Pinney, Eunice Griswold (1770–1849)

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Pinney, Eunice Griswold (1770–1849)

American folk artist. Born Eunice Griswold in Simsbury, Connecticut, on February 9, 1770; died in Simsbury in 1849; oldest daughter and fourth of eight children of Elisha Griswold (a farmer) and Eunice (Viets) Griswold; educated at home; married Oliver Holcombe, in the late 1700s (drowned); married Butler Pinney, in 1797; children: (first marriage) Hector and Sophia Holcombe; (second marriage) Norman, Viets, and (Minerva) Emeline Pinney.

Taking up her paintbrush around the age of 40, Eunice Pinney created some of America's earliest primitive watercolors, which, unlike the stereotypical watercolors of the period, are striking in their boldness and vigor. Although Pinney painted only as a hobby, she was amazingly prolific, turning out more than 50 signed works which today are dispersed among her descendants, museums, and private collections.

One of eight children, Pinney was born in 1770 into one of the oldest and wealthiest Episcopalian families of Simsbury, Connecticut. All of the Pinney children were educated at home on the family farm, where, from the age of five, they were expected to participate in chores along with their academic and religious studies. Despite strict discipline, they entertained themselves by putting on family plays, which may account for the sense of drama seen in Pinney's paintings. Sometime in the late 1700s, Eunice married Oliver Holcombe, with whom she had two children. In 1797, following his death in a drowning mishap, she married Butler Pinney of Windsor, Connecticut, and gave birth to three more children. In addition to tending her growing family, Pinney was extremely active in her church.

Pinney's dated watercolors (the earliest being 1809) suggest that she began painting when she was nearly 40, well into her second marriage. "Her style has a robust, solid look, with decisive contours that reveal a mature personality of force and assurance," writes Charlotte Rubinstein . Pinney's subject matter was broad in scope, encompassing genre scenes, landscapes, and figure pieces, and frequently reflecting her literary interests, such as in the paintings Lolotte and Werther (also seen as Lolette and Werther) and The Cotter's Saturday Night. Some of her works were apparently inspired from sources at hand. Two paintings, Mrs. Yorke and Children Playing, are reminiscent of woodcuts from 18th-century children's books. Mary Black , in Notable AmericanWomen, notes that the figures in Pinney's paintings are "two-dimensional, with form subordinated to composition and bold pattern," an indication of her lack of training. As an example, Black cites the artist's mourning pictures, in which faces are often hidden behind carefully draped handkerchiefs, "a device, one suspects, for getting around the troublesome task of painting features." She points out, however, that Pinney's composition and her use of vibrant color make up for her lack of skill in anatomy, features, and perspective.

Perhaps Pinney's most interesting and characteristic painting is Two Women (c. 1815), which portrays two female figures seated across from one another, separated by a table on which rests a candlestick. One woman, apparently older, is holding a child. The painting is filled with various shapes and motifs, all arranged in perfect symmetry, and each contributing to the drama of the work. Germaine Greer , in The Obstacle Race, points out Pinney's concern with pattern-making, citing the lozenge pattern on the carpet and the meticulous symmetry of the composition around the central spindle of the table and the candlestick. "A tension between the two women, the large complacent mother and the slightly apprehensive other is heightened by the tipped tabletop under the candlestick seen at eye level and the oddness of the candle flame seen between the pale windows."

Pinney's youngest daughter, Emeline Pinney , was also interested in art, and taught painting in Virginia before her marriage. Eunice sent her daughter watercolor paintings to use as examples in her classes, "an early instance of