IT PROBABLY SHOULDN’T come as a surprise that Ella Shepard Bush got lost in the fogs of art history. The same has happened to many other women artists, before and since. But in her day, Miss Bush — as she was always known — was at the heart of Seattle’s budding art scene.

After training in New York, Bush lived in Seattle from 1887 to 1915. She became the region’s premier portrait painter, a nationally renowned miniaturist, founder of Seattle’s first art school and generous supporter of her many artist friends. Her work appeared in exhibits across the country, and her paintings still can be found in prominent collections — the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Henry Art Gallery on the University of Washington campus, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Washington State Supreme Court. But, sadly, even the institutions that hold her work have little to no information about the artist. And many of her paintings have disappeared.

On the fractured trail of pioneering artist Ella Shepard Bush

Most recently, several went missing from the King County Courthouse, where they had been hanging for more than a century. Somehow, between 2014 and 2016, six Bush portraits of early superior court judges were removed from the walls in what Judge Jim Rogers called “an unfortunate attempt to change what was displayed.” Three were badly damaged; three others were lost or destroyed.

Strange, too, is how little we know about Bush herself. The one photo we know is her, shot by a young camera artist named Imogen Cunningham, apparently no longer exists. All we have is a faded reproduction in an old magazine. Another photograph, by Asahel Curtis, likely shows Bush in 1907, standing at the edge of a group of women painting from a live model. Curtis marked the photo simply, “Miss Bush, studio.”

Modest and self-effacing, this once-renowned painter of faces kept her own face mostly out of the picture. We don’t know why. At Bush’s death, a male columnist at the Los Angeles Times wrote, “No great cameo artist ever chiseled a finer countenance or one more eloquent of the beauty of refinement and all that devotion to beauty could give to one. She must have been lovely in her youth, and certainly she was exquisite in her old age.” No photo was included.

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And it wasn’t because the press ignored her. During her lifetime, Bush’s name appeared hundreds of times in newspapers and periodicals from coast to coast: art reviews, profiles, notices of exhibitions and awards, advertisements, and a steady stream of reports on her constant activity in the community as an artist and teacher.

History books mention Bush, but no comprehensive study of her work was ever published. Here is what can be gleaned, a century later, about a dedicated artist who helped shape the cultural life of Seattle — and whose life remains an enigma.

Somewhere in one of the upper floors of [a downtown building] is a little, frail woman, working steadily away, saying very little, but reproducing with her brush faces and scenes which in life are vanishing, but on the canvas will endure for countless years.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1913

IF ELLA SHEPARD BUSH had finished art school today, she likely would have remained in New York and made a career for herself as a painter.

But this was 1887, and a respectable single woman would have been bound to her parents. Bush, in her mid-20s, left New York City, where she had trained at The Art Students League, and moved with her family to a raw-edged frontier town on the other side of the continent. We don’t know what motivated her father, attorney William S. Bush, to move west. But for a lawyer — or most anybody except the Native inhabitants of the region — Seattle was brimming with opportunity.

The city, as one historian wrote, was in “a seething turmoil of land acquisition.” Between 1880 and 1890, Seattle’s population shot from 3,500 to nearly 43,000. Many of the people moving here were transplants from larger cities, hungry for the cultural life they had left behind.

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Bush was happy to provide. Teaching art and painting portraits were considered respectable ways for a woman to earn a living, and she excelled at both. She held one of her first drawing classes at the home of city founder Arthur A. Denny, on Front Street, where she taught his granddaughters, “the Misses Frye,” and a group of their girlfriends.

For a while, Bush rented a studio on Third Avenue, where she took private students and portrait commissions. Then, in 1889, the city went up in flames. The Great Seattle Fire wiped out almost the entire downtown business district. Just one large brick commercial building — completed the year before the fire and called, confusingly, the Boston Block — remained standing at the edge of the carnage, on Second Avenue.

As the city rebuilt and expanded, Bush taught at her family home until students urged her to open a school downtown. So, she rented space in an upper floor of the Boston Block — it must have seemed like a lucky place — and opened the city’s first art academy in 1894. In 1896, The Seattle Daily Times began publishing downstairs in a rented storefront.

