Eleanor Maud May Douglas, RCA, OSA (Canadian-American, 1872-1914) artist, author, Roycroft artisan & potter, canoeist, horsewoman, pianist and violinist, primarily known for her oil paintings of trees, woodland interiors and landscapes. Eleanor studied at the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in Ontario, Canada. She has been described as “America’s foremost woman landscape painter” in the early part of the 20th century and was also known as “the painter of trees”.
Eleanor was born May 24th, 1872 on a farm in Port Elgin, Bruce County, Ontario, Canada to William Douglass and “Polly” Marian (née Gaukel), and was the fourth child in a family of ten children. Growing up, Eleanor lived on the Ojibway Indian Saugeen Reservation (later known as the Chippewa), located along the Saugeen River and Bruce Peninsula, near Southampton, Ontario, Canada, about 150 miles northwest of Toronto. As a young girl she lived with her grandfather who maintained a small store and post office on the reservation. She knew the Ojibway and their customs quite intimately, and learned many of the Indian practices such as canoeing, riding, making moccasins, stringing snowshoes and using bark for various items. She also learned to speak some of the Indian language of Anishinabe and received her Indian name “Phpence” (which translates to “Laughing Girl”).
Eleanor lived with her second cousin and artist Carl Ahrens (Canadian 1862-1936) among the Ojibway tribe until 1900 when they moved to East Aurora, NY to join Elbert Hubbard’s community of craftsmen. They developed the Roycroft Pottery program using red terra cotta clay, using input from artist and sculptor Jerome Conner (Irish American 1874-1943). A sample promotion for the venture was in a Roycroft Art & Handicraft advertisement circa the fall of 1900: “Perhaps you would like to see what the Roycrofters are trying to do in POTTERY. The Potter Shop is just across the Road from the Printery. Miss Douglass will be glad to show her wares.” Included in a 1902 exhibition of Eleanor’s paintings were a few pieces of the Roycroft pottery she had produced. The venture was short lived however, as pieces were sold unglazed for quick marketing. Apparently none of the approximately 100 pieces have survived.
In the late 1890’s, Eleanor saw an abandoned schoolhouse near the Roycroft Campus in Willink, NY (now known as East Aurora). Originally built in 1800, it had served as the local schoolhouse from 1857-1889. She purchased the building at 61 Hamburg Street naming it the School House Studio. Eleanor created a home and gardens, welcoming friends and patrons into her vine covered studio with an open door policy. Outside she tended sunflowers, hollyhocks, honeysuckle and meadow rue. Inside her studio guest book included many signatures of notable people who enjoyed the hospitality of her warm cobblestone fireplace and the music of her piano or violin. From 1989-June 2014, it operated as an art gallery called the West End Gallery, owned by the Roycroft Renaissance artist Michele Conley Vogel who along with her husband had fully restored the old studio at 48 Douglas Lane. In, 1990 they received the Preservation Award for their restoration of the building, from the Erie County Preservation Board and Erie County Department of Environmental and Planning, D’Youville College, Buffalo, NY. From June of 2014-Present, the studio is now the site of the East Aurora Physical Therapy (who is part of the Buffalo Rehab Group).
Eleanor was a “Lover of the Woods” and spent each day hiking through the forests and fields around Willink and East Aurora sketching, painting or canoeing. Abundant subject matter was found close to her door or on early morning adventures which might range thirty miles, with painting equipment strapped to her bicycle. The moniker “Lady of the Forest” was earned camping in the woods for days at a time in a tent or shack. A favorite spot was the ‘Ole Swimmin Hole’ along the banks of Cazenovia Creek, also frequented by famous artist Alexis Jean Fournier (American, 1865-1948). Sketches of trees, groves, streams and landscapes were made in any weather and wearing whatever apparel needed – rubber boots, skiis, snowshoes or toboggan suit. Eleanor was known as a free thinker and a free spirit, wearing divided skirts well before they were the norm. Although fond of company, she often walked alone and enjoyed the solitude for thinking and study time.
“Eleanor Douglas preached the gospel of simplicity and of the open road, the life of the great outdoors. She was the true nature lover, and that love found expression in paintings that will live…”.
Soon after Fournier had arrived in East Aurora, NY in 1903 to work at Elbert Hubbard’s famed Roycroft Arts & Crafts Campus, he decided to form a local Paint and Varnish Club (c.1904-c.1935). The club was co-organized by Eleanor Douglas and a select few artists met regularly at Eleanor’s School House Studio and included such notable artists as Robert North (American, 1882-1968), and Margaret Evans Price (American, 1888-1973). Though it seems the Club didn’t last very long, it was later revived around 1917 by Merle James (American, 1890-1963), whose daughter Betsy married the famous American artist Andrew Wyeth. James was the art director of the Roycroft and designed for The FRA and other Roycroft publications from 1917-1924. He then became the Advertising Manager and Editor of the Rotogravure Department of the Buffalo Courier-Express. More can be read about the East Aurora Paint and Varnish Club (c.1904-c.1935) on its artist page on our website.
