Dusanne, Zoe (1884-1972)

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 2/16/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5222
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Zoë Dusanne, Seattle’s first professional modern-art dealer, introduced modern art to many residents of the Puget Sound region, and helped to catalyze the rise and international fame of the Northwest School of artists. In November 1950, Dusanne opened her home at 1303 Lakeview Place as the Zoë Dusanne Gallery. (The gallery overlooked Lake Union above the City Light power plant on Eastlake.) Seattle's first privately owned art gallery exhibited works (owned by Dusanne) by Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Fernand Leger, Hans (Jean) Arp, Piet Mondrian, and Giorgio de Chirico, as well as increasingly well known Northwest artists such as Mark Tobey (1890-1976), Guy Anderson (1906-1998), Kenneth Callahan (1905-1986), Paul Horiuchi (1906-1999), and George Tsutakawa (1910-1997). Zoe (Graves) Dusanne was African American, a founder along with her parents (Henry and Leticia Graves) of the Seattle chapter of the NAACP. She is considered to have exerted a major cultural influence on Seattle and the surrounding area.

Daughter of a Stonemason/Sculptor

Zoë Graves Young Boston Dusanne was born in Kansas on March 24, 1884. Her mother, Letitia Graves, was a hairdresser and her father, Henry Graves, was a self-taught stonemason. When Zoë was a less than a year old the family moved to Colorado Springs, where Henry Graves worked on what family legend remembers as gargoyles adorning a state park on Pikes Peak, but what was more likely the pink sandstone granite Briarhurst Manor. The Briarhurst, built in about 1886, is located near Colorado Springs in the Manitou Springs foothills of Pikes Peak, and is heavily carved with gargoyles and mythological stone heads. Dusanne attributed the seeds of her lifelong love for art to her father.

When Zoë was 9 years old the family moved to Council Bluffs, Iowa. From here her mother took Zoë on yearly trips to Chicago to attend the theater and visit the Art Institute of Chicago, further encouraging her artistic education.

College and First Marriage

Although her family's means were modest, Zoë was able to attend first Oberlin College and then the University of Illinois, Urbana, through the generosity of General Grenville Dodge. Dodge, who built the Union Pacific Railroad, was the father of her childhood friend Eleanor Montgomery.

About 1905, Zoë Graves married George Young and the couple settled in Omaha, Nebraska. On December 13, 1909, she gave birth to a daughter, Theodosia (1909-1999). By 1911 the marriage had foundered. Zoë and Theodosia moved to Seattle in order to be with her parents, who had settled here. Zoë worked first as a milliner and later studied beauty electrolysis.

A Founding Family of the NAACP

In 1913, Zoë’s mother, Letitia Graves, founded the Seattle chapter of the NAACP and served as its first president. Zoë and her father, who was at the time employed as a chiropodist, were also founding members.

Zoë Young married Dr. Frederick Boston about 1918, but by the early 1920s they had separated. Through Theodosia, who studied dance at the Cornish School, she formed a friendship with Nellie Cornish. Cornish introduced her to the young painter Mark Tobey, who provided her with a letter of introduction to Greenwich Village art salon hostess Romany Marie.

New York Years

Armed with this letter, and with good looks and stiff determination, Zoë took Theodosia and moved to New York City in 1928. She frequented the Romany Marie Tavern, where “all the talent in the great Metropolis at one time or another was a habitué” (“Notes on Making A Collection”). There she met many artists.

Dusanne attended the 1929 opening exhibition of the Museum of Modern Art, and saw for the first time the works of Pablo Picasso and many other modern artists. Fascinated, she began to educate herself about contemporary art, especially Abstract Expressionism.

She worked many jobs in order to support herself and her teenaged daughter. She sketched jewelry for the firm Trefari, Krussman and Fischel, and made puppets and sets for the WPA Marionette Project and costumes for opera singer Rose Pauly, among others. Dusanne’s friend Marguerite Zimbalist had a shop called the $5 and $10 Gallery, and Dusanne began to work there selling art.

