When women marry fellow artists, their careers are often overshadowed by those of their husbands, a subordination that was particularly true throughout the twentieth century. Such was the case for Dorothy Colette Pope Heldner, who married her art teacher, Knute Heldner. Born in Waupaca, Wisconsin, Colette was raised in Duluth, Minnesota. Fiercely independent and headstrong, she unsuccessfully attempted to leave home at the age of fourteen, cutting her hair, and obtaining a job as a delivery “boy” for Western Union. She took art lessons at the Rachel McFadden Art Studio in Duluth while working as McFadden’s secretary. It was there that she met Knute, a charismatic Swede twenty-five years her senior. After eloping in 1923, the couple visited New Orleans, eager to escape the brutal Midwestern cold. For much of their married life, they alternated between the two cities, enjoying winters in the South and spending summers up north. 

The Heldners traveled abroad between 1929 and 1932, a sojourn underwritten by grant funds from the city of Duluth and prize money Knute had won at the Chicago Art Show. They especially enjoyed the Latin Quarter in Paris, and their paintings began to reflect the influence of the Impressionists. Colette delighted in the bohemian life Paris offered and depicted urban street life in lighthearted caricature sketches. Back in New Orleans, the pair settled in the French Quarter. The neighborhood’s energy and eccentricity captivated Colette, who described the milieu as “compelling, completely fascinating, narrow streets, balconies, plants, [and] clotheslines by the galleries.” She rendered colorful cityscapes that reflected her enchantment. It was around this time that she began to sign her objects simply as “Colette,” a practice presumably inspired by the bold French writer. Colette also took part in New Orleans’ active cultural community which included several other female artists—Caroline Durieux, Ida Kohlmeyer, and Helen Turner—as well as the playwright Tennessee Williams, among others.

Southern artists had long been in the habit of capturing Louisiana’s sultry bayous on canvas. Both Colette and Knute approached the subject with fresh perspective, creating what she called “swamp idylls.” In the early 1950s, the Heldners’ marriage became strained. Some sources note the couple as having separated, while others contend they divorced; Colette was not listed among Knute’s survivors in his 1952 obituary. Following his death, Colette’s paintings became bolder, characterized by richer colors and expressionistic brushwork.