Eleanor Douglas







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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.

Eleanor's little School House Studio at 48 Douglas Lane as it looks fully restored (as of 08/2013). It was once a contemporary gift gallery called the West End Gallery and is now the site of East Aurora Physical Therapy, who is part of the Buffalo Rehab Group.
(Photo by Mark Strong)
n 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 1989-2014, 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.The studio is now the site of 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 Fournier. 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, walked alone and enjoyed the solitude for thinking and study time.

"Trees in Spring"
12 x 8-1/8
Oil on panel
Signed lower left, personal inscription lower right "To Mr. & Mrs. Stearns In Memory of a Trip on the Crocus"

“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. The club was co-organized by Eleanor Douglas and a select few artists met regularly at Eleanor’s School House Studio. 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 with the Buffalo Society of Artists (BSA), Buffalo, NY. She was a member of the BSA and also helped co-found the original East Aurora Paint and Varnish Club (c.1904-c.1935) along with fellow Roycroft artist Alexis Jean Fournier (American, 1865-1948). The Club 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).

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.”

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Last modified: Monday, 25 March 2024