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Mairs, Clara, 1878–1963

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Black and white photograph of Clara Mairs, c.1930.

Clara Mairs, c.1930.

Clara Gardner Mairs was a painter, printmaker, and decorative artist active from the 1910s to the 1960s. She is best known for her prints of children, animals, circus scenes, and Old Testament stories, often with hints of satirical humor.

According to her birth certificate, Mairs was born in Hastings on January 5, 1878. Although she insisted that this year was incorrect, she never provided an alternative year.

Mairs received her early artistic training at the St. Paul Institute of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1918, she organized the Art League of St. Paul to address the lack of figure models for local artists. It was likely at a League gathering that she met the artist Clement Haupers, who became her life partner. They had an unconventional relationship until her death.

In 1923, Mairs and Haupers became part of the migration of international artists and writers to the cultural heart of Paris. The two stayed in France for two years, living, studying, and working among the artistic attractions of the fashionable Montparnasse district. Mairs attended classes in the district’s prestigious art schools, held by notable artists such as the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle and the Cubist painter André Lhote. A photograph taken in Lhote’s class in 1923 shows Mairs seated on the floor, wearing a white coat. Haupers sits to her right.

Mairs and Haupers went back to Paris in 1928 to work with the printmaker Georges Gorvel. A year later, Mairs returned to Minnesota, where her idiosyncratic style and French-influenced nudes, animals, and scenes of Paris and the circus built her reputation as a printmaker. In 1929, she presented work at the Kennedy Galleries’ Comprehensive Exhibition of the Works of Living American Print Makers. She was also included in several publications, such as Fine Prints of the Year in 1930, 1932, and 1938. Leaping Leopards was especially well regarded and was reproduced in the 1930 edition of Fine Prints.

The atmosphere of experimentation and the rigorous artistic education available in 1920s Paris noticeably affected Mairs’ artistic style, adding a new looseness in form and line. In Leaping Leopards, Mairs uses sinuous and jagged lines to create a sense of action. Perspective shifts and tilts throughout the image, especially around the boxes onto which the leopards leap. Tilted perspective and simplified forms were characteristic of Mairs’ work.

Clara and Clem shows these simplified forms and Mairs’ equally characteristic pale color scheme. The painting also applies Mairs’ sense of artistic humor. Mairs stares directly at the viewer with a blank expression. Haupers mirrors her disinterested affect and body language. It is not a standard self-portrait or portrait of a loved one.

In 1929, Mairs and Haupers established a home and studio in St. Paul’s Ramsey Hill neighborhood, an area considered quite bohemian for its popularity among artists and writers. The land on which the house stood was owned by Mairs; a house owned by Haupers was moved there from another location. Mairs and Haupers lived, worked, and exhibited together until her death on May 24, 1963.

Mairs continued working and exhibiting throughout the 1940s and 1950s, including a major solo exhibition at the Art Center in La Jolla in 1949. In the 1950s, she returned to painting, and in 1961 she presented a solo exhibition of large-scale paintings at the St. Paul Gallery and School of Art.

In the 1970s, several posthumous exhibitions of her work were held, primarily of her print work. She was a featured artist in the 2007 exhibition In Her Own Right: Minnesota’s First Generation of Women Artists at the Minnesota Museum of American Art.

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  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Coen, Rena Neumann. Minnesota Impressionists. Afton, MN: Afton Historical Society Press, 1996.

Crump, Robert L. Minnesota Prints and Printmakers, 1900–1945. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2009.

Keim, Rebecca L. Three Women Artists: Gág, Greenman and Mairs: July 23–August 22, 1980. Minneapolis: University Gallery, University of Minnesota, 1980.

L’Enfant, Julie. Pioneer Modernists: Minnesota’s First Generation of Women Artists. Afton, MN: Afton Press, 2011.

