 20th. In December he was promoted to Captain and placed in command of a Regiment. Some months later, while fighting under General “Fighting Joe” Hooker at Williamsburg, on May 15 of 1862, a musket ball shattered his arm, and battlefield surgeons amputated it above his elbow.
Evarts Farr returned home to his young wife, but after a short recuperation, he could not be dissuaded from returning to the war and took the train south. He served with the second New Hampshire at Harrison’s landing and then returned home to recruit more volunteers. He was soon promoted to Major and returned to the war with the 11th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry. He served at the bloody Battle of Fredericksburg, where he was responsible for having Colonel and future Governor Walter Harriman charged with desertion of his post, prompting his resignation.
While Evarts Farr was engaged in the battle to save the Union, his wife kept the home fires burning. Ellen Burpee Farr had her first child, a daughter named Ida, in 1863, about the time her husband was fighting at the Siege of Vicksburg. Because of his amputation, the Major was transferred to the Judge Advocate General’s Office, where he completed his military service. Ellen Farr’s second child, Herbert, was born in 1865, while her husband completed his martial commitment.
At the conclusion of the Civil War, Evarts Farr returned home to his wife and family. He completed his education while Ellen kept their home and raised their children. Major Farr was admitted to the bar in 1867 and joined his father’s law practice. He became a prominent attorney and in 1872, he and his wife had their third and final child, a girl named Edith. As the wife of a prominent man, Ellen Farr became active in a number of charities and social organizations, primarily the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Order of the Eastern Star, a women’s organization that was affiliated with the Masons. Major Farr became an assessor, a solicitor and then was elected to the United States House of Representatives on the Republican ticket in 1877 and again in 187
Unfortunately, Major Farr fell ill in November of 1880. The illness worsened, and he died of pneumonia. Suddenly, Ellen Burpee Far was without a husband and had three children to raise and support. However, as the widow of a Congressman and a Civil War hero, she had a reservoir of good will and a social prominence that would have helped open some doors for her, and she was a resourceful woman. In the wake of her father’s death, Farr’s seventeen-year-old daughter Ida helped take care of her younger brother Herbert, who was fourteen, and her sister Edith, who was seven.
In 1883, a few years after her husband’s death, Farr moved her family to Boston where she began to apply herself to the study of art, hoping to be able to help support her family through her artistic talents. Farr is credited with studying with the academically trained French painter Louis-Mathieu Didier Guillaume (1816-1892), who lived in Richmond during the Civil War and then moved to Washington D.C. in 1871, and then, presumably, on to Boston for a time. A look at Guillaume’s work is enlightening because he specialized in portraits and still lifes and one can assume that Farr’s studies with the French painter were a great influence on the course of her career and her choice of subjects.
Farr began to forge a career as a still life painter in Boston, apparently selling works to friends and acquaintances back in New Hampshire. She may have concentrated on the genre because she was more drawn to these domestic subjects, or perhaps because the demands of landscape painting was too difficult for a woman who still had children at home. Farr’s early still lifes were more formal than her later works, some of them more European in conception and others, game still life’s for example, clearly influenced by the works of William Michael Harnett (1848-1892) and the American Trompe l’oeil movement. By the time Farr began to apply herself to art, her artistically talented daughter Ida was also studying, attending the Museum School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and attending Wellesley College.
Farr moved west to Pasadena, California in 1887. At the encouragement C.H. Merrill, the manager of South Pasadena’s new Raymond Hotel, whom she may have known when he managed resorts in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, she opened a studio and gallery in the hotel, which was popular with the Eastern carriage trade. Farr was a perceptive businesswoman and she realized that the eastern visitors who wintered in Pasadena wanted reminders of their visit to the Southland, so she filled her still lifes with iconic California mementos. Her paintings featured California oranges on the vine, woven Indian baskets, Mexican tamales and chilis, and the pepper trees that lined the grounds of the missions and some of the other Spanish Colonial buildings. Farr also painted some landscapes, usually of the local missions, which were also popular subjects with Eastern tourists.
Farr threw herself into the civic and cultural life of her adopted home, founding the Young Women’s Business League of Pasadena. She was also active with the Shakespeare Club of Pasadena and is credited with designing its distinctive clubhouse. In 1894, she camped and painted on Santa Catalina Island, a playground of the wealthy, setting up an exotic tented studio. The huge Raymond Hotel was consumed by fire in 1895 and Farr purchased an abandoned vineyard in Pasadena with an old adobe home that same year. She restored the house and built a beautiful atelier, filled with fascinating objects for her still lifes, and planted gardens with the pepper trees that were her favorite subject.
In 1906 Farr left Pasadena for Europe, intending to take a two-year Grand Tour of the continent, to visit the great art museums and see the classical ruins of France and Italy. Unfortunately, she died suddenly while she was visiting Naples, on January 5, 1907. Copyright, 2011, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without author’s specific written permission.