Modern Artist

Helen C. McAuslan’s life epitomized the progressive, middle-class woman’s evolution from the “New Woman” ideal of the early twentieth century to the 1960s feminist and counterculture activist. Born on July 17, 1895, McAuslan grew up in a well-to-do family in Providence, Rhode Island. Her mother, Fanny Thompson McAuslan, was an American singer, voice coach, and music teacher. “She was a refined and well educated gentlewoman,” one cousin later remembered, “and interested in her country’s welfare and that of the world.” Her father, Dugald McAuslan, was a Scottish immigrant, oil company manager, and tennis enthusiast. “Helen was very much like him,” the relative continued. “From him she got her reticent manner and the independence that was so much a part of her.” Her maternal grandmother, Maria Thompson, was a caregiver to the young girl and told stories about her grandfather who had been a painter and engraver. Family wealth was derived from her father’s job in the petroleum industry, as well as her uncle Alexander McAuslan’s ownership of a department store. “She was tenderly loved and all her material needs satisfied,” the cousin recollected about McAuslan’s upbringing, “she was not only expected to work to develop her talent, she was expected to succeed in accomplishing her purpose.”[1]

Yearbook Photo

Helen McAuslan’s college yearbook photo (top) for her senior year, 1917. McAuslan was both her last name and, as a mnemonic phrase, stood for the qualities of “Modest, Clever, Artistic, Undemonstrative, Scotch, Laconic, Athletic, Nonchalant.” Courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Archives & Special Collections.

Field  Hockey Team Photograph

Helen McAuslan attended one of the “seven sisters” women’s colleges of New England—Mount Holyoke College. The 1917 field hockey team, McAuslan is located in the back row, second from left. Courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Archives & Special Collections.

Nude Model Sketch

Sketches of a nude female model (above) and of a seaside town in the Caribbean (below) epitomize Helen McAuslan’s creative inspirations as a feminist and as an international traveler. Courtesy of Fine Arts Collection, Museum of the Rockies.

Dominican seaside sketch Nortunga Living Room

Helen McAuslan underscored her modern aesthetic by emphasizing form over content, such as intense colors and sharp designs over any sort of authentic representation. Helen McAuslan, Norotunga Living Room, gouache on paper, 1930 (above). Courtesy of Mount Holyoke Art Museum. Helen McAuslan, Iceland Interior I, gouache on paper, 1930 (below). Courtesy of Fine Arts Collection, Museum of the Rockies.

Iceland Interior I McAuslan on Horseback

Helen McAuslan frequently visited rural Montana to escape modernity—that is, industrial eastern cities—until she permanently relocated to the Big Sky State in 1947. A photograph of McAuslan on horseback, date unknown. Copyright of Gennie DeWeese, Helen McAuslan Drawings (Bozeman, MT: Museum of the Rockies, 1972).

Education cultivated that purpose. In 1913, McAuslan enrolled in Mount Holyoke College, one of the “seven sisters” women’s colleges, all of which had been founded in the New England area during the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Mount Holyoke, like the other  institutions of women's higher education, worked at nurturing female independence and activism. During her academic years in Massachusetts, McAuslan studied different topics that ranged from the Socratic method to Freudian science and played on the tennis, field hockey, and track-and-field teams. McAuslan set a school record in the “ball throw” during her senior year with a distance of 163 feet, 8 inches. She graduated with honors in 1917, earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and psychology.[2] For the time period, McAuslan bucked educational trends; by 1918, only two percent of the college-aged population (defined as individuals about twenty-three years old) obtained bachelor’s degrees in the United States, and one-third of those graduates were women.[3] After her exposure to the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art (popularly known as the Armory Show) in New York City, McAuslan experimented with abstract painting. She joined the Art Students League in 1920, learning techniques from a renowned cast of avant-garde artists including Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Max Weber, Boardman Robinson, and John Sloan. With formal training that stressed constant experimentation over traditional methods, McAuslan found her passion, and purpose, as a modern artist.[4]

