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Women's History - Remembering Putnam County Artist In Residence Frances O'Brien

March 15, 2022, Brewster, New York – During Women’s History month the Putnam County Historian’s Office is remembering Frances O’Brien (1903-1990), a famous portrait artist, woodblock illustrator, as well as a published author, who lived for a time in Putnam County, New York. Born in Rochester, New York, O’Brien attended Vassar College, the Corcoran Art School in Washington, D.C. (now part of George Washington University), and the Art Students League of New York. As her art career blossomed in the mid-twentieth century, she and her then-husband George Garfi­eld, a lawyer and businessman, and their son Brian, kept a country home in the “Doansburg” section of the Town of Southeast.

The Garfield family rented on Foggintown Road during the 1930s and 1940s.  At the height of World War II, O’Brien’s portrait art was used on many covers of The Saturday Review of Literature, an American weekly magazine published that focused on literary criticism but also included politics, science, and art.  She profiled presidents, military leaders, authors, and artists alike in varying techniques including pen and ink drawings, paintings, and wood cut prints.  An extensive collection of these portraits can be found in the Frances O’Brien Collection at the University of Arizona Museum of Art & Archive of Visual Arts in Tucson, Arizona.

Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, O’Brien teamed up with fellow local artist, Ernest Hamlin Baker, to create a series of propaganda posters under the auspices of the Putnam County War Council.  Their posters were printed by The Putnam County Courier and distributed widely.  Each work is signed “Francerne”, a combination of the two artists’ names. Today, these posters can be found in the collections of the National Archives and the National Museum of American History.

During her time in Putnam County, O’Brien participated in exhibitions held at Memorial Hall (today’s VFW Hall) in Carmel, New York, where she was a member of the Board of Governors of the Art Association of Putnam County. She showed her work alongside other notable local artists including Ada V. Gabriel, Charles Keck, Zelma Baylos, Edmund Amateis, Maude Cole, and Robert Seymour. Locally, her most popular woodblock art is of the Old Southeast Church in Southeast.

O’Brien was a friend of Georgia O’Keeffe, an artist who played a central role in the development of modern art in America.  The two first met in the 1920s, about the time that O’Keefe became the first female painter to gain respect in New York City’s art world. They remained connected for many years, even as both eventually relocated to the Southwest – O’Brien to Arizona and O’Keeffe to New Mexico.  Following his mother’s death in 1990, Brian Garfield donated Frances O’Brien’s collection of photographs and correspondence with her friend to the Georgia O’Keeff­e Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Throughout Women’s History Month, posters documenting O’Brien’s life and works will be on display at Brewster Public Library, the Putnam County Office Building, and the Department of Motor Vehicles.


Picture credits:

Portrait of Frances O’Brien, University of Arizona Museum of Art & Archive of Visual Arts
Portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe by Frances O'Brien, University of Arizona Museum of Art & Archive of Visual Arts
WWII Salvage for Victory Poster by “Francerne”, National Archives, Identi­fier 515334
H.G. Wells portrait by Frances O’Brien, 1946, Saturday Review of Literature © JTE Multimedia, University of Arizona Museum of Art & Archive of Visual Arts
Old Southeast Church, wood cut by Frances O’Brien, from newspaper archives, 1941

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Welcome to the Putnam County Historian’s Office and Archives! We are located in Brewster, New York, in the lower Hudson River Valley region.

Our local government office preserves, interprets, and promotes the history of Putnam County. New York’s Town and Village Historians have been serving public history since 1919, in part to document World War I Veterans back into civilian life. 

Putnam County Office Building

40 Gleneida Avenue
Carmel, New York 10512

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