NELL BROOKER MAYHEW by Alissa Anderson    April 2004 

Nell Cole Danely (later Nell Brooker Mayhew) was born in Astoria, Illinois on April 17, 1875.  She was the first of five children born to Methodist minister Alfred Danely and wife, Ella.  At a young age Mayhew began experimenting with drawing and painting. (1) At the age of sixteen, her first watercolor, “Yacht” was accepted in the Art Institute of Chicago’s ‘Annual Exhibition of Watercolors by American Artists’ (2)  -- a major feat for someone of her age and gender.

After graduating from Northwestern University in 1897 she began graduate work at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana and at Chicago University, now the University of Chicago.(3) Her most influential teacher was Newton A. Wells, a painter, sculptor, and architect trained in Paris.  There he had been a pupil of Benjamin Constant and Jean-Paul Laurens at the Academie Julien, but what is more important to Mayhew he had been exposed to the monotypes of Edgar Degas. (4) Degas, who was strongly influenced by the Japanese aesthetic, became the premier innovator in the field of black and white monotypes, a medium where paint is applied to a plate and printed on paper. Wells carried Degas’ ideas back to the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana and passed them to students like Mayhew.  Under his tutelage she began her innovations with the color etching process that would make her a pioneer in the field. (5)

In 1902 Mayhew met her love and soon-to-be husband Sidney Brooker, editor of the Quincy, Illinois newspaper.  The young couple took part in a double wedding with Mayhew’s sister Adelaide.   Their father, Reverend Danely, conducted the wedding.  Mayhew and her husband Sidney were very much in love, but heart failure unexpectedly struck the young man – leaving Mayhew a widow. Although she would marry again eight years later, she was forever saddened by the loss of her first husband and greatest love.  For the remainder of her life she retained his name in her signature ‘N. Brooker Mayhew,’ memorializing her devotion to him.

After completing her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago, in 1908 the headstrong and ambitious Mayhew made an unconventional move to Los Angeles, to begin a new life.  Although Los Angeles was not yet the center for art and entertainment it would become, Mayhew would come to find inspiration in the West Coast environment.  Her father accompanied her to California, helping her settle in the Arroyo Seco, a picturesque dry wash choked with sycamores and live oaks where many of Los Angeles’s early artists established homes.  Purchasing a plot of land, and with her father’s help, she built a house and studio.

Located in the town of Garvanza (later Highland Park) near the mouth of the Arroyo Seco, was the College of Fine Arts, a precursor to the University of Southern California’s Fine Arts department. Directed by the painter William Lees Judson, Mayhew took up teaching there. (6) Anxious to get to work, the determined artist immediately sent for her etching press.  The heavy equipment had to be shipped by boat around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, as the Panama Canal would not be completed until 1914.    When Mayhew’s press arrived she began her most prolific period as a California artist.

Although Mayhew painted in oil, her uniquely rendered color etchings were perhaps her most distinguished work.  Pioneering her own process of printmaking, she merged the traditional technique of black and white etchings with color monotypes as practiced by the likes of American printmaker Maurice Prendergast.  Merging elements of Japanese simplicity, Arts and Crafts handiwork, and French Symbolism the artist created a distinct style.

In one of her early shows, the Alaska-Yukon Exposition of 1909 in Seattle, Washington she won a bronze medal for her color etching “Sand Dunes.” (8) The Los Angeles Times art critic Antony Anderson recognized the uniqueness of her technique and commended her color etchings for their likeness to oil paintings.  Praising her work for being ambitious and post-modern, Anderson would be an important voice in legitimizing Mayhew’s unique and progressive style. 

In spite of her marriage to Leonard Mayhew in 1911, she continued producing art.  Exhibiting at a Chicago gallery in 1913 she gained nationwide recognition when Harriet Monroe of the Chicago Tribune called her work “an imaginative interpretation of the color-etching medium.” (9) Monroe compared Mayhew’s art to poetry for its sensitivity.

In the early twenties the artist began making studies for what would become a series of color etchings on the California Missions.  In a time when it was rare for women to drive a car much less travel alone and when most roads were still only dirt and traversed by horse and wagon, she made the lengthy drive up and down the coast of California, along the old El Camino Real (the King’s Highway) where the missions were located. Taking along her two young daughters, Mayhew made sketches of all twenty-one of the Old Spanish missions.  At home she developed the drawings into etchings and then printed them on homemade paper sent by a cousin in Wisconsin. 

Although Mayhew’s etchings employed the standard waxed metal plates, ‘biting’ acids, and a traditional press, her technique was completely unique.  In traditional color etching, each color has its own plate, and the plates are printed successively atop each other.  But Mayhew’s color etchings were achieved in only two steps.  First she printed the outline of the mission in black, dark blue, or brown ink.  After the ink had set – she placed it in a moist environment overnight -- she applied various colors of ink to the same plate and printed these – like a monotype -- atop the etched print. Mayhew’s prints were all unique, like individual ‘paintings on paper.’  Sometimes she would vary the levels of saturation.  At other times she would re-ink the plate with a different set of colors. The same plate was often inked to create the impression of a spring morning and then re-inked to look like a fall evening.