Decades before the Cornish School (now Cornish College of the Arts) opened on Capitol Hill, Bush’s Seattle Art School offered training in oil painting, drawing, watercolor, portraiture and miniatures, all presented to the exacting standards of New York’s Art Students League, where Bush was elected a lifetime member. Among her students were the painters Louise Crow, John Butler, miniaturist Claire Shepard and etcher Roi Partridge (who later would marry Imogen Cunningham). Bush also taught children. A reporter once remarked that Bush had “at various times taught almost every aspiring youngster in Seattle how to hold his crayon … ”  

TEACHING WAS A WAY for Bush to support herself and share her knowledge, but she was first and foremost an artist. In 1903, she took a break from teaching to travel to Chicago; Boston; Providence; Washington, D.C.; and New York, accompanied by her mother, to see the latest exhibitions. She also studied in New York with prominent American portrait painter Robert Henri, and with miniaturist Theodora Thayer, a founder of the American Society of Miniature Painters, which Bush later joined.

Back in Seattle, Bush already was established as the region’s leading portrait artist, and she was commissioned to paint some of the state’s leading citizens. In 1905, she completed her first commission for the King County Bar Association: portraits of late superior court judges Thomas Humes (1847-1904) and Richard Osborn (1845-1905). She then was asked to paint a third portrait, of Judge Isaac Lichtenberg (1845-1905).

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Community was important to Bush, and she was generous in her support of other artists. She organized the Society of Seattle Artists, which in 1904 began holding annual exhibitions at the Boston Block and other venues. The shows presented a who’s who of the region’s serious artists: Harriet Foster Beecher, Maud Kerns, John Butler, Jessie Fisken, Paul Morgan Gustin, Imogen Cunningham and many others. With Bush as its “leading spirit,” one historian wrote, “the group did a great deal to foster the art spirit in Seattle. It kept together those interested in sound art principles and in the production and exhibition of high-grade work.” Bush also joined the Seattle Fine Arts Society formed in 1908, with the goal of establishing a permanent place to exhibit and collect artworks. (The group eventually would morph into Seattle Art Museum.)

In 1909, Bush and her former student Partridge each won silver medals at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. That’s the year Cunningham’s photograph of Bush appeared in the Alaska Yukon Magazine — possibly the young camera artist’s first published work. Other photographs on the page were not credited, but Bush made sure Cunningham got a prominent mention within the text of her own bio: “The portrait of Miss Bush here presented is by Miss Imogen Cunningham.” 

By 1911, Bush had completed a fourth oil portrait for the King County Courthouse and a portrait of former University of Washington President Alexander J. Anderson. All these events are documented, in newspapers, periodicals, and a surviving letter and brief handwritten synopsis that Bush later wrote of her Seattle years.

OF BUSH’S PERSONAL life, however, there is little trace. Reporters described her as small in stature, modest by nature and of “wholly admirable character.” 

We know she was born in Illinois in the early 1860s. Primary sources vary on her birth year, but most Census records put the date at 1863. (Illinois didn’t record birth data before 1877.) If Bush was born in November 1861, as her online death record states, that would put her birth before her parents’ marriage in December of that year. Certainly possible, but until we have more information, the Census records seem the best bet.

At some point, after several moves, the Bush family relocated to Washington, D.C.

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By her own description, Bush was a creative child. In a Seattle P-I profile, she recalled starting art training formally at age 16 at the Corcoran School of Art. From there, Bush went on to New York and The Art Students League. Her teachers, Kenyon Cox and J. Alder Weir, were both prominent American painters who had trained in Paris and returned from Europe, as Bush put it, “enthused with new art ideals.” Another of Bush’s Paris-trained teachers, T. W. Dewing, painted gauzy portraits of young women and believed that art should reflect emotions and memories of love and poetic thought — final remnants of the Victorian era.

We know that Bush suffered much loss. In 1896, just two years after Seattle Art School opened, her father, William Bush, died of heart failure. Then, in 1899, Ella’s only sibling, her younger brother George, died at 33, reportedly of pneumonia. In 1905, her mother, Martha Bush, suffered a stroke and died. That left Ella Bush, a single woman in her 40s, with no immediate family.

