Thursday, August 20, 2015

History and San Francisco: The Artist Nella Fontaine Binckley (1860-1951)

Late in 2014, I started coming across references in biographies to various people living in San Francisco, which got me to thinking about the place after a hiatus of many years. Then, earlier this year (late in June), I was lucky enough to travel there to attend a library conference in the city, which is how I found a beautiful, historic place to stay: the Hotel Majestic, built in 1902 and survivor of the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires. My gratefulness for all of this is boundless.

On the astral plane (as it were), two people in particular led me back to San Francisco: Tina Modotti and Howard Thurman. I've posted about them elsewhere.*

Since my return, I came across a third person specifically connected to the place: the artist Nella (sometimes Ellie, Nellie or Ellen) Fontaine Binckley (1860-1951).  I came across her while researching her grandfather, Harvey Mitchell (1799-1866), who was also an artist.
Even from what little I've discovered about her so far, Nella was quite a character. Born in Washington, D.C., where her father (John Milton Binckley) worked for the U.S. Government, she studied art and eventually moved to San Francisco in the late 1800s, where she sketched and painted in Chinatown, among other places. She worked at a studio at 932 Sutter Street, which is right next to the "Hotel Vertigo" of Alfred Hitchcock fame. The Hotel Majestic is at 1500 Sutter Street, just six hilly blocks away. At the turn of the century, Nella went back to the East Coast and lived in Washington City, Philadelphia and Manhattan. She died at about age ninety-one in a fire in Washington, where she is buried (in Oak Hill Cemetery).

One of the great things about Nella is that, after 1900 or so, she somehow managed to convince people that she was born in 1877 rather than 1860. How fun is that?

Check out her California State Library authority card from 1911. 
Name in full: Nella Fontaine Binckley. 
Present address: "Caramella[?]," 525 Locust Ave., Germantown, Philadelphia, Pa.
Place of birth: Washington, D.C.
Date: Too remote to mention.
If married, to whom? No -- spinster.
Years spent in California: From 1898 to 1900. . . San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara.

The illustration at top by Nella Fontaine Binckley is from Smoke and Bubbles (1906). She was 46 at the time -- or was she 29? I love it!

Today's Rune: Wholeness.  
*Tina Modotti and Howard Thurman  links.  


the walking man said...

women from that age, especially the ones who claimed their freedom and independence fascinate me, though born in 1887 my grandmother, an English teacher, got the hell off the farm at age 17 and never looked back---she was no prude and right up to her near 105th birthday when she died she always pushed me to find words, the right words to say what I mean, in short order, to be more like her.

Anonymous said...

Erik-What a cool broad! Sometimes you just gotta just go for it!

Erik Donald France said...

Casanella is the name. Casa + Nella.