Eleanor was well liked in her community and by her contemporaries, and her work was respected among local art societies as well as national exhibitions. Eleanor first exhibited with the Ontario Society of Artists and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in Ontario, Canada, and later as a member of the Buffalo Society of Artists (BSA), Buffalo, NY.
Her last name was originally spelled ‘Douglass’ and it appears that sometime just before or after the turn of the 20th century she dropped the second ‘s’ from her name. All of her paintings bear the signature ‘Douglas’. No official reason was ever given as to why she dropped the second ‘s’, but some speculate that she did it when she began to exhibit her work. In the late fall of 1914, Eleanor closed up her School House Studio to spend the winter at her mother’s house in Chicago, IL. On Saturday morning, November 14th, Eleanor suddenly died at her mother’s home from heart failure. She is buried in Mt. Greenwood Cemetery, Chicago, IL.
Forest Cheney, former curator of a large New York gallery and admirer of Eleanor’s work once stated about her, “The striking characteristics of Miss Douglas’s work consist of the potency of its individuality, and her remarkable portraits of the silent monarchs of the woods, whose voiceless stories few artists have been able to relate, either by pen of the master stroke of the brush.”
“Her work shows a strong vivid realism that carries one back to the Barbizon school, combined with an idealism which makes her canvases more than a mere trapping of beautiful moods of nature and fixing them in color.”
1872- Born, May 24th, on a farm to father William Douglass and mother “Polly” Marian (née Gaukel), was the fourth child in a family of ten children, Port Elgin, Bruce County, Ontario, Canada.
1888- Eleanor’s father died, Port Elgin, Ontario, Canada.
circa mid-late 1870’s-1893- As a young girl Eleanor lived with her grandfather who maintained a small store and post office on the Ojibway Indian Saugeen Reservation, learning language and customs.
circa 1893-1900- Eleanor lived with her second cousin (on her mother’s side) fellow artist Carl Henry Ahrens (Canadian, 1862-1936) and his first family, just off the Suageen Indian Reservation, Ontario Canada.
1894-1900- Exhibited, annual group shows, Ontario Society of Artists, Ontario, Canada.
1896- Eleanor and Carl Ahrens and family were taken into the Ojibway tribe and lived on the Saugeen Reservation in 1896, remaining for several months. Eleanor received her Indian name “Phpence” (which translated to: Laughing Girl), near Southampton, Ontario, Canada.
circa 1896- Douglas family moved to Chicago, IL after the family home burned in Port Elgin, Ontario
1898-1900- Exhibited, annual group shows, Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
1900- May, moved to East Aurora, NY with cousin artist Carl Ahrens (Canadian, 1862-1936) and his family to join Elbert Hubbard’s Roycroft community of Arts & Crafts and started the short lived Roycroft Pottery.
circa 1901- Purchased School House Studio, 61 Hamburg Street, Willink, (now East Aurora), NY.
circa Fall 1900-1901-Continued the Roycroft Pottery without Carl Ahrens for a short time, but the pottery was eventually dropped from the Roycroft production lines, East Aurora, NY.
1902- Exhibited, spring, group show, 9th Annual Exhibition of the Buffalo Society of Artists, for the paintings “Elm Woods” and “Sunset View” which were both purchased by Mr. Olmstead and Charles Rohlfs respectively, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Exhibited, solo show, Twentieth Century Club (The first club run by women, for women in the U.S., est. 1894), 595 Delaware Ave., Buffalo, NY.
1903- Exhibited, spring, group show, 10th Annual Exhibition of the Buffalo Society of Artists, six paintings shown “The Woodland”, “Sunset” and “Spring Woodland”, “Autumn Woods”, “Beech Woods” and “Midsummer Day”, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.
Circa 1904- Eleanor helped co-organize the East Aurora Paint and Varnish Club (c.1904-c.1935) which was started by fellow Roycroft artist Alexis Jean Fournier (American, 1865-1948), East Aurora, NY.
1906- Exhibited, spring, group show, 12th Annual Exhibition of the Buffalo Society of Artists, two paintings of forest scenes, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.
