"A Tiny Little Nervous Breakdown": The Magic Feminism of Ruth Miller Kempster

Ruth Miller Kempster, Self-Portrait (unfinished), c. 1950
One of this art season's sleepers is "Something Revealed: California Women Artists Emerge, 1860-1960." It's a big show—300+ works by 100+ artists—at the relatively small Pasadena Museum of History. Curator Maurine St. Gardens has done a deep dive into the material, excavating oeuvres and biographies. The show has generated so much buzz that it's been extended a few weeks, to April 13.

The biggest find may be Ruth Blanchard Miller Kempster (1904-78), an inventive painter and muralist who worked in a Magic Realist mode. In her unfinished 1950 self-portrait, Kempster  casts a withering side-eye at this man's, man's, man's world. She holds her paintbrush like Cruella de Vil would.

Born in Chicago to a wealthy family, Ruth Miller feigned what she called "a tiny little nervous breakdown" to avoid being packed off to Vassar. Convinced that Ruth was a basket case, her family agreed to send her to art school.

She studied in Pasadena, New York, and Paris. When she ended up living in Florence with an Italian artist, her family went ballistic and demanded she return to the U.S.

(The story so far may recall the saga of Flora Mayo, subject of Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler's installation Flora, now on view at LACMA. Kempster's oeuvre survives, while Mayo's does not; yet Mayo may presently be better known than Kempster is.)
Ruth Miller Kempster, The Struggle, 1932
Ruth returned to California, married, and taught at the Pasadena Art Institute. In 1932 she won a silver medal at the Los Angeles Olympics—for art, then an Olympic category. David Alfaro Siqueiros was the celebrity judge.

Kempster's prize-winning painting, The Struggle (not in the show), intuits the globe's conflicts as male and racial. That turned out to be a premonition of the 1936 Berlin Olympics of Hitler, Jesse Owens, and Leni Reifenstahl.
Ruth Miller Kempster, Housewife, c. 1935
Other works of the 1930s treated the American Scene with a female eye. Kempster's c. 1935 Housewife is literally boxed in by Renaissance perspective and an oblivious child and husband.
Ruth Miller Kempster, Death of a Christmas Tree, 1941
Death of a Christmas Tree (1941) is a found still-life mocking consumerism, capitalism, and war. The inverted tree's base is a cross and corpus christi, as mordantly clever as John Heartfield's swastika/crosses. Kempster signs her name on a gift tag.
Ruth Miller Kempster, The Search, c. 1950
Kempster's success didn't stick. By the 1950s AbEx made her work look old-fashioned. Unlike fellow Chicagoan Helen Lundeberg, Kempster did not evolve an abstract style. Though Kempster continued working until her 1978 death in Santa Barbara, her last single-artist show was in 1953, at the Pasadena Art Institute.
Ruth Miller Kempster, Working Stiff, c. 1934 (not in exhibition). Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento
"Something Revealed" ought to change that. Maybe it already has. The Struggle was recently acquired by the Huntington for its Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art. The Crocker Art Museum also added a Kempster in 2017. As far as I can tell, these are the first Kempster paintings to enter a major museum collection.
Ruth (Miller) Kempster, signature on Death of a Christmas Tree, 1941


Green Family said…
Nice to see my grandmother's pictures. I have fond memories of going to see her in Ojai. I was very young...but still remember the warmth of her kitchen, the fun of her and grandfather's Golden Retrievers and her gentle strength.
I have fond memories of "Auntie Ruth" such as the Green family said.
That was what we called her.
Today I am trying to find more about her painting, "The Struggle."
It was purchased by the Huntington I thought, but as far as I know never displayed, and I can't find anything more about it online.
Where is it, has it ever been shown?
I can't find it in the online Huntington Art archives.
"The Struggle" is in the Huntington's online catalog, but without the name of the artist! I assume that's a slip-up and doesn't reflect uncertainty about the authorship.


According to the entry, it was purchased by the Huntington in 2017, with funds from four museum supporters/couples plus the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation Acquisition Fund. That suggests they recognize it as a significant work and plan to show it. But it's been six years, long for a conservation treatment. There's no image in the online entry, and I've never seen the painting on view in the galleries.

Maybe they're waiting to debut it during the 2028 L.A. Olympics?