As an artist, educator, and political activist, Adèle Goodman Clark frequently united her passions for art and social equity. She delivered politically-minded lectures at local arts organizations and public events, and sometimes gained the attention of passersby as she painted on a sidewalk, only to then ask her audience for signatures in support of women’s suffrage. She once said, “I’ve always tried to combine my interest in art with my interest in government. I think we ought to have more of the creative and imaginative in politics.”
Though she was born in Montgomery, Alabama, Clark always considered herself to be a Virginian. As a child, Clark’s family moved between Alabama, Virginia, Mississippi, and Louisiana, before settling permanently in Richmond in 1894. At nineteen years old, Clark worked as a stenographer to pay for art classes at the Art Club of Richmond. Within a few years, Clark earned a scholarship to the New York School of Art, where she studied under Robert Henri and Kenneth Hayes Miller. It was also during this period that Clark traveled to Paris to attend classes at the progressive Acadèmie Colarossi. Influenced by the urban realism movement, she adopted a modernist approach to painting everyday subjects, portraits, landscapes, and cityscapes that are characterized by loose brushstrokes and often muted color palettes.
Upon returning to Richmond, Clark continued to be active in the Art Club. She, along with close friend and fellow artist Nora Houston, taught art classes and gave presentations. When the Art Club dissolved during World War I, Clark and Houston established their own professional studio. At the “Atelier,” as it became known, the two artists offered classes in drawing, painting, and art history, with a particular focus on portraiture, still life, outdoor scenes, and book illustration. Their studio became a hub of artistic and social activity that helped to launch a new generation of Virginian artists, including painter Theresa Pollak.
Clark and Houston stayed close partners throughout their lives, working together and sharing a home until Houston’s death in 1942. In addition to acting as the driving forces behind Richmond’s burgeoning art scene, they were also involved in the women’s suffrage movement at the federal and local levels. In 1909, Clark and Houston helped to establish the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, and Clark was elected as the League’s Secretary. After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, Clark became the president of the newly-established League of Women Voters. In that role, she sought to educate Virginian women, particularly African American women, about their new voting rights. From 1936 to 1942, Clark served as the director of the Virginia Arts Project, a division of the WPA; in that capacity, she collaborated with local artists and community leaders, including sculptor Leslie Garland Bolling, to establish the Craig House Art Center, which offered art classes to African American children in the area.
Clark’s commitment to the advancement of women in all arenas of public life, including the arts, made a lasting impact on her adopted home state. Though her work has remained largely in Southern art collections, her meaningful career as an artist and advocate is representative of a nationwide trend of unmarried women who combined political activism with their creative passions in the early decades of the twentieth century.