The 1920s and 1930s turned out to be pivotal decades for McAuslan in both personal and professional terms. McAuslan moved into a Westfield, New Jersey, home with her mother in 1919, following her father’s death a year earlier. McAuslan, however, maintained an art studio on East 15th Street near Union Square in Manhattan where she regularly commuted to pursue her painting career. New York City’s cosmopolitan borough exposed McAuslan to the “New Woman,” a novel feminist ideal that disputed social and political norms in a male-dominated society. In the 1920s, the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment secured women’s right to vote; Margaret Sanger advocated for birth-control access to ensure female reproductive control; and flappers muddled customary gender roles by adopting masculine affectations in both dress and behavior.[5] McAuslan embraced the New Woman: she drank; she smoked; she never married; she wore a bobbed haircut; she was involved in liberal politics; and she painted nude models to celebrate the female body. As her prestige grew in art circles, McAuslan journeyed overseas for new creative inspiration. A tour of her ancestral homeland in Scotland, a bicycle trip through France, and a vacation to the Caribbean Islands of Dominica and Martinique rounded out her early travel itinerary.[6]

By the early 1930s, McAuslan had firmly established herself within the art world. A critics’ panel, for example, chose her artwork as one of the fifty best prints for the year 1930; and the first-class collection was exhibited in New York City and then all over the country. McAuslan also produced paintings from her international excursions that found their way into prominent exhibitions and confirmed her elevated status. In January 1931, for example, the G.R.D. Studio of New York City showcased some of McAuslan’s watercolors from her recent travels to Iceland. “Miss McAuslan paints with limpid color, with decisive pattern,” the New York Evening Post commented, “You feel the crystal clearness in the air in which every object stands out in strange emphasis. It is much the same world of the Far North which a noted painter and explorer has depicted for us.”[7] Later that same year, McAuslan traveled to Mexico City where she was exposed to the art murals of revolutionaries Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. “This trip was crucial for her development,” art historian H. Rafael Chacón has noted, “Because in socialist Mexico, McAuslan witnessed the radical combination of modernist aesthetics with populism.”[8] Just as Mexican artists defended peasants, Indians, and other marginalized groups in their work, McAuslan started deploying some of her paintings for overt social commentary. The Gallery 144, upon McAuslan’s return to New York City, unveiled her watercolors from Mexico.[9]

In 1932, McAuslan wanted a change from her urban settings and thus decided to spend a summer at Jack Clark’s X Bar A Dude Ranch, located south of McLeod, Montana. She was not alone in wanting an escape from the modern city. By 1935, over 350 dude ranches operated in the American West that not only hosted thousands of male dudes each year, but also boarded hundreds of female “dudines.” While these guest ranches often portrayed traditional values of an imagined western past, they also allowed elite women greater independence than they might have found at their eastern homes, such as their inclusion in the often-masculinized activities of trail riding and hunting.[10] Aside from enjoying fewer constraints, McAuslan fell in love with the rural landscape. From the time of her first visit until 1946, she made almost annual trips to Montana, mirroring fellow artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s frequent excursions to New Mexico. McAuslan relocated permanently to the Big Sky State in 1947—the year after her mother’s death—by purchasing and operating the Diamond Lazy H Bar Ranch in Springdale. “I recently acquired a cattle ranch in Montana,” McAuslan wrote, and “have about 4000 acres [sic] near the mountains and am enjoying it greatly. Also painting when I have time.”[11] But after three years of pastoral labor and little time to actually paint, McAuslan sold the Springdale ranch and bought a small piece of land on Clark’s guest ranch where she built a cabin retreat near the west fork of the Boulder River.[12]

Although McAuslan lived near McLeod and was active in the Democratic Party, McAuslan spent a great deal of her time in Bozeman.[13] By the mid-twentieth century, Bozeman had fostered a community of counterculture artists despite its outward reputation as a conservative town of cowboys and Cold Warriors. The painters Gennie and Robert DeWeese were largely responsible for cultivating this liberal group of non-conformers after their arrival in 1949, when Bob accepted an art teaching position at Montana State College. The DeWeeses, feeling isolated in Montana from other abstract expressionists, tried to forge connections among Bozeman’s avant-garde who also used sensuous paint to convey powerful emotions. “They were both really engaged in supporting and nurturing new artists,” recollected Josh DeWeese, their youngest son, “They went to every damn art opening.”[14] During the 1950s and 1960s, the DeWeeses regularly hosted parties of local artists, musicians, architects, and other like-minded individuals at Bob’s downtown studio, located up a derelict set of stairs to a second-floor flat of a historic brick building at 240-246 East Main Street. The social gatherings were remembered as raucous affairs of heavy drinking, intense conversation, and, on occasion, theatrical productions of a socialist-inspired musical, The Threepenny Opera. McAuslan joined the group’s ranks, later branded the “Bohemians of Bozeman,” and Gennie recalled that she was “always one of the last to leave the studio parties.”[15]

