The next time you are standing in line to mail a package or renew a passport in the downtown Santa Cruz, California post office, look at the four murals high on the walls above you. Painted by the renowned artist Henrietta Shore, the murals honor local industries: farming, fishing, and limestone quarrying. They depict the laborers as “dignified, monumental forms.”
These murals, like the post office itself, were paid for by the federal government. The post office was built in 1912 with a grant from the US Treasury Department. The murals came later when they were commissioned in 1935 by the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP). It was in the depths of the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929, and TRAP was part of the New Deal initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt “to put people to work.” In this case, the people put to work were artists.
Henrietta Shore, of Carmel, submitted color sketches to TRAP, which commissioned the murals for the Santa Cruz post office. She was paid $233.74 for all four.
Unlike most artists who received TRAP grants, Henrietta Shore was not happy collecting welfare, which is how she saw the TRAP grant. She hated signing a document that said she was “destitute.” Presumably, she saw herself as an important artist who was reduced to begging.
Henrietta Shore’s life as an artist
She was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1888. Her prosperous family encouraged her art, and she studied and exhibited in London, New York, and Toronto. In 1914, she moved to Los Angeles, where she exhibited at the new Los Angeles Art Museum. She won prizes at the Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Diego in 1915 and, in 1916, helped found the Los Angeles Art Society.
In 1920, she moved to New York. This was a turning point in her career. She embraced a Modernist approach, painting what she called “semi-abstractions.” Her work had always emphasized line and form. Now, according to writer Roger Aiken, it “emphasized simple line and shape to achieve an effect of sonorous rhythm.” In 1923 when she exhibited her new work, she received higher praise than Georgia O’Keefe did for her concurrent exhibit.
After she moved back to Los Angeles in 1927, Arthur Miller of the Los Angeles Times claimed she was “unquestionably one of the most important living painters of this century.” That same year, Reginald Poland, director of the San Diego Museum of Art, said, “She is a profound artist…. A great future awaits Henrietta Shore.”
The Carmel-based photographer Edward Weston is well known today partly through the efforts of Henrietta Shore. They met in Los Angeles, where he visited her studio and was profoundly moved by her work. She convinced Reginald Poland to exhibit Weston’s photographs at the San Diego Museum of Art. The two artists became close friends, and Weston claimed that he was awakened to shells, a frequent subject of his work, by her paintings.
When Shore visited Weston in Carmel, she was delighted and inspired by the beauty of the Carmel coast. In her youth, when she studied in London, John Singer Sargent advised her to abandon school and go directly to nature for inspiration. In Carmel, she followed that advice. Her mature work showed an intense interest in nature, albeit a nature that was transcendent and mystical. One of the few statements Shore made about her work was in a letter she wrote to Weston in 1933:
“To be true to nature one must abstract. Nature does not waste her forms. If you would know the clouds, then study the rocks.”
In 1930, Shore moved to Carmel where Weston lived. She was 50 years old and wanted to settle down. Although she remained in Carmel for the rest of her working life, she had no further significant commissions nor exhibitions except for the post office murals, one exhibit in 1931 at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco, and one small book of her work that was published in 1933. In 1939, Weston wrote in a Monterey newspaper, “Henrietta Shore is an artist by destiny, a figure of national importance, lost in Carmel.”
She spent her later years in poverty. In 1958, she experienced a final indignity when she was committed to a mental hospital in San Jose, even though there is no evidence that she was insane. Supposedly, a busybody neighbor went to her studio and, finding it disorganized, had her committed. She died in that hospital on May 17, 1963 at the age of 83.
In the last 30 years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Henrietta Shore’s art. Her work has appeared in numerous exhibits, she has been extolled in books and articles, and in 2015, her painting titled “Waterfall” was acquired by the Dallas Museum of Art.
See More of Henrietta Shore’s Work
This blog post is a shorter version of a more in-depth article on Shore’s life and work entitled “A Gift to the City,” which can be found in Pathways to the Past: Adventures in Santa Cruz County History. The entire article is available as a downloadable pdf file on the MAH website.
Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour
This piece is part of the Downtown Historic-Art Tour made possible Don Lauritson with the support of the Santa Cruz Historic Preservation Commission. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.
- The Daybooks of Edward Weston, Volume II, California by Edward Weston, edited by Nancy Newhall. New York: Horizon Press, 1966.
- Reginald Poland quoted by The Christian Science Monitor, June 13, 1927. From an article in Henrietta Shore, edited by Merle Armitage, pp 7-8.
- “A Gift to the City” by Joan Gilbert Martin. History Journal 6, Pathways to the Past. Santa Cruz: Museum of Art & History, 2009. MAH Online History Journal.
- Henrietta Shore, edited by Merle Armitage, with an article by Edward Weston and an appraisal by Reginald Poland. New York: E. Weyhe, 1933.
- Henrietta Shore, A Retrospective Exhibition: 1900-1963. Exhibition catalog, by Roger Aiken and Richard Lorenz, edited by Jo Farb Hernandez. Monterey: Monterey Peninsula Museum of Art, 1986.
- “The Women of the WPA Art Projects: California Murals, 1933-1943” by Nancy Acord in Yesterday and Tomorrow, edited by Sylvia Moore. New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1989.