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Vanessa Helder (American 1904 – 1968)

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

Rural Factory, c. 1940s, watercolor on paper, 12 ¾ x 15 ¼ inches, signed lower right; titled verso; newly framed


About the Painting

Like many other precisionist painters, Vanessa Helder had a particular affinity for architectural and industrial subjects. The hard edges, clean lines and broad expanses of color worked well with the prevailing Machine Age aesthetic of the 1930s and 1940s. Rural Factory fits squarely into this aesthetic. It bares comparison to Helder’s most important body of work, her Grand Coulee Dam Series (1939 – 1941), portions of which were included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1943 exhibition, American Realist and Magic Realists, and are currently in the collection of Northwestern Museum of Arts & Culture/Eastern Washington, State Historical Society in Spokane. Like Charles Sheeler’s paintings of Ford’s River Rouge plant, Helder’s Grand Coulee Dam paintings celebrate the industrial and engineering accomplishments of the United States and the optimism afforded by technological innovation. Unlike Sheeler’s River Rouge paintings, however, Helder’s works also explore the stark contrast between man-made objects and the surrounding natural environment. In the foreground of Rural Factory, Helder paints a large, severely pruned tree, an iconic but shorn symbol of the natural world, against the walled-off and windowless factory buildings in the distance. The cut limbs are stacked neatly beneath the tree waiting to be fashioned into lumber and used to create wooden buildings like the one on the right side of the composition. The color palette, combination of architectural and natural elements, and the use of clear but mysterious shadows are iconic Helder conventions of the type we see in the Grand Coulee Dam series.

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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