ART HISTORY: ANNA PIRKEY

Audio interview with Anna Pirkey about her research and FE Marshall


Biography of F.E. Marshall,
Founder of the School of Art at Montana State College (later MSU)

      …Her vivid personality, her quick wit, her wide range of knowledge and sympathy, her alert interest in the world…”

“…small, wiry, dynamic, independent, didn’t care for clothes. Spoke French, Italian, and German. Played the organ…”

– praises voiced by the colleagues and peers of F.E. Marshall.

In 1894, at the age of 68, when most people were already dead or retired, a bold woman by the name of Fredrica Ellsworth Marshall began the art school at Montana State College (later to be Montana State University). Before the modern comforts of hiking and the nice trails we know today, Marshall hiked out to all elevations across the Gallatin Valley to paint profoundly intricate watercolors of local flora; illustrations so intricate, they were published in scientific botanist journals of the period. At the age of 83, Marshall embarked on a world-wide journey, visiting favorite locations, including the Taj Mahal. In fact, she left behind over 350 watercolors to the School of Art.  It is also believed that she left a treasure trove of artifacts from all over the world to the School of Art, including textiles, Japanese prints, Native American pueblo pots, dolls, and costumes, which are now housed in Haynes Hall and studied by art students to this very day.

Marshall was a remarkable lady who played a major role in Montana’s educational, artistic, and cultural history, but very little is known about this accomplished woman. This lack of knowledge and representation is what spurred the beginning of my research. The Art School and its Gallery Director were hoping to flesh out her biography more, gaining a greater understanding of this astonishing woman.

Researching a woman that lived over a hundred years ago is quite a task. One of the hardest roadblocks was that she was a single lady at the turn of the century, meaning many of her belongings and records of her life have disappeared to the ages. There are no sources I was able to find about her life from the age of 12 to 29, when she got married. With a lack of primary sources, a majority of my research entailed a lot of sifting through the Library of Congress’ online newspaper archives in hopes of finding some new bits of information. I was able to create a better biography with the help of these newspaper articles, the archive on her in the Montana State University library, and the information that the Art School had retained.