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Vanessa Helder (American 1904 – 1968)

Updated: May 6, 2022

Old Well – Santa Fe, c. 1940s, watercolor on paper, 10 ½ x 7 ¾ inches, signed lower right, titled and artist’s address verso and on backing board - “Z. Vanessa Helder, 3827 Ronda Vista Place, Los Angeles, Calif”; newly framed


About the Painting

In the late 1940s, Vanessa Helder and her husband, Jack Paterson, purchased three acres of land in the Vista Encantada area of Santa Fe, where they hoped to build a house and studio space. Around this time, Helder likely completed Old Well – Santa Fe. This work, with its meticulous drafting, subtle palette, beautifully rendered shadows, and carefully textured surfaces, is typical of Helder’s watercolors during this period. In a June 1948 American Artist magazine article featuring Helder, she explained the technique used for this sort of painting, “My second way of working came through one of my subjects “talking” to me. My husband and I were driving West one winter, and I was sketching along the way. We came to a snow scene which suggested several subjects. The first one definitely required an underpainting on smooth paper, with fine drybrush added for textures. This was successful, and later experiments prove that any type of subject could be handled in that manner if the painting seemed to require it. I use it for . . . landscapes . . . .” The drybrush technique described in this article and used in Old Well – Santa Fe is one of the key aspects of her work which differentiates Helder from many of the other Precisionist painters. It gives a depth and grit to the surface of the work, which prevents her work from suffering from the cool and slick surfaces of some of the other Immaculate School painters.

About the Artist

Vanessa Helder was one of the most important female West Coast artists during the 1930s through 1950s and the only nationally recognized woman on the West Coast working consistently in a crisp, precisionist aesthetic. She was born in Lynden, Washington and studied at the University of Washington and later, as a scholarship winner, at the Art Students League in New York with Robert Brackman, George Picken and Frank Vincent Dumond. During her New York years, Helder solidified her tightly controlled approach to the watercolor medium, which is closely related to the Immaculate and Precisionist painters, Charles Sheeler, Edmund Lewandowski, and Peter Blume, among others. She taught at the Spokane Art Center and worked as a painter and supervisor for the WPA in Washington state. After a series of successful solo shows, Helder achieved national prominence when she was selected as one of only two women for inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s groundbreaking 1943 exhibition, American Realists and Magic Realists. Soon after the MOMA show, Helder relocated to Los Angeles where she taught during the 1950s at the Otis College of Art and Design. Helder was a member of the American Watercolor Society and the California Watercolor Society, where she served as Vice President in 1947. During her long career, she was represented by prominent galleries, including Macbeth Gallery in New York, and exhibited and, in many cases, won awards at significant museums and exhibitions, including the Museum of Modern Art (New York), Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Seattle Art Museum, Portland Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Denver Museum and San Diego Fine Arts Gallery. She is extensively listed in Who was Who in American Art and all other standard references.


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