Mayhew was a true member of The Arts and Crafts movement whose practitioners believed in the importance of nature, quality craftsmanship, and hands-on artistic involvement. They saw a direct correlation between beautiful, hand-made surroundings and the quality of life.  Belief in nature, simplicity, and spirituality was borrowed from age-old Japanese practices.  Many of Mayhew’s compositions are reminiscent of Japanese pieces in their high horizon lines, simple scenery, and the vertical, columnar style typical of Japanese pillar prints.

Women were some of the most progressive members of the Arts and Crafts movement.  Mayhew often worked alongside the prominent printmaking sisters May and Frances Gearhart who lived in nearby Pasadena.  May studied with Arthur Wesley Dow in the 1910s and was greatly influenced by Japonisme. But most women artists working in this period who were influenced by Japanese art adopted it much more wholeheartedly.  Bertha Lum, Lillian May Miller, and Helen Hyde – contemporaries of Mayhew– borrowed its line, composition, and even subject matter, and their prints were artistically consistent from one to the next.

Mayhew was also influenced by Symbolists like Odilon Redon.  In “California Poppies” her palette shifts to a more muted, tonalist approach. The objects in “California Poppies” have a subtle atmospheric effect captured in a whimsical, almost lyrical manner.

Mayhew never embraced Impressionism – it remained too tied to realism -- but at times, her images of nature attempted to capture the essence of sensation.  Art, for Mayhew, was about expression, reflection, and interpretation. 

Mayhew was equally experimental in her oil paintings.  As with her etchings, she was less interested in precision of line than in movement and painterly expression as a means to poetic interpretation.  As she said herself, “The grandeur of the west cannot be painted in detail, and the chief aim of art is decoration, hence my canvases will be mere notes of form and color, yet they must sing with light and air.” (10) Nature was her strongest inspiration and greatest influence.

The years of the Depression were difficult for the artist.  Having divorced her second husband in 1926, she became a single mother supporting herself and her children through her teaching and art. Mayhew belonged to several local women’s clubs, where she gave occasional lectures. Since the Civil War womens’ clubs had provided a locus for women of intelligence, women who had the financial means and time to gather and discuss politics, art, and current events. Mayhew became very involved in these clubs, drawing emotional support and stimulation from the environment.  She also continued to exhibit throughout the 1930’s; exhibitions were a crucial means to getting one’s art seen by the public and garnering sales.  Alongside such Southland painting legends as Hanson Puthuff and Edgar Payne, Mayhew participated in the 1930 Purchase Prize Exhibit held at Gardena High School, whose senior class purchased a painting as its parting gift to the school. 

Mayhew spent the remainder of her life in Highland Park.  Passing away in 1940, at age 65.  Today the artist has become recognized for enlightening Southern California’s early art scene with her dynamic character and progressive printmaking style. Challenging time-honored modes of artistic production, she stood at the forefront of artistic innovation, creating a distinct collection of ‘paintings on paper’ that are recognized for their insight and artistic integrity.

(Nell Brooker Mayhew: Paintings on Paper authored by Alissa Anderson will be published by Balcony Press in Glendale, 2004.)

1.        Steve Turner and Victoria Dailey.  “Nell Brooker Mayhew: Color Etchings and Paintings.”  Turner Dailey Gallery, Los Angeles, Pp. 1-3.

2.        Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. Annual Exhibition Record of the Art Institute of Chicago 1888-1950.  Sound View Press, 1990

3.        Goss, Tyler Sullivan. “Nell Brooker Mayhew: Master of the Color Etching and California Painter”. Santa Barbara: Sullivan Goss, Ltd. Circa 2002.*

4.        Opitz, Glenn, ed.  Mantle Fielding’s Dictionary of American Painters.  2nd Edition. Poughkeepsie: Apollo, 1986, p. 1010.

5.        Northwestern University Archives.  “Northwestern University Record of Alumni Accomplishments.” Questionnaire and excerpts from clipping file, Pp. 1-5.

6.        Everett C. Maxwell.  “Art.” The Graphic, 8 Oct 1910.

7.        No footnote

8.        Alaska Yukon-Pacific Exhibition. “Fine Arts Gallery and Exhibit of Arts and Crafts”, Seattle 1909.

9.        Antony Anderson.  “Art and Artists.” The Los Angeles Times, 20 Oct 1912, p. 19.

10.     Everett C. Maxwell.  “Art.” The Graphic, 22 Oct 1910.

Alissa Anderson is an art historian based in Santa Barbara, California.  This article is excerpted from her monograph Nell Brooker Mayhew: Paintings on Paper (Balcony Press, 2004).  Anderson also wrote the encyclopedia, Women Artists of the California Central Coast 1875-1950.  She is currently writing a monograph about the premier contemporary tonalist painter, Michael Workman (to be published in 2004).


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