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By Janessa Schueler

Gina Knee is an important American painter of the 20th Century with a successful career that extended over fifty years, beginning in the early 1930s. Starting with a drastic change in location from the South to the Southwest, Knee had solo shows in New York and California, while maintaining a marriage, social life and art career in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She exhibited with and frequented the same circles of some of the most highly acclaimed artists of her time, including: Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Elaine and William de Kooning and Mark Tobey.

Table Of Contents

I. Biography

Gina Knee (born Virginia Schnaufer) was born on Oct 31, 1898 to a prevalent family in Marietta, OH. The Schnaufers had money from the oil industry and a lumber business left by her German immigrant ancestors. Though her family did not consider art as a vital activity for a young girl’s development, painting and visual arts were a part of her life at a young age. Sharon Udall, her biographer, recalls Virginia’s statement: “As a child and into my teens, I always painted something-- from paper dolls to attempts at pictures of my friends or family.” Though she was allowed to paint as most children, she was never expected to develop talent in any realm, especially art. To her family, refined women were not intended to have careers. In fact, Virginia was brought up in preparation for her arranged marriage that was set in motion at an early age. Consequently, she married Goodlow Macdowell and spent ten years focusing her life around him. They went to parties, polo games and all other sophisticated activities a proper married couple at this time were supposed to participate in.

Around 1930, the marriage ended with Knee’s sudden departure from her home, leaving behind everything that she knew. Since divorce was still very shameful in the 1930s, she was considered a “fallen” woman. Yet, as a newly single woman, she was able to look at her life from a completely new vantage point, and it allowed her to find her true passion to become an artist. This would not be the only time a divorce would influence a change in her lifestyle. She married twice more with each marriage and divorce challenging her artistic identity.

She studied briefly at the Art Students League in New York in 1930. After seeing a John Marin watercolor show at Alfred Stieglitz’ gallery, An American Palace, in November of 1930, she moved to New Mexico. Marin had spent a short time in Taos, and the thirty-two watercolors in the show inspired Knee. She noticed how he had captured the distinct forms of the New Mexico region. When she visited Santa Fe, she only intended to stay a few weeks, but made it her home for the next ten years.

Shortly after her arrival in New Mexico, she changed her name from Virginia to Gina and started to sign her works accordingly. During the winter of 1932, Gina had met Ernest Knee, a young photographer, who would later join her on her educational visits to local Native American dance rituals and ceremonies. Late in the following year, Ernest stayed in Santa Fe to study photography, while Gina went to Taos to study with artist Ward Lockwood. Upon her return to Santa Fe in 1933, Gina and Ernest were married. As her husband gained recognition for his photography in and out of New Mexico, Gina longed for her own success.

Her marriage to Ernest Knee came at a time where she was on the cusp of her artistic discovery. Gina gained great popularity among the arts community for her lively personality and enthusiasm. However, the perpetual commotion and entertaining that took place around her studio kept her from focusing on the art she yearned to create. Thus, 1935 marked the beginning of her most productive year. The new couple had moved to a house in the Tesuque Valley, just a few miles from Santa Fe. The Knee’s relationship thrived in the secluded Tesuque house regardless of their desire for a child and Gina’s inability to conceive. In the beautiful, tranquil setting away from the distractions of the hectic “Camino” downtown of Santa Fe, she cast her energy into painting.

With the onset of World War II in 1941, Ernest, like many New Mexicans, moved to Los Angeles, California to find work in the defense industry. Gina was left behind in New Mexico to care for their house and to continue pursuing her art. She was deeply concerned with the inhumanity of war and her feelings of displacement were beginning to set in. Most of all, she didn’t want to give up the artistic life she had grown to love so much. She knew that she would have to work harder than ever to keep art in her life.

Her confidant, Marian Willard, owner of the Willard Gallery in New York, encouraged Gina to continue her art making. They made plans for a 1942 solo exhibition. Alfred Morang, for Art Digest wrote “Gina Knee is probably the most important painter of well-controlled abstract-creative patterns in the country. Her color is intense even when she understates, a quality which she shares with only a very few living Americans.”

By December 1942, the isolated feeling of being in the country alone became overwhelming, and she made the decision to join Ernest in Los Angeles. He had provided a steady, calming influence in her life, and without him in it, she lost her drive to paint. It was a need for physical closeness to Ernie that contributed to her artistic ability.

