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Ethel Mars

Ethel Mars (b. 1876, Springfield, IL – d. 1959, Vence, France) was a painter and printmaker who exhibited regularly as part of the avant garde art scene in Paris during the early 20th Century, as well as with Provincetown artists during World War I. Born in Springfield, IL, Mars left home at a young age to attend the Cincinnati Art Academy, where she studied with Frank Duveneck and Lewis Henry Meakin. There, she met fellow artists Edna Boies Hopkins, who taught Mars how to make woodcuts, and Maud Hunt 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 1906 in search of artistic and lifestyle freedom.

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.

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 depicting landscapes, portraits, domestic vignettes, street and cafe scenes. 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 World War I 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, Bror Julius Olsson 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 World War I, Mars and Squire returned to France, settling in Vence on the French Riviera, a town with a long artistic tradition. of  By 1925 they were active in an artist’s colony that included Marsden Hartley, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Chaim Soutine and later Henri Matisse. Mars discontinued printmaking and resumed painting and drawing, exhibiting in the major Paris salons.

During World War II, 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 World War II, 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. She and Hunt are buried in a dual cemetery in France.

Mars’ work is in numerous prominent museum collections, including the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, TX; Cincinnati Art Museum, OH; Cleveland Art Museum, OH; Detroit Institute of Arts, MI; Herbert F Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, NY; Indianapolis Art Museum, IN; Musée des Beaux-Arts du Canada, CA; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Saint Louis Art Museum, MO; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.; Whitney Museum of American Art, NY and the Worcester Art Museum, MA.

In 2014, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum held a group show including Mars’s work. Mars’s woodcuts were also included in the exhibition and accompanying catalog, From Paris to Provincetown: Blanche Lazzell and the Color Woodcut at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2002. The exhibition traveled to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Most recently, Mars's work was featured in The Provincetown Printmakers, a landmark survey of Provincetown prints held by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2023.
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