In later years Zoë Dusanne described her life in bohemian Greenwich Village, where the desperation brought on by the country’s Great Depression struck a particularly hard blow to artists already living in or close to poverty:

“Artists are the first to feel the pinch of hard times, and they were letting things go so cheap ... one could buy pictures for very little but even a very little was too much at one fell swoop, so I would buy a picture paying one dollar a week and after a time they were mine ...” (“Notes on Making a Collection”).

She bought and sold in small amounts, always trading up in quality and value whenever possible. “It was a good thing I could sew because I loved nice clothes, but pictures better” (“Notes on Making a Collection”).

During her years in New York City, Zoë forged friendships with many artists and amassed a considerable collection of modern art. “There is only one real reason to collect -- the aesthetic one. If you collect for your sensuous enjoyment of colors and forms, for the deepening of your spiritual values, that collection becomes in time a living whole” ("Notes on Making a Collection"). Sometime during the 1930s, Zoe married Henri Dusanne, but the marriage was brief. In 1942, Zoe Dusanne returned to Seattle, bringing her art collection with her.

Bringing Modern Art to Seattle

Dusanne established an electrolysis business at 426 People’s Bank Building in downtown Seattle. This business would support her through the next 11 years, allowing her to make ends meet during her early years as an art dealer.

In 1947, she engaged Seattle architects Bert Tucker, Robert Shields, and Roland Terry to design a home that would shelter both herself and her art collection. Sited at 1303 Lakeview Place overlooking Lake Union, the 1,000-square-foot house employed large amounts of glass to capitalize on the water view. A large living room with a raised ceiling served as a personal gallery. This room would be pressed into service as one of Seattle’s first privately owned modern-art galleries when, at the urging of her artist friends, Dusanne opened her collection to the public on November 12, 1950.

Northwest artists had previously sold their works through artist co-operatives, semi-professional galleries without high professional standards, and in art supply stores, bookstores, framing shops, music shops, furniture stores, and at department stores such as the Bon Marche and Frederick & Nelson. During the 1930s and 1940s Seattle was home to a number of small galleries of varying quality, most prominently, Schneider's, the Noon Gallery, and Harry Hartman's Bookstore.

Zoë Dusanne’s Gallery is often called Seattle’s first professional modern-art gallery because she was the first dealer to combine professional high standards and nurturance and promotion of Northwest artists with a broad-based desire to educate the local public about modern art, and to educate the world at large about Seattle painters. In this, the gallery was unique.

Dusanne’s first exhibition featured works by Guy Anderson, Virginia Banks, Kenneth Callahan, Edwin Danielson, Walter Isaacs, Patricia K. Nicholson, Ambrose Patterson, Viola Patterson, and Mark Tobey. A glassed-in patio filled with flowering plants extended from the gallery. Dusanne’s home became a meeting place for the Seattle art community, and a frequent stop for celebrities and visiting artists such as contralto Marian Anderson, a friend of Dusanne’s who performed in Seattle almost yearly.

A few years after her mother's death, Theodosia Young wrote of Zoë Dusanne:

“Many Seattle artists realized that here was a woman who not only perceived what they were trying to do, but had an innate love of painting and was willing to offer her money to prove it ... [Dusanne’s gallery] displayed the works of Mark Tobey, Walter Isaacs, Viola and Ambrose Patterson and Guy Anderson. She had solo shows of Kenneth Callahan, Virginia Banks, Neil Meitzler, Nellie Cornish, Mark Tobey ... besides group shows of young painters” (“Memories of My Mother: Zoë Dusanne, Pioneer Art Dealer”)

Dr. Richard E. Fuller (1897-1976), founder and longtime director of the Seattle Art Museum, was particularly interested in the Zoë Dusanne Gallery. He purchased many paintings from Dusanne for the Seattle Art Museum, and she donated paintings and facilitated the donations of still more paintings. In 1947, the museum exhibited Dusanne’s collection, including paintings by Klee, Kandinsky, Picabia, Picasso, Duchamp, and Michaux while her house was undergoing construction. Of the exhibition she later recalled that, “People actually laughed at the paintings. They hadn’t been exposed to such abstraction before”("Time is Running Out ...").

