Emma Richardson Cherry, artist and preservationist, was born in Aurora, Illinois, on February 28, 1859, the eldest of four children of James Perkins and Frances Ann (Mostow) Richardson. Her father was an architect and carpenter and built the Aurora City Hall. Since he was unable to finance her art education, she taught art at the university at Lincoln, Nebraska, for three years before going to New York for advanced study at the Art Students League. She married Dillon Brooke Cherry in Nebraska before she went to Paris for further lessons. Among the European artists with whom she studied at different times were Jules Joseph Lefebvre and Andre L'Hote in Paris and Vettore Zanetti-Zilla and Vicente Poveda y Juan in Italy.
The Cherrys moved from Denver to Houston about 1893 and later bought the home of William Marsh Rice, which had to be moved from its downtown location. At least one version of the story says that Mrs. Cherry bid twenty-five dollars for the ornate front door and perhaps some interior rails and, as the sole bidder, acquired the entire house; other versions say that her husband engineered the purchase through a sealed bid. In any event, preservation of the Rice house is due to Emma Cherry. The residence was eventually sold to the Harris County Heritage Society in 1954. Since 1959 it has been open to the public in the society's downtown Sam Houston Park.
Emma Cherry, one of the earliest professional women artists in Houston, worked in oils, watercolors, pastels, pencil, and charcoal; though at least one critic referred to her use of "modern" laws of color, she painted a number of traditional portraits while living in Houston and experimented with a number of styles. She was known for her paintings of flowers and in 1937 did a study of oleanders to be presented to President Franklin Roosevelt during his visit to Galveston. Her other subjects include landscapes and figures. The most readily accessible of her works are four murals done for the Houston Public Library under the auspices of the Public Works Administration. In addition to a depiction of the capitol of the Republic of Texas and the first home of Sam Houston, both in Houston, she did views of the homes of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. Each of the four is mounted amid painted native flora and symbols appropriate to the subject.
She exhibited her work at the Metropolitan Art School and the National Academy of Design in New York City, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Witte Museum in San Antonio, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She was also represented at the Paris Salon, the French-Irish exhibition in London, and the Columbian Exposition in 1893. In 1926 she traveled in North Africa and Europe, studying in Rome, Venice, and Paris; she made periodic trips abroad throughout her life. She taught locally in her studio. In 1900 she organized the Houston Public School Art League, which later became the Houston Museum of Fine Arts; the league provided replicas of old masters and ancient statues for public schools.
Mrs. Cherry won the gold medal from the Western Art Association in Omaha, Nebraska, a landscape prize from the Southern States Art League, and a still-life prize at the Texas Artists Exhibit in Nashville, Tennessee. In Texas her portraits won awards in Austin, Dallas, and Houston. Her works are included in the permanent collections of the Society of Civil Engineers in New York, the Denver Art Association, the Elisabet Ney Museum in Austin, the San Antonio Art League, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and in public libraries. Mrs. Cherry was a member of many of the leading art associations of the United States. After the death of her husband in 1937, she lived with her only child, Dorothy, the wife of Col. Walter H. Reid. With the help of a magnifying glass, Emma Cherry continued to paint until a few weeks before her death, on October 29, 1954.