An esteemed portrait painter and nationally renowned miniaturist, Ella Shepard Bush (1863-1948) founded Seattle’s first art school and was a cornerstone of the city’s early arts community. In 1904 she organized the Society of Seattle Artists, which sponsored high quality annual exhibitions, and she participated in the Seattle Fine Arts Society, formed in 1908, which later would morph into Seattle Art Museum. Bush’s work appeared in exhibits across the country and her portraits can still be found in prominent collections — the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Henry Art Gallery, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the Washington State Supreme Court. Born in Illinois, Bush trained at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Art Students League in New York, before moving to Seattle with her parents and younger brother in 1887. She taught private lessons and then, in 1894, opened the Seattle Art School downtown. Bush was commissioned to paint some of the region’s preeminent citizens including three of the state’s first supreme court justices. In 1915 she moved to Sierra Madre, California, where she continued to paint, participate in community events, and exhibit her miniature paintings nationally until her death.
Despite her acclaim, many of Bush’s paintings have disappeared over the years, and until recently even the institutions that hold her work had little information about her. Just in the past decade, several oil paintings went missing from the King County Courthouse, where they had been hanging for a hundred years. 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" ("A Portrait of Justice"). Three were badly damaged; three others were lost or destroyed.
Some history books mention Bush, and during her lifetime her name appeared in hundreds of newspapers and periodicals. However, no comprehensive survey of her work was ever written. Here's what can be reconstructed, a century later, about a pioneering woman artist and nationally renowned miniaturist, whose career was nearly erased by the shifting tides of art history.
Ella Shepard Bush was born in Galesburg, Illinois, probably on November 21, 1863, to William Shaler Bush (1828-1896) and his wife Martha Smith Bush (1837-1910). At that time, Illinois did not yet keep birth records, so she had no birth certificate. Bush’s death record states her birth year as 1861, but that would place it before her parents' marriage in December of that year. Most Census reports give her birth date as 1863, which seems most likely.
By her own description, Bush was a creative child and took up art at an early age, but little information remains about her early schooling or even where she lived growing up. The family seems to have moved several times before settling in Washington D.C., where Bush began her formal art training at the Corcoran School of Art at age 16.
She later went on to the Art Students League in New York, one of the premier American academies of the day. Her teachers, Kenyon Cox (1856-1919) and J. Alden Weir (1852-1919), were prominent American painters who had trained in Paris and returned from Europe, as Bush later said, "enthused with new art ideals" (Halderman). Another of her Paris-trained teachers, T. W. Dewing (1851-1938), 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.
From her teachers Bush learned about new developments in art, at home and abroad. Her training, however, was in the classical tradition and highly technical, including life drawing and painting classes with nude models. At the time, women weren’t always allowed to take "life" classes, considered improper. But the classes, which train students in how to capture the living anatomy, musculature, postures, and proportion, were an essential part of training for male artists and the Art Students League held its students equal.
In 1887, Bush left New York with her parents and brother George (1866-1899), and traveled across the country to settle in the burgeoning young city of Seattle. William Bush, an attorney, may have smelled opportunity in a place where timber, land, and a bounty of natural resources were drawing settlers by the thousands. Between 1880 and 1890, Seattle’s population shot from 3,500 to nearly 43,000. For Ella, in her mid-twenties, there was opportunity as well. Many of the transplants to the Northwest came from urban areas in the East and Midwest and were hungry for the cultural life they had left behind. Teaching and portrait painting were considered respectable ways for a woman to earn a living. Ella excelled at both.
She taught her first drawing classes at the home of city founder Arthur A. Denny, where she instructed his granddaughters, "the Misses Frye" (Bush manuscript) and a group of their girlfriends. For a while she rented a studio on 3rd Avenue, "over a picture store conducted by W. L. Yazzam" (Bush manuscript), where she took private students, including some schoolteachers, and accepted commissions for crayon and watercolor portraits. Mrs. T. R. Fleming, Mrs. Ella T. Stork, Mrs. Edwin Hughes, and Sally Hill of Port Townsend were among her subjects, as well as many children.
In 1889, the city went up in flames, wiping 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 2nd Avenue, near what is now known as Pioneer Square. For a while, as the city rebuilt and expanded, Bush taught lessons at her family home in Rainier Heights. Then, at the urging of her students, she decided to open a school, "in spite of the fact that the time was one of business depression" (manuscript). In 1894, she rented space downtown in an upper floor of the Boston Block, which must have seemed like a lucky address, and opened the city’s first art school. In 1896, The Seattle Times began publishing downstairs in a rented storefront.
Seattle's First Art School
Children made up the bulk of the Seattle Art School’s first students. A reporter once remarked that Miss Bush had "taught almost every aspiring youngster in Seattle how to hold his crayon ..." (Town Crier, 1921). But soon many young women arrived, eager to learn painting and drawing. Bush established a life class for women, most likely the city’s first, and "in every way the ideals of the Art Students Leagues of N.Y. were carried out, so far as conditions would allow" she later wrote (manuscript). A 1907 photograph by Asahel Curtis shows one such class with a fully clothed male model. Presumably, if nude models were ever used, it would have been done privately. Seattle was not as progressive as New York.
