Volume 21, Issue 1 | Spring 2022

Restless Enterprise: The Art and Life of Eliza Pratt Greatorex by Katherine Manthorne

Reviewed by Julia K. Dabbs

Katherine Manthorne,
Restless Enterprise: The Art and Life of Eliza Pratt Greatorex.
Oakland: University of California Press, 2020.
337 pp.; 44 b&w and 36 color illus.; bibliography; index; notes.
$34.95 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978052035507

Katherine Manthorne’s amply-illustrated biography of the nineteenth-century Irish-American artist Eliza Pratt Greatorex (1819–97) is a most welcome addition to the relatively sparse scholarship on women artists of this period. Indeed, Manthorne is carving out a significant niche in this subfield of research given her recent publication, Women in the Dark: Female Photographers in the United States, 1850–1900 (Schiffer Publishing, 2020) and her forthcoming monograph on Fidelia Bridges (Lund Humphries, 2023).

But why Eliza Pratt Greatorex? Manthorne, who has published on Greatorex since 2009, acknowledges that today Greatorex is “all but forgotten” (2); her paintings and graphic work are rarely exhibited, and her accomplishments go unacknowledged in US art history textbooks. Greatorex is given a passing mention in Whitney Chadwick’s Women, Art, and Society in terms of her contribution to the Women’s Pavilion at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition,‍[1] and a somewhat lengthier discussion is found in Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein’s American Women Artists, where she is noted as an early book illustrator and for having a “distinctive style” of pen-and-ink draftsmanship.‍[2] Yet, according to Manthorne, Greatorex was “the most famous woman artist of the day” (1)—a somewhat surprising statement given the international notoriety of artists such as Rosa Bonheur, Harriet Hosmer, and Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau. More specifically, Manthorne intends to demonstrate how Greatorex and her intimate circle of female collaborators (including her two artist-daughters, Kathleen and Eleanor, and her sister Matilda Pratt Despard) “shaped American gender politics, visual culture, and urban consciousness” (3).

Manthorne draws the reader’s interest into this little-known subject by first briefly relating how her own daily commute in New York City demonstrates the transient nature of the cityscape, a topic that Greatorex was among the first to bring to public notice through her groundbreaking publication, Old New York (1875). Through this connection to her subject we gain a sense of what drove Manthorne to follow Greatorex’s peripatetic trail as an artist, from her birthplace in Ireland to her first US home in New York City, then back to Ireland and Europe to study landscape painting, later traveling to Germany to create engravings of The Homes of Oberammergau (1872), followed by a sojourn in the natural beauty of Colorado where Greatorex published another illustrated travel work, Summer Etchings in Colorado (1873). Even in her later years Greatorex, often with her daughters, continued to travel, study, and create art, spending time in Paris and Algiers from 1878 to 1880, then returning to New York due to Eleanor’s illness, establishing an artist’s colony in Cragsmoor, NY, and ultimately going back to Europe to continue her study of etching technique, before dying in Paris in 1897. One is left breathless simply summarizing this restless existence (and a chronology would have been helpful in this context), made all the more impressive and surprising given that women did not commonly travel by themselves, or with their children in tow, in this period. Manthorne thus had a geographically, socially, and artistically rich subject to explore, one that was made more challenging by the dearth of letters or journals from Eliza’s own hand, leading to years of research that could revive her accomplishments based on newspaper accounts and journals of the period, as well as the writings of family members (5–6).

But the work of the imagination is also necessary when writing a biography of an individual who said little about herself, and who left traces of her artistic journey in such diverse locations. Manthorne effectively draws upon this technique in the book’s prologue (“The Old Church”), where she enables the reader to creatively enter into Greatorex’s life and mind at the time in which she was witnessing the destruction of beautiful and historic structures in her adopted city of New York. What was it like to be unable to stop the demolition of a church, with all of its contained memories of life and death? How did her creative effort in capturing “the likeness” of the edifice contrast to the actions of the workmen on site? Did they notice her, and she them? Although this kind imaginative fiction (told in the third person) is not typically encountered in art historical writing, it works well for what is a self-described biography of Greatorex, and effectively engages the reader in this novel subject.