During the next three years, Seattleites acquired a more sophisticated eye for art. Dusanne told a reporter, “In 1950, the Henry Gallery borrowed nearly a dozen of my paintings for a group show. I asked the gallery attendants if they could please note the reactions of the public. They reported not one person laughed at the paintings or ridiculed them. The visitors were genuinely interested” (“Time Is Running Out ..."). In time, more than 60 works passed through the Dusanne Gallery into the collections of the Seattle Art Museum and the Henry Art Gallery.

In the years that followed, Zoë Dusanne promoted Northwest artists with fierce determination. Life magazine writer Dorothy Seiberling, in a letter to Dusanne, praised her “one-woman crusade” for Northwest painters. (“Memories of My Mother: Zoë Dusanne, Pioneer Art Dealer”). Dusanne hung the works of Northwest artists alongside major American and foreign artists. “In this manner," writes Patricia Svoboda, author of a Master's Thesis on Dusanne, "she placed the local artists in a context of the international art scene” (Svoboda, 9).

Dusanne's Considerable Influence

In 1953, Zoë Dusanne served as intermediary between the Northwest artists she represented and New York art critic Winthrop Sargent. Sargent, a longtime friend of Dusanne’s, was at the time working for Life magazine. At Dusanne’s urging he sent art editor Dorothy Seiberling to Seattle to assess the local art scene. With Dusanne’s assistance, Sargent and Seiberling focused on four artists: Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Mark Tobey, and Moris Graves. The resulting article, “Mystic Painters of the Northwest” appeared in Life on September 28, 1953. It is the piece that catapulted what was thereafter called the Northwest School into the national limelight.

Following the Life article, Dusanne traveled to Paris and throughout Europe. One highlight of her trip was acquiring a Jackson Pollock painting from art dealer Peggy Guggenheim for the Seattle Art Museum. She also facilitated a retrospective show of Mark Tobey’s art in Paris, to be arranged by his New York dealer Marion Willard. Her daughter wrote, “She bought many pictures in Europe ... Zoë returned to this country mortgaged to the hilt” ("Memories of My Mother"). Upon her return she learned that Mark Tobey no longer wanted her to represent him in Seattle. (His new representative was Otto Seligman.)

Dusanne continued to exhibit many artists, but Tobey’s defection (and those of Guy Anderson, Windsor Utley, and Patricia K. Nicholson, who accompanied Tobey to Seligman) caused her to “limp along financially” ("Memories of My Mother"). Dusanne persevered. Reflecting on her importance, Louis Guzzo wrote in The Seattle Times:

“In succeeding years she made several more trips to Europe and alternated her shows between Seattle painters and contemporary American and European artists. The Dusanne name became known internationally and brought notice to Seattle in national publications of America and Europe. It is impossible to measure the influence she has had in publicizing local artists abroad, but one can be sure the influence has been considerable” ("Time Is Running Out ...")

An Historic Gallery Overrun by a Freeway

In 1958, the Zoë Dusanne Gallery met an insurmountable foe: the Seattle Freeway. Dusanne, along with her Lakeview Place neighbors and everyone else living and working in 20.5-mile stretch of freeway right-of-way within Seattle city limits, would lose their homes and be forcibly displaced so that the freeway could rise.

Appeal was fruitless. Despite the fact that her construction costs a decade before had exceeded $17,000, the State offered Dusanne only $13,350 to compensate her for loss of home and property. The modern, open-plan design and especially the large amount of glass incorporated into Dusanne’s home made it impossible to move the structure to another location, and it was slated for demolition.

Dusanne’s fame was so great that her gallery’s fate warranted mention in a Time Magazine article about right-of-way takes around the country: “The uprooted may agree with Seattle art dealer Zoë Dusanne, whose home and gallery overlooking Lake Union will soon disappear before the Everett-Seattle-Tacoma freeway. Says she: ‘I’m a great fan of progress. But what a pity progress has to cost so much’ ” (Time). On October 4, 1959, Dusanne reopened her gallery at 532 Broadway N. Despite her efforts, however, the gallery was never able to regain the momentum and status it had lost when the original building fell to the freeway.

