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Monahan, Gene Ritchie (1908‒1994)

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Gene Ritchie Monahan in her studio

Gene Ritchie Monahan in her studio, 1985. Used with the permission of Jean E. Monahan Kelly.

Gene Ritchie Monahan was a northern Minnesotan portrait and landscape artist. She is best remembered for the character and mood she conveyed in her portraits and for the realism in her pen-and-ink drawings for the Rainy Lake Chronicle, a weekly Minnesota newspaper with an international readership.

When Genevieve (Gene) Ritchie graduated from Duluth’s Denfield High School in 1927, her dream was to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She passed the Institute’s entrance exam, but the cost was too expensive for an electrician’s daughter. She aimed, instead, for a more rounded education and signed up for art lessons with local painters A. E. Schar and David Ericson.

One of Ritchie’s earliest works, a self-portrait, earned a first-place award in the Duluth Art Institute’s annual Arrowhead Art Exhibition. The painting drew the attention of national art critics, and her portrait was featured on the cover of the prestigious Art Digest. The magazine described her as “the find of the year” in 1930.

Ritchie earned a teaching certificate from Duluth State Teachers College before transferring to the University of Minnesota. In Minneapolis, she taught art at the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House. She also gave private lessons and opened a studio to paint and sell portraits. One of her first customers was university student George Monahan. A year and a half after she finished his portrait, Gene and George were married.

Just before World War II, George was called up by the Army. As a form of insurance in case something should happen to George, Gene enrolled in the University of Minnesota’s graduate program in art education. She supported the couple’s children during the war by working as supervisor of art for Faribault public schools.

In 1955, the family moved to New York City, where Gene opened the Studio Gallery in Greenwich Village. She received a scholarship to study and teach at the National Academy School of Fine Arts. Although pressured by other Village artists to work in the abstract style, she refused. Her paintings were praised by Village Voice art critics for their light-filled natural tones and confident brushwork.

Friends and family drew the couple back to Minnesota in 1960. They bought a home in Ranier in 1963 and spent time on the Rainy Lake islands of conservationist Ernest Oberholtzer. Gene continued her work as part of a colony of local artists. She expanded her portfolio to include silk screening and bookbinding, and experimented with sculpture and pottery using local clays.

In the early 1970s, Time magazine’s bureau chief, Ted Hall, left New York City and moved to Ranier to establish the Rainy Lake Chronicle. He called on Monahan to illustrate stories and create cover art. Monahan’s drawings and paintings came to represent the people, places, and natural elements of the border lakes region. Author and environmentalist Sigurd Olson said her work “caught the details of the changing seasons, the little things that appear almost without expecting them, the flash of a gull’s wing in the early spring, the freezing of the lake, the sounds and rumbles, the thawing in the spring.”

Throughout her career, Monahan received national acclaim. In the late 1950s she was elected president of New York City’s branch of the National League of American Pen Women. She won first prize in portrait art at a Smithsonian National Gallery of Art exhibition in 1962. She was invited to present the first one-woman show in the Little Gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (1964). For two summers in the late 1960s she was invited to paint and teach art to members of the Sandy Lake First Nation in Ontario.

Among those who sat for Monahan’s portraits were pianist Van Cliburn, Minnesota governor Rudy Perpich, conservationists Ernest Oberholtzer and Frances Andrews, and Canadian First Nations artists Norval Morrisseau and Carl Ray. Her work is held in public, corporate, and private collections worldwide.

Monahan died in 1994 at the age of eighty five. Her work continues to be exhibited, most recently in Duluth in 2015; Grand Marais in 2016; and International Falls in 2017.

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“Gene Monahan to Display Indian Pictures.” Fort Frances Times (Fort Frances, OT), November 27, 1968.

“Gene Ritchie Monahan: Creative, Courageous, Resilient, Loving, and Practical.” Mallard Island, Oberholtzer Foundation Newsletter, Winter 2011.

Gene Ritchie Monahan papers, 1884‒1993
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00984.xml
Description: Correspondence and related papers of Gene Ritchie Monahan, her husband George Monahan, and their family. The Monahans were descendants of the James Christie family through George's grandmother Sarah Christie Stevens and were friends of conservationist Ernest C. Oberholtzer. The bulk of the collections is family correspondence. Smaller portions include letters from Vietnam written by George's brother Robert Hugh Monahan that were sent to the Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology and papers regarding Ernest Oberholtzer's estate, Mallard Island, and the Oberholtzer Foundation.

