Promoting the Arts in Early Houston:
Emma Richardson Cherry
Emma Richardson Cherry was a pioneer in the arts and art education. She was born in 1859 into a modest family in Aurora, Illinois. As a young woman, she studied art in New York and Chicago, winning multiple honors for her work. She moved to Kansas City in 1885 where she set up a studio and helped to establish the Kansas City Art Association and School of Design. While teaching art in Nebraska, she met Dillon Brook Cherry. The two married and in 1892 their only child Dorothy was born.
During the 1880s, most serious American art students believed their artistic training would not be complete until they attended one of the art schools in Paris. Mrs. Cherry was no different. Despite having just gotten married, she left for Paris in 1888 where she studied and sketched her way around Europe for nearly two years. Emma returned to the U.S., joining her husband in Denver where she was instrumental in the founding of the Artists Club of Denver which eventually became the Denver Art Museum.
In the early 1890s, the Cherrys moved to Houston and in 1897 they purchased the former home of William Marsh Rice and moved it from downtown to Fargo Street. Like in Denver, Emma saw a need for art education and appreciation in the Houston community. With her help, the Houston Public School Art League was organized in 1900 to bring reproductions of famous works of art into the schools for study. It was renamed the Houston Art League in 1912 and the organization began developing plans for a fine art museum. Those plans came to fruition in 1924 with the opening of the Museum of Fine Arts.
Her work was exhibited and appreciated in Houston and all across the country. She showed at the Metropolitan Art School and the National Academy of Design in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Witte Museum in San Antonio. She was also represented at the Paris Salon, the French-Irish exhibition in London and the Columbian Exposition in 1893. Mrs. Cherry won a gold medal from the Western Art Association in Omaha, Nebraska, a landscape prize from the Southern States Art League, and a still-life prize at the Texas Artists Exhibit in Nashville, Tennessee.
In 1934 Mrs. Cherry was one of five Houston artists commissioned by the U.S. government to work on art projects for public buildings. Her assignment was to produce large wall murals for the public library, which are still on display in the Julia Ideson building. She also was commissioned by the chairman of Galveston’s Oleander Festival to paint a new variety of oleanders he had developed. The painting was presented to President Franklin Roosevelt on a brief rail stopover in Galveston.
Emma Cherry came from humble beginnings, received her education at the best art schools, exhibited in important museums in both the United States and Europe, taught and organized exhibitions to encourage art education, and was an instrumental force in establishing three museums in three different cities. Throughout her life, she continued to grow as an artist and to encourage and teach others to push boundaries in their own work. Her spirit, energy and determination exemplified a professional American woman artist bringing culture and civilization to the American West.