Ruth Pershing Uhler not only was an accomplished painter of abstractions of the Southwestern landscape, but also played a critical role in the early years of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In 1909, Uhler’s family moved from Pennsylvania to Houston. After completing high-school education, Uhler returned to the Northeast where she attended the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. As a student of Leopold Seyffert and Jean Charlot in fresco painting, she was awarded the Daniel Bough Prize for Still Life Paintings and the John Sartain Scholarship for Achievement and Ability. Upon receiving her degree, she did graduate work at the Henry Snell Art School in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, before returning to Houston in 1925.
During the late 1920s and 1930s, she exhibited throughout the state, and was a member of the Southern States Art League and the Houston Artists' Gallery (the first art co-op in Houston). Uhler received first price for still-life painting at the 1927 exhibition of Works of Texas Artists held in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1931, she won honorable mention in an exhibition of Texas artists at the MFAH. Uhler exhibited regularly in the Fort Worth and Houston annuals, winning a purchase prize at the 1936 Houston annual for her painting Earthy Rhythms No. 3 (now in the MFAH collection). She also showed in the “Artists of Southeast Texas” exhibitions in the late 1930s and in the 1940 Texas General.
An avid student of non-Western art, Uhler was especially intrigued by Native American cultures. From 1935 and 1936 Uhler lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, studied Native American arts and crafts along with Houston artist and colleague Grace Spaulding John (1890-1972). Uhler was deeply inspired by the New Mexican landscape and upon her return to Houston, she completed nine paintings that express the distinctive clear light and vast horizons of the Southwest. The paintings in this series, entitled Earth Rhythms, are powerful abstractions of the Southwestern landscape. The setting of these paintings is an Indian turquoise mine between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The paintings impart the essence and pulse of the land in a manner reminiscent of O’Keefe, whose work Uhler may have seen in Taos. The suggestion of musicality in the series title reflects not only the example of O’Keefe, but also that of Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove. Employing the curving forms and ornamental lines of Art Nouveau, Uhler infuses the scenes with a feeling of movement. This series became among her best known works.
In 1937, she came to the MFAH as a teacher of design classes, serving as curator of education in 1941 until her death in 1967. During her early years at the museum, Uhler continued her career as an artist. She assisted Daniel MacMorris in painting the Rozelle Court in the Nelson Gallery I Kansas City, Missouri, and also painted frescoes in Houston’s City Hall and a mural in the Central Public Library. In her mural work, Uhler created a sense of movement with birds and trees and animals that seemed to have energy by employing the curving forms and ornamental lines of Art Nouveau. By the early 1940s, however, Uhler quit painting entirely, and destroyed much of her work. She devoted her complete attention to her many duties at the MFAH, where she was instrumental in establishing educational programs and serving as principal assistant to the museum’s directors.
Recently, Uhler’s work was included in nationally touring exhibition Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West and one of her paintings, Growth, was designated a national treasure under the Save America’s Treasure’s Program. Her paintings can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum at Canyon, Texas.
Selected Biographical and Career Highlights
• Born in Pennsylvania
• Studied at the Philadelphia School of design for Women
• Spent most of her career in Houston, TX where she taught and was a curator at the Museum School of Art.
• 1935-1956, worked in Santa Fe, New Mexico with colleague Grace Spaulding John, studied Native American arts and crafts
• Member of Southern States Art League and Houston Artists’ Gallery
• Late 1920’s, Texas Artists Exhibition in Nashville
• 1936, 12th Annual Houston Artists Exhibition; awarded purchase prize
• Late 1930’s, Artists of Southeast Texas
• 1940, Texas General Exhibition
Selected Major Collections
• Houston City Hall mural
• Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
• Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, Texas