Laura Coombs Hills
Laura Coombs Hills was born in Newburyport in 1859 to a well-to-do family. After showing an early aptitude for art, Hills began taking private art lessons with a local tutor before going on to study with Helen Knowlton, who had taken over the women’s classes of William Morris Hunt at the Boston Museum School. Her first solo show in 1889 at J. Eastman Gallery consisted of sixteen pastels, including landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. Even at this early stage in her career, Hills clearly demonstrated her preference for and agility with the “lesser” materials of pastel and watercolor.
In the early 1890s, Hills traveled abroad for the first time to England, where she became inspired to experiment with painting miniature portraits on ivory. She was highly sought after for her portrait commissions, and this work gained her admission to the Society of American Artists in 1897, “an honor which few women ever attain.”3 Indeed, her miniatures brought her fame and enough income to maintain an apartment and studio on Beacon Hill as well as a summer home in Newburyport called “The Goldfinch,” which she helped to design.
In the 1920s, when Hills was in her sixties, she began a second, equally successful career painting floral still lifes in pastel. She mounted solo exhibitions of these works almost every year between 1921 and 1947, and they were so popular that the paintings would often sell out within a few days of the opening. As with her miniatures, these floral pastels displayed her remarkable drawing expertise; they also gave Hills a greater opportunity to explore the dazzling effects of color.