Thursday, April 30, 2020

Rediscovering the Personal in Vintage Art: Christine B. Fielding

Art and Artifact as Family History

Over the past years I have collected a few small vertical watercolor or oil paintings made by hobbyists during the early part of the twentieth century.  Most sales descriptions list these paintings as rustic or primitive, with a rural or scenic focus.  Some are purely landscapes adorned with combinations of mountains, trees, water, snow, sunsets, or moonlight.  Others also contain a building as a focal point, such as a cabin, church, or farmhouse.  The overall effect is enchanting, rather like a compelling scene in a children's book.

The first time I really noticed one of these paintings was many years ago, while perusing an antique shop with my mother in Benicia, California.  The imaginative scene that captured my attention (only 6-1/2 ins. by 11-1/2 ins, antique frame included)  depicts a meandering stream flowing between snow covered banks, with bare trees rising to graduated red and yellow tones in an mottled evening sky.  On one side of the painting an old gray farmhouse puffs smoke from a brick chimney, inviting the viewer to step inside the scene and become warmed by its nostalgia.  My mother already had an old print something like it at home, and I knew that she loved similar scenes, especially those depicting old time cabins.  Offering her the right of refusal, I said, "If you don't buy it, I will."  She quickly collected the find to take home.

Fast forward through the years and I have inherited that little painting of the old gray farmhouse adorning a winter scene.  I have acquired other vertical paintings since then, most of which are unsigned or have only initials painted in the lower corner.  There is usually very little to go on when researching any of the artists, especially since they were often hobbyists and not well known.  One of my latest purchases happens to be adorned with the artist's complete signature:  "Christine B. Fielding."  A date penciled on the back of the framed piece indicates it was completed on March 14, 1916.  When presented with a fact or two on which to lay a foundation, I often become excited by the prospect of a "great information chase."  I decided to try and learn what I could about the pair of hands responsible for this recent addition to my little collection.

This 17 x 8 watercolor (original frame) was created by Christine B. Fielding in 1916.  The rural scene is of a stream banked by shrubs and birch trees, with a church steeple visible in the near distance.  I purchased the painting from an antique dealer located in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2018. 

Enthusiasm for the art of watercolor took off in the United States after the founding of the American Watercolor Society in 1866.  Within fifty years, close to the exact year Christine Fielding made the painting now in my possession, the medium was widely practiced and celebrated as a national form of expression.  Most often, it was regarded as a means of personal accomplishment, bringing creative satisfaction to those who could practice the art well enough to create something pleasing.  In an era when it was still difficult for women to find professional work, some with exceptional skills used watercolor art to enter the field of decorative design, which provided employment in fields like exhibition work and illustration, among others. (1)

Many of these paintings were made by women who had the desire to create something beautiful and also possessed the means to add a leisure pursuit to their daily duties.  Christine was not born into wealth, so her motive in learning to paint was not the same as that of a debutante collecting accomplishments for the sake of social climbing.  We can attribute Christine's accomplishment to interest, youthful energy, and exposure to someone who could teach the basic skills.  Her father was a successful businessman, but after his death the nuclear family and in-laws grouped together for greater economy.  Since Christine lived with other adults at the time she was working on her painting, responsibility for any day-to-day household chores was shared.  Finding herself with a little time to spare upon occasion, painting could easily have become a Sunday-after-church pursuit.

Although I do not have a photograph of Christine, I imagine her seated beside a tall wood-framed window awash in bright, indirect light from newly fallen winter snow.  Her fine hair is swept into a loose bun atop her head and held in place with multiple pins.  Wearing a blowsy sailor-collared tunic with the hem of her long, straight underskirt at her ankles, an old linen dishtowel is spread across her lap to protect the skirt from dripping paint.  After dabbing a brush into the earthy coloring on her palette, she lifts it toward the canvas and carefully considers the next stroke...

"Christine B. Fielding":  signature in the lower right  corner of the painting.

Christine B. Fielding:  Small Town American Girl

Who was Christine?  Where and when did she live, and how did this romantic and diminutive landscape come to be preserved for my discovery over a hundred years later?  I began my research with what little I could accept as fact:  a name, and one date.

