Sarah Van Doren Shaw
Born in New York in 1844 to a prominent Dutch family, Sarah Van Doren Shaw was a late nineteenth and early twentieth-century American artist who primarily worked in Chicago but traveled throughout the United States, Europe, and North Africa.
In the United States, Shaw depicted the country’s diverse landscapes and the changing of the seasons often with plein air painting. While in Europe, she visited the Netherlands and approached Dutch scenes with a tonalist palette. Shaw’s paintings of North Africa, however, focus on the abundance of light that bathes cities like Algiers, where the traditional white garb of locals seems to reflect the vividness of their surroundings. Unlike other American painters who perpetuated Orientalist views of the region, Shaw’s depictions of North Africa emphasize how its climate and natural environment inform everyday life—a theme she explored throughout her career in various settings.
Life as an Artist and Patron
Sarah Van Doren Shaw was the daughter of a Protestant minister who presided over congregations in the Bronx and Manhattan. Her great-grandfather, a Brooklyn politician, was the borough’s first mayor. In 1865, she married Theodore Andrews Shaw, a successful Chicago businessman who served on the planning committee of the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Shaws were a part of the city’s cultural elite, and were regarded as having nurtured the career of their son, Howard Van Doren Shaw, an influential architect and a leader of the American Arts and Crafts movement. The Shaws lived in the Prairie-Avenue district of Chicago, a wealthy neighborhood where many of the city’s high-ranking residents built mansions.
Howard and his wife Frances, a poet and playwright, maintained a summer home in Lake Forest, Illinois, where artists and literary personalities regularly convened. Sarah often spent time there, painting its manicured gardens. A number of her watercolors still hang in the nineteenth-century house that Howard designed and built on the property. Today, the five-acre compound is home to the Ragdale Foundation, which offers residencies to artists, writers, and performers, and hosts a variety of cultural events throughout the year.
Measures 14×11 inches / watercolor on board / street in Algiers
Sarah’s upbringing and social standing later in life afforded her artistic opportunities that were rare for American women at the time. In her adopted city, Shaw trained at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) and exhibited there over a dozen times in the span of her career. She was a follower of James McNeill Whistler, whose tonalist paintings she would have seen in Europe at institutions like the Royal Academy of Art in London.
Shaw was a founding member of Chicago’s Bohemian Art Club, which held its first exhibition at the AIC in 1883. She was also active with other artist-run organizations such as the Chicago Society of Artists and the Palette Club—where she was president—and exhibited in the Women’s Department of the 1893 World’s Fair. In the latter part of her career, Shaw exhibited in New York with the American Watercolor Society (1884, 1899), and in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1905). She died in Chicago in 1918.
Recently, Shaw’s work has been highlighted in exhibitions of American art such as the Museum of Texas Tech’s 20th and 21st Century Art in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, an exhibition of works from its permanent collection that depict the South West.
Measures: 15×17 inches / Oil on canvas board / North Africa
Written by Maymanah Farhat