1907- Exhibited, spring, group show, 13th Annual Exhibition of the Buffalo Society of Artists, three paintings shown “By the River”, “Woodland Path” and “After Rain”, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Exhibited, spring, group shows in several principal Canadian cities (unknown locations), Canada. Exhibited, fall/winter, group show, Annual Thumb-Box Exhibition, Buffalo Society of Artists, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.
circa 1911- Two paintings exhibited in the Macbeth Galleries, “The House in the Field” and “Willink Landscape”, 450 Fifth Avenue, NYC.
1912- Exhibited, Fall/Winter, group show, Annual Thumb-Box Exhibition of the Buffalo Society of Artists, Buffalo, NY.
1914- February 11-March 8, exhibited, group show, “First Local Salon 1914”, The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, six paintings shown, “Fall Woodland”, “Woodland” (both lent by, Seymour H. Knox), “Apple Trees and Hemlocks”, “On the Knox Farm”, “The River Don”, and an untitled Landscape, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Exhibited, group show, Twentieth Annual Exhibition of the Buffalo Society of Artists, (Prize Second Honorable Mention) for the painting “The Knox Woods”, also “Landscape in Willink” and “In the Sunlight”, Buffalo, NY. November-December, exhibited, group show, "Annual Thumb Box", Alright Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Circa the late fall, Eleanor closed up her School House Studio to spend the winter at her mother’s house in Chicago, IL. On Saturday morning, November 14th, Eleanor suddenly died at her mother’s home from heart failure, and is buried in Mt. Greenwood Cemetery, Chicago, IL.
1915- April 10, a retrospective memorial exhibition of 50 paintings titled “Douglas Memorial” which was held along with the 21st Annual Exhibition of the Buffalo Society of Artists, in the Memorial Gallery in the rotunda at the head of the stairs, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY.
circa 1914-1915- Discussions were made by the Buffalo Society of Artists to preserve Eleanor’s School House Studio as a possible art center where rare items of interest might be shown to the art world, Willink (now East Aurora), NY.
1917- Eleanor’s mother died, Chicago. IL.
From 1989-2014- Michele Conley Vogel, Roycroft Renaissance artist, owned & operated the West End Gallery (formerly Eleanor Douglas’s School House Studio/Gallery) along with her husband Donald, East Aurora, NY. They purchased Eleanor’s former studio in 1989 and begin restoration on the structure, and in 1990 they received the Preservation Award for their restoration of the building, from the Erie County Preservation Board and Erie County Department of Environmental and Planning, D’Youville College, Buffalo, NY. They operated the West End Gallery until it closed in June of 2014.
1993- Exhibited, group show, three paintings shown, Roycroft Gift Shop, 2/R Fine Arts, East Aurora, NY.
1995- June-September, exhibited, group show, "Roycroft Artists and Their Friends", East Aurora, NY.
Exhibited Also: Art Students League, Two Person Show, Easter Reception and Sale, Buffalo, NY (circa 1900-1904); New York City; and Chicago, IL.
Prizes/Honors: Second Honorable Mention, Twentieth Annual Exhibition of the Buffalo Society of Artists, Buffalo, NY.
Memberships/Associations: Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Ontario Society of Artists, Ontario, Canada; Buffalo Society of Artists, Buffalo, NY; Paint and Varnish Club, Willink (now East Aurora), NY.
Museums: Detroit Museum of Art, ten paintings in the collection, Detroit, MI.
Publications: Unknown Toronto newspaper article, “Saturday Night”, August 29, 1896; Roycroft Art & Handicraft, “Perhaps you would like to see what the Roycrofters are trying to do in POTTERY. The Potter Shop is just across the Road from the Printery. Miss Douglass will be glad to show her wares.”, advertisement in the booklet, printed by the Roycrofters, circa Fall 1900; The Buffalo Express, “Among the Artists: Miss Eleanor Douglass Exhibited Her Pictures at the Twentieth Century Club.”, Thursday Morning, March 6, 1902; The Illustrated Buffalo Express, “Society of Artists: Spring Exhibition will be Continued Daily During Holy Week.”, Sunday, March 23, 1902; The Buffalo Express, “Spring Display: Society of Artists opened its tenth annual Exhibition last evening, A Credible Showing”, Tuesday Morning, May 5, 1903; The Buffalo Express, “Art Exhibition Shows Great Gain: Buffalo Society of Artists has Reason to be proud of its fine Display”, Saturday Morning, April 28, 1906; The Illustrated Buffalo Express, “East Aurora News.”, Sunday, March 31, 1907; The Buffalo Express, “Spring Exhibitions”, Monday Morning, April 22, 1907; The Buffalo Express, “First View Last Night: Creditable and Larger than ever before is the Society of Artists’ thirteenth annual Display”, Saturday Morning, May 4, 1907; The Buffalo Express, “Gallery and Studio Chat: Society of Artists”, Monday Morning, October 21, 1907;
