Eliza Who? 'Restless Enterprise' by Professor Katherine Manthorne Profiles the Most Famous American Artist You Never Heard Of

January 5, 2021

A new book on Eliza Pratt Greatorex profiles the artist who had been "deliberately expunged from the record," says Professor Katherine Manthorne.

Katherine Manthorne and the cover of her book "Restless Enterprise: The Art and Life of Eliza Pratt Greatorex"
Katherine Manthorne and the cover of her book "Restless Enterprise: The Art and Life of Eliza Pratt Greatorex"

By Beth Harpaz

A new book called Restless Enterprise by Professor Katherine Manthorne (Art History) profiles the most famous American artist you never heard of: Eliza Pratt Greatorex, a 19th century landscape painter and graphic artist.  

Manthorne originally set out to research American culture between 1863 and 1877 as a period distinct from the Gilded Age. But she kept encountering references to Eliza Greatorex. She became convinced that Greatorex (pronounced: greater-EX) and other women in her circle had not just been forgotten, but were “deliberately expunged from the record.” Telling Greatorex’s story became Manthorne’s “personal crusade,” a project that she pursued on and off for decades. 

Greatorex’s “art was compelling, but her life story, as I slowly excavated it, captured my imagination,” Manthorne said. “It possessed all the requisite elements of a Hollywood movie: immigration, love, motherhood, global travel and adventure, personal loss, peaks of great success, crushing professional defeats, strong female friendships, and a lasting artistic legacy.”

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Manthorne counters the erasure of this important artist with a fascinating and readable biography. She also offers a textured portrait of everyday life after the Civil War — what it was like for women to travel cross-country or across the ocean, what it was like to walk down a street in Manhattan. 

Manthorne spoke to The Graduate Center about Greatorex’s life and work, and also offered advice on pursuing research on women and other marginalized figures in the face of indifference or even hostility from gatekeepers in charge of funding, publishing, and other resources. 

The Graduate Center: Eliza Greatorex was an Irish immigrant, a widow with four children, and a proper Victorian woman who churned butter and sang in a church choir. What qualifies her as the most famous American woman artist of her day? 

Manthorne: Unusually for a woman she focused on landscape and became a recognized member of the Hudson River School. But as the post-Civil War building boom led to the demolition of New York City’s old churches and landmarks, she transformed herself into a graphic artist to record them for posterity in her folio volume Old New York. From the Battery to Bloomingdale (1875) 

In a mark of esteem, her (male) colleagues elected her as the only (living) female member of their prestigious organization, the National Academy of Design. In the U.S., she was a pioneering woman artist in the West, founded important art colonies in Colorado Springs and Cragsmoor, New York, and exhibited widely. Abroad she worked extensively in Germany, France, and Italy and lived for a year in North Africa, making her the first American women painter to establish an international reputation, in advance of Mary Cassatt. She exhibited at the Paris Salon and was a founding figure in the Etching Revival. 

GC: Why has her legacy, and that of other women in her circle, been so neglected? Was it just that they were women, or was it also because representational art was eclipsed by impressionism and modernism?

Manthorne: Yes, it’s too simple to say that they were left out of the histories just because they were women. Successful male landscape artists like Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt were long neglected and only revived in the 1970s. 

The late 19th century witnessed what some have called the “incorporation of America,” when robber barons, railroad tycoons, and oil magnates seized control of the nation’s wealth and with it, control of culture. They promoted a specific aesthetic taste related to their lifestyle and a narrow range of Euro-American artists who created it, with the result that many creative artists — dark-skinned and white, male and female — who did not fit that mold were rendered irrelevant. 

I think it relates in part to the way art history has been told, with an insistence on a neat genealogy of artistic developments that led unhesitatingly towards modern art. In that scenario there is no room for Greatorex’s pen and inks of lost Manhattan churches or the bird and flower pictures of her friend Fidelia Bridges.

GC: Any advice for students and scholars pursuing projects about women or other marginalized groups? 

Manthorne: First, believe in yourself and your topic. Try not to be discouraged when you submit your proposal for funding or your book manuscript to a publisher and receive a rejection. Instead use that occasion as a learning experience and ask for feedback. Agencies don’t always fulfill such a request, or do so with a standard answer like, “Your project doesn’t fit our profile,” but it’s worth a try. You might receive a pile of rejection letters before you get one acceptance, but one is all it takes.

Second, seek advice and support from other like-minded writers. Join associations or smaller reading groups that dovetail with your interests. Just to cite one example, the Biographers International Organization (BIO) holds workshops and advice sessions on everything from manuscript preparation to finding an agent. 

Third, get the word out about your project. Seek opportunities to deliver conference papers or public lectures where you can test your ideas on others, obtain insights from listeners and equally importantly — let people know that this short paper is part of a larger project. Often editors of journals or book publishers will be in the audience and contact you about your project. Use social media to this same advantage. 

GC: You traveled widely with your husband to see firsthand the places Greatorex lived and worked. Do you have a favorite place? 

Manthorne: Probably our favorite trip was to northwestern Ireland, where she was born Eliza Pratt in 1819. Intrigued by her story, local residents helped us excavate details about her parents and especially her mother’s home in Pettigo, which the artist later returned to paint. 

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.