Gina hoped that being in Los Angeles with Ernie, would prove productive for her. While she waited for her painting supplies to arrive from New Mexico, she sketched with pencil and paper. As she and Ernie explored the art scene in California she met the owner of Hatfield Gallery, who quickly offered her a solo show for June later that year.

With Ernest working long hours at Howard Hughes Aircraft Company in Culver City, she found her priorities shifting without her control. Her time and energy were spent doing all the household chores that she had been accustomed to having help with. As she felt more and more a loss of control, Gina started to feel resentment towards Ernest. Consequently, the depressing nature of her new life in California took its toll on her. By winter 1942, she fell into an unproductive state. It was not until the spring that her depression lifted and that she found a renewed strength within herself to collect her spirit and move forward.

At this point, her relationship with Ernest had become more and more distant. She felt that he was no longer simply removed from her work, but completely apathetic. After finding out that he was involved with an attractive younger woman, she left him in the fall of 1943 and returned to New Mexico.

The divorce took its toll. For a time, she felt a sense of anguish and fragility that she hadn’t experienced before. She began to doubt herself and her beautiful paintings, which she packed up and sent to New York for the November show at Willard’s Gallery. The reviews proved different as critics commended her for the emotional qualities that she so gracefully developed on the surface of her canvases.

Not long after her divorce from Ernie was finalized in April 1944, Gina started a new life with artist Alexander Brook. The new couple settled in Savannah, Georgia, where they remodeled and personalized their home. Brook’s personality was completely opposite to what Gina had become accustomed to with Ernest Knee. Her work continued to be exhibited and she took to her new surroundings with great fervor. In late 1946, she ventured into using oils, which was a completely foreign medium to her. After incredible dedication, she mastered the technique and won a first prize at the national painting exhibition in New Orleans that year.

The final years of her life were split between Georgia and New York, finally settling in the Hamptons in 1948, where she stayed actively involved in the art world. In 1953, the Guild Hall show “Seventeen East Hampton Artists” featured four artist couples: Gina Knee and Alexander Brook, Gertrude and Balcomb Greene, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, and Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. Gina would remain an asset to Guild Hall, organizing her own solo shows and dynamic group shows for the remaining years of her life. Gina Knee died on her eighty-fourth birthday, October 31, 1982 at the hospital of Suffolk, New York.

II. An Analysis of the Artist's Work

The most revealing aspects of Gina Knee’s life are not her letters, personality, fears, abilities, friendships and marriages, but rather it is her art that shows her true vision about the world in which she lived. The main medium she worked with was watercolor, experimenting with gouache, tempera, and finally oil in her later years.

As an artist with little or no training, it took several attempts for Gina to get comfortable as an artist in the challenging New Mexican terrain. The foreground and background of her early works do not come together into a well-rounded composition. They lack depth and interest. This is how her style started to unfold. What she lacked in formal artistic training, she eventually learned to leave out of her works, becoming more reliant on the spontaneity of forms in space and color.

In her first few years in New Mexico, Knee focused her work on Native American rituals and religious themes. Her early works were greatly influenced by the John Marin watercolors she saw in New York City. In turn, she created her own palette of colors and painted the rhythm of what she saw through symbolic patterns and a unique visual language. An exhibition catalogue from 1933 describes her activities during those early years as, “Working out a palette suited to the mysterious dark exhortations, the medieval stolidity, of the Native American dances and Penitente rites and processions on which her interest centered.”

Each figure in this series of work is defined against the background; even details are clearly defined with her brush. Her later work shows a loosening in technique and a much more playful style of painting. Later renditions of similar ritualistic subject matter show a more complex composition where the figures are merely fragments of color and are arranged in such a way that a relationship between background and foreground disappears. She flattened the spatial relationship between the figures and landscape; perhaps commenting on the relationship between the figures and nature itself. Gina showed a clear attachment to Native American ritual and religious subject matter, but her work changed as she became more and more comfortable with the watercolor medium. Soon after, the landscape genre became her passion. She spent the remainder of the 1930s and 1940s working in this area.

By 1933, just as she changed her name from Virginia to Gina, her technique became much more abstract. Her brushstroke loosened even more. The figures became softer and more fluid. She developed more spontaneity and confidence to work with abstraction after her short study with the artist Ward Lockwood.

