Susan Ricker Knox: Portsmouth and Beyond
New Hampshire-born artist Susan Ricker Knox made her reputation by painting the children of America's richest families, but it was her studies of Ellis Island immigrants that captured the nation's interest. "She was not intending them for political reasons when she painted them," according to Deborah M. Child and Jane D. Kaufmann, guest curators of an exhibition of Knox's works which will be on view at the Portsmouth Athenaeum June 9 to Sept. 8, 1998.
Knox, born in Portsmouth in 1874, began her art studies in Philadelphia in 1896 and had a thriving studio in New York City by the early part of this century. Her first New York sitter being four-year-old Master Godfrey Rockefeller, son of Mr. William G. Rockefeller. But Knox became nationally known in 1920, after attending a Metropolitan Opera Christmas concert on Ellis Island to entertain immigrants. "She saw these people and their colorful dress and she started painting," Kaufmann said.
For 90 days she traveled to the island to paint, ending with 32 studies of people of every ethnic background who were just arriving in America. A curator for the Clergy Club in New York asked to exhibit the works and it was there that Chairman Johnson of the Immigration and Naturalization Committee of the House of Representatives saw them.
At the time, immigration quotas were being hotly debated in Congress and Johnson asked to have the works displayed there to make his point that quotas were needed. "Knox made the experience of Ellis Island real for the American public" according to the curators.
In 1922, the first of the Anti-Immigration Laws known as the Johnson Act was passed. Knox, meanwhile, kept painting her portraits of high society, returning every summer to her studio in York Harbor, Maine. Later in the 1930s, she opened a winter studio in Mexico. Her work was displayed at the New York World's Fair in 1940.
Though Knox was prolific, few of her works have been seen by the public in the years since her death in Concord, N.H., in 1959. "Many of her paintings are still in the families for whom she painted them, and have never been sold," Child said.
The Portsmouth exhibit, "Susan Ricker Knox: Portsmouth and Beyond," will highlight the portraiture work that was her livelihood as well as some of the immigrant studies. An illustrated exhibition catalogue will accompany the show.
The exhibition is made possible in part by grants from the Greater Piscataqua Community Foundation's Marston Fund and Olde Port Bank & Trust.
From top to bottom: In Lilac Time, c. 1916, oil on linen, 36 x 28 inches; Miss Coxie Green, 1922, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches, Private Collection.
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