With the painting having been completed in 1916, I estimated Christine's birth year to be between 1880-1890.  Sometimes you just have to begin with a strong hunch:  wet fingers to the wind!  Thankfully, Christine's full name was rather unique for this time period.  Using 1880 as a birth year, plus or minus 10 years, an initial search on revealed that in 1910, Christine B. Fielding resided in Milbank, Grant County, South Dakota.  That year, other members of the household included her widowed mother, Amelia Peterson, who owned the family home on Milbank Avenue, free and clear.  Also living within the same walls was Christine's husband, Frank C. Fielding, who then delivered groceries for a living, and their son, Herbert, aged two years.  Christine's older sister and only living sibling, Anna Louise (Peterson) Dougherty, was also at the residence along with her husband, Connie Dougherty, an Irish teamster who operated a dray line. (2)

Christina Bergata Peterson (her name as recorded in 1900 census records), was a second generation Dane.  She was born in Minnesota in July 1888, to Jens and Amelia (Bolsen) Peterson.  Her parents immigrated to America from Denmark separately, then met and married in Minnesota in 1887.  By 1894, the Peterson family lived in Milbank, Grant County, South Dakota, where Christine's father began a successful business career as a laundry proprietor.(3)  Milbank, situated 10 miles west of the Minnesota border, was founded in 1880, following the arrival of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad.  The surrounding land was previously inhabited by Dakota/Sioux Indians.  In 1900, a few years after the Petersons' arrival, Milbank's population was about 1,400.

Jens Peterson, Christine's father, was well-known as a Milbank business entrepreneur.  After modernizing and building up a laundry business, he sold it in 1903.  He used the capital to start other ventures that included the sale of general merchandise, and eventually opened an ice cream parlor, restaurant, bowling alley, and shooting gallery.  A billiards hall and lodging house were also planned.(4)  Due to Jens Peterson's prominence, the comings and going of the family were routinely reported in the local newspaper.  While Christine had the good fortune to be part of a solidly middle-class family with regular income, there was nowhere to hide from prying eyes within their small town.  She, her sister, and mother regularly participated in social events, even if they did not always care to.

 Wife, Mother, Citizen, Divorcee

On October 28, 1905, at the age of 17, Christine married Frank C. Fielding, who hailed from Illinois.  Frank operated a store from within the Milbank post-office lobby that was rented by his father-in-law, Jens Peterson.  There, he sold stationery and school supplies, tobacco and cigars, soft drinks, also newspapers and magazines.  On September 10, 1907, Frank and Christine's only child was born.  Herbert Jens Fielding suffered from infantile paralysis (polio) at a young age, but appears to have recovered enough to live a normal life.(5)

In 1916, the same year that Christine made her bucolic watercolor painting, a ballot in South Dakota included both prohibition and women's suffrage amendments.  While the prohibition amendment passed, the suffrage amendment did not.  This must have been a great disappointment to the women of her community.  Polls indicated that only 10 percent of women in 45 counties of South Dakota were opposed to suffrage.  Incorporated into Christine's painting may have been hope for a better world, where women's voices counted on the same level as men's.  It would only be a couple of years until the Citizenship Amendment was passed in November 1918, and Christine, like all women of South Dakota who were U.S. citizens, earned the right to vote under the same terms as men.  South Dakota was one of the original 36 states to ratify the 19th Amendment.(6)

As a young married woman and resident in a close-knit community, Christine was expected to do her part toward war efforts like the Red Cross luncheons that began to take place across the nation in 1918.  The slogan for the effort was "Eat to Aid Red Cross."  Ladies participated in putting on luncheons in order to raise funds.  Christine, her mother, and sister opted to donate $1 apiece instead of entertaining at a luncheon.  The reason may have been that Christine was undergoing divorce proceedings and chose to remain in the background.(7)

