essay: Dulah Evans Krehbiel

by Wendy Greenhouse, Ph.D.
submitted 2010 


Dulah Evans Krehbiel was an early twentieth-century painter, graphic designer, printmaker, and photographer whose biography and artistic legacy have long been overshadowed by that of her husband, the painter and teacher Albert Krehbiel (1875-1945). Much of her work and family correspondence has survived as a body in the hands of family members, a fact that has contributed to her present-day relative obscurity while offering a rare opportunity to study an individual artist’s full artistic legacy. In this case, that legacy is of a remarkably varied career. Dulah emerges as one more of a host of early twentieth-century American women artists whose important stories are beginning to be told as scholars explore the histories both of women in the arts and of the regional history of American art.


Dulah Marie Llan Evans was born in Oskaloosa, Iowa, on February 17, 1875, the second daughter and the third of four children born to David Evans (1825-1897), an architect and builder, and Marie Ogg Evans (1845-1897), a native of Switzerland. After attending William Penn College (now University) in her hometown and presumably studying art privately, in 1896 Dulah enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago. Following three years of study there, she continued her training at the New York School of Art under its founder and principal instructor, painter William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), and at New York’s progressive Art Students League, where she studied illustration under painter and popular illustrator Walter Appleton Clark (1848-1917).


By 1903 Dulah was back in Chicago. On the first of three summer visits to Saugatuck, Michigan, a quiet hamlet with an emerging summer art colony, she met the young painter Albert Krehbiel, who had begun his studies at the Art Institute the same year as Dulah; by the fall, when Albert departed for Europe for three years of study, the two were engaged. Dulah returned to the Art Institute to continue her studies in both fine art and illustration and also served as an assistant instructor in the Art Institute’s Saturday children’s class. She took up residence in the Tree Studios Building, home to a host of local talent including sculptor Julia Bracken (1871-1942), who became her close friend.


Dulah launched her career as an illustrator at an auspicious moment, just as the consumer market in both retail commerce and publishing was experiencing explosive growth and new color printing technologies were being developed. Over the next decade she created illustrations for the popular national magazines Harper’s Bazaar, Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, McClure’s, and Ladies’ Home Journal and the Chicago journals The Sketch Book and The Inland Printer; she created advertisement designs for such local businesses as A. C. McClurg & Company, Alfred Peats Company, and Marshall Field & Company; and she illustrated a cookbook issued by the Armour Company. Having first visited Phoenix, Arizona, in 1900 in her sister Mayetta’s company, Dulah returned to the Southwest in 1905 as one of several artists commissioned to create promotional images of the region for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. The numerous photographs Dulah made of native people, ceremonies, and sites were the basis for several artworks and the source of motifs for prints she would create two decades later.


Dulah and Albert Krehbiel were married in June of 1906, shortly after he returned from Europe and accepted a teaching position at the Art Institute. The couple settled in suburban Park Ridge, Illinois, the residence of several important artists and designers, and Dulah assisted her husband with his most important commission: a series of allegorical murals for the interior of the new Illinois Supreme Court Building in Springfield. She designed and sewed the vaguely classical draperies in which she posed for many of the figures, and she worked on several of the paintings. In 1910 Dulah established her own studio business, The Ridge Crafts, which produced illustrated greeting cards and bookplates from her designs, some featuring verses by Mayetta and hand-tinted with watercolors.


In April 1914 Dulah gave birth to her only child, Evans Llan Krehbiel, who soon became a model for several paintings intended for commercial reproduction. The challenges of running a household and raising her son coincided with growing market challenges to cottage industries in graphic design such as The Ridge Crafts, which Dulah closed in 1915. The following year she attended the summer painting school conducted by Charles Hawthorne (1872-1930) in Provincetown, Massachusetts. And in 1917, the Krehbiel family, accompanied by Mayetta, moved to Southern California for a three-year stay interrupted by return visits to Chicago, where Albert was still on the faculty of the Art Institute and, since 1913, at the Armour Institute. They rented a bungalow in Santa Monica, where Bracken and her husband, landscape painter William Wendt (1865-1946), resided before they moved the following year to the thriving art colony, of Laguna Beach, where the Krehbiels surely spent time.


