Ethel Mars (1876-1959) was a painter and printmaker who exhibited regularly as part of the avant garde art world of Paris in the early 20th Century and with Provincetown artists during WWI.
Mary Ryan Gallery held a ground-breaking exhibition of the art of Ethel Mars along with the art of Maud Hunt Squire in 2000 and published “Tres Complementaires: The Art and Lives of Ethel Mars and Maud Hunt Squire” with an essay by Catherine Ryan. More than 50 of their prints were bought by museums from this exhibition. In 2005, the gallery included Mars’ work in the exhibition, “The French Connection: The Art of Ada Gilmore, Edna Boies Hopkins, Blanche Lazzell, Ethel Mars, Mildred McMillen, and Maud Hunt Squire.” Mary Ryan Gallery has been a pioneer in exhibiting prints and publishing monographs on these modern American women artists as well as in selling their artwork to museums and private collectors. There are very few known impressions of most of Ethel Mars’ woodcuts.
Born in Springfield, IL, Mars left home at a young age to attend the Cincinnati Art Academy, where she studied with Frank Duveneck and L.H. Meakin. There, she met fellow artists Hopkins, who taught Mars how to make woodcuts, and Squire, who would become her lifelong companion. Although Mars was a top student at the Cincinnati Art Academy, as a woman in the late 19th Century she was unable to find work as an art teacher in the United States. Mars, along with Squire, moved to Paris in 1905-06 in search of artistic and lifestyle freedom.
Mars received international attention prior to 1910, exhibiting paintings, jurying major Salon shows in Paris, and garnering honors alongside artists such as Cecelia Beaux and Mary Cassatt. Mars and Squire were part of Gertrude Stein’s circle and were present the evening in 1907 that Alice B. Toklas met Matisse for the first time. In 1907, Gertrude Stein immortalized Mars and Squire in her early word portrait, Miss Furr and Miss Skeene (1908-11).
Mars was initially known for her painting and drawing, primarily watercolor, and for her avant-garde and belle epoque color woodblock prints. By 1908-10, Mars had reduced the number of blocks she carved for an image to just a few. She was aware of the inventive woodcuts of Edward Munch as well as the Japanese-influenced color etchings of Cassatt, as she owned one. Mars’ own fauve woodcuts stand out as extraordinary contributions to the modern color print.
Mars and Squire left Paris at the outset of WWI and settled in Provincetown, MA during the war. In 1915, at the age of 40, Mars’s international reputation attracted other artists to this bohemian seaside town. Ethel Mars, along with Blanche Lazzell, B.J.O. Nordfeldt, Ada Gilmore, Mildred McMillen and Maud Hunt Squire were part of the original group of artists known for their white line woodcuts, called Provincetown prints. Blanche Lazzell wrote, “ To be in Provincetown for the first time in those days, in the summer of 1915, when the whole scene, everything and everybody was new, it was glorious indeed…creative energy was in the air we breathed.”
At the conclusion of WWI, Mars and Squire returned to France, settling in Vence in the southern part of the country. By 1925 they were active in an artist’s colony that included Marsden Hartley, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Chaim Soutine. Mars discontinued printmaking and resumed painting and drawing, exhibiting in the major Paris salons.
During WWII, in their 60s, Mars and Squire went into hiding near Grenoble, France, where Peggy Guggenheim planned to open a museum of modern art. Mars drew melancholic, pensive drawings, soft in feeling and technique, yet brightly colored and imbued with subtle French patriotic references. After WWII, Mars continued to draw, concentrating on portraits and large-scale autobiographical watercolors and portraits of her friends and surroundings. She died in Vence in 1959.
Mars’ woodcuts were included in the exhibition and accompanying catalog, “From Paris to Provincetown: Blanche Lazzell and the Color Woodcut” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, curated by Barbara Stern Shapiro. The exhibition traveled to the Cleveland Museum of Art.