A collection of work from artist Mrs. Alma Glasgow White is housed at the San Benito County Historical Society. The hand-made book (circa 1893) contains pages with pasted photographs of Alma’s paintings. Ink sketches, added by Alma around each photograph, allow the painting to spill out onto the page. Prose by Browning, Longfellow, and Thoreau, as well as verses from the Bible, convey emotions that sing in harmony with the original paintings. Tied together with a faded pink ribbon, “Paintings of Alma Glasgow White” is a beautiful reflection of Alma’s work, but who was this mystery woman?
Sara Alma Glasgow was born in Washington, Iowa on Dec.12, 1861. The daughter of a state representative, she was educated, graduating from Washington Academy at the age of 17. Life on West Main Street with her prominent family, church activities, and dramatic acting parts in every home talent show was joyful, and Alma loved to paint.
Considered a spinster at the age of 22, Alma married Rev. Johnston Duffield White in 1884, and they traveled to New Mexico in hopes of curing his tuberculosis. On the return trip to Iowa, Rev. White succumbed to his disease and died on the train car near Raton, New Mexico. Alma never remarried and retained her title, Mrs. Alma Glasgow White, for the rest of her life.
Painting came naturally to Alma. Without any formal training, her body of work grew and was featured at the Iowa State Teachers’ Association in 1892. The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette reported, “Mrs. White has the largest individual exhibit of any artist, represented by 34 oil paintings. Her subjects have nearly all been taken from the vicinity of her home. Mrs. White has remarkable natural gifts, and her exhibit is greatly admired.” Of these paintings, most are included in her book.
In 1893, the Iowa State Art Association was organized and Alma was appointed as the vice president of the first congressional district. She continued to participate in exhibits throughout the state, and to paint the scenery that surrounded her—Alma believed in painting what she knew best.
Friends and family in Washington also believed in Alma’s talent. In 1897 they raised the funds needed for Alma to attend Pratt Art Institute in New York. Upon graduation, Alma accepted a position with Prangs of Chicago teaching the normal classes in drawing throughout Illinois, including Joilet and Galesburg. Alma also offered to decorate some of the rooms in the new school buildings back in Washington to show her appreciation for the assistance she received in her education.
For the next few years, Mrs. White taught art and began to sell her work. The Red Oak Calendar Company of Iowa used one of her paintings for a lithograph. In 1903, she wrote and illustrated an article in The Overland Monthly entitled “A Ride Up Marble Mountain.”
As siblings moved to California in the early 1900s, Alma followed them to San Francisco. For the next decade, she taught in public schools for a living and often lectured, once at the Palo Alto Women’s Club on “Art in the Public Schools.” In 1929, The Oakland Tribune reported on her one-artist show at the East West Gallery. Alma was in her 70s at the time and considered part of an epidemic of elderly persons who were bursting with self-expression. In 1932 she had an exhibit of her paintings at Stanford University; by this time, Alma had been painting for more than 50 years, and her collection must have been quite extensive.
Although the Washington Evening Journal reported, “Alma made friends easily and her unselfish disposition and sense of humor made of every acquaintance a friend,” sadly, she died alone on November 30, 1934. She was cremated and buried in the same plot as her siblings at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, Calif. The grave is unmarked, and forgotten by all, except for a handful of admirers who have witnessed her body of work and appreciate her vision.
Alma once wrote in a speech she delivered to a group of artists in Iowa, “Heaven surely will give to its disciples in fair good time a complete revelation of her beauty, and if there is light, motion, color, as there is here, we shall like eternity.”
We know very little about Mrs. White, and we have no idea why her book is part of the Historical Society’s collection. The book was donated by the late Dick Hill of Hollister, but to date, Alma has no connection to San Benito County. It is with great admiration that we celebrate Alma’s body of work during Women’s History Month. The San Benito County Historical Society Museum is open Saturdays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and located at 498 Fifth St. in Hollister.
All photos courtesy of the San Benito County Historical Society.