The Seattle Art School quickly became the institution where serious art students came to study. Years before the Cornish School opened on Capitol Hill, the Seattle Art School offered classes in oil painting, life drawing, watercolor, portraiture, and miniatures, taught to the exacting standards of the Art Students League, where Bush was elected a lifetime member. Some of her students went on to prominent careers, including the painters John Butler (1890-1976), Morgan Padelford (1902-1994), Gertrude Little (1887-1977), Margaret Mitchell Carlson (1892-1980), and Louise Crow (1891-1968); the etcher Roi Partridge (1888-1984), who later married photographer Imogen Cunningham, and miniaturist Claire (or Clare) Shepard Shisler (1884-1985).
Teaching offered Bush an income and a way to share her knowledge, but she considered herself first and foremost an artist. In 1903 she took a break from her school to travel with her mother to see the latest exhibitions in Chicago, Boston, Providence, Washington, D.C., and New York. She also studied for a season with the celebrated portrait painter Robert Henri (1865-1929) in New York, and in Philadelphia with miniaturist Theodora Thayer (1868-1905), a founder of the American Society of Miniature Painters, which Bush would join. After a decade of running an art school, this must have been a rejuvenating break for Bush, now approaching her 40th birthday.
Back in Seattle, Bush was already established as the region’s go-to portrait artist and 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 the late superior court judges Thomas Humes (1847-1904) and Richard Osborne (1845-1905). She was then asked to begin another, of Judge Isaac Lichtenberg (1845-1905).
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 (1854-1915), Maud Kerns (1876-1965), John Butler, Jessie Fisken (1860-1935), Paul Morgan Gustin (1886-1984), photographer Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976), and many others. With Miss 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" (A Seattle Heritage, 15). Bush also participated in the Seattle Fine Arts Society, formed in 1908 with the goal of establishing a permanent place to exhibit and collect artworks. The group would eventually form the Seattle Art Museum.
In 1907, two of Bush’s paintings were displayed at the Knoedler Gallery in New York, part of the Society of American Miniature Paintings exhibition. Then, in 1909, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition opened at what is now the University of Washington campus, with a crush of nearly 80,000 visitors the first day. One of the attractions was an exhibition of Northwest artists, with Bush and her former student Roi Partridge each winning silver medals for their entries. That year a brief bio of Bush ran in the Alaska Yukon magazine, featuring a rare photograph of the artist, shot by Cunningham, an up-and-coming photographer. With her characteristic generosity, Bush made sure Cunningham got prominent credit for the photo, which may have been the young camera artist’s first published work.
A Woman of 'Wholly Admirable Character'
That portrait is one of very few ever published of Bush, and it exists today only as a faded magazine reproduction. Cunningham destroyed many of her early glass plates when she and Partridge moved to California, and no print of the Bush photograph has been found. One other photograph, a classroom shot by Asahel Curtis, marked only "Miss Bush, studio," probably includes her at the back of a group of women painting a male model.
Few facts are known about Bush’s personal life. Reporters described her as small in stature, modest by nature, and of "wholly admirable character" (Shippey). It’s certain that by mid-life she had experienced many losses. In 1896, just two years after Seattle Art School opened, her father William Bush died of heart failure. (He apparently was living in Port Townsend at the time. It’s not clear when or why he moved, but Martha remained in Seattle with Ella.) Then, in 1899, Ella’s younger brother, George, died at 33, reportedly of pneumonia. In 1905, Martha Bush suffered a stroke and died at home. That left Ella, a single woman in her mid-40s, with no immediate family. "My greatest pleasure is in feeling that I am preparing to do better," she told a reporter in 1913, quoting Goethe. "[A]n artist is always inspired that there is something higher to attain" (Halderman).
Around that time, however, her life began to change. She decided to close the Seattle Art School. Soon thereafter, a certain "Monsieur Paul T. Beygrau" began a high-flown PR campaign for a new Seattle Art School aimed at clay modeling, drawing, illustration, and interior design. Beygrau claimed to have studied with "the great masters" of Europe and touted his patrons as "His Majesty the King of England, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, premier of Canada, Lord Minto and others ..." He also noted that his mother was "a member of Lavellez de Montijaux family, and a near relative to ex-Empress Eugenie of France" ("Saloons"). Beygrau’s Seattle Art School opened in 1914 at the Northern Bank Building.
Bush kept her studio at the Boston Block and continued to paint. That year she won honors for two miniatures selected for exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. And then, another honor: the Washington State Bar Association commissioned her to paint portraits of three pioneering state supreme court justices, to be displayed at the new Temple of Justice in Olympia. On February 27, 1915, the oil portraits of former Chief Justices Ralph O. Dunbar (1845-1912), Thomas J. Anders (1838-1909), and James R. Reavis (1848-1912) were unveiled before a joint session of the Legislature and formally presented to the state, to high praise. Bush did not attend the ceremony.
