Grace A. Spalding

Sunset at Presque Isle, Marquette, MI 49855 by local artist, visual artist, photographer, Taryn Okesson. Autumn in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on Lake Superior. Fall Colors, Lake Superior Waves.

I came across information regarding Grace A. Spalding, by chance, when I was searching through the web for all things Marquette and art. Then while attending my first Lake Superior Art Association meeting her name bubbled up around me and sparked talk among the members; and the fire of curiosity was further flamed.

I was intrigued by the idea that the Fine Arts Department at NMU, where I graduated from, had its humble start in the hands of a woman. Somehow I never learned that during my years at NMU, or during my studies in the Art Department. There was even a residence hall named for her, I never bothered to know who the time dusted names were of my campus. They were people once and now they meant the shape of brick and mortar. A smell of a lecture hall. The feel of a folding chair. The sounds of feet and voices echoing through stairwells. Those names spoke of the potential of credit hours. They were now a wall of event flyers and a half empty vending machine in a dusty corner. They no longer meant person.

I think it’s fitting now that it is women’s history month, I revisit the information I uncovered and share it. Hopefully, bringing more awareness of the contributions of one woman from the first half of the twentieth century who helped shape the creative Marquette community we love.

Grace Allen Spalding

Born in 1875 (or 1876 or 1870 depending on which source you look at) and died on Christmas day 1957; Grace Allen Spalding was from Evanston, Illinois. She completed her undergraduate in NYC between Columbia Teachers College, the Pratt Institute and Columbia University. Spalding taught at Evanston University before being approached for the position with Northern Normal (NMU).

Spalding began at Normal in 1903 and became head of the Art Department in 1904, and remained the head until her retirement in 1939. The fresh young Art Department created by Spalding offered drawing, composition, design, architecture history, and painting history.

In 1956 NMU honored Grace A. Spalding with an exhibit of her paintings in Lee Hall. Spalding residence hall was named for her in 1964 (A Sense of Time, The Encyclopedia of Northern Michigan University, Magnaghi, 1999).

Studying and Teaching Art

In the summer of 1906 Grace studied art in New York, Florence in 1907, University of California in 1918, beginning in 1921 she studied art for over a year in Paris (Acadamie Colorossi, Acadamie Delacleuse, and artist Richard Miller’s studio), France and Italy in 1926, and in 1931 Harvard’s Fogg Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY, Greece and Italy. (A Sense of Time, The Encyclopedia of Northern Michigan University, Magnaghi, 1999).

Grace in turn taught art during summers in Chautauqua, NY and in 1912 she taught at Paris’s Musee du Louvre.

Both the Acadamie Colarossi and Acadamie Delacleuse were established in the 19th century with reputations for teaching women. The Colorossi was known for allowing women to draw nude male models from its inception in the late 19th century. At the Delacleuse, though men and women trained separately, more studio space was given to women. By the 1920’s both were establishments nearing their end. In 1922 modernist abstract sculpturist Henry Moore was at the Colarossi. (Was Grace meeting and working alongside artists of Henry Moore’s notability?)

Richard Miller was an American Impressionist. In the 1920’s he was likely living in Massachusetts, he moved back to the states from France before world war I. Richard was known for figurative impressionist works, mainly of “decorative women.”He had many students, some professional artists of their day. If we follow a perceived pattern of Grace’s studying at an institution on the eastern seaboard before leaving for Europe, we could surmise she studied at Miller’s Massachusetts’ studio before leaving for Paris, but this is all conjecture. It is only stated she studied at his studio. It is not stated where that studio was located, or if she studied directly from Miller.

Her Painting Style

There was a array of artistic styles Grace A. Spalding could pull from for her own work. In Henry Moore’s studio she would have seen impressionist works and in Paris she would’ve been around modernist movements. Her colors are true to nature and there’s impressionistic brush work. She composed her canvas using the rule of thirds. Spalding leads the eye through the composition with a break in the trees. Use of color and details does the work for her in creating depth. It is noted that her work sold well and she exhibited beyond Marquette, in Chicago and New York. Grace’s favorite subject, like many Upper Peninsula Artists, was an autumn landscape near the Lake Superior shore. A favored location was Middle Island Point near Marquette, MI (A Sense of Time, The Encyclopedia of Northern Michigan University, Magnaghi, 1999).

Grace A. Spalding, 1922, from Northern Michigan University DeVos Art Museum Collection, Devos Art Museum Flickr

Historical Context

In 1900 just under 20 percent of women worked outside of the home. Women didn’t have the right to vote enshrined in US law yet. In 1900 58% of colleges were co-ed. Ivy League schools, including Harvard, wouldn’t admit women until the 1960’s and 1970’s. K-12 (or the equivalent) teachers of the era were expected to be unmarried, but what about women college faculty? At least anecdotally the same was true. It is biographically noted Grace Spalding never married.


I was excited to learn of this woman and her career at Northern. I hope you enjoyed learning about Spalding as well. Although women were gaining ground in academics throughout the 1800’s, I believe it was a significant achievement for a woman at the turn of the century to create and head a college department compared to the social norms and statistics of the time. I found Spalding’s commitment to continuing her own education inspiring. I imagine her a force of nature, kind and pleasant, mannered, adored, but moving forcefully towards the goal of bringing the arts to Marquette just the same as many inspiring women are working throughout the Marquette community today in galleries, as artists, arts professionals, art and design professors, arts-related business owners and volunteering on boards.

***The Devos Museum has three of Spalding’s works in their collection. ▪️

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