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The French Sisters Take Over Art Gallery

Ajallade Hennis, Contributing Writer

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The President’s Gallery located on the second floor of Woodburn Hall at Black Hills University has many art pieces to view. The gallery is dedicated to former university presidents, with new and temporary art pieces put in frequently. The art was compromised of different artwork made by two artists, Grace French and Abbie French; also know as the French sisters.

The drawings were all donated by the sisters to Black Hills State University in 1942 and became a permanent gallery for the institution. There was some personal connection between the university and the French sisters, as the sisters studied with Winona Cook in Rapid City. Cook was Black Hills State University’s first art teacher and also happened to be the first President’s wife. Grace French and Abbie French are artists that are sisters and their artwork highly intrigued me.

Grace and Abbie both passed away decades ago. Abbie passed away in 1936, and Grace passed away in 1942. However, many people have admired their artwork over the years and consider them as “pioneers of art.” Their artwork of the Rapid City and the Black Hills scenery was described as the first and best historical artwork of the past century in the Black Hills, according to historian and art collector David Strain in 1989. This shows the magnitude and impact of their artwork.

The impact also includes leaving a legacy of paintings to Rapid City, S.D. and also collections at the Journey Museum. Even though they produced artwork in South Dakota, Grace and Abbie first started off in New Hampshire, which is where the sisters grew up. The sisters both attended the School of Drawing and Painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where it could be assumed that this is where the sisters’ talents were first recognized.

Grace made the piece I studied. I felt the drawing was trying to express nature, which is similar to what Grace produced. Grace is known for being the first resident landscape painter in South Dakota and is especially known for her beautiful scenes painted of different parts of nature of the Black Hills. This includes streams, mountainsides, and townscapes. Grace came to the Black Hills in 1885. In a time where the culture was about many women getting married and raising families, Grace and Abbie maintained their own unique culture and were single independent women. This brought a new revolutionary culture to a rural town. This same town was referred to as a “cowboy” town. Their culture also included their environmental culturist traits. The industrial design movement, education theory and decorative arts trends influenced Grace. She was able to make art into a profitable business.

Personally, it was surprising for me to find out that the industrial design movement inspired Grace because I feel her artwork is a lot more agricultural than industrial because the artwork involves more of plants and nature. The artwork I analyzed was a drawing of five flowers, where four of the flowers are circling around one smaller flower. The drawing is in black and white and has no color. The top half of the drawing including the top two flowers is in dark shading. The bottom half of the drawing with the two bottom flowers was in white shading. The flower in the center had a mixture of both shadings. Unfortunately, the artwork did not have a name.

The flowers could have represented the nature or agriculture of South Dakota. They also could have represented the French sisters’ agricultural upbringing, as Grace is well known for her artwork involving nature. The contrast of the light and dark shading could also represent the French sisters in a personal way. Perhaps the dark shading represents Grace’s personality and the light shading represents Abbie’s personality or vice versa. Max Leonard, who was an artist from California, touring the art gallery, said, “The artwork here is beautiful, you can tell how much dedication was put into this.”

The drawing was in all black and white. I personally think the drawing would’ve looked much better with more colors, but I assume Grace made the drawing in black and white on purpose. Perhaps to give it it’s own unique look. The drawing could be just in black and white because it was made around the early 1900’s and drawings involving color wasn’t as popular back then as it is now. After analyzing this artwork, I was impressed and I felt like it gave off a positive vibe. It was truly one of the many unique artworks produced by the French sisters.

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The French Sisters Take Over Art Gallery