The author then proceeds in a typically chronological order to compile her portrait of Greatorex, but does so in a rich and complex contextualized fashion, as if putting the myriad pieces of this artist’s life together in a multi-dimensional, Cubist assemblage. For example, in the first chapter (“Maeve’s Daughters”) where Manthorne discusses the familial and cultural background of Greatorex, we also gain insights to the subtopics of Methodism in Ireland, the inspiring example of the Celtic Queen Maeve, the “Big Wind” which devasted the island in 1839, the effects of the potato famine, and the experience of immigrating to America in the aftermath, which Greatorex did in 1848. At times the episodic chapter sections can seem only tenuously connected to the biographical narrative, as occurs with a discussion of Elihu Vedder’s fascinating portrait of Jane Jackson, Formerly a Slave (1865) in chapter 3 where Manthorne relates Vedder’s search for gritty, overlooked street models to Greatorex’s desire to record the edifices of those streets, albeit done in a more idealized fashion. Nonetheless it is fascinating contextualizing material, and a clear demonstration of the author’s erudition.

Although primarily a biography of Greatorex, this volume is amply illustrated by examples of her landscape paintings, drawings, and etchings, which reveal her exquisite skill (especially in the graphic work), and the development of her style. One might wish for larger images in order to better appreciate her skill, especially since they are not often reproduced, but that may await a future exhibition catalogue and is not the fault of a biographical study. Manthorne deftly weaves the artwork into the narrative, keeping her descriptions and analyses succinct; I was especially taken by her interpretation of the almost overwhelming presence of foliage in renderings of sites for Old New York as natural “time portals” (186), by means of which Greatorex may be wistfully recalling a preceding time in history and recording her vision as a form of memorial, and even a potential warning, for future generations.

Two themes especially resound in Manthorne’s discussion of Greatorex’s life and art: one is the artist’s creative restlessness, which is traced through her shifts in landscape painting from the picturesque mode to that of a more nostalgic Hudson River School manner, and then to works on paper as her predominant medium. Manthorne aligns Greatorex with the better-known Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran in regards to shifting attention in the US to the latter artform (171), although Greatorex’s influence seems less apparent, given that she had no students other than her children. Yet more specifically in the medium of etching, while living in Paris as a mature artist in her sixties, Greatorex was again ready to “re-invent” herself pictorially, this time learning how to etch directly en plein air, and developing a much freer line quality compared to her tightly detailed images of American cityscapes and landscapes. Greatorex’s etching of The Pond, which Manthorne indicates was her best-known work thanks to being exhibited in the 1881 Salon and then exhibited and widely reproduced in the US, beautifully demonstrates the new expressive freedom said to be one of the artist’s most important contributions to etching in the United States (249–50).

In addition to her artistic and geographic restlessness, Manthorne makes clear that Greatorex’s achievements were due in large part to her “enterprise,” meaning both Eliza’s own savvy marketing strategies to attract collectors and heighten interest (such as exhibiting prints from her book publications in an effort to realize more purchasers), as well as the familial enterprise that was a key factor in her successes. Manthorne gives particular attention to Kathleen and Eleanor’s assistance in the production of her books and their later independent careers, noting that both sisters merit further scholarly attention. However, I was most struck by the contributions of Greatorex’s sister Matilda Despard, who not only took care of Eliza’s young children while she travelled, but also wrote the text for Old New York, having literary aspirations of her own. Despard also served as an art agent to facilitate the marketing of Eliza’s artwork and books in the US, which in itself was an unusual activity for a woman in the nineteenth century. It would be useful to know more about these roles, and the relationship between text and image in Greatorex’s publications, but this fascinating example of sisterhood is revelatory of how women could achieve some success in the male-dominated art world by banding together.

As a result of reading Restless Enterprise, we gain a clear idea of Greatorex the groundbreaking artist-traveler and her artistic achievements; but as a biography, what do we learn of Greatorex the person? Despite having minimal personal writings from Greatorex herself, Manthorne is able to create a portrait of a woman who was savvy, industrious, inventive, a risk-taker, and a spiritual-seeker. She carved a path for other women artists to follow, but it was not without personal difficulties, including a devastating financial downturn in the late 1870s, which led to the sale of her New York City studio belongings, and the murder of her son in 1881. Eliza Greatorex was above all resilient, continuing to learn new techniques and exhibit art in her elder years, and a restless seeker of beauty, both urban and rural, which she sought to capture so that others might appreciate it. Manthorne’s study is a fascinating voyage from Ireland to New York City, from Oberammergau to Colorado, and from Paris to Algiers, filled with a wealth of historical and social context. Most importantly, it significantly adds to our knowledge of nineteenth-century women artists and their experiences both in the US and abroad, and encourages us to further explore their roles as travelers and writers, and their efforts to occupy public spaces, whether on the streets, the exhibition gallery, or the studio, which they had been long denied.


[1] Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art, and Society, 5th ed. (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2012), 121.

[2] Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, American Women Artists: From Early Indian Times to the Present (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1982), 71–72.