Due to her new marriage to Ernest Knee in 1933, which led to their move out of the artistic center of Santa Fe, her paintings became much more tranquil, with vivid landscapes based in the Tesuque Valley. Her watercolors showed her newfound artistic freedom in the country. She focused on the seasonal changes of the landscape and the solitude she found there. She felt a true connection to nature, and wanted to transfer this energy through her paintbrush. She created works where nature was not presented in orderly fashion with rigid formations. She abandoned the ideas of perspective that she had once tried to capture in failed attempts at painting landscape, and gave the control to the instinctive chaos of nature. For instance, she painted meandering mountain landscapes and village scenes that fluidly move all over the picture-plane with no regard to traditional figure/ground relationships.

As the US entered World War Two in 1941, huge changes in lifestyle were forced upon her. She no longer felt safe and secure as she once had. Soon the feeling of contentment that the country had brought to her, changed to feelings of isolation and confinement. She painted circus subject matter where she unveiled some of these emotions. With a fanciful and colorful rendering of circus animals and performers, she painted common scenes of energetic chaos.

Unknowingly, Gina Knee started to create a visual language to describe her surroundings and inner feelings. After her husband, Ernest, moved to California to find work in support of the war effort, Gina was left alone to care for their home in the Tesuque Valley. During this period of time, her paintings started to display her true struggle with isolation and frustration, not only for herself but also for women in general. Her compositions became tightly packed with images, thin fragmented lines, quick washes, and zigzag patterns creating moody colors. She left no empty spaces and no center of focus. There are also many scenes of women positioned behind windows, where they gaze out blankly. These women are bound by their surroundings, unable to do more than peer out.

Like many artists, Gina was using her art to clarify her ways of thinking. Her feelings of loneliness became unbearable, and she sought companionship as she made the decision to join Ernest in California.

During her stint in Los Angeles, Gina took to the style of the California landscape and its teeming beach landscapes. She ventured into the unknown terrain, finding things like fish skeletons, animal bones, shells, driftwood and sand in order to familiarize herself with such imagery. These objects became the subjects of her densely packed compositions full of life, color and reviving symbols of the rebirth of nature.

With her divorce from Ernest Knee and new marriage to Alexander Brook in 1944, her oeuvre would change once again. With the encouragement of her new husband and new surrounding in Georgia, Gina ventured into the oil medium. She struggled with mastery of the new medium, and felt the urge to change to a more formal approach to painting. She succeeded in creating paintings of southern scenes where the landscape and villages relate to one another in convincing space. She went on to win the first prize at the national painting exhibition in New Orleans in 1947.

This raise in confidence led to great recognition among her peers. She continued to work in the oil medium into her later years, returning to watercolors to get a sense of comparison.

Some critics have tried to classify Gina Knee as a regionalist painter. It was regional subject matter, in that she painted the landscape scenes in the parts of the country she lived in, but she never truly became a regionalist. Her interest was less about painting realistic scenes of American landscape and more about describing the land she saw and relating it to the surrounding climate and natural light. Each new place that she ventured to created a new atmosphere for her to ponder and a new landscape to discover. She enjoyed learning the myths and legends of the people living in each new place. She became connected to the land through the use of her paintbrush. In an interview for “The Star Talks” she expressed her never-ending love of the Southwest: “I never got over New Mexico-the landscape, the mesas, mountains, the green and tan.”

