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A Once-Heralded Dallas Painter Has … Almost Disappeared?

by Jerome Weeks 1 Feb 2013 12:43 PM

Her work was exhibited in New York and Paris, she was taught by John Singer Sargent. Ever hear of Martha Simkins?


Artinfo has put up an article and slideshow about the underside of the booming art market: While auction favorites are still seeing their prices head into the stratosphere (what recession?), any number of once-famous artists have seen their prices tumble or slowly slide away — for no logical reason, no real reflection on their talent or achievement.

“Ten Former Art Sensations that the Market Has Left Behind” has the kind of stock-market investment evaluations that make some art critics and artists go livid with contempt (“Her better paintings went for low six figures in 1991, but had dropped to the mid-five-figures by 1997.”) But amid all the price tags and schadenfreude provocations is Dallas artist Martha Simkins.

Never heard of her? I vaguely remembered the name but not much else (was she one of the few female members of the Dallas Nine?). Sorry, no — she’s earlier than that pivotal group from the ’40s and ’50s. Turns out the Florida-born, Corsicana-raised Simkins was a significant figure in the first half of the 20th century, living and working in both Dallas and New York. She was taught by John Singer Sargent (his influence can clearly be seen in her portrait of Mrs. Asher Cohen, above left, image from Carolina Arts). She was a friend of Mary Cassatt, had her work exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery, the National Academy of Design and the Paris Salon.

The Dallas Museum of Art has only one of Simkins’ works, her painting of Edwin J. Kleist from 1934 (above, right), when she was known primarily as an accomplished, well-established portraitist. I don’t think it’s accurate to say Simkins was ever an “art sensation” according to online sources, Simkins was not inclined toward self-promotion. But that, combined with moving permanently back to Texas in 1934, led to her reputation dimming, until she’s now ranked as “obscure” and “regional.” In recent years, a couple of her still-lifes were sold by David Dike Fine Art Gallery in Dallas. And in 2002, a retrospective went on a national tour after opening in South Carolina. It was actually called “Martha Simkins Rediscovered.”

Interestingly, a couple of Artinfo’s ‘vanishing art sensations’ were late-Impressionist-influenced painters like Simkins or early abstract painters from roughly the same generation, including Seiki Kuroda. I suspect there are probably dozens of similar artists, at least, who’ve fallen into the same also-ran status, as far as the art-investment crowd is concerned.

Simkins, by the way, died in LA in 1969 — she was 100 years old.