Conerly, Ruth (1908–1994)

By: Sharon Smith Wolf

Revised by: Katherine Kuehler Walters

Type: Biography

Published: September 13, 2007

Updated: April 18, 2021


Ruth Conerly, sculptor and commercial artist, was born on October 27, 1908, in Marshall, Texas. She was the daughter of Thomas Preston and Elizabeth (Davis) Conerly. Raised in Clarksville, she overcame polio, her father's tragic death in 1920, and ensuing poverty to become one of America's most extraordinary commercial artists. Her father told her "My little girl's going to be a great artist someday," but on his death, her mother told her she must be earning her living by age fourteen. A celebrated child prodigy of sculpture by age fourteen, Ruth earned a scholarship to the prestigious Sullin's College in Virginia. Gutzon Borglum, noted sculptor of Stone Mountain and Mount Rushmore, who had an office in San Antonio, became a mentor but encouraged her to hone her skills in other art forms if she wanted to make a sufficient income.

In 1924 Conerly gained notice for her sculpture of a bust of Lieut. Gov. T. W. Davidson. Her first public exhibit as a sculptor took place in Marshall in 1926. The next year and in 1929 she exhibited work at the Dallas Woman’s Forum. Her work titled The Passing Herd was purchased by the Marshall Public Library. By age nineteen, she worked as art director of Titche Goettinger's, a large department store in Dallas. During this time she met and married Ted Smith. She continued to use her maiden name in professional settings. The newly-weds hitchhiked to New York, arriving in the dead of winter with $100 in their pockets. Following a year of bitter struggle, Ruth became a top-flight fashion illustrator for major stores and agencies and covered haute couture in Paris. Ted wrote and Ruth illustrated four best-selling art books, How to Draw Fashion Figures that Sell (1938).

With America's entrance into World War II, Conerly did the battlefield scene illustrations for the Marshall Field's U.S war bonds campaign that sold the largest sum in war bonds during the war. Her illustrations also appeared in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, and House Beautiful. For her work, she received the 1945 Merit Award of the Art Directors of Chicago. By then, she, her husband, and their daughter, Sharon, returned to Texas and resided in San Antonio. While on a business trip, her husband died in a plane crash in Denver on December 8, 1946. The next year, she married Arvid Zachrisson, a store designer for Allied Department Stores.

Conerly went on to document the post-war era of expanding department stores, such as Joske's of Texas, Jordon Marsh's, Sac's, etc, as well as the advent of the space age and fashion greats like Christian Dior. Her accounts included a roster of companies from Imperial Sugar Company, Allied Department Stores, Lone Star Beer to Humble Oil, Exxon. Nicknamed "Mrs. Christmas," Conerly's jolly Santas and nativity scenes were distributed to five thousand newspapers around the world by Metro Publishing Agency of New York (now Metro Creative Graphics, Inc.). Her portraits numbered well over a hundred.

Conerly's painting, Death of Colonel William B. Travis, on permanent display in the Alamo, is exemplary of the action realm in which Conerly excelled. President-elect Dwight Eisenhower, stood at attention before it and John Wayne enlarged it to giant size for the New York premier of his movie The Alamo (1960). Conerly thought of Travis fondly since a visit to the Alamo with her grandmother when she was ten or eleven years old. Later Conerly stated that Travis, who her grandmother called “a fine man,” had been overshadowed in books and movies by Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. She said she based the painting on the eyewitness accounts of the battle of the Alamo by Travis’s slave, Joe, and another enslaved man named John. It was presented during Fiesta in San Antonio in 1953 and was hung in the Alamo library by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

Over the years, Conerly gave conferences at the Phoenix Art Institute of New York, the Chicago School of Art, San Antonio's Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum and that city's Witte Museum. References to Conerly's life and work have been published in various compendiums and magazines.

Conerly and Zachrisson moved to Houston before his death in 1973. In 1990 she retired and moved to Costa Rica, where her daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons lived. There, Ruth Conerly died from a stroke on May 27, 1994.

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Dallas Morning News, February 4, 1924; April 21, 1927; March 3, 1929. Frances Battaile Fisk, A History of Texas Artists and Sculptors (Abilene, Texas, 1928; facsimile rpt. Austin: Morrison, 1986). Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 13, 2006. Paula L. Grauer and Michael R. Grauer, Dictionary of Texas Artists, 1800–1945 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. San Antonio Express-News, April 22, 1953; August 12, 2017. San Antonio Light, June 17, 1945; December 9, 1946; July 3, 1947; April 20, 1953; April 25, 1953. S. E. Wolf, M.D., A Girl from Texas: The Life, Loves and Battles of Ruth Conerly, America's Extraordinary Artist (Antigua Odisea, 2006).

Categories:

  • Visual Arts
  • Graphic Arts
  • Sculpture
  • Women

Time Periods:

  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II

Places:

  • Central Texas
  • San Antonio
  • East Texas
  • Northeast Texas
  • North Texas
  • Dallas/Fort Worth Region
  • Dallas

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

Sharon Smith Wolf Revised by Katherine Kuehler Walters, “Conerly, Ruth,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 03, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/conerly-ruth.

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September 13, 2007
April 18, 2021

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