In an era when it was uncommon for women to seek divorces, Christine did just that.  Her reasons are unknown, but if the marriage was initially successful, it did not last.  The local Milbank paper published no fewer than four summons during April 1918, directing Frank Fielding, Defendant, to appear in court regarding a divorce hearing.  Christine was granted her divorce.  That same year, Frank Fielding enlisted in the U. S. Army, Infantry Division after being faced with the World War I draft. It was a stressful year for the Fieldings, on all accounts.(8)

Spanish Flu Victim

As a divorcee, Christine continued to reside with her mother and sister in Milbank.  Both she and her sister took in sewing work, while their mother served as an in-home nurse.  The census for that location in 1920 was enumerated during the month of January.(9)  Less than a month later, Christine was dead.  On February 13, the local paper announced:  "The grim reaper called Mrs. Christine Fielding beyond after a heroic fight for the past four days."(10)  At age 31, Christine received the sad recognition of being the first person within the community of Milbank to die from the effects of Spanish Flu, the influenza pandemic which claimed victims worldwide starting in 1918.  Her death resulted from double pneumonia after suffering from influenza and a severe cold.  Although larger metropolitan areas felt the effects of the pandemic early on, some outlying locations, like Milbank, South Dakota, were not affected until much later.

Through the Generations

What happened to Christine's possessions after she died?  It is doubtful that the painting she created four years before her death was carried along through the years by her son, Herbert.  Although he still resided with his grandmother and aunt at age 17, his life soon took a different turn.(11)  He became a musician, first moving to Streator, Illinois, where his father resided, and then to Mason City, Iowa, where he performed as a part of the Gordon Leach Band, one of the city's historical musical organizations.(12)  The talented ten-piece band played for the grand opening of the Figueroa Ball Room in September 1938, and was known for its "snappy" swing-style dance music.  "Herb" Fielding played clarinet and saxophone and also performed with various other bands.(13)

Herbert was married in Galena, Illinois on September 26, 1931.  The marriage ended in less than 7 years, when his wife Frances filed for divorce, citing cruel and inhuman treatment as grounds.(14).  It seems that Herb's entertainment industry lifestyle led to excessive alcohol consumption, and perhaps other intolerable tendencies.  After the divorce, he was arrested for driving under the influence.  When pulled over by a deputy sheriff, a partly empty bottle of whiskey was found in the car.  Herbert's blood intoxication level was 350 mg/dL, a potentially fatal level.  He was sentenced to pay a fine of $300, and his driving license was suspended for a year.(15)  In 1942, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.  He served until October 29, 1945, with a year and a half of that in foreign service.(15)  Herbert Jens Fielding, Christine's only child, died in Nobles County, Minnesota at age 50, on October 16, 1957.(16)

Herbert's father, Frank C. Fielding, remarried and started a second family in Streator, Illinois.  Since Frank's divorce from Christine occurred two years before her death, it is highly improbable the watercolor painting went to Streator with him.

Anna Louisa (Peterson) Dougherty, Christine's elder sister by two years, remarried in 1930 and moved to Badus, Lake County, South Dakota.  Anna and Christine's mother, Amelia Peterson Vander Elsen, having been widowed for a second time, was living with Anna and her new husband, Nicolas Volstad in 1940.(17)  After Amelia died, Anna likely inherited her mother's personal belongings, including Christine's 1916 painting.  Or, perhaps Amelia had gifted her youngest daughter's artwork to another relative by that time, possibly even her grandson, Herbert Jens Fielding?  Another possibility is that the painting left Christine's household soon after it was completed--offered as a personal gift to a friend, or destined to be donated or raffled for some church or social cause.

This is where any trail of reasonable certainty goes cold; additional breadcrumbs are nowhere to be found.  After Anna's death, the painting may have been kept by one of her in-laws (the Nicolai/Nicolas Volstad family), until it ended up in a Minneapolis antique store in 2018, by way of an estate sale.  However it came to be there, it had endured a long journey that not even Christine herself could have predicted.