Family responsibilities are undoubtedly one cause of the apparent hiatus in Dulah’s art-making in the years between 1917 and 1919. Around 1920, she returned to painting with a new intensity. She completed several impressionist figural landscapes showing Mayetta and Evans in Santa Monica. A painting of three women before an open window, her only work in a public collection (National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.), may have been completed in Park Ridge following the family’s return there from California. She also made several paintings for commercial purposes. Her most important works of the period, however, were the first of a long series of paintings of female figures in fantasy mountain landscapes. These dreamlike works explore feminist themes of loss and aspiration in a highly personal and anti-academic manner that suggest a host of influences, ranging from the European academic and modernist traditions to the mystical paintings of Arthur B. Davies, from contemporary avant-garde cultural currents circulating in southern California to Chicago modernists’ penchant for fantasy and figuration.


Between 1920 and 1925, in particular, Dulah worked almost obsessively on her images of women in the landscape, sketching many such compositions in conté or lithograph crayon on paper and making drawings after numerous completed paintings, many now unlocated, and notes that indicate the rapidity with which they sometimes were executed. In these years she also was most active as an exhibitor, showing her paintings not only at the Art Institute but at such progressive venues at the Arts Club of Chicago, a forum for modernist art in the city, and at the 1921 Salon des Refusés, an open exhibition from which Chicago’s No-Jury Society was born. Aspiring to wider exposure, she also sent work to exhibitions sponsored by two anti-jury organizations in New York, the Society of Independent Artists and the Salons of America. Although they aroused only modest critical notice and resulted apparently in no sales, these works are Dulah’s most compelling.


The aspirations for female autonomy suggested by Dulah’s female-only images parallel her own struggle to exit her marriage. In 1921, the year she reverted to exhibiting under her maiden name, Dulah planned to leave Albert, but she was unable to finance a separate household with her son and her sister through her art. In a bid for commercial viability, in 1922 Dulah visited New York City, where her Decorations for a Yellow Tulip Room was in the Society of Independent Artists’s exhibition. The work’s title suggests not only Dulah’s continuing interest in commercial applications for her art but the purely decorative potential of her recent work. Her notes on her paintings of the mid-1920s record numerous designs for screens, mantel paintings, and perhaps decorative murals.


Despite the strain on their marriage, in 1922 and 1923 Dulah accompanied Albert to the nationally important artists’ colony of Santa Fe, where he taught summer classes. Among the acquaintances Dulah and Mayetta made there was modernist artist B. J. O. Nordfeldt (1878-1955), whom Dulah may have met originally in Provincetown in 1916; on a return visit in 1927, Mayetta took several of his paintings to sell in Chicago. Nordfeldt’s prints stimulated Dulah to take up printmaking, and she made vigorously executed etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts of New Mexico and California scenes, some drawn from her earlier photographs of the region.


In 1925, Mayetta purchased a separate Park Ridge home, dubbed Studio Place, for herself, Dulah, and Evans. From there, Dulah actively promoted her son’s burgeoning artistic efforts while virtually cutting off all communication between the teenaged boy and his father. Her attempt to reestablish a lucrative career with a move with Evans to the New York City suburb of Scarsdale, in 1930, failed and she was forced to return to Park Ridge and Albert’s financial support. Throughout the following decade Dulah exhibited her paintings in the annual members’ shows at the Arts Club. Known as the “Park Ridge modernist,” she continued to paint fantastic landscapes filled with female figures and also made several portraits, notably of Evans, in a contrastingly straightforward, realistic style. In the early 1940s, Dulah exhibited her last works, paintings of still-life arrangements of seashells and flowers. In her final show, in 1945, she was represented by a painting of 1920 and listed herself under her married name. Coincidently, only a few weeks later Albert died suddenly. By that date, arthritis and a series of strokes had forced Dulah to abandon artmaking. She passed away in 1951 at the age of seventy-six.


Dulah’s half-century artistic career was a determined effort to make a place for herself in the contemporary American art world. She essayed a wide range of media and genres, repeatedly striking out in unprecedented directions, learning new techniques, and absorbing the influences that surrounded her. While struggling for financial independence through her art, she created her most striking works, the fantastic figural landscapes of the 1920s and 1930s, as deeply personal statements of female self-identity and aspiration. They also collectively constitute Dulah’s greatest claim for renewed attention: as an artist with an important place in the history of regional American modernism.


Much of the information given here is drawn from letters, photos, and other materials in the Dulah Evans Krehbiel Papers, referred to hereafter as DEK Papers, in the Archives of the Art Institute of Chicago. I am also indebted to Jane Meyer for her encyclopedic knowledge of Dulah’s biography and for first introducing me to this artist.