She effectively captured her world with excitement, verve, and uniqueness

Charles Allis Museum Wisconsin Masters Series 2008: H. S. Moynahan

by Sister Jeanne Moynihan (Respectfully Edited by Gary John Gresl)

"Self Portrait", H. S. Moynahan
Exhibition continues through January 20, 2008

H.S. Moynihan is honored at the Charles Allis Art Museum, Milwaukee by an exhibition of 55 of her paintings.

You may be wondering about the use of the initials “H.S.”. It seems strange, now, to realize that women artists were overlooked in the 20th century. Women in general had little status at this time. Even Women’s Suffrage, the right to vote, had been denied women until 1929. Admiration of the work of women artists was even slower to evolve. Nor were there many venues for any artists in which to exhibit art. Museums usually held one exhibition of local artists a year. Art galleries, so plentiful today, did not exist. Even in art history survey books, a mere six American women artists are discussed until well into the 1960’s. These artists include Mary Cassatt and Georgia O’Keeffe. Thus, the use of a woman’s initials for her first and her maiden name was a way to immediately defer recognition that the work had been done by a woman.

Moynihan painted thin layers of transparent paint, building up layers of color, allowing a translucent glow to enchant the viewer. She also often worked in egg tempera. During the war years of the 1940’s, Americans had food rationing and families were allowed one egg a week for each person in the family. Moynihan would use hers for her egg tempera paintings.

Terry Coffman, past President of Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and now at Cardinal Stritch, noted, “H.S. Moynihan was both a superb painter and a pioneer artist of mid-century America … She effectively captured her world and returned it to the viewer with excitement, verve, and uniqueness. A very important painter of the 20th century – highly collectible.”

Moynihan painted many portraits of men, women, and children. In the self-portrait shown here, Moynihan wears a spring green blouse and a yellow straw hat as she sits at her easel. A red geranium flower is in a red pot at the front of the table. The red and green contrasts with the artist’s facial colors and her rich, dark hair. Background red-brown tones set off the lighter foreground colors. The artist’s intent gaze appears to look at you, the viewer. Besides the portraits, Moynihan painted landscapes, cityscapes and still lifes.

Moynihan’s love of nature in flowers and plants can be seen in her paintings with flowers in Italian pottery vases or reflected in colored glass vases. A plant can even become a metaphor for an historic event. In one painting, The Crown of Thorns, a plant sits in the foreground of a breakfast table where the person has just left the table. A white, used cloth napkin is pushed toward a newspaper bearing the black headline, “The Third Term.” The reference is to the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s winning of a third term as President of the United States. He died four months into the fourth term.

In one painting titled Hyacinths, on loan from the Museum of Wisconsin Art, two Sisters of Charity are shown in their distinctive habits, one sister rather plump while the other is thin. Each sister holds something, one a loaf of bread, the other a Hyacinth plant. Thus, the painting gives a visual image of a Persian poem, A Garden of Roses.
“If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft, and of thy store two loaves, alone, are left, sell one, and with the dole, buy Hyacinths to feed thy soul.”

Moynihan is represented in permanent museum collections and in private collections in 20 states and in international collections in 18 countries. During her lifetime, her paintings were shown in over 100 exhibitions. She was awarded a life membership in the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors Organization. She is noted in Who’s Who in American Art, Who’s Who in American Women, and Who’s Who in the Midwest.

As Thomas Lidtke, Executive Director of The Museum of Wisconsin Art noted, “Helen Moynihan comes from a creative lineage of Wisconsin women artists, almost all of whom were strong willed and doggedly dedicated to their art … She recorded her own surroundings in her artwork and thereby captured some of the grit and grandeur of her hometown … What sets these artists apart is that they were the first generation of Wisconsin artists who broke away from the Euro-centric academic tradition to explore and develop a truly independent and regionally influenced art.”

The exhibit continues only through January 20th. The Charles Allis Art Museum is located at 1801 N. Prospect Avenue, on the corner of Prospect and Royall Avenue. Charles and Sarah Allis planned to will their mansion to Milwaukee at the end of their lives. The mansion is in the English Tudor style. It was designed by architect Alexander C. Eschweiler, who designed buildings such as the Wisconsin Gas Company, Wisconsin Telephone Company, and buildings for Marquette University and Downer Women’s College (these last now used by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee). Eschweiler also designed many mansion homes for Milwaukee’s wealthy residents. The Allis art collection resides in the mansion, as well as the original furnishings. Charles Allis was the first President of the Allis-Chalmers Company and West Allis is named after him. Refer to