Buffalo Express, newspaper article, “A Lover of the Woods”, March 29, unknown writer and page number, and portrait image included on photo page, 1908; The Caxton: A Magazine for Quality Folks, “Eleanor Douglas and Her Studio”, by Newton A. Fuessle, September, 1910, Number 12, Volume 1, Pgs. 27-31, Published by The Caxton Society at Pittsfield which is in Berkshire, MA; The Buffalo Express, “In East Aurora”, Monday Morning, June 13, 1910; The Detroit Museum of Art: Annual Report for the Year 1911, Detroit, MI, Pg. 31, 1911; The Buffalo Express, “Gallery and Studio Chat: In The Studios”, Monday Morning, March 20, 1911; The Buffalo Express, “Social Calendar: Record of Events in Buffalo Societies, East Aurora Society”, Friday Morning, September 22, 1911; The Buffalo Express, “East Aurora Notes.”, Sunday, September 24, 1911; The Buffalo Express, “Gallery and Studio Chat: With the Artists.”, Monday Morning, November 6, 1911; The Buffalo Express, “Annual Thumb-Box: This and Arts and Crafts Exhibit Opened by Society of Artists.”, Monday Morning, November 11, 1912; Article from The Mediator, “For and About Women: Eleanor Douglas and Her Work, Her Painted Arguments for Country Life”, by Newton A. Fuessle, Pgs. 41-43, April c1913?;
The Buffalo Express, “First Buffalo Salon to Open of Wednesday at Art Gallery”, Monday Morning, February 9, 1914; The Buffalo Express, “Gallery and Studio Chat: Present Exhibitions at Gallery to Close this Week; Society of Artists”, Monday Morning, May 8, 1914; The Buffalo Express, “Gallery and Studio Chat: Orpen Pictures and Local Exhibition Opening at Gallery”, Monday Morning, April 13, 1914; Obituary, East Aurora Advertiser, “MISS ELEANOR DOUGLAS: Died in Chicago Saturday Morning, November 14th.”, November, 1914, unknown writer, section or page number, (unknown day); Obituary from, Illustrated Buffalo Express, “Eleanor Douglas”, November 14, 1914; Catalogue of An Exhibition of Works by Buffalo Artists, “First Local Salon 1914”, The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, 1914; The Buffalo Express, “A Memorial Exhibition: Works by the Late Eleanor Douglas to be Shown at Art Gallery, Half a Hundred Canvases, Friends of the Artist Will Lend Their Choicest Treasures”, Monday Morning, March 20, 1915; The Buffalo Express, “Douglas Memorial: An Entire Gallery has Been Reserved for the Eleanor Douglas Pictures.”, Saturday Morning, April 10, 1915; American Art Annual (AKA later known as Who’s Who in American Art, WW17), by Florence N. Levy Editor, Vol. 14, New York, The American Federation of Arts, Washington D.C., 1917;
East Aurora Bee, newspaper article, “West End’s Echoeing History Honored with County Award”, by Cheryl Aron Bielli, May 17, 1990, page 3; East Aurora Advertiser, newspaper article, “Local Women Artists Featured at the 2/R Fine Arts Gallery”, September 2, page 5, 1993; Head, Heart and Hand: Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters, by Marie Via and Marjorie B. Searl, pgs. 115-118, 132 and 134, University of Rochester Press, Boydell and Brewer Limited, 1994 (reprinted 2007); Who was Who in American Art: 1564-1975, by Peter Hastings Falk, Editor-in-Chief, Sound View Press, Madison, CT, 1999; Images of America: The Roycroft Campus, by Robert Rust and Kitty Turgeon, Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, SC, Chicago, IL, Portsmouth, NH, San Francisco, Printed in Great Britain, 1999; The Fra, article, “Carl Ahrens: Roycroft Potter and Internationally Renowned Painter”, by Kim Bullock, (great-granddaughter), Volume XXI, 01, March 2007, No. 1, Pg. 5; Toronto Daily Star, newspaper article by an art critic, unknown writer, section and date; artsartistsartwork.com, online article, arts, artists, artwork section, “Eleanor Douglas: An Artist of Many Names”, by educator, author and poet A.J. Mittendorf, a great-great nephew of the artist, Aug. 9, 2016; Many other miscellaneous newspaper clippings from articles in our internal collection with unknown dates.
For additional information on this artist or for other possible examples of her works, please visit the AskArt link
(Written & compiled chronologically by Mark Strong of Meibohm Fine Arts, Inc., East Aurora, NY, meibohmfinearts.com, 12/2009, Sources: Our internal records; and other sources too long to list here and are furnished upon request)