“Gene Ritchie Monahan: Retrospective.” Art exhibit brochure. Grand Marais, MN: Johnson Heritage Post Gallery, 2016.

Glasier, Caprice. Interview with the author. St. Paul, Minnesota, August 15, 2017.

Kelly, Jean E. Monahan. “Gene Ritchie Monahan Biography.” Unpublished.

——— . Interviews with the author. Ranier, Minnesota, September 21‒22, 2017, and June 23, 2018.

Monahan, Gene Ritchie. Interviews with the author, Ranier, Minnesota, July 17, 1990, and August 4, 1990.

“Mrs. G. Monahan to discuss trip to Severn River.” Daily Bulletin (Fort Frances, OT), July 23, 1968.

Skrief, Douglas P. “A Retrospective of Work by Gene Ritchie Monahan Through Aug. 20, 1989.” Art exhibit brochure. Duluth: Duluth Art Institute, 1989.

Woods, Bernie. Ranier, Minnesota: My hometown. Virginia, MN: W. A. Fisher Advertising and Printing, 2008.

Related Images

Gene Ritchie Monahan in her studio
Gene Ritchie Monahan in her studio
Denfield High School yearbook art by Gene Ritchie
Denfield High School yearbook art by Gene Ritchie
Ritchie family
Ritchie family
Gene Ritchie self-portrait
Gene Ritchie self-portrait
Gene Ritchie's “Self Portrait.”
Gene Ritchie's “Self Portrait.”
Monahan‒Ritchie wedding photo
Monahan‒Ritchie wedding photo
“Ariel with Red Slippers”
“Ariel with Red Slippers”
“School Bus”
“School Bus”
“Norval Morrisseau”
“Norval Morrisseau”
Sketch of Sigurd Olson
Sketch of Sigurd Olson
Gene Ritchie Monahan with “Lifeline”
Gene Ritchie Monahan with “Lifeline”
“Lifeline”
“Lifeline”
Gene Ritchie Monahan working at her kiln
Gene Ritchie Monahan working at her kiln
Gene Ritchie Monahan working in her studio
Gene Ritchie Monahan working in her studio
Gene Ritchie Monahan making a silk screen
Gene Ritchie Monahan making a silk screen
Gene Ritchie Monahan painting “Mary Dobbs Schlick”
Gene Ritchie Monahan painting “Mary Dobbs Schlick”

Turning Point

In 1953, Monahan opens the Studio Gallery in Greenwich Village, New York City. She is awarded a scholarship from the National Academy School of Fine Arts, where she studies and works as a teaching fellow for muralist and painter Louis Bouche and portrait artist Robert Philipps.

Chronology

1908

Genevieve Mae Ritchie (Gene) is born to Arthur C. Ritchie, a Duluth electrician, and Jeannette M. Dally Ritchie, homemaker and poet, in Duluth, Minnesota.

1927

She is hired as assistant in the art department at Handy, Inc., Engraver, in Duluth for five dollars a week.

1928

She meets National Academy artist Nicholas Brewer in Duluth. Brewer encourages her to focus on portraiture.

1931

She enrolls at the University of Minnesota and is hired to teach art to junior high girls at the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House

1934

Gene marries George Monahan; she opens the Gene Ritchie Monahan Studio of Arts and Handicrafts in Minneapolis.

1943

Monahan is hired as supervisor of art for Faribault Public Schools.

1946

The Monahan family moves to Anchorage, Alaska while George serves at the army base there. Gene teaches Boy Scout and Girl Scout leaders to lead art projects for their troops.

1950

The family moves again, this time to Colorado Springs.

1955

The family moves to New York City in the fall. Monahan opens the Studio Gallery in Greenwich Village while studying and teaching at the National Academy.

1960

Gene and George move to International Falls, Minnesota.

1962

“Ariel with the Red Slippers” wins first place in portraiture in the National League of American Pen Women exhibit at the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art.

1963

Gene and George move to Ranier, Minnesota.

1968

The Ontario Board of Education invites Monahan to spend two summers painting and teaching at the Sandy Lake First Nation in northwestern Ontario.

1973

Gene begins to illustrate the Rainy Lake Chronicle, a weekly newspaper for Ranier, Minnesota, that attracts subscribers throughout the US and around the world.

1994

Gene dies at age eighty-five.