Collins, Edna Gertrude (1885–1968)


By: Cynthia A. Brandimarte

Type: Biography

Published: May 25, 2022

Updated: May 25, 2022


Edna Gertrude Collins, painter, muralist, portraitist, and art educator, was born in Toronto, Canada, on April 9, 1885, to parents Henry Guest Collins and Helena Gertrude (Anderson) Collins. For three years in the early 1890s the couple and their two young daughters, Edna and younger sister, Rosina (Ruby), lived in Berlin, Germany, where Henry pursued his study of music. An interview at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago resulted in Henry securing a music position in Austin the following year. Edna remained with her maternal grandparents in Canada where she attended Toronto’s Model School and where teachers first recognized her drawing talents. 

In 1901 she joined her family in Austin and enrolled at the University of Texas to study architecture. She continued to pursue her art and took private lessons with Austin-born and New York-trained artist Robert Jerome Hill. She briefly studied art with Ellsworth Woodward at Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans, taught art at Austin's St. Edward's University, took a short-term position as resident instructor in the Davis Mountains, and later taught at St. Mary's Academy. Based primarily in Austin during the 1910s, Collins was a pillar of the city’s arts community by virtue of her teaching, painting, exhibition activity, and participation in the Austin Art League and Texas Fine Arts Association. During the 1920s Collins joined the busy Dallas art scene and increased the pace of her exhibitions, showing her work in Denver, Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth, and Dallas, and reportedly winning a prize at the Annual Exhibition of the State Fair of Texas in 1924. She also attended numerous sessions at the Art Students League in New York City where she studied with Allen Tucker, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Dimitri Romanofski. In 1929, the year of her father’s death, she left her studies behind, settled permanently in Austin, and began supporting herself and often her widowed mother. 

Centered on Austin arts organizations and the University of Texas, Edna's networks stood her in good stead during the Great Depression, as did her parents' position as mainstays in cultural circles, with Henry having served as musical director at the Texas School for the Blind and later at St. David’s Episcopal Church and Helena as voice teacher. During the 1930s Collins supported Franklin D. Roosevelt and his policies throughout his presidency although she did not benefit directly from the federal arts projects that helped support some of her colleagues. Instead, she supported herself by teaching art classes and painting a prodigious number of portraits of Texans; she traveled often to Texas cities and towns where she stayed with friends while she painted portraits of those residents who enjoyed having art decorate their homes. She initially charged $10 for a sixteen-by-twenty portrait and later $25, and asked for higher sums for larger paintings. She remarked that "many of my patrons paid me more than the agreed price, others, feeling I was underpaid and being pleased with my work, busied themselves getting me other commissions." She was so prolific that at the height of the Great Depression, a noted art critic titled a feature about her "3 Years, 100 Portraits." Far from considering herself a victim of economic circumstances, Collins identified as a painter who brought art to the people for a fair price, and she decried those who demanded high prices and sought the label of high art. 

Collins's dogged work habits and curious mind attracted many friends and acquaintances, many of them fellow artists. Texas artists Kindred McLeary and Harold Everett “Bubi” Jessen were among them, and each engaged her to collaborate on murals and decorating projects. She credited them with teaching her the mural arts. Her mural of an early Texas scene that decorated the State Theater’s lobby, commissioned by Austin artist and interior designer Peter Allidi in 1943, attracted the attention of Camp Swift's commanding officer, Col. Lawrence A. Kurtz, who was looking for an artist to decorate a theater at his camp, which was the largest in the United States during World War II

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the fifty-six-year-old Collins was teaching in Austin and turned to sketching charcoal portraits of soldiers at the Driskill Hotel to supplement her income. The Camp Swift commission expanded from one theater to include additional structures during 1943 and 1944. Collins, often assisted by Austin artist Ann Stubbs and occasionally by Ernest Hardin and art student George Brown, decorated five Camp Swift building interiors. A handful of German POW artists also assisted Collins, as sometimes occurred at POW camps in Texas and elsewhere, but rarely if ever under the direction of a civilian and a woman. The group painted scenes from Texas history, West Texas, and genre scenes of Mexico to decorate recreational spaces, sitting rooms, and theaters. The Camp Swift commission was the largest undertaken by Collins as lead artist, and she later wrote about the experience during the Cold War and regarded it as a model of international cooperation. 

Camp Swift commanders wanted Collins's work to continue, but as the war dragged on, funding for such artistic efforts became uncertain. The uncertainty of funding plus the arduous work of large mural painting apparently weighed on Collins, who accepted an invitation from the Texas Railroad Commission chairman Beauford H. Jester, at the recommendation of Robert Leon White, to execute a mural for his agency’s offices in the Capitol building to depict the oil, gas, and transportation industries regulated by the commission. After completing the Capitol commission, Collins continued to teach and paint in Austin for several decades.  

She was a versatile artist who, in addition to portraits and murals, painted landscapes and still-lifes and tried her hand at ceramics, etching, and woodcuts. Impressionism influenced her art as can be seen in her landscapes and portraiture. Her ambitious painting titled Internal Revenue Office (1952) echoed 1930s Social Realism. Her many portraits hang in private homes throughout Texas, and other examples of her work are in collections at Laguna Gloria, Austin History Center, and St. David's Episcopal Church in Austin as well as Cisco College in Cisco, Texas. 

Collins chose to live as an artist. Her professional training, social network, and numerous collaborations with colleagues enabled her to support herself as a single woman artist who eschewed child-bearing and declined at least one widower's proposal of marriage. She was determined to fashion an independent life centered on her art. Although Collins occasionally expressed frustration in private about the relatively low wages her art garnered, she admitted that she knew from the start that remuneration would be modest. A self-aware and contented woman, she displayed in her writing and correspondence neither self-pity nor sympathy for the tortured artist. She was quoted in The Art Digest in 1936 regarding her self-perceived shortcomings in the sophisticated circles of art: “…I decided to accept myself….In Texas I paint as honestly and as well as I can and am permitted to live in both senses of the word, by doing it.” She appeared humble and grateful to clients, but at the core she was an ambitious Texas woman determined to live by art alone. Pragmatic and energetic, Collins stood five foot, four and a half inches and weighed 106 pounds when she undertook the physically challenging work of executing large murals, and she continued to paint portraits, landscapes, and still-lifes and teach art classes well into her seventies and eighties. Edna Gertrude Collins died on August 20, 1968, in Berkeley, California, where her sister lived, and she was buried in Austin Memorial Park.

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Peyton Boswell, “Some Comment on the News of Art: 3 Years, 100 Portraits,” The Art Digest X, 1st July, 1936. Cynthia Brandimarte, "Edna Collins's Camp Swift Murals and German Prisoners of War," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 125 (October 2021). Edna Collins Collection, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission. Collins Family Papers, (AR.C.001), Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, Texas.

Categories:
  • Education
  • Educators
  • Art and Architecture
  • Visual Arts
  • Painting
  • Women
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era
  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • Central Texas
  • Austin

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Cynthia A. Brandimarte, “Collins, Edna Gertrude,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/collins-edna-gertrude.

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May 25, 2022
May 25, 2022

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