Art Montana





sdana7.jpg (21333 bytes)The Heart of an Opal
Fra Dana: Montana Artist

1874 - 1948

In 1982, Dennis Kern, then Curator at the University of Montana School
of Fine Arts, was cataloguing the University's extensive art collection
when he came upon a portrait by William Merrit Chase of an attractive
young woman. The painting was eventually identified as a portrait of
Fra M. Dana. It was part of her personal collection, which she had donated to the University of Montana in 1947.

This collection included the painting by Chase, several paintings by
Alfred Maurer (one, a portrait of Dana), 12 paintings by Joseph Henry
Sharp, and over 100 Daumier lithographs, along with other paintings she
had acquired. The most important find, however, were some paintings by
Dana herself, which had been hidden away in storage and not seen for
years. According to Kern, "Dana's paintings were crafted with skill
that reflected serious and careful study." He was intrigued by the
quality of her paintings, and decided to research Dana's background and

Fra Dana (pronounced "Fray"), came to this area of the country from
Terre Haute, Indiana in 1893. In 1896, she married Edwin L. Dana, a
Montana cattleman. A pre-marriage agreement with her husband allowed
her to continue her art studies. Part of the year she lived on the
ranch and fulfilled the typical duties of a ranch wife. The rest of the
time she traveled to Europe to study and paint.

While she loved the beauty of the ranch, she was often lonely, and
sometimes resented her role. In one journal entry, she wrote:
". . . there are two cattle dealers here this week, a surveyor, and a
woman selling tombstones. For all of these people I have to make their
beds and empty their slops and wait on them. How the spirit doth rebel.
Especially at having to talk to them when they are not interesting."

Dana had extensive formal art training, beginning at the age of 15 when
she studied at the Cincinnati Art Academy with J.H. Sharp, founder of
the Taos artists colony in New Mexico. She later worked with William
Merrit Chase and possibly Georgia O'Keefe at the Art Students' League in
New York. She corresponded regularly with artists with whom she worked,
including Maurer and Sharp, who said of Fra Dana, "She paints like a

He undoubtedly meant it as a compliment, but the statement reflects the
attitudes of the time. Dana was not accepted by some of her neighbors,
who thought it scandalous that her husband would allow her to travel to
Europe. As a woman in Montana, Dana did not have the support of an arts
community, and was not taken seriously as an artist. Some called her
painting a "hobby."

dana1.jpg (79963 bytes)
"On the Window Seat"  16 x 19 inches, Oil on Canvas c 1909

Dana could have been a great artist if she had been able to devote her
life completely to art, but her commitment to her husband and the ranch
took precedence. The Dana ranch, located in one of the most beautiful
areas of Montana, Pass Creek, had a reputation as the largest purebred
Hereford ranch in America. It was because of the prosperity of the
ranch that Dana was able to travel, paint and collect, but the ranch
also demanded much of her.

She often experienced mixed emotions because of her conflicting
passions. In one of her journal entries she describes taking part in a
roundup on the ranch:

"We rounded up this end of the Aberdeen pasture and got about twelve
hundred head of the herd. Having got up at 4 a.m., I was hungry and
sleepy by seven. Still steadily raining. "

On the second day of the roundup:

"Today is Velasquez' birthday [Diego Velasquez, Spanish painter]. I
always keep it in my heart. But I speak no more of my vanished dreams.
We spayed sixty-eight heifers this morning. It took from six o'clock
until eleven of hard work. I tallied and got hungry and sleepy--so
sleepy that I fell over against the gate post of the corral. It was
while I was tallying that I remembered it was Velasquez' birthday, and a
strange place it was to remember. I was cold, wet, tired, and my riding
habit muddy and dirty. All was rush and hard work. The cows bawled
incessantly, and the calves made a great din that got on one's nerves.
A shout could hardly be heard above the uproar. The smell of blood, the
smoke of burning flesh, tar and iodoform came up into my face. This is
life and the thoughts that I used to think were dreams. Beauty of any
kind is a thing held cheap out here in this land of hard realities and
glaring sun and alkali. There are no nuances."

dana12.jpg (64553 bytes)
"Turkeys and Hollyhocks" Oil on artist's Board,  18 x 24 inches
circa 1940 -1945

Dana painted vigorously until 1912, then resigned herself to life on the
ranch. She probably didn't paint much after that until she and her
husband Edwin moved to another ranch, this one in Cascade, Montana, in
1937. In failing health, Dana decided to live in the Blackstone
Apartments in Great Falls, where she set aside space for a studio.
In her last days, Dana spoke again of painting and how she hoped to get
well enough to paint again. Her last biographical statement, written in
1947, was brief:

". . . I do not know that there is anything to tell you about my life.
My annals are short and simple. I was born, I married, I painted a
little, I am ready to die."




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