essay: Almira Burnham

by Tona Schenck, McLean County Museum of History
October 1987 


The McLean County Historical society is pleased to announce the opening of an exhibit of paintings of Mrs. Almira S. Burnham (1840-1932). In her time she was noted for her still-lifes, landscapes, china painting, and miniatures. The majority of her works were oil paintings, but we offer an example of her watercolors as well. Included in this exhibit is the only portrait known to be by her hand, and the shawl that Mrs. Burnham wore when she accompanied her cousin, opera singer Maria Litta, on one of her European performance tours. Many of the paintings in this exhibit have come out of the parlors of McLean County, but others have come from as far as Washington, D.C. and California.


She was born Almira Sarah Ives, on Nov. 2, 1840, on a farm in Kendall County, Illinois. In 1853 Almira moved to Bloomington with her parents, where she remained for the rest of her life. She married Captain John H. Burnham (1834-1917) in 1866 and they shared the next 51 years together as husband and wife. Captain Burnham was an officer in the Civil War and later his interest in history led him to become one of the founders of the McLean County Historical Society, as well as the Illinois State Historical Society. He wrote several volumes and treatises on state and local history. The Captain was partially responsible for the planning and realization of Miller Park. In 1867 he became contracting agent for the King Bridge Co. of Cleveland and his firm, known as Burnham and Ives, was responsible for introducing iron bridges in over half the counties in Illinois. It seems evident by looking at the subject matter of Mrs. Burnham’s painting to what extent she and the Captain shared a mutual love and respect for nature and travel that were a part of his career.


The Burnhams travelled extensively in this country. Many summers were spent in Boston, where Mrs. Burnham sketched and painted the scenery of New England. The winters found her in her studio in Bloomington painting from still life, as flowers and fruit were always available to her. She studied painting at various times with D. F. Bigelaw and A. W. Kinney in Bloomington, with an unknown teacher in Chicago, and in New England her mentor was a French artist by the name of deBlois, who was noted for his fine snow scenes.


Mrs. Burnham had a studio on the upper floor of her home at 507 E. Mulberry Street, “… as complete a studio as there is in the city” said a report from the Bulletin in April, 1899. She worked daily in her studio, her large portfolio of work a result of disciplined and steadfast endeavor.


This commitment to her work remained undaunted even in the face of adversity. In October, 1892, six of Mrs. Burnham’s paintings and several canvases by other artists from her collection were part of an exhibition at the Illinois State Fair in Peoria. One of her own canvases, a marine picture, drew an offer of $250 from the competition’s judge and she refused offers of $50 each for two other paintings. While being shipped back to Bloomington by train after the fair, the car carrying the art works caught fire in Pekin. All of the art was destroyed. The total loss was approximately $3,750. Mrs. Burnham’s loss was listed at $1,500.


The following week, October 14, 1892, the Pantagraph reported a “Red Hot Blaze” which consumed the Burnhams’ house and barn. When the firefighters realized that it was impossible to save the house, the large crowd of by-standers quickly removed the contents of the home, including the paintings. The Pantagraph went on to say that “… Mrs. Burnham, however, was philosophical consoling herself over those [paintings] she had left. She barely saved those last night from a similar fate.”


The fact that Mrs. Burnham continued to paint is substantiated by the announcement of an exhibition in November, 1896 at her studio, then in the Eddy Building. In 1905 the Burnhams moved to 1321 E. Washington Street, where Mrs. Burnham had her studio on the second floor (in the northernmost room) and paintings hung on every wall from floor to ceiling.


There was lively participation in the production of the decorative and fine arts in Bloomington in the 1890s and early 1900s. Mrs. Burnham was one of many artists and artist-teachers in the area. Those who did not have studios in their homes found working space in the upper floors of downtown buildings. Active in the art scene at that time were Ada de Conville, Emily Howard, Lillian Owen, Guida Livingston, Owen T. Reeves, Jr., A. W. Kinney, D. F. Bigelaw and Lou Burke. All agreed that there was just not enough enthusiasm for the visual arts in Bloomington. By the turn of the century, however, there did seem to be a renewal of interest in the arts locally, brought about perhaps by the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 (in which the achievements of women in every field drew great attention), and through the efforts of this local group of artists, who were eager to share their own work and to educate those around them as to the value of art in a community.


As Mrs. Burnham continued to paint she was also very active as a cultural leader and organizer of social support of the arts. In 1888 she was one of the founders of the Bloomington Art Association, and she served in a multitude of capacities for countless concerts, exhibits, receptions and other art-related functions that were held in the city from the 1890s through the early decades of the new century.


The product of an era in which women were encouraged to be content with their roles as wives and mothers and to feel that the success of their husbands was their own success, we find Mrs. Burnham to be an individual worthy of attention. Her historical importance was as a 19th century woman who sought her own individual identity based on her beliefs in her creative strengths, when she could easily have basked in the light of her husband’s accomplishments. She painted for the joy of painting, to express a love of nature. The attitude that the main objective of art was beauty, and what was beautiful was art, was probably held by many Bloomingtonians. A. S. Burnham’s paintings are representative of the kind of art that decorated many of the late Victorian homes of this area. Upon her death in 1932, the Pantagraph stated, “Many older homes of Bloomington possess pictures from her brushes and many of her works were secured in other cities among art lovers.”


Her landscapes were sketched and painted on site in New England and they present quiet, contemplative descriptions of the natural phenomena that interested her so much. Supporting her choice of subject matter in the Bulletin of 1899 she says, “Someone has aptly said: ‘Whatever is great in human art is the expression of man’s delight in God’s work.’”


It is in the still-life canvases that her artistic individuality is most evident. This group of paintings includes many varieties of flowers, placing the arrangement at eye-level and at close view. But she is most noted for paintings of roses in full bloom; indeed, these seem to be the signature of her brush. A distinctive feature of these rose paintings is the inclusion of dew drops finely rendered on petals and leaves. She was rumored to have studied the execution of these dew drops during one of her trips to Paris, France. The roses emerge out of a dark background and are probably the most atmospheric and expressive of her paintings. The other flowers and the still-life paintings are more straight-forward in their statements.


Mrs. Burnham died in Bloomington in December 1932 at the age of 93, as a result of pneumonia following a confinement for a broken hip. It is not known at what age she started painting or how long before her death she stopped painting, but it is said that her studio was always crammed full. After her death her estate included over 400 paintings.


This exhibit once again brings to the public eye the variety of A. S. Burnham’s paintings, as representative of locally produced examples of late Victorian decorative art. The fact that there are so many rose paintings, and that there are two almost identical water lily paintings may be taken as a sign of their great popularity with her ‘public!”