Request Checked Items

Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

email signup Blog Video Facebook Twitter Instagram

Elizabeth Olds:

An Inventory of the Benjamin O. Rees Collection of Elizabeth Olds in the Art Collection at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Olds, Elizabeth, 1896-1991
Title: Benjamin O. Rees Collection of Elizabeth Olds
Dates: 1925-1990s, undated
Extent: 2 boxes (75 prints and drawings); 1 document box (116 photographs)
Abstract: Includes works by American artist Elizabeth Olds, largely lithographic images and a few drawings depicting mainly Depression-era subject matter, such as working conditions and unemployment, as well as portraits, landscapes, and nature studies; some lithographs by other artists; and photographic documentation of the Rees Collection of Elizabeth Olds.
Language: English
Access: Open for research. A minimum of twenty-four hours is required to pull art materials to the Reading Room.

Acquisition: Gifts (G11204, G12250), 1998, 2003
Processed by: Helen Young, 2003

The University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Center

Elizabeth Olds was born December 10, 1896, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Fred Allen Olds and Harriet (Trussell) Olds. As a girl she had an interest in drawing; she also participated in competitive swimming and horseback riding. After studies at the University of Minnesota (1916-1918) and the Minneapolis School of Arts (1918-1921), she attended the Art Students' League in New York as a scholarship student, where she studied under George Luks and other Social Realists. She would accompany Luks to New York's Lower East Side and other ethnic neighborhoods where the two would sketch the immigrant culture. Olds soon became Luks' assistant. Through Luks' friend Edward Root, she spent some time with James Agee and Alexander Woollcott.
In 1925 Olds traveled to Paris. There she produced numerous crayon and watercolor sketches and drawings; she also performed as a trick bareback rider with the Fratellini Brothers' Cirque d'Hiver. The next year she became the first woman to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, which she used to continue her studies in Europe until 1929.
After returning to the United States, Olds stayed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Tamworth, New Hampshire, where, although initially sheltered from the Great Depression, she observed the misery others endured. Her response resulted in the development of a new style with a focus on workers as subject matter.
In 1932 Olds accepted a commission to produce a series of portraits of the prominent Samuel Rees family in Omaha, Nebraska. Although she was a proficient portrait artist, she quickly found the work boring. Samuel Rees, aware of her frustration, encouraged her to visit the Rees Printing Company where she could learn lithography from the printer. Olds learned the entire process and soon was creating lithographs. In 1934 during her stay in Omaha, Olds went to the Swift and Company slaughterhouse and asked permission to sketch the men working in the plant. She was allowed to take her sketchpad to the killing floor and her sketches resulted in The Stockyard Series, a set of lithographs that received critical acclaim in New York.
Olds returned to New York in 1935 and worked for the Federal Art Project's graphic division. She continued creating lithographs depicting people struggling with the hardships of the Depression. She joined the Artists Union, the Artists Congress, and the Graphic Division of the Works Projects Administration's Federal Art Project (FAP). In 1939, she participated in the FAP’s silkscreen unit as it worked to develop serigraphy as a fine art medium. Committed to the idea that art should be democratic and available to all people, Olds found silkscreen to be a medium suited for this purpose. In 1936 and 1937 Olds also did political illustrations for The New Masses.
After World War II, Olds accepted assignments as an illustrator-reporter for The New Republic and Fortune. She provided illustrations for articles on labor issues and in 1954 she traveled to Florida and New Orleans to gather information for an article on the Lykes Bros. Industry for Fortune. She also wrote and illustrated children's books. Four of these were chosen as Junior Literary Guild selections.
In 1949 Olds began to spend summers on Long Island Sound, where she spent time observing the shore birds, which became the subjects of numerous watercolors and wood block prints. She visited Mexico and Guatemala in 1951 and made studies of the people, animals, and boats.
In the 1950s, Olds began to work with multi-media collages, combining her silk screens and wood cuts with scraps of paper. She was also an artist in residence at two artists' colonies: Yaddo, near Saratoga Springs, New York, and McDowell, in Peterborough, New Hampshire. Olds moved to Florida in 1971. She died March 4, 1991.

Olds, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Olds: Retrospective Exhibition. Austin, Tex.: RGK Foundation, 1986.

The collection comprises seventy-five original works on paper. Of these, seventy-four of the works were given to the Ransom Center by Benjamin O. Rees; a screen print was the gift of his daughter-in-law, Caroline Bridgman-Rees. These are organized into two series: I. Works by Elizabeth Olds, and II. Works by Other Artists. A group of photographs is described as Series III., Photographic Materials. Titles are transcribed from the works. Cataloger's titles appear in brackets.
Series I. includes sixty-five works by Elizabeth Olds which were, for the most part, created during 1932 to 1935 while she was a resident artist in the household of Benjamin O. Rees' parents, Samuel Rees and his wife, in Omaha, Nebraska. During this time she was introduced to lithography, and the collection includes forty-three different lithographic images (including multiple prints of some) depicting mainly Depression-era subject matter, such as working conditions and unemployment, as well as portraits, landscapes, and nature studies. There are also eight drawings.
Series II., Works by Other Artists, is mainly comprised of a group of nine lithographs, each stamped "First Annual Print Series, 1936. Issued by the American Artists School, New York City." Olds' lithograph Sidewalk Engineers, which is listed with her works, had originally been part of this group. Other artists whose works were in the print series include Stuart Davis, Eugene C. Fitsch, Harry Gottlieb, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Anton Refrigier, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Raphael Soyer, and Max Weber. The final work is George Luks' Christmas greeting to Olds with an original drawing by Luks.
Series III., Photographic Materials, includes 116 color photographs, numbered by Benjamin O. Rees, of his collection of Elizabeth Olds; these include works not given to the Ransom Center. The photographs are housed with a copy of a numbered list provided by Rees; the photographs numbered 79-97 are not described on Rees' list. There are also six color slides from Mrs. Caroline Bridgman Rees of some of Olds' portraits of members of the Rees family.

The Ransom Center's Art Collection also has the Emmett L. Hudspeth Collection of Elizabeth Olds, and the George Luks Collection (works from Elizabeth Olds' personal collection). The Ransom Center also has Elizabeth Olds materials in its Manuscripts Collection, its Library, and its Film Collection.