Mary E. Hutchinson practiced as a professional artist in New York and Atlanta during the mid-twentieth century. Though little known today, she achieved critical recognition and produced more than 250 works, including oil paintings, drawings, and etchings. Her artwork features highly finished, introspective portraits, especially of women and African Americans, and is significant for its critical engagement of gender, sexuality, and race.
Mary Elisabeth Hutchinson was born on July 11, 1906, to Minnie Belle and Merrill Hutchinson in Melrose, Massachusetts, her mother’s ancestral hometown. She grew up in Atlanta, where both of her parents were teachers. Her father taught piano and served as a church organist, while her mother taught a mix of poetry and oratory at Washington Seminary, Atlanta’s elite private school for girls.
Hutchinson attended Washington Seminary, probably because her mother taught there, and then went on to study at Agnes Scott College in Decatur. Hutchinson had her first exhibition as a young student in 1925, when she and her private art teacher, the painter Marion Otis, exhibited together in the windows of the Henry Grady Hotel. Atlanta’s newspapers covered the event as a part of a promotional push to establish an art museum in the city, which opened the following year as the High Museum of Art. That same year, 1926, Hutchinson accepted a scholarship to the National Academy of Design in New York.
New York Career
Hutchinson studied art at the National Academy of Design from 1926 to 1931. She began making her way in the professional art world just before U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration implemented a variety of New Deal programs to help the nation’s “needy artists.” Hutchinson participated in these programs from their inception, teaching for the Federal Art Project at the Harlem Community Art Center. She also continued to make her way in the New York art world as an independent artist.
Hutchinson’s subject matter and style challenged cultural norms at a time when the increasing dominance of abstraction in modern art suppressed displays of social activism. She examined issues of race in her work by painting the people and scenes of her daily life, including a number of the young students she encountered at the Harlem Community Center. Her social and intimate life revolved around women, and in today’s perspective she would be considered lesbian. Her first partner, Joanna Lanza, was also her primary model from around 1931 to 1935, and from 1935 to 1945 she shared her life with Ruth Layton.
By 1934 Hutchinson had attracted enough critical attention to support her first solo New York exhibition at the Midtown Galleries. At the same time, Atlanta’s recently established High Museum boosted her national profile by acquiring two of her paintings Italian Girl (ca. 1932) and Two of Them (ca. 1933). Professional recognition followed quickly; she joined the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors soon after the High Museum acquisition. Throughout her career Hutchinson participated with a variety of New York art organizations, including the New York Society of Women Artists, the Society of Independent Artists, and the American Artists Congress. With these and other organizations she kept to an active exhibition schedule.
Although she had already moved to New York by the time the High Museum opened in 1926, Hutchinson participated in some of the venue’s earliest events and exhibitions. The museum gave Hutchinson her first large-scale solo exhibition in 1932.
In 1945 Hutchinson moved back to Atlanta, where she joined the faculty of the High Museum of Art (later the Atlanta Art Institute) in 1946 and shared the remainder of her life with Dorothy King. She left the school under unclear circumstances in 1950 and appears to have broken ties at that time with Atlanta’s mainstream arts community, which revolved around the Atlanta Art Association and the High Museum. Instead she staged exhibitions in 1950 at alternative Atlanta venues, including the Castle Gallery, operated by Hazel Roy Butler, and the West Hunter Branch Library, which served the city’s African American community in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood.
Her final solo exhibition, held at the West Hunter Branch Library in the spring of 1950, included a painting titled The Student (ca. 1937). Hutchinson gave the painting to a librarian when the show ended, and today it is part of the collection at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History. From 1959 to 1967 she served as the first art teacher at St. Pius X Catholic High School.
Hutchinson died in Atlanta on July 10, 1970.