Last Years

In 1964, Dusanne, afflicted with severe arthritis, decided to close the gallery permanently. She had recently moved into the Grosvenor House at 500 Wall Street, and her rooms on the 15th floor had a view of Puget Sound but no space to hang even a fraction of her collection.

On the Sunday afternoon of September 27, 1964, the Greenfield’s Galleries auctioned what they billed as “The Entire Collection of the Internationally Acclaimed Mme. Zoë Dusanne Art Gallery.” Announcing the auction and emphasizing its significance in the passing of the baton within the Seattle art community, The Seattle Times quoted art critic Louis R. Guzzo : “Many persons in Seattle do not realize what a great debt Northwest art owes to Mrs. Dusanne. Perhaps more than any other person here, she broke down provincial resistance to modern art and introduced bold contemporaries to persons who hadn’t dared to endorse artists who hadn’t been dead at least fifty years” ("Coming Up"). The writer described Zoë Dusanne as “frail but chic,” and predicted the sale “... promises to be the biggest art sale in the history of Seattle” ("Coming Up").

Dusanne passed her retirement quietly, first at the Grosvenor House and eventually at 415 W Mercer with her daughter Theodosia Young. She died in Seattle on March 6, 1972.

A Daughter's Devotion and a City's Gratitude

Theodosia’s determination to cement recognition of her mother’s considerable contribution to the city resulted in a 1977 tribute exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. Patricia Svoboda, who in the course of gathering material for her 1980 Master’s Thesis on Dusanne, interviewed many members of the local art community who had known Dusanne, was struck with what high regard these people held for Zoë Dusanne, and what lifelong loyalty and respect they had for her.

Art critic Winthrop Sargent’s comments in a letter to Theodosia Young sum up the colorful and important mark Zoë Dusanne left on the city: “In Seattle, she became an art impresario of considerable influence at a time when Seattle was a very small town with little in the way of artistic culture. Her influence on culture in Seattle would be hard to overestimate” (Winthrop Sargent to Theodosia Young, June 25, 1978).


Birth dates obtained from the Social Security Death Index (available at http://rootsweb.com and elsewhere); Zoë Dusanne Papers, Accession #2430-4, Box 1/file 22, Box 2/file 1, Box 3/file 21, Box 7/files 21, 24, 29, Box 9/files 6, 8, 12, 15, 17, 18, University of Washington Manuscripts, Special Collections and University Archives; Zoë Dusanne, “Notes on Making A Collection,” Unpublished speech given by Zoë Dusanne at a reception marking her retirement, September 20, 1964, Zoë Dusanne Papers, Box 2/File 1; Winthrop Sargent to Theodosia Young, June 25, 1978, Box 9/file 17, Zoë Dusanne Papers; Theodosia Young, “Memories of My Mother: Zoë Dusanne, Pioneer Art Dealer,” Northwest Arts, March 18, 1977; Louis R. Guzzo, “Time Is Running Out For Dusanne Gallery,” The Seattle Times, January 29, 1959; “Highways, The Great Uprooting,” Time Magazine, March 23, 1958, p. 26; John J. Reddin, “Coming Up: Biggest Art Sale In Seattle,” The Seattle Times, , September 18, 1964; Patricia Svoboda, "Zoe Dusanne: Seattle Art Dealer, From 1950 to 1964," Thesis for Master of Arts, 1980, University of Washington, Seattle; Wesley Wehr, The Eighth Lively Art: Conversations with Painters, Poets, Musicians, and the Wicked Witch of the West (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000); Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle's Central District From 1870 Through the Civil Rights Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994); Paula Becker Telephone Interview with with Wesley Wehr, June 4, 2002; Winthrop Sargent, “Mystic Painters of the Northwest,” Life, September 28, 1953, pp. 84-89; (www.briarhurst.com); Sheryl Conkelton, What It Meant To Be Modern: Seattle Art at Mid-century exhibition catalogue (Seattle: Henry Art Gallery, 1999); Deloris Tarzan Ament, Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, and La Conner: Museum of Northwest Art, 2002).
Note: This essay was corrected on March 19, 2005, and again on June 12, 2006.

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