Rediscovered Painting by Philadelphia Artist Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones Now Available

By Margie Fuchs, with research assistance by Valerie Stanos and Beth Hamilton

The daughter of a Presbyterian Reverend with a demonstrated talent for painting, Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones (1885-1968) emerged as one of the stars of 20th century American art while only a teenager. Her work at the forefront of the avant-garde, often engaging with Impressionist ideas and techniques, earned her national and international exhibitions soon after.

However, a nervous breakdown in 1913 led to a twelve-year disappearance from the art world. “I was invited many places out of the country. They’d take anything I sent,” Sparhawk-Jones recalled in an oral history interview with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. “But I broke down because I was overtired, I had done too much in too short a time.” Her return to the art world signaled a second act, in which she abandoned her Impressionist and Realist style for more imaginative and symbolic works. Close friend and fellow modernist Marsden Hartley commended her fortitude and singular talent, calling her an “original” and a “thinking painter with a rare sense of the drama of poetic and romantic incident.”

This success was no easy feat. The rigid rules of the artistic establishment limited training for women, while the work of even the most successful women artists rarely received the same acclaim, much less the same prices, as their male counterparts. Despite this, Sparhawk-Jones left a mark on American art; her works can be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, The Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum of Art today.

Jonathan Boos is pleased to present Sparhawk-Jones’s 1911 painting In Apron Strings. We invite you to explore the unique story and history of the artwork with these five facts. Contact the gallery for more on adding the work to your collection.

Photograph of Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, c. 1905. Collection of Frances Kidder Estate.

1. The New York Times crowned Sparhawk-Jones the “find of the year” in 1908

Sparhawk-Jones left school at the age of 15 and moved to Philadelphia, enrolling at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). Between 1902-1909, she studied under noted artists William Merritt Chase, Thomas Anshutz and Cecelia Beaux, taking courses in life drawing as well as sketching. Chase and Anshutz encouraged students to paint from life and embrace their artistic independence. Following suit, Sparhawk-Jones earned nearly every PAFA award possible, including a major travel scholarship for European study.

While still in school, Sparhawk-Jones was already selling oil paintings for thousands of dollars in today’s equivalent and presenting works across the country. After viewing her painting The Porch, 1907 (private collection), at PAFA’s annual exhibition that same year, The New York Times declared the scene of women relaxing on a veranda “the most unforgettable canvas in the show,” and noted that the artist had surpassed her teacher, Chase, with her rendering of light. A year later, the publication named Sparhawk-Jones the “find of the year.” She continued to collect accolades, including being the only American to receive an honorable mention at the 1909 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, and continued to exhibit annually until 1913.

Installation photograph of the South Corridor, facing south, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1911, illustrating In Apron Strings hanging center right.
Installation photograph of the South Corridor, facing south, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1911, illustrating "In Apron Strings" hanging center right.

2. ‘In Apron Strings’ is a rare, early work by the artist embracing the tenets of Impressionism

A PAFA scholarship trip to Paris in the first decade of the twentieth century decidedly influenced Sparhawk-Jones’s Impressionist sensibilities. She found her life drawing courses at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière much more liberating than her American classes, calling the French method of teaching about the human form with models of all ages “complete freedom.” In France, Sparhawk-Jones also experimented with painting en plein air and other Impressionist techniques including broken brushstrokes, depictions of light and unblended color. Returning to Philadelphia, she applied a loose, painterly technique to her subjects, which she often modeled after real life scenes spotted in the city’s parks and streets.

Created during one of the artist’s most productive periods, In Apron Strings debuted at the 106th Annual Exhibition at PAFA in 1911 to critical acclaim (see archival photo above). The work presents a bright vignette of a mother, her three children and a nursemaid enjoying the springtime weather in a park. Sparhawk-Jones captures the morning light and spring atmosphere with a light color palette and loose brushstrokes, revealing the verdant greens and pink floral buds on the trees in the background. Her thick brushwork allows the viewer to see nearly every stroke of paint on the canvas, from the tiny flowers in the affluent mother’s cap to folds of the figures’ clothes. Anchored by the mother on the left and the nursemaid on the far right, the work showcases Sparhawk-Jones’s mastery of light and shadow in the shades of white on the children’s clothing.

In a review of 106th Annual Exhibition at PAFA, The New York Times commended Sparhawk-Jones’s technique of “spontaneity, swiftness of line, and crisp notation of character.” An exceptional example of the artist’s Impressionist work, In Apron Strings made rarer by the fact that Sparhawk-Jones burned many of her early paintings while ill.

Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, In Rittenhouse Square, c. 1909. Oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches, Private Collection.

3. Sparhawk-Jones had a unique talent for synthesizing elements of Impressionism and Realism

Working in Philadelphia in the early 1900s, Sparhawk-Jones was intimately familiar with the work of the Ashcan School, the turn-of-the-century movement known for gritty depictions of American urban life. Robert Henri and William Glackens, two of the founders of the movement, also studied at the PAFA under Anshutz and encouraged artists far and wide to embrace Realism in painting contemporary city scenes. While she was never formally associated with Henri and Glackens’ circle of all-male painters working between Philadelphia and New York, Sparhawk-Jones practiced a journalistic style of painting, capturing the modern world as she saw it, rather than presenting an idealized vision of how it should be.

This extremely modern approach of envisaging urban life can be seen in In Apron Strings. The presence of the nursemaid breaks from depictions of perfect domestic life to reveal the behind-the-scenes help needed to raise a family. Like the Impressionists, Sparhawk-Jones was inspired by walks in Philadelphia’s parks and public spaces. In Apron Strings’ setting and subject matter is similar to In Rittenhouse Square (c. 1909, above) and Turning Home ( 1911, below), both of which take place in the tony park near Sparhawk-Jones’s home. While all three works employ the bright palette of the Impressionists – a far cry from the dark hues favored by Ashcan artists – it can be said that the artist’s brushwork bares a striking resemblance to Bellows, Henri and John Sloan.

This work by Charles Henri shows a child sitting on a chair, with a cigarette in his mouth

L-R: Robert Henri, American, 1865–1929. Volendam Boy with Cigarette, 1910. Oil on canvas. 26¼ x 20¼ inches. Signed, inscribed, and dated lower right; Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, Turning Home, 1911. Oil on canvas, 30 x 36 inches, Private Collection.

4. The artist’s early work portrays distinctly modern women in the early 20th century

Sparhawk-Jones’s early works showcase the variety of expanding roles for women in the new century. The title of In Apron Strings even directly references women’s work. Aside from the practicality of aprons, which protect clothes from dust and dirt (or, in the case of babies, spittle) and provide a pocket for storage, the phrase ‘in apron strings’ is a symbolic reference to the important roles of the mother and nursemaid in raising and protecting children. The arrangement of In Apron Strings visualizes the importance of women in childrearing. By placing the mother and nursemaid on opposite sides of the canvas, Sparhawk-Jones underscores their role of protecting and supporting the children between them.

Sparhawk-Jones’s subjects range from nursemaids and nannies to modern working women and fashionable ladies shopping at renowned Wanamaker’s department store. The Shoe Shop (1911) presents two versions of the modern woman: young store attendants earning a living for themselves and well-to-do society women enjoying their leisure time on the town. Situated in the lower half of the canvas, the attendants wear simply black-and-white uniforms. Their demure outfits contrast with the ornate hats and colorful outfits of the female customers. While Sparhawk-Jones presented a wider view of women’s role in society in her work, it is important to note that like other women artists of her day, she was largely confined to depictions of ‘the fairer sex’ in her commercial work.

Women patronizing a shoe shop in the early 20th century.
Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, The Shoe Shop, 1911. Oil on canvas, 39 x 34 inches. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

5. ‘In Apron Strings’ has been passed down in a single family for over 100 years – until now

Following its debut at PAFA in 1911, the painting travelled to The Art Institute of Chicago for its Twenty-Fourth Annual Exhibition of American Painting, where it was purchased by John Oliver, mayor of Highland Park, Illinois and owner of the Oliver Brothers Lumber company. Oliver had developed a keen interest in collecting art after visiting the Palace of Fine Arts at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. An early member and patron of the Art Institute, he frequented the institution and was listed, alongside his brother William, as a patron in the program for the 1907 Art Institute exhibition Works by Chicago Artists.

Sparhawk-Jones’s masterful Impressionist technique and the striking emotionality of the work explain why In Apron Strings has remained in the Oliver family for over a century. Oliver’s eldest daughter Evelyn Oliver inherited the painting when he died in in 1956, and her sister Joan Oliver Shore inherited it in 1963 when Evelyn died. Following Joan’s passing in March 2020, this rare and important painting went to her four children.

Jonathan Boos is honored to be working with the family in representing this rare and remarkable masterwork.

Cover image: Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, In Apron Strings, 1911. Oil on canvas. 30 x 32 inches. Signed lower right.