III. Chronology

  • 1898 Virginia Schnaufer is born, October 31, Marietta, OH.
  • 1920 Marries Goodlow Macdowell
  • 1930 Divorces Goodlow Macdowell. Moves to New York.
  • 1930 Sees the Marin watercolors on exhibit at the Alfred Stieglitz New York Gallery. Studies at the Art Students League, NY.
  • 1931 Moves to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
  • 1933 Marries Ernest Knee.
  • 1933 Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, NM.
  • 1933 Joins the Rio Grande Painters group
  • 1934-38 Elected president of the Rio Grande Painter’s Group.
  • 1934 Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe-Fiesta Show-Worcester Art Museum in MA traveling show.
  • 1935 Starts signing her name Gina Knee. Her style becomes more abstract.
  • 1935-40 Group shows with the California Watercolor Society
  • 1938-39 Second Prize at the California Watercolor Society shows
  • 1938 Denver Art Museum
  • 1938 Fiesta Show
  • 1939 Illustration for the Laughing Horse, and unfinished play by D.H. Lawrence called Altitude.
  • 1936 Trip to west coast in the Spring.
  • 1936 Fiesta Show, Santa Fe, NM
  • 1939 & 1941 First Prize at the New Mexico State Fair.
  • 1939 New York World’s Fair exhibition, Group shows at the Whitney Museum, NY and the Riverside Museum, NY. Develops friendship with Marian Willard owner of Willard Gallery in NY.
  • 1938 First solo show at the Denver Art Museum in Spring
  • 1938-39 Taught art at the Santa Fe girls school.
  • 1939 Joined Heptagon Group in Taos, exhibited with Heptagon Gallery.
  • 1939 Painting included in the New York World’s Fair exhibition
  • 1941 Bombing of Pearl Harbor, US enters WWII, Ernie leaves for California to find work, Depression hits New Mexico.
  • 1941 Marian Willard Introduces Knee to the work of Paul Klee, who would influence her later works, as Marin influenced her earlier works.
  • 1942 Solo show at Willard Gallery, NY, medium now includes tempera & gouache. Reviews in New York Herald Tribune, New York Times, Art News and Art Digest.
  • 1942 Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Artists for Victory” Exhibition, NY.
  • 1942 Fiest Show, Santa Fe, NM, White Gallery in Santa Fe solo show, University Art Gallery in Albuquerque.
  • 1942 Rents the Tesuque house, moves to a small Apt in Santa Fe, then Moves to Hollywood, CA to rejoin Ernie.
  • 1943 Explored the Los Angeles art community, met photographer Man Ray.
  • 1943 Joined California Watercolor Society.
  • 1943 Solo show at Hatfield Gallery in Los Angeles, Interview for radio program “Women Make the News”, work acquired by the Walter Arensberg Collection. Show invited to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Art, finally to: Willard Gallery, NY.
  • 1943 Returns to Santa Fe, New Mexico in the fall after leaving her husband. Autumn in NY. Meets Alexander Brook.
  • 1944 Divorce from Ernest Knee final in April, married Brook shortly after to begin a new life in Savannah, GA.
  • 1945 E.B. Crocker Art Gallery in Sacramento four-person show.
  • 1946 Ventured into oil medium.
  • 1946 First prize at the juried national painting exhibition in New Orleans.
  • 1945 Art Institute of Chicago’s Contemporary American Show.
  • 1948 Purchased meadowland property in North Haven, NY.
  • 1949 Solo show at Willard Gallery, NY.
  • 1949 “Seventeen Artists of Eastern Long Island” East Hampton Guild Hall, NY.
  • 1952 Helped friend Eloise Spaeth install the Edward Hopper Room at the Venice Biennale
  • 1950 Group Show Guild Hall.
  • 1953 “Seventeen East Hampton Artists” Guild Hall Group Show.
  • 1982 Died Suffolk, NY

  • 1933 Museum of Fine Arts Santa Fe, NM
  • 1938-40 California Watercolor Society
  • 1938 One woman show, Denver Art Museum
  • 1939 New Mexico State Fair
  • 1942 Solo show, Hatfield Gallery, Los Angeles
  • 1940, 46, 47 Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1946, 48, 55 Brooklyn Museum, New York
  • 1943 One woman show, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California.
  • 1941-44 Los Angeles Museum of Art
  • 1945 San Francisco Museum of Art
  • 1947 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
  • 1948 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia
  • 1950 Group Show, Guild Hall
  • 1953 Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • 1963 Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
  • 1965 Newark Museum of Art, New Jersey
  • V. Collections

  • Albright-Knox Art Gallery, NY
  • Charleston Renaissance Gallery, SC
  • Denver Art Museum, CO
  • Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, TX
  • Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, NM
  • Owings-Dewey Gallery, NM
  • Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, TX
  • Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA
  • San Diego Museum of Art, CA
  • The Phillips Collection, DC
  • VI. Memberships

  • California Watercolor Society
  • Heptagon Group
  • Rio Grande Painter’s Group (president)

    1. 1. Site viewed 10/22/2006.
    2. 2. Cassidy, Ina Sizer, Art and Artists of New Mexico, New Mexico Magazine, February, 1939.
    3. 3. Falk, Peter H. Who’s Who in American Art. 1940-70.
    4. 4. Hughes, Edan. Artists in California. 1786-1940.
    5. 5. Owings Dewey Fine Art. A Gallery for 19th and 20th Century Art. Site viewed 11/25/2006.
    6. 6. Udall, Sharon. Inside Looking Out: The Life and Art of Gina Knee. Texas Tech University Press. 1994.


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