Louise Emerson Ronnebeck
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Louise Emerson Ronnebeck (25 August 1901 – 17 February 1980) was an American painter best known for her murals executed for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Born in Philadelphia she married artist Arnold Ronnebeck (1885–1947) in 1926 and they settled in Denver, Colorado. In Denver she built a successful career documenting western American history and social issues of the 1930s and 1940s.
Mary Louise Harrington Emerson was born in 1901 in Philadelphia, the youngest of three daughters of Mary Crawford Suplee and Harrington Emerson (1853–1931). Harrington Emerson was an efficiency engineer who established the Emerson Institute in New York City in 1900. Prior to 1900, Harrington had several careers, including a frontier banker, land speculator, tax agent and troubleshooter for the Union Pacific and Burlington and Missouri railroads, lecturer, and educator. Louise Emerson’s great grandfather, Samuel D. Ingham (on her mother’s side), was Secretary of the Treasury under Andrew Jackson, the U.S.‘s seventh President (1829–1837). Emerson graduated from Barnard College in 1922, followed by three years of study at the Art Students League New York. During her studies at the League, she was particularly influenced by one of her teachers, Kenneth Hayes Miller (1876–1952). He was an outstanding American Scene artist, but also made quite a mark teaching in the 1920s and 1930s, his other students included Reginald Marsh, Edward Hopper and Isabel Bishop. She spent the summers of 1923 and 1924 at the The Ecoles d'Art Américaines at Fountainebleu, France, studying fresco painting.
Marriage to Arnold Rönnebeck
Arnold Rönnebeck and Louise Emerson met in the summer of 1925 when both were guests at Los Gallos, the Taos, New Mexico compound of Mabel Dodge Luhan. They were married in March 1926 at the All Angels Episcopal Church in Manhattan. Mabel and Tony Luhan attended. Tony was dressed in formal Indian attire, i.e., ribbons braided into his waist length hair and he was wrapped in a formal blanket. Emerson had mixed emotions about Tony’s attendance. Since Mabel and Tony were instrumental in Rönnebeck and Emerson’s courtship she wanted them present on this special day. On the other hand, according to family lore, she did comment, “When everyone filed into the church, no one paid any attention to the bride because there was this American Indian sitting there with the ceremonial ribbons in his braids”. Rönnebeck and Emerson subsequently set off on what they termed an “extended wedding trip” of the West that included stops in California, New Mexico and Colorado. Rönnebeck executed commissions along the way. Emerson continued to use her maiden name professionally until approximately 1931. After that time she began to sign her paintings “Louise Emerson Ronnebeck” or “Louise Ronnebeck”.
Emerson actively pursued commissions through the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, later renamed the Section of Fine Arts. Some people believed that during these difficult times there should be higher priorities than art. Harry Hopkins, head of the WPA appointed by FDR, said it best [of artists] “Hell! They’ve got to eat just like other people”. Many feared that if the Depression continued for very long, a generation of artists would be lost and a fatal blow would be dealt to American culture. The Section focused on artwork for federal buildings, rather than state or municipal buildings, like the WPA/FAP. Between 1937 and 1944, Emerson entered 16 competitions for mural commissions including the Department of Justice Building, Washington, DC (1936, 1941), Fort Scott, Kansas (1937), Phoenix, Arizona (1937), Worland, Wyoming (1938), Dallas, Texas (1940), Grand Junction and Littleton, Colorado (1940), Social Security Building, Washington, D.C, (1940 and 1942), Amarillo, Texas (1941), and Los Angeles, California (1944). She won two commissions for post office murals, both funded by the Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture.
Emerson’s first Section commissioned mural, entitled The Fertile Land Remembers, (10’ x 5’ oil on canvas) was for the Worland, Wyoming post office in 1938. There was some controversy over a Colorado artist being chosen to execute a Wyoming mural, but Edward Rowan, the Superintendent of the Section of Painting & Sculpture said in a memo to the Director of Procurement, “The artists of Wyoming had an equal chance with those in Colorado to compete in the regional competition. The artists of Wyoming according to all records are very poor”. In preparation for the project, she researched Wyoming history and consulted with the Worland postmaster. The approved design depicted a determined looking pioneer farming family in a Conestoga wagon pulled by oxen heading directly toward the viewer. In the background/sky are Indians riding horses chasing buffalo, executed in a translucent cloud-like manner. The Indians and the pioneer farming family were both historically dependent on the land and they are shown being displaced by the new, thriving and growing oil industry. The mural has since been moved and installed in the downtown Casper, Wyoming Post Office in the Dick Cheney Federal Building.
