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Cubist Painter, Printmaker, Assemblagist, Collagist

By Ben Caldwell

American abstractionist, Fanni

Table of Contents


Born in 1911 in Boston, Massachusetts, Fannie Hillsmith grew up as an only child in a middle class New England family. Fannie’s parents, Clarence and Clara Huston Hillsmith, encouraged and supported her artistic endeavors at an early age.

Hillsmith graduated from Windsor School of Boston in 1930 at the age of 19. That same year, she enrolled in the Boston School of Fine Art of which her grandfather was a founder. In 1934, Hillsmith received a scholarship to study at the Art Students League of New York. Under the instruction of Alexander Brook (1898-1980), Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1892-1953), John Sloan (1871-1951), and William Zorach (1887-1966), she expanded her artistic repertoire.

Hillsmith returned to Boston for a few years but went back to live in New York with her mother in 1939. Four years later, she had her first solo exhibition at the Norlyst Gallery. The following year Hillsmith showed paintings along with some of the most well known artists of the time in Sydney Janis’s Abstract and Surrealist Art exhibition as well as Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery. Her pieces gained critical acclaim from art critic Clement Greenberg. He called her work entitled Imprisoned at Guggenheim’s Spring Salon, and perhaps the best thing shown. In 1944, Hillsmith joined the American Abstract Artists; an artist run organization intended to promote their work. Hillsmith taught a summer session at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1945, an invitation that she received from Joseph Albers (1888-1976). Between 1946 and 1950 she worked in Atelier 17, a print shop established by the artist Stanley Hayter (1901-1988). This opportunity enabled Hillsmith to work alongside artists such as Salvador Dali (1904-1989), Marc Chagall (1887-1985), Joan Miro (1883-1983), and Yves Tanguy (1900-1955). During her stay at Atlier 17, the Museum of Modern Art bought Liquor Store Window (1946) an oil, tempera and sand painting on canvas.

In 1958, Hillsmith received an Alumni Scholarship from the Boston Museum of Fine Art, allowing her to travel to Europe for a year where she met her future husband, British mathematician Gordon Welchman. For the next ten years Hillsmith split her time between her husband’s home in Massachusetts and her two homes in New York and New Hampshire. During this time, she also taught at Cornell University in Ithaca New York. Although this mobility stimulated her creative output it proved taxing on her relationship, which ultimately ended in 1970.

Fannie Hillsmith has enjoyed over an eight-decade career working in a variety of mediums including oil, acrylic, printmaking, gouache, mixed media, watercolor, and ceramic. She presently resides in New York while spending her summers in New Hampshire and continues to paint.


Fannie Hillsmith has often incorporated elements of traditional craftsmanship together with the knowledge that comes from her education in fine arts. Throughout her career, she has chosen to paint abstracted still life, while neglecting figurative work. Her primary subjects are everyday household objects rendered in a raw, unapologetic manner. Her oeuvre resembles the cubist work of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Georges Braque (1882-1963), and Juan Gris (1887-1927). Unlike that of her predecessors, Hillsmith’s work has a unique quilt-like quality due the large geometrical shapes, which bifurcate her paintings.

Hillsmith’s early work of the 1940s used a the subdued palette of tans and browns that was characteristic of the wider cultural preference for earth tones and the artistic community’s preference for Braques’ early palette. These compositions tend to be simpler than those found in her later work. Many of these pieces incorporate a solid border, which acts to frame the composition.

In the mid to late 1940s, Hillsmith moved away from a dull color palate to a brighter palette of primary colors. Her compositions became increasingly abstract. Some of the paintings seem as if they are puzzles, consisting of fragmented geometric pieces that have been reassembled in an order that is more aesthetically interesting than the organic subject.

In the early 1950s, Hillsmith focused on solitary subjects that were representational but that lacked fine detail or the full spectrum of color. Later in the decade, she returned to a complex style featuring a new color cycle of pastels and floral motifs, an element that reoccurs in paintings throughout the rest of her career.

Entering into the 1970s, Hillsmith encountered a new type of art – three-dimensional sculpture and collage. Initially, she crafted most of her sculptures out of wood but later she experimented with ceramic and even bronze. Echoing similar experiments by Claes Oldenburg, these sculptures are still lifes of everyday objects, much like her two dimensional work. Concerned with capturing the essence of traditional still life elements, Fannie Hillsmith provides a refreshing perspective on traditional still life through the integration of quilt-like compositions with a cubist flare.


  • 1911Born in Boston, Massachusetts
  • 1930 Attended Boston School of Fine Art
  • 1934 Studied at the Art Students League in New York
  • 1943 First Solo exhibition at Norlyst Gallery, New York
  • 1944Exhibited in Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery and in Sydney Janis’s Abstract and Surreal Art Exhibition
  • 1944Joined American Abstract Artists
  • 1945Taught summer session at Black Mountain College, North Carolina
  • 1946-1950 worked in Stanley Hayer’s Atelier 17
  • 1958 Traveled to Europe on Alumni Scholarship from Boston Museum of Fine Arts
  • 1958 Met and Married Gordon Welchman
  • 1963 Taught at Cornell University for fall session
  • 1970 Divorced Gordon Welchman

  • Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA
  • Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock, AR
  • Boston Museum of Fine Art
  • Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH
  • Decatur Art Museum, Illinois
  • DeWaters Art Institute in Illinois State Museum, Springfield, IL
  • Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University
  • Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
  • Museum of Modern Art, NY
  • New York Public Library
  • Philadelphia Museum of Art Smithsonian American Art Museum
  • Syracuse University Art Collections, NY
  • The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO
  • The Newark Museum, Newark, NJ
  • Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery, Keene St. College
  • USC Fisher Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • University of Iowa Art Museum
  • Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan

  • 1943 Jimmy Earnst’s Norlyst Gallery
  • 1944 Abstract and Surreal Art in America, Travelling
  • 1949,1950, 1954, 1957, 1963 The Swetzoff Gallery, Boston
  • 1949, 1954 The Charles Egan Gallery
  • 1950 -1954, 1956-1963 Boston Arts Festival
  • 1950 Santa Barbara Museum of Art and Colby College, MA
  • 1953 The Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester New Hampshire
  • 1953 Dayton Art Institute, OH
  • 1954 Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
  • b>1963 White Art Gallery, Cornell University
  • 1965 Women Artists of America, The Newark Museum
  • 1969 Three centuries of New England Art, Brockton Art Center, Brockton, MA
  • 1971 Retrospective, Brockton Museum, Massachusetts and Bristol Museum, RI
  • 1972 Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery, Keene State College, NH
  • 1987 The Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester New Hampshire
  • 1987 Dayton Art Institute, OH
  • 1989 American Abstraction:1930-1945.National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC
  • 1993, 1994, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2003 Susan Teller Gallery
  • 1996 Black Mountain College Museum and Art Center, Asheville, NC
  • 2000 America Gone Wrong, Spanierman Gallery, NY
  • 2000 Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery, Keene State College, NH

    1. 1. America Gone Modern, Exhibition Catalogue, Spanierman Gallery, 2000
    2. 2. Collins, J.L. Women Artists in America; 1973
    3. 3.Fannie Hillsmith. August 22 , 2006 .
    4. 4. Phone Interview(4-11-06) with Susan Teller, dealer of the artist
    5. 5. Thompson, James. Black Mountain College Dossiers: Fannie Hillsmith. 1996