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The Life and Letters of an American Artist

Sunday Market Gate, Rabat, Morocco 1912

Sunday Market Gate, Rabat, Morocco 1912

In the late fall of 1906, Grace Ravlin of Kaneville, Illinois, wrote a letter to her sister in which she explained why she would not be home for Christmas that year. She had been in France since September for added training as a painter, begun formally in the states five years earlier.

You know there are hundreds of students who come over here and just get lost in the torrent and are never heard of… You can see I’m not going to be that kind, that’s settled, for I’ve jumped off here alone without a friend or a particle of help, except the friends I make as I go along, and look, I’ve been very nicely recognized by all the artists in sight. And two or three of these men will be more help to me in Paris than a hundred ordinary people.

Detail, Tile Roofs, Holland 1907

Tile Roofs, Holland 1907

Don’t think I’m over pleased with myself. On the contrary, I’m not a bit satisfied with my work. I feel that so far I’ve done nothing at all. But I thought you might be interested… to hear that the probabilities are that I’m not going to be an absolute fizzle. It’s all hard work ahead now, fearfully hard work… Good gracious, tell Ben [brother-in-law] this is no time to go home. This is my time to dig in. I’d really like to amount to something if I could.

Grace was thirty-three when she sailed for France and Paris to continue what first started in her Chicago high school’s optional art class. She was determined to pursue a career as a painter of landscapes, a daring dream for an American woman without a patron or vast resources, but Grace was ambitious and purposeful. For the next fifteen years, she followed her own plan along the road that drew artists of her day to colorful and exotic places: picturesque villages of rural and coastal France; Belgium; and Holland; Italy, especially Venice; Spain; and the North Africa of Morocco and Tunisia. During these explorations she struggled to develop her exceedingly appealing, but small, paintings and sketches into larger, more finished art works and she gradually sharpened and strengthened her own viewpoint; so that she won praise from her peers, professors and critics.

Venice - circa 1908

Venice - circa 1908

Wherever she went, Grace spent time getting to know the area and the people. She was fascinated by architecture, light and color, the pageantry of local gatherings and celebrations, the movement and atmosphere of fishing villages and their harbors. In long letters home to her family in Kaneville, most addressed to her older sister, Alta; her lively, vivid words easily conveyed the sights she saw, the towns and cities where she stayed and the other artists she came to know as she began to gain recognition in Paris art circles.

Alta shared most of the communications from abroad with family and friends and preserved the letters and postcards along with newspaper clippings from home and abroad for Grace’s return. Many years later Grace forwarded a portion of these to her niece, Alta Ravlin Turner, my mother, along with her scrapbook and several date books, each an invaluable document in the rounding out of Grace Ravlin’s life as an artist.

In 1982 I began research on this portion of the archive, but it wasn’t until early 2007, after she had read the original documents, that Eva Moore and I began our collaboration on a book, which uses the letters as the framework, to tell my great aunt’s remarkable story.

Alta Ann Parkins Morris