A Tale of Two Women: Pioneering Californian Artists Pauline Powell Burns and Beulah Woodard
Among the featured artists in Swann’s February 13th auction, Shadows Uplifted: The Rise of American-American Fine Art, are Pauline Powell Burns and Beulah Ecton Woodard. These early Californian artists stand out for their accomplishments at a time when being African-American, and female, meant considerable obstacles on the road to success.
Pauline Powell Burn’s oil painting Violets, circa 1890, is one of her first to come to auction.
Born in Oakland in 1876, Pauline Powell Burns’s story is steeped in American history. The granddaughter of a slave from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Pauline would be go on to become the first African American to exhibit artwork in the state of California. In 1890 she exhibited her paintings at the Mechanics Institute Fair in San Francisco. Burns’s work is extremely scarce, not only because of the time in which she lived, but also because she lived a relatively short life, dying in 1912. The largest known collection of her paintings is at the Oakland Museum of California. The work by Burns coming up for auction, an oil on cardstock of Violets, circa 1890, is one of the first by this pioneering artist to appear at auction.
Beulah Ecton Woodard is known for her sculptures employing a variety of media, including terra cotta, bronze, wood and papier-mâché. Born in Ohio in 1895, her family soon moved to southern California. At the age of 12, the family was visited by a native African, and this sparked a lifelong interest in Woodard to portray Africans and African Americans in her work. She hoped her realistic portrayal of these subjects would help to influence African Americans to take pride in their heritage.
African Woman is a fine example of Beulah Woodard’s sculpture.
Woodard struggled to pursue art, due to family expectations and racism,but she did study at the Los Angeles Art School, Otis Art Institute and the University of Southern California. Woodard went on to become the first African-American artist to show at the Los Angeles County Museum with a solo exhibition in 1935, and she also organized the Los Angeles Negro Art Association in 1937. Included in Shadows Uplifted is African Woman, a superb example of Woodard’s African subjects. This is not the first time Woodard’s work has come to auction at Swann. Seven of Woodard’s works were auctioned in the 2007 auction of The Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company African-American Art Collection.
Swann’s 2007 auction of the African-American Art Collection of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company featured a rare painting by Woodard, which brought $19,200.