Off to California
On May 9, 1915, the final ad for her portrait studio ran in the Seattle Daily Times. And then, sometime in 1915, Bush moved to Sierra Madre, in the foothills near Los Angeles, to live with her aunt, Mrs. Ella Stork. Bush was 53. It’s possible the move was motivated by financial insecurity, or by loneliness, concern for her future, or by 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. It’s said that by the beginning of the nineteenth century, TB had killed "one out of seven of all the people who had ever lived, more than any other disease" ("Forgotten"). Dry air was promoted as a healthful climate, and the small community of Sierra Madre was founded as a haven for consumptives. A California historian included Ella Shepard Bush in a list of prominent residents who moved to the area either because they were suffering from TB, were in remission, or were caring for someone who was ill.
There is no evidence that Bush herself had TB, but a reporter described her as "frail" in 1913, and the stress of her recent intense period of work on large canvases with fumes of oil paint and solvent wouldn’t have helped (Halderman). Whether or not Bush was ill, her aunt — who had moved to Sierra Madre years before — or someone in her aunt’s family likely was. Most early inhabitants of the town came for that reason. The possibility of TB in the family raises a question about the early death of Ella’s brother, George, too.
Whatever prompted the move, Bush eventually resumed her activities. She taught art students at the elegant new studio built for her on Stork’s property, and once again was at the center of a community of artists. Sierra Madre attracted other painters, poets, sculptors, and writers over the years, and eventually would promote itself as an artist community. The one who would become most famous was John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, known as Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941). Borglum trained in Paris and lived in Sierra Madre in the 1890s, before Bush arrived there. He would later create a bronze sculpture for New York’s Metropolitan Museum, a huge marble head of Abraham Lincoln for the Capitol Rotunda in Washington D.C., and finally, his most grandiose project — carving the faces of four U.S. presidents on Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. Later, another nationally known artist, the etcher and cartoonist Bernhardt Wall, would overlap with Bush’s years in Sierra Madre and became part of her circle.
Frequent exhibitions and studio tours were held in Sierra Madre, but to connoisseurs of miniature painting, Bush’s acclaim went far beyond that. 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), where she also took part in many group exhibitions over the years. And her miniatures were regularly featured in exhibitions across the country, including Philadelphia, Boston, Providence, Washington, D.C., and as far away as London.
With her aunt, she shared a "home of cultured hearts," the two women participating 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 ("Sierra Madre," Los Angeles Times). Bush donated a miniature portrait of Browning to a California branch of the society, and the painting is now housed at the Armstrong Browning Library and Museum, at Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
After Mrs. Stork died in 1925, Bush remained in Sierra Madre, a celebrity artist, much-admired 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 Thomas Rutherford Fleming 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" (Realm, 208).
In the summer of 1935, to the delight of friends in Seattle, Bush returned to visit, some 20 years after moving away. Now a "white haired gentlewoman, fond of her flower garden and a deep reader of Robert Browning," Bush had paintings in five exhibitions at that time: the Corcoran Galleries in Washington, D.C.; the San Diego Exposition and the Park Manor Hotel in San Diego, the Doheny Library at the University of Southern California, and at the Little Gallery in Sierra Madre ("Bush Greets Old Friends"). The purpose of her trip was to see her niece, Mrs. E. G. Gard, who had married earlier in the year. As a wedding gift, Bush had given the bride a miniature of her late mother, Mrs. Louis P. Bush. Bush brought with her other miniatures of late family members and old Seattleites.
By that point, Bush herself was looked upon as a part of history, a product of the "old art schools" ("Bush Greets"). Modernist trends were flourishing and representational art, especially the exacting art of portraiture and miniatures, appeared a bit passé. But in a later interview, Bush explained that she still 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" (Western Woman).
Death and Legacy
When Bush died in 1948, her passing was noted in her hometown as that of a "beloved miniaturist and inspiration of the art circles of Sierra Madre," ("Miniaturist Passes"). A columnist at the Los Angeles Times, Lee Shippey, wrote of Bush’s death almost ardently in his column, calling her character "wholly admirable" and added, "I doubt that anyone ever had any contact with her without being somewhat benefited" ("Miss Bush"). He also gave a rare description of her appearance, writing, "She was a miniature herself. 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" ("Miss Bush").
In Seattle, where Bush had once been at the center of the city’s art scene, her death went unnoticed in the press. By that time, her legacy was mostly forgotten. The region’s art history seemed to start anew mid-century, 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 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 a slapdash frontier town was trying to shape itself into a civilized city.
For someone who was as widely appreciated in her day as Bush, many mysteries remain. What happened to most of her paintings? Did she suffer from Tuberculosis? Why do so few photographs of her exist? What was her family life like? Was she ever in love, and if so, with whom? In the town of Sierra Madre, Bush left another unsolved mystery surrounding an artifact she donated to the local historical museum. How did she come to possess Gutzon Borglum’s painting palette?
Editor's Note: This essay was adapted in part from a cover story in The Seattle Times Pacific NW Magazine, June 17, 2022.