Emerson’s second commission was for the post office and courthouse in Grand Junction, Colorado. The Harvest (7’x 9’ oil on crescent shaped canvas) was completed and installed in 1940. The Harvest depicts a young man and woman working together harvesting peaches, symbolizing “the richness that came to the land following the introduction of irrigation”, with a water wheel in the background. Barbara Melosh, in her book Engendering Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art and Theatre, describes this frequently used Section theme as the “comradely ideal”. She writes, “[Louise] Ronnebeck invokes the comradely ideal in the image of shared labor, and she emphasizes the physicality of work in the man’s muscled arms and the woman’s sturdy figure”. Similar to her Wyoming mural, the man and the woman are equals, working towards a common goal. The mural depicts the Ute Indians leaving the valley on the right side and the white settlers, pushing them out from the left. The theme of displacement is effective and evocative of the time and the changes that had occurred and continued to occur in the West.
The Harvest mural had a life of mystery. By 1973, the mural was dirty and dull. It was shipped to Washington DC for restoration and subsequently forgotten. Until 1991, its whereabouts were unknown. The building manager of the Aspinall Federal Building in Grand Junction had come across frequent references to the mural, but could not locate it. Through perseverance and dogged detective work, he finally located it in New York, had it restored and returned it to Grand Junction. In January 1992, Emerson’s son and daughter, who had originally posed for the mural over 50 years earlier, unveiled it in a ceremony in the Grand Junction Aspinall Federal Building, where it remains today.
Besides her Section murals, Emerson was commissioned to execute many murals and frescoes in the Denver area, including, Kent School for Girls (1933), Morey Junior High School (1934) (still extant but in deplorable condition), the City and County Building (1935), the Church of the Holy Redeemer (1938), the Bamboo Lounge at the Cosmopolitan Hotel (1938) and the Robert W. Speer Memorial Hospital for Children (1940) (still extant, also in deplorable condition). She worked in tempera and oil, but fresco was Emerson’s preferred medium. Unfortunately, since frescoes are part of the architectural structure, many of them were lost when the buildings were torn down. Her shortest lived mural, however, was entitled The Nativity, painted on canvas and installed on the pediment of the City and County Building. As planned, it was only up for the Christmas season of 1935. The mural was 76 feet long and she completed it with the help of two assistants within two weeks after being asked to execute it. It was painted in sections in the basement of a Denver auditorium and it took three days to install. Additionally, in 1942, the Denver Defense Council called for volunteers to work in areas that people were best suited. Emerson volunteered to paint a mural for the Denver’s new USO Center and spent eight hours a day for three months painting a mural for the center. She pictured the peacetime pursuits of the then 26 United Nation countries who were then fighting the war. For this work the Governor of Colorado named her civilian “Hero of the Week”.
Louise Emerson Ronnebeck and Arnold Rönnebeck had two children, Arnold and Ursula.
After her husband, artist Arnold Rönnebeck, died in 1947, she taught drawing and painting at Denver University. Her last public mural in Colorado was an abstract fresco for the lobby of Weld County Hospital in Greeley, Colorado in 1952. In 1954, once both of her children were married, Emerson moved to Bermuda and taught art at the Bermuda High School for Girls from 1955-1959. Her last mural was executed for St. Brendan’s Hospital in 1966. Unfortunately, this mural was destroyed sometime in the 1980s when the hospital was renovated. Emerson lived in Bermuda until 1973, returning to Denver where she remained until her death in 1980.
- "Arnold Rönnebeck and Louise Emerson Rönnebeck papers, 1884-2002". Finding Aid. Archives of American Art. 2006. Retrieved 12 Jul 2011.
- Lois Rudnick, Utopian Vistas: The Mabel Dodge Luhan House and the American Counter Culture (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), 118.
- Marlene Park, Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 5.
- Edward B. Rowan, Memo to Director of Procurement, November 8, 1938.
- “New Mural by Louise Ronnebeck”, Rocky Mountain Herald, October 5, 1940.
- Barbara Melosh, Engendering Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art and Theatre, (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), 60.
- Doss, Erika. Twentieth Century American Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Fahlman, Betsy (Autumn 2001- Winter 2002).“Louise Emerson Rönnebeck: A New Deal Artist of the American West.” Woman's Art Journal 22, no. 2: 12-19.
- Kovinick, Phil and Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick (1998). An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West. University of Texas Press.
- Marling, Karal Ann (1982). Wall-Wall America: Post Office Murals in the Great Depression. University of Minnesota Press, 1982.
- Melosh, Barbara. Engendering Culture: Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art and Theatre. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.
- Motian-Meadows, Mary (Autumn 1991). “ Western Visions: Colorado’s New Deal Post Office Murals.” Colorado Heritage: 15-36.
- Park, Marlene, and Gerald E. Markowitz. Democratic Vistas, Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal. Philadelphia: Temple University, 1984.
- Trenton, Patricia ed. Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Autry Museum of Western Heritage, 1995.