The Huntington’s Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art is showing Henrietta Shore’s Cactus, on loan from a private collector. Dated “before 1927,” it’s one of Shore’s most celebrated works. Christopher Knight called it “outstanding… an eye-grabbing portrait of prickly eroticism.“
“I stopped short in my tracks silently amazed; here was something outstanding, a notable achievement.…Shores’ work stimulates directly through the senses without intellectual interference… She possessed a technical perfection rarely seen in contemporary art. A small drawing may represent the labor of weeks or even months.”
Perhaps Weston, then little-known, was also describing the artist he hoped to be. Of Cactus he wrote: “Every time I see that cactus, I have renewed emotion: it is a great painting.” (The Huntington has a room of Weston photos adjacent to Cactus. On view in the Chandler wing is Shore’s color drawing of Cypress Trees, Point Lobos—right, recently acquired by the Huntington.)
Toronto-born Shore had the distinction of being John Singer Sargent’s only private student. She also studied with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri. Seven years older than Georgia O’Keeffe, she came to explore similar territory: macro-shot still lifes of Western flora and fauna that read as sexual metaphors. It’s not clear whether Shore more influenced O’Keeffe. The showed together several times, and it’s said that critics were more favorable to Shore.
Shore’s 1927 meeting with Weston was certainly decisive for him. He showed Shore some of his nudes of Bertha Wardell. “I wish you would not do so many nudes,” advised Shore. “You are getting used to them, the subject no longer amazes you—most of these are just nudes.”
Shore was doing paintings of sea shells. Weston did his first shell photo in Shore’s studio, and Shore lent him some shells to photograph. This led to such classic Weston images as Two Shells (1927).
O’Keeffe’s Black Iris, from 1926 (below right), is among the artist’s first to present a still life subject as a metaphor for womanhood. Cactus is something else again. Its Kardashian-esque swellings leapfrog several generations to read as an ironic deconstruction of O’Keeffe’s prefeminist program. The palette is less Canadian than Chicano.
Shore had been painting cacti for some time. Her California Data (owned by the Oakland Museum—the name is prophetic of Silicon Valley) is a c. 1925 exercise in American surrealism. A cactus sprouts out of a calla lily and bears dissimilar blossoms fertilized by a trio of avian weirdos.
By 1930 Shore had a promising career. She moved to Carmel, where Weston had located. Bad career move? Well, O’Keeffe began spending time in the Taos region in 1929 and moved there decisively in 1940. O’Keeffe had a New York gallery. Shore showed in the Carmel region and fell off the national radar.
Shore’s life demands the attention of a serious biographer. What little is known, or said to be known, of her last years is this. Circa 1939, some acquaintances found Shore’s home and studio “messy and deteriorating.” They had her committed to a mental institution. That’s still another parallel to O’Keeffe, hospitalized for a 1933 breakdown. But Shore spent more than two decades in confinement. She died forgotten, at the State Mental Hospital in San Jose, on May 17, 1963.