O’Sullivan, Thomas. “MHS Collections: Looking at Life as a Series of Lines: Minnesota Etchers 1890s–1930s.” Minnesota History 50, no. 7: 276–282.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/50/v50i07p276-282.pdf

Clara Mairs. Fine Art Collections. St. Catherine University, St. Paul. Digital Collections. http://content.clic.edu/cdm/search/collection/fineart/searchterm/Clara%20Mairs/field/all/mode/all/conn/and/order/title/page/1

P1616; M526
Clement B. Haupers and Clara Gardner Mairs Papers, 1918–1985
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Correspondence and other papers of St. Paul artists Clement Haupers and Clara Gardner Mairs (1878–1963). Haupers was for many years an instructor at the St. Paul Gallery and School of Art (a forerunner of the Minnesota Museum of Art). He served as superintendent of the fine arts section at the Minnesota State Fair (1931–1942), and was with the Federal Art Project of the Work Projects Administration (1933–1943).

Work by Clara Mairs: 16 March–April 7, 1961. St. Paul: Saint Paul Gallery and School of Art, 1961. Exhibition catalogue.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Clara Mairs, c.1930.
Black and white photograph of Clara Mairs, c.1930.
Carol, Carol Sweetly, undated. Soft-ground etching/aquatint on paper by Clara Mairs.
Carol, Carol Sweetly, undated. Soft-ground etching/aquatint on paper by Clara Mairs.
Paris at Night, undated. Etching on paper by Clara Mairs.
Paris at Night, undated. Etching on paper by Clara Mairs.
Dancing Bears, undated. Etching on paper by Clara Mairs.
Dancing Bears, undated. Etching on paper by Clara Mairs.
Clara and Clem, c.1930. Oil on canvas painting by Clara Mairs.
Clara and Clem, c.1930. Oil on canvas painting by Clara Mairs.
City of Mexico, undated. Etching on paper by Clara Mairs.
City of Mexico, undated. Etching on paper by Clara Mairs.
Daniel in the Lion’s Den, 1925. Etching on paper by Clara Mairs.
Daniel in the Lion’s Den, 1925. Etching on paper by Clara Mairs.
Zebra Tapestry, 1928. Tapestry by Clara Mairs.
Zebra Tapestry, 1928. Tapestry by Clara Mairs.
Cows and Calf, undated. Etching on paper by Clara Mairs.
Cows and Calf, undated. Etching on paper by Clara Mairs.
Leaping Leopards, c.1930. Etching on paper by Clara Mairs.
Leaping Leopards, c.1930. Etching on paper by Clara Mairs.
Two Piece Butter Dish, undated. Glazed ceramic by Clara Mairs.
Two Piece Butter Dish, undated. Glazed ceramic by Clara Mairs.
Clara Mairs’ Self Portrait, 1960. Oil on canvas by Clara Mairs.
Clara Mairs’ Self Portrait, 1960. Oil on canvas by Clara Mairs.
Black and white photograph of Clement Haupers and Clara Mairs in Andre L’hote’s art class, Paris, 1923.
Black and white photograph of Clement Haupers and Clara Mairs in Andre L’hote’s art class, Paris, 1923.

Turning Point

In 1923, Mairs begins her study in Paris. The city's experimental atmosphere and teachers such as Georges Gorvel influence her preferred mediums and artistic style.

Chronology

January 5, 1878

Clara Gardner Mairs is born in Hastings.

1911

Mairs begins taking classes at the St. Paul School of Art.

1914

Mairs begins studying at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

1918

Mairs organizes the Art League in St. Paul. This organization counted George Resler, Bob Brown, Joseph LaLonde, and Clement Haupers as members.

1918

Mairs begins working with Haupers, with whom she establishes a long professional and personal relationship.

1923

Mairs begins her studies in Paris at the Académie Colarossi (with Antoine Bourdelle), the Académie Montparnasse (with André Lhote), the Académie Grande Chaumière, and the Académie Julian.

1928

Mairs studies with the well-known etcher Georges Gorvel in Paris.

1929

Kennedy Galleries’ Comprehensive Exhibition of the Work of Living American Printmakers displays Mairs’ artwork.

1947

A solo exhibition of Mairs’ prints opens at the St. Paul Gallery and School of Art.

1961

A solo exhibition of Mairs’ paintings opens at the St. Paul Gallery and School of Art.

May 24, 1963

Mairs dies in St. Paul.

1970

The Minnesota Museum of Art holds a career retrospective of works by Haupers and Mairs: Encounter with Artists/3: Clara Mairs, Clement Haupers.