In the story of American folk art, Eunice Pinney is less than a footnote. She’s a female, self-taught artist from the early 19th century.
But, twice married, the mother of another artist, and relegated to the hobbyist category, Pinney is more than that. In a newly mature medium, Pinney’s work represents the popularization of her chosen art form into popular culture.
Join us as we look at the history and legacy of this pioneer of watercolor painting.
The Story of Eunice Pinney
Born in 1770 in Simsbury, Connecticut, Pinney’s parents, Eunice and Elisha Griswold came from families who’d been in the colony since 1639. The fifth of eight children, Pinney married at the age of twenty in 1790. By all reports, her first husband, Oliver Holcombe, was an abusive man, and the two divorced shortly before his death.
Remarriage was the only real option for Eunice, now left a widow with two young children. So in 1797, she married her second husband, Butler Pinney, and the two moved to Windsor. For the next several years, the two lived in Windsor, where Eunice gave birth to three more children.
Around 1809, Eunice signed her first watercolor painting. She may have started painting earlier, but this is the first record of her work. As watercolor rose in popularity in the early 19th century, Pinney embraced it wholeheartedly. Perhaps her aristocratic upbringing exposed her to the art form, which was already popular in England.
However she learned the medium, Pinney produced over fifty works between 1809 and 1826. Her themes included genre subjects, landscapes, allegories, historical and religious stories, and memorial scenes. It’s interesting that of her subjects, almost all are in 18th-century clothing, painted from memory or inspired by classic literature.
By the time of her death at 79, Pinney’s daughter Minerva established herself as a painting instructor in Virginia. Historians were unsure if Pinney trained her daughter, but there’s a record of examples she sent her to use in classes. Her work is often considered bold and theatrical, with a clear point of view and a highly developed sense of color and composition.
What Inspired Eunice Pinney?
Pinney drew inspiration from some unique sources. Many of her paintings were based on English engravings famous at the time. She also worked with rare English toiles, or printed fabrics. But not all of her work borrowed themes from previously existing work.
Her memorials and genre scenes were original and showcased her highly developed sense of composition. This is unique amongst self-taught artists of the time. Art historians assume that because she started painting later in life, she didn’t struggle with self-doubt. Pinney’s confidence seems to show through her highly developed sense of color, composition, and figure.
What Mediums Did Eunice Pinney Work With?
Eunice Pinney worked exclusively with watercolor in all her pieces. For centuries, serious artists stayed away from that particular art form unless they were sketching. In early 19th century England, watercolor painting served as the mark of a good education. Like playing the piano or embroidery, painting was a diversion for the aristocratic classes.
In the early days of the United States, watercolorists like James Audobon brought watercolor to popularity, and Pinney jumped on board. Unlike other self-taught artists of the time, Pinney created highly developed scenes using the new medium.
Inspiring Pieces by Eunice Pinney
Pinney’s paintings show scenes from her life and times and representations of literary themes. Paintings from women of the time are hard to find, so Pinney’s works are important artifacts. Here are some of our favorites.
Mother and Daughter
This piece, Mother and Daughter, captures an intimate moment between two women dressed in 18th-century clothing. Central to the image is a seated woman, the mother, and a standing figure, the daughter. Deep green drapes hang over both women. It’s unclear what’s happening in the image, but a closer look reveals a story.
The mother holds what looks like a razor, and the daughter appears to have a wound on her arm. At the time, bloodletting was a standard treatment for many ailments. So it’s possible the scene renders something that happened in Pinney’s past.
The Cotters Saturday Night
In this painting, Pinney’s complex composition stands out. By rendering the background black and grey, the seated figures in the foreground stand out. A group of adults sits in a row while Mr. Cotter, presumably, reads from a book. He’s likely reading from the Bible, based on Pinney’s dedication to the Episcopal church growing up. In fact, her brother was the first and only bishop of the East States Diocese.
Pinney uses rich greens, browns, and yellows to render the people in the scene. The figures also have clear expressions, something unusual for self-taught artists of the time.
Lolotte and Werther
This piece is an excellent example of Pinney’s complex composition and sense of color. For example, the patterned floor shows the level of detail she used. Her work in this image is so detailed that historians identified the painting on the wall as a print titled Winter. Inspired by Goethe’s story Werther, the figures are from the love triangle of Werther, Lotte, and Albert.
Doomed to fail, Werther sits with his head in his hand and watches his love play the piano. One of her pieces inspired by literature, Lotte et Werther reframes the male-centered story of Lotte.
Where Can I See Some of Eunice Pinney’s Art?
Most of Eunice Pinney’s art lives with her descendants. However, several paintings exist in the public domain and galleries. While online sources offer an opportunity to view Pinney’s artwork, you can see some of her pieces in person at these institutions.
National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art houses four of Pinney’s paintings. Opened in 1941, the National Gallery of Art was the dream of Andrew Mellon. A philanthropist and financier, Mellon also served as the treasury secretary under four presidents. Since then, the gallery’s collection has grown to more than 150,000 works of art from around the world.
Located in Washington, D.C., the museum is open 363 days a year. Admission is always free, and reservations aren’t required.
American Folk Art Museum
Dedicated to self-taught artists, the American Folk Art Museum holds three of Pinney’s paintings. The museum contains over 8,000 folk art pieces, and Pinney’s artwork fits in perfectly. The permanent collection spans nearly every continent and stretches four centuries.
Located in the heart of Manhattan, the museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free.
An Artist With a Legacy
No better example of early American watercolor exists than the work of Eunice Pinney. Her pieces show a sophistication that most folk artists of her time couldn’t touch.
Pinney’s point of view presents her place and time from the unique perspective of a singular individual. By embracing watercolor, Pinney should’ve cemented her place in developing the medium as a serious form of expression.
Do you have a favorite watercolor painting from Eunice Pinney? Tell us about it in the comments below.
Outside Folk Gallery
You can explore folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans.
We’ll also be offering pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when!