In the companion catalogue to the Dixon Gallery and Garden’s 2010 retrospective of Helen Maria Turner, Helen M. Turner: The Woman’s Point of View, the Kentucky-born artist is lauded as an “enduring impressionist” whose greatest talent was “her ability to portray ordinary women doing everyday tasks in everyday places.” Though she did not realize professional recognition and commercial success until her fifties, Turner, who lived to the age of ninety-nine, did enjoy significant critical acclaim in the second half of her career. In 1921, she became only the fourth woman (and the first artist from Louisiana) elected to full membership in the National Academy of Design. Six years later, Turner served as the only female juror of the Twenty-fifth International Exhibition, an honor closely followed by a solo exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia.
Born to a genteel family who sustained daunting personal and financial setbacks during the Civil War, Turner was raised largely in New Orleans by an uncle who adopted Helen and her siblings following their parents’ deaths. Despite her youthful aptitude and interest in art, financial realities limited Turner’s pursuits. Following free studies at Tulane University, Turner worked as a teacher to earn money for her eventual enrollment at the Art Students League in New York. As a student there from 1895-1899, her instructors included Kenyon Cox, Douglas Volk, and Arthur Wesley Dow. She supplemented this coursework with classes at the Cooper Union Design School for Women and traveled to Europe with William Merritt Chase on three separate occasions. From 1902 through 1919, Turner taught at the art school of the New York Y.W.C.A., training women for careers in the applied arts. The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased a portrait of Turner’s in 1914, an endorsement that opened the doors for participation in important exhibitions across the country, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Corcoran Gallery of Art, and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Beginning in 1906, Turner spent her summers at the art colony in Cragsmoor, New York, where her colleagues included Edward Lamson Henry. Like other select American impressionists of the day, Turner enjoyed the patronage of the collector Duncan Phillips.
In portraits, interior scenes, and serene genre paintings set against lush natural backdrops, Turner captured women at work and leisure. In Song of Summer, a large work likely executed on the porch of her summer home in Cragsmoor, the artist’s model is immersed in her instrument. Turner often employed music as a motif in her canvases, a common theme among American impressionists.