Caroliniana Columns
Newsletter of the University South Caroliniana Society
Spring 1999

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From the Collections:
The Art of Margaret Law

by Beth Bilderback
The artwork collection at the South Caroliniana Library was expanded recently by the generous donation from Mr. Fred C. Holder of ten pieces by Margaret Moffett Law (1871-1956). Law was born in Spartanburg, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. She graduated from Converse College in 1895 and continued her studies at Cooper Art School, the Art Students' League, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She studied under William Merritt Chase, Charles Hawthorne, Robert Henri, Andre L'Hote, and others. The influence of Robert Henri and the Ashcan School is evident in the theme of her works and their titles.
Detail of
Three Men With Picks

Etching on paper, signed.

Law's Road Pickers and Camp Meeting and depiction of women working in a field reflect her devotion to the American scene, especially African Americans. While teaching art at Bryn Mawr College in Baltimore after World War I, Law began to incorporate modernism into her works by using repetition of forms, simple composition, and vibrant color. Law worked on-site with a palette knife, then refined the study in her studio. She also created works using watercolors, linoleum blocks, lithographs, and etchings.

Leaving Maryland in 1936, Law returned to Spartanburg where she taught art and became art supervisor for the Spartanburg School District. She also taught adults in the Spartan Mills Community. Law's philosophy of teaching was not to espouse theory or force a "school" of painting. Rather, she taught taste and technique by allowing the student to have fun and use the imagination while she gently guided them to an appreciation of art. Her success was evident in several shows of her students' work, including the Brooklyn Museum's children's exhibit in the spring of 1936. Perhaps Law's highest compliment came from her former teacher, Robert Henri, when he wrote:

I congratulate you on the life and humor of your children's drawings. It is a big thing you are doing for them, and you must have a great deal of pleasure in the doing of it The freeing of children will eventually revolutionize the world. You are much more of a revolutionist than the man with a gun.

Detail of
Women Picking in the Field

Oil on paper on board.

Law continued her studies under Lamar Dodd at the University of Georgia. She also traveled to Mexico City to learn more about art training from Mexico's massive art project. Although best known for her depictions of everyday life, Law also painted portraits. She worked from life or from photographs. She was commissioned to paint the Spartanburg Post Office mural in the 1930s where she depicted peach orchards instead of the cotton currently covering the county's fields. When struck by a certain scene, Law worked quickly to capture it using her palette knife to apply paste paint to any smooth surface at hand. This is evident in the sketch Children's Hour she did on a piece of cardboard cut from a box.

Family and friends remember Law as a person of "boundless enthusiasm." She and Josephine Sibley Couper helped establish the Spartanburg Arts and Crafts Club, today the Spartanburg Arts Center. She often did the unexpected, such as driving alone across Mexico at the age of 65 and teaching herself to swim in her late 70s. Her love of life and fondness for children are manifest in her works, her endeavors, and her accomplishments.

Detail of
The Elite Tea Room.

Color woodblock print on paper.

The Library's Margaret Moffett Law Collection contains two oils, two color prints, and six black and white prints. Titles include The Elite Tea Room, Camp Meeting, Road Pickers, and Children's Hour.

The subjects of the untitled works include an orchestra, women in the field, men swinging picks, woman and baby, and a cabin. The collection shows her eye for the ordinary, her expression of movement, and her ability to see beauty and humor where few do. Law is represented also in the collections of the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Print Club, the Mint Museum in Charlotte, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the South Carolina State Museum, the Spartanburg Arts Center and the Historical Association, and the Regional Museum in Spartanburg.

Note: Information compiled from the following sources: Worksong (Greenville County Museum of Art, 1990), "My Aunt Margaret, the painter," by William Law Watkins in Carologue, Autumn 1997, and Newsview, 1 August 1936.

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