“When I inherited these works and artist friends and people in the art world in Washington, D.C. would come in, they’d say, ‘Oh, who did this?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, that’s my grandma,’” says Marni Roberson, the granddaughter of 19th century American painter Anna Stanley. “But, you know, she wasn’t a little old lady in tennis shoes.”
Anna Stanley’s art career wasn’t long – she died at only 42 – but it was prolific and world-spanning. She was born in Ohio, but painted in Paris, Holland, Asia, the Philippines, and across the U.S., including an extended stay in San Antonio. Her works were diverse; she painted landscapes and portraits, and showed a notable affinity for capturing the lives of working women she encountered in her travels. Many of her works are currently on display in the Neil-Cochran House Museum’s exhibition Through Her Eyes: The Impressionist Work of Anna Stanley.
Roberson grew up knowing that her grandmother had been a painter, but not fully realizing the importance or quality of Stanley’s work.
“My grandmother died when my dad was eight years old, and so there was no record there of her art career. We just knew she’d studied in Paris, and she must’ve painted in Holland because there were windmills in these paintings,” Roberson says. “And it wasn’t until really about fifteen years ago that we started looking for her career as a professional artist and found that she had studied with Thomas Eakins… she’d gone to Paris and studied there with Boulanger and had two works accepted by the Salon, which was such a big deal.”
In recent years, Roberson and her family has been working to gather up all of Stanley’s works. “What has been exciting is finding works that we had maybe read about appear. And I kind of sometimes think she’s up there with divine intervention to make sure that some of these things come our way,” Roberson says. “But the one that I most wanted to get was her portrait of Madam Candelaria, who was one of two last survivors of the Alamo.”
Roberson did eventually acquire that painting, which turned up in an unlikely place. “It had been part of a bequest and a young man had found it behind a humidifier in his parent’s Florida apartment. He was settling their estate, and he saw the signature, got on the Internet and found us that way,” Roberson says. Behind a humidifier in Florida is not the optimal storage space for works of art, so the portrait did require some restoration, but now it’s on display with many of Stanley’s other works at the Neil-Cochran House.
That portrait is the work that led to the museum’s current exhibition of Stanley works, says Neil-Cochran executive director Rowena Dasch. “With the tricentennial in San Antonio coming up, we thought it would be a fun thing to put it on exhibit, but that’s not really a show – one painting isn’t a show,” she says. “And so I went to Marni’s home and she has an absolute treasure trove of Anna Stanley’s work and we were able to pull together this entire show – with one exception – from her personal collection.” Interestingly, the one exception, Landscape with Windmills, is on loan from Fort Sam Houston, to which it's on loan in perpetuity from Roberson’s family.
“It might not seem immediately connected well to the Neil-Cochran House Museum that we’re putting an impressionist painter’s work on view, but when you think about it, we are a historic house museum with a strong female storyline... and our ability to really shed light on how American women have grown and thrived is something that we take very seriously here,” says Dasch. “So being able to bring in an exhibit that is from the same time period as people were living in this home and the type of artwork that would’ve been in this home at the time has really just been so gratifying, to be able to bring light to another important American woman.”