The allure of this progressive art community became too much to resist. “She had driven back and forth so often from McLeod over to Bozeman,” Gennie remembered, “she decided that she needed to move over here.”[16]


[1] Cousin as quoted in Gennie DeWeese, Helen McAuslan Drawings (Bozeman, MT: Museum of the Rockies, 1972), 2-3; U.S. Census Bureau, “Thirteenth Census of the United States: 1910 – Population,” Enumeration District 1622, Boston Ward 22, Suffolk, Massachusetts, Page 8A, microfilm publication T624, 1,178, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

[2] Mount Holyoke College, Llamarada School Yearbook (1915), 149-50, 211; Mount Holyoke College, Llamarada School Yearbook (1916), 149, 154; Mount Holyoke College, Llamarada School Yearbook (1917), 52, 127, 174; Mount Holyoke College, Llamarada School Yearbook (1918), 48; “Degrees Conferred in 1917,” Mount Holyoke College Bulletin 10 (1917): 116-22; Rebecca Traister, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 52.

[3] U.S. Census Bureau, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, Bicentennial Edition (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1975), 386.

[4] Shelley Staples, “International Exhibit of Modern Art,” Digital Exhibit, May 2001, University of Virginia, (accessed 2 November 2016); DeWeese, Helen McAuslan Drawings, 10; Chacón, “Rediscovering Helen McAuslan”; Francis K. Pohl, Framing America: A Social History of American Art, Third Edition (2002; New York: Thames & Hudson, 2012), 342-43.

[5] Martha H. Patterson, ed., The American New Woman Revisited: A Reader, 1894-1930 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 1-25; David M. Kennedy, Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1970), 72-107; Traister, All the Single Ladies, 37-69; Rosalind Rosenberg, Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Feminism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982).

[6] DeWeese, Helen McAuslan Drawings, 10-11.

[7] Press Clippings, May 1931, Helen McAuslan Student & Alumni File, Archives & Special Collections, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA (hereafter MHC-McAuslan File).

[8] Chacón, “Rediscovering Helen McAuslan.”

[9] G.R.D. Studio, “Exhibition Water Colors by Helen McAuslan,” 5-17 January 1931, MHC-McAuslan File; Gallery 144, “Water Colors of Mexico – McAuslan,” 5-18 December 1932, MHC-McAuslan File.

[10] Adrienne Rose Johnson, “Romancing the Dude Ranch, 1926-1947,” Western Historical Quarterly 43 (Winter 2012): 438, 443-49.

[11] McAuslan as quoted in Press Clippings, August 1947, MHC-McAuslan File.                    

[12] “Helen C. McAuslan, obituary,” Big Timber Pioneer, 3 September 1970; “About Georgia O’Keeffe,” Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, (accessed 1 December 2016); DeWeese, Helen McAuslan Drawings, 1.

[13] “Helen C. McAuslan, obituary,” Big Timber Pioneer, 3 September 1970.

[14] DeWeese as quoted in Gail Schontzler, “Montana’s legendary art pioneers: Bob and Gennie DeWeese,” Bozeman Daily Chronicle, 25 December 2011.

[15] Quote from DeWeese, Helen McAuslan Drawings, 5. For general information on parties and counterculture, see Josh DeWeese, interview by Will Wright, 31 October 2016, Merrill G. Burlingame Special Collections, Renne Library, Montana State University, Bozeman (hereafter MSU Special Collections); Bob and Gennie DeWeese, interview by Martin Holt, 16 July 1979, OH 1439, Research Center, Montana Historical Society, Helena, MT (hereafter MHS Research Center); Robert C. Cottrell, Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Rise of America’s 1960s Counterculture (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 24-62; and “Abstract Expressionism,” in Columbia Encyclopedia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

[16] Gennie DeWeese, “Helen McAuslan,” tape recording of the 24th Montana History Conference Proceedings, 1997, tape 2, OH 1773, MHS Research Center.