Abby Williams Hill (1861-1943)

Abby Williams Hill was a landscape painter who worked primarily in the American West. She is best known for her commissioned works for the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads, which were exhibited at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, the Lewis & Clark Exposition in Portland in 1905 and the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Among frontier artists, Abby Williams Hill was exceptional as she painted some of the most rugged terrain in the country; perhaps the only woman to be so employed. Born to a cabinet maker in Grinnell, Iowa, her earliest fine art training was in botanical watercolors. At age 19 she left her home in Grinnell to study at the school that was to become the Chicago Art Institute. In the late 1880s, she enrolled in the Art Student's League in New York, where she studied with William Merritt Chase. She was later to study at the Corcoran and then spent a year in Hamburg with the illustrator Hermann Hasse. The peak years of her commissioned work for the railroads was 1903-1906 and by special arrangement, was she able to keep almost all of her commissioned work. Following the railroad commissions, Hill toured Europe with her family in 1908-09, providing new subject matter for her paintings. Hill's artistic career spanned more than fifty years but due to the era's peculiar value system, which considered it degrading for women of position to earn money, she never achieved the recognition afforded other period commissioned artists such as E.S. Paxton or C.M. Russell, both of whom she knew. As Hill kept the majority of her paintings, her artistic legacy continues at the University of Puget Sound, which is the permanent repository of the Hill Collection. In 1989 the Washington State Historical Society produced a detailed book on Abby Hill by Ronald Fields for the first large scale exhibition of Hill's work at the University of Puget Sound.