Was she ever in love? Did she ever have a serious romantic relationship? We don’t know. At a time when some women’s career goal was to marry, have children and be known by a husband’s name, Bush remained “Miss Bush,” devoted to her artwork. “My greatest pleasure is in feeling that I am preparing to do better,” she explained. “[A]n artist is always inspired that there is something higher to attain.”

But things in her life began to shift.

In 1913, Bush closed her school. She kept her studio in the Boston Block, and then she won honors for two miniatures at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. And then, another honor: The Washington State Bar Association commissioned her to paint three pioneering state Supreme Court justices; the portraits would be hung at the new Temple of Justice in Olympia. On Feb. 27, 1915, the full-sized oil portraits of former Chief Justices Ralph Dunbar, Thomas Anders and James Reavis were unveiled before a joint session of the Legislature and formally presented to the state. News reports say, “Much praise was given Miss Bush.” But she did not attend. 

HAD SHE ALREADY LEFT for California? Around that time, Bush, in her early 50s, packed her belongings and moved to Sierra Madre, in the foothills near Pasadena, to live with her aunt, Mrs. Ella Stork. It’s possible the move was motivated by financial insecurity, or by loneliness, concern for her future or a feeling of duty to her mother’s sister. But one way or another, illness almost certainly played a role.

Tuberculosis was rampant at the time and had no cure. The dry air of the Southwest was promoted as a healthful climate, and the small community of Sierra Madre was founded as a haven for consumptives. A California historian included Bush in a list of prominent residents who moved to the area because they were suffering from TB, were in remission or were caring for someone who was ill.

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Was Bush consumptive? A reporter described her as “frail” in 1913, and the stress of her prolonged period of working on large canvases with fumes of oil paint and solvent wouldn’t have helped. Whether or not Bush had tuberculosis, her aunt or someone in her aunt’s family likely did. Most early inhabitants of the town came for that reason.

Whatever prompted the move, Bush eventually would resume her activities. She taught art students at her elegant new studio and once again formed a community of artists around herself. In 1920, her miniatures were featured in a one-person exhibition at the Museum of History, Science and Art (now the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). Her work appeared in exhibitions across the country and in London. With her aunt, she shared what the Los Angeles Times described as a “home of cultured hearts.” The two women participated in the local women’s club and Robert Browning Society — dedicated to the study and appreciation of the work of Browning and his poet wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

After Stork died in 1925, Bush remained in Sierra Madre, a celebrity miniaturist, beloved in the community and — as far as we know — alone. She gave lectures, and in 1929 wrote a remembrance of her teacher Robert Henri for the Los Angeles Times. Her paintings inspired a fervent 1930 article in Art and Archaeology magazine titled “The Realm of the Miniature,” invoking the ancient history of miniature painting in Egypt, Persia, China and beyond. The author wrote, “Several years of intimacy with the art of Ella Shepard Bush … have developed in the writer an interest religiously mystical, in the world of the miniature, both in art and in nature.”

In a later interview, with The Western Woman magazineBush explained that she found miniature painting “the most satisfying of all the technique which I have studied,” and that it allowed her to “achieve precision and delicacy of drawing in a very special way.”

But by the time Bush died, in 1948, precision and delicacy didn’t seem to matter. The art world had moved on. Jackson Pollock was flinging paint at huge canvases, and the hard-drinking, bad-behaving, lone-wolf artist became the macho face of genius. Representational art, especially the exacting art of portraiture and miniatures, was passé. There were cameras for that.

In Seattle, where Bush once had been at the center of the city’s art scene, her legacy was mostly forgotten. Where women had once led, men now ruled. The region’s art history seemed to start anew midcentury, when Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Guy Anderson and Kenneth Callahan rocketed to fame on the pages of LIFE magazine as the Northwest “mystic” painters.

Nevertheless, artists who had learned their craft from Bush were now scattered around the country, and the community she fostered here grew into institutions that represent Seattle today. Her portraits of territorial and early Washington state judges captured a moment in the region’s past, when the justice system was creating itself, when politics was on the fly and when a slapdash frontier town was trying to shape itself into a civilized city.

We might never know the life story of the artist who painted those portraits. But one thing is for sure: There’s danger in forgetting the past. Styles in art come and go; what is scorned by one generation is adored by the next. The refined and delicate art of Ella Shepard Bush is again due for appreciation.