Nov 19, 2017 10:10AM
By Robert Klein Engler
The backhanded praise for the first solo exhibition by a woman at the venue (now known as Joslyn Art Museum) seems sexist by contemporary standards. Such gendered phrasing has faded from popular discourse—just like the artist herself.
Not much is known these days about the artist acclaimed for her “vigor, physical energy, and force” in the same Omaha World-Herald article published on Oct. 10, 1937.
Lenore (Ethel Williams) Benolken was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1896. She moved to Omaha with her parents at age 3, when her father, the Rev. Arthur Llewellyn Williams, became coadjutor-bishop of the Omaha Episcopal Diocese. She attended Brownell Hall (now Brownell-Talbot School) and studied under the famous Irish-born Omaha painter J. Laurie Wallace.
In 1918, Lenore married Irving W. Benolken (who had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, served overseas in the military during World War I, and taught at the American University in France). Settling into married life in Omaha, they both became notable influencers in the local arts scene.
After Lenore painted an 18-by-4-foot mural showcasing modes of modern transportation for the walls of the Milwaukee Road train ticketing office in Omaha, a patronizing 1929 World-Herald article mentions that the mural was a Christmas surprise for her husband “to earn her own Christmas money that year.” The reporter goes on to write that Lenore credited her husband as her “unconscious” instructor and her inspiration as she juggled “duties of being wife to an artist, and mother to an energetic and not very artistic 8-year-old boy.” (That boy, Arthur Benolken, would grow up to be a priest like Lenore’s bishop father.)
Both spouses kept studios in their home at 5415 Western Ave. The two-bedroom, one-bathroom house built in 1826 still stands today. Her obituary eventually described the home as a “center of interest for art lovers.” Her husband worked for 33 years at the Klopp Printing and Lithograph Company, ending his career as the company’s vice president. Irving also served as an elected trustee of the Society of Liberal Arts, which controlled the Joslyn Memorial.
On multiple occasions, Lenore was chosen by the Joslyn Memorial committee to be among the artists representing Nebraska at Rockefeller Center’s All-American exhibit of paintings in New York City. She had received the honor twice by 1937, when she became the first artist to have her work exhibited as a one-woman show at Joslyn Memorial.
Besides being a portrait and landscape painter, Lenore was a noted art teacher. She taught at the Bellevue vocational school, offered classes to soldiers at Joslyn, and lectured at Omaha University. She also organized the Brush and Pencil Club, a sort of salon for art students and professionals.
Lenore often painted portraits of friends and well-known Omahans. Unfortunately, many of these historically important portraits have vanished.
Her depiction of Dr. William H. Betz, after whom Betz Elementary School and Betz Road are named, once hung in a Bellevue public building. Another of Lenore’s popular paintings was “Devce [maiden] of Czechoslovakia.” It’s a portrait of Omaha pianist Miss Elsie M. Ptak, who became a music teacher at Omaha University.
Lenore completed a portrait of Mrs. Jane Sullivan in 1941, and it hung in the Joslyn Memorial before being sent to her son and daughter, Dr. M. M. Sullivan and Miss Hannah Sullivan, in Spalding, Nebraska. Painted with the aid of tintypes and authentic costumes of the period, the portrait supposedly shows Mrs. Sullivan as a young woman in her Sunday best. Phone calls to Spalding (a town of 487 people) did not yield any leads on the whereabouts of the Sullivans or the painting.
Lenore’s father, Bishop Williams, worked closely with Monsignor Bernard Sinne (pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Church from 1904 to 1961). Lenore painted the monsignor’s portrait, another of her notable portrayals of famous Omahans. It once hung in the Joslyn Memorial. But like these others, it has since disappeared.
The location of one important portrait is known. Lenore’s painting of Omaha businessman John Sullivan now hangs in the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney. This was a gift to the museum by Mary Ellen Mulcahy, who serves on MONA’s board of directors.
The more we learn about Lenore, the more we realize that so many of her portraits and paintings have been forgotten. A catalog of her known works and their location would help in restoring her place in Omaha’s art history.
Lenore’s work also traveled through Nebraska. The Nebraska State Journal on Oct. 30, 1939, mentions two of her paintings displayed at Morrill Hall on the campus of the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. Their titles were Deserted Quarry (Near Louisville) and River Scows (A Flat-Bottomed Boat). The next year, she had a show of 21 paintings in the Treasure House at Coryell Park in Lincoln. And her painting Interior of a Nebraska Kitchen was displayed at the 51st annual show of the Nebraska Arts Association in Lincoln (mentioned in a review by the Lincoln Sunday Journal and Star on March, 2, 1941).
Lenore died from pneumonia around the age of 47. Six months after her death, a memorial featuring 33 of her paintings went on display at the Joslyn Memorial. The whereabouts of the show’s paintings—as well as those displayed in the Coryvell Park show—remain a mystery.
A World-Herald article from April 9, 1944, about her final Joslyn exhibition explains that the show consisted of canvases left in her studio when she stopped painting, “and her last finished picture is among them, a portrait called My Husband.”
In a twist of artistic irony, Lenore’s husband remarried in the year following her death. Nancy Powel Hulst became Nancy Benolken in 1944. A prominent figure in the Omaha arts scene, Nancy remained involved in planning concerts, musicals, and working on committees at the Joslyn from the 1940s through the 1980s.
After Irving Benolken died in 1954, a fund at the Joslyn Memorial purchased artworks in his memory. Paintings included Robert Henri’s Portrait of Fi in 1957 (Henri was the famous creator of the Ashcan School of painting, and his father founded the Nebraska town of Cozad).
Today, many of the purchased tributes to Irving still hang in the Joslyn; however, the museum does not display a single painting by Lenore. Joslyn staff informed Omaha Magazine that the only artwork of hers in their collection is an undated oil painting titled Indian Princess.
In a letter to the World-Herald’s “Public Pulse” soon after her death, the Nebraska artist Walter Buckingham Swan wrote: “Mrs. Benolken, an artist of rare ability, will always be remembered by her legion of friends and many pupils... We have suffered an irreparable loss. Omaha needed her. She had scarcely reached middle life when the hand of death took her from us. How to find a competent successor to carry on her work we do not know.”
At the turn of the 21st century, references to the artist gradually fade into oblivion. The last mention of her name in the public record seems to have been in 2011—an obituary for Pauline Lenore Buckley; she had lived in Council Bluffs, attended the “Lenore Benolken Art School” before the University of Omaha, and died in Walla Walla, Washington.
We know something of what Lenore looked like from photographs of her in the Omaha World-Herald. Like all newspaper photographs of the time, they are black-and-white and grainy. Unfortunately, the woman who painted so many portraits of others does not have any known portrait remaining to memorialize her for the ages.
A self-portrait of the artist appears to have been included among the works shown in her posthumous Joslyn exhibition (printed in the newspaper’s full-page coverage of the tribute in 1944), but its whereabouts are unknown. It very well may be lost.
If readers have knowledge of any long-lost paintings by Lenore Benolken, please contact Omaha Magazine at [email protected] or reach us on social media (@OmahaMagazine) at Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
This article was printed in the November/December 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.