Now that I know something about Christine B. Fielding and the origin of her painting, I value it all the more.  I love antiques in general, not just because they are representative of times gone by, but because of the significance the items once held for individuals.  Although we cannot take treasured items with us when we go to the "great beyond," they can continue to resurface and add to the lives of others.  Each time an item passes from hand to hand it brings new meaning, adding patina to its original finish.  Over a century ago, Christine created her painting with patience and care.  In spite of the real life struggles she encountered:  a father's death, the illness of a child, a failing marriage, concern over women's right to vote, and threats of a world war and pandemic illness, while she was engaged in painting it offered peace and hope for the future.  How can I not treasure the result, knowing how much of her heart went into this piece of art?



Special thanks to Librarian Extraordinaire (and friend), Lisa Oberg!

--(1) "Women and Watercolor," The Magazine Antiques,, March 3, 2017 (accessed April 27, 2020).
--(2), 1910 U.S. Federal Census; Milbank Ward 1, Grant, South Dakota; Roll: T624_1480; Page: 6A; Enumeration District: 0198; FHL microfilm: 1375493.
--(3), 1900 U.S. Federal Census; Milbank, Grant, South Dakota; Page: 10; Enumeration District: 0155; FHL microfilm: 1241549; "Jens Peterson Died," The Herald-Advance (Milbank, So. Dakota), March 5, 1909, p.1.
--(4) The Herald-Advance (Milbank, So. Dakota), July 24, 1903, p.1; The Herald-Advance (Milbank, South Dakota), September 18, 1903, p.4.
--(5), South Dakota Department of Health; Pierre, South Dakota; South Dakota Marriage Records, 1905-2016 (Marriage of F. C. Fielding to Christine Peterson, November 1, 1905); The Herald-Advance (Milbank, So. Dakota), March 16, 1906, p.1, and March 30, 1906, p.1 (Post-Office lobby store);, South Dakota Department of Health; Pierre, South Dakota; South Dakota, Birth Index, 1856-1917 (Herbert Fielding); The Herald-Advance (Milbank, So. Dakota), September 23, 1910, p.1 (infantile paralysis).
--(6) National Park Service, "South Dakota and the 19th Amendment," (accessed April 29, 2020); "Suffrage Poll of Women," The Herald-Advance (Milbank, So. Dakota), July 28, 1916, p.2.
--(7) "Red Cross Luncheons," The Herald-Advance (Milbank, So. Dakota), February 8, 1918.
--(8) "Summons for Relief," The Herald Advance (Milbank, So. Dakota), April 5, 12, 19, and 26, 1918 (Christine B. Fielding, Plaintiff, vs. Frank C. Fielding, Defendant);, U.S., Headstone Applications for Military Veterans, 1925-1963 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2012 (Frank Carl Fielding).
--(9), 1920 U.S. Federal Census; Milbank, Grant, South Dakota; Roll: T625_1719; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 159.
--(10) "Mrs. Christine Fielding Dies," The Herald Advance (Milbank, So. Dakota), February 13, 1920, p.1.
--(11) South Dakota, State Census, 1925 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014 (Herbert J. Fielding).
--(12), 1940 U.S. Federal Census; Mason City, Cerro Gordo, Iowa; Roll: m-t0627-01146; Page: 4A; Enumeration District: 17-23 (Herbert Fielding).
--(13) "Gordon Leach Band," Globe-Gazette (Mason City, Iowa), July 24, 1961, p.7; Kirk Hundertmark, "The Beginning of the Figuerora Ballroom 1938," (accessed April 27, 2020); "Son of Local Couple Dies," The Times (Streator, Illinois), October 18, 1957, p.4.
--(14) "Frances Fielding Gets Divorce Decree From Herbert J. Fielding," Globe-Gazette (Mason City, Iowa), October 29, 1941, p.7.
--(15) "Fined $300 on Driving Charge," Globe-Gazette (Mason City, Iowa), April 18, 1938, p.11.
--(16) Iowa, World War II Bonus Case Files, 1947-1954 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014 (Herb J Fielding); Minnesota, Death Index, 1908-2017 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2001 (Herbert Jens Fielding).
--(17), South Dakota Department of Health; Pierre, South Dakota; South Dakota Marriage Records, 1905-2016 (Anna Daugherty and Nicolay Volstad); South Dakota, State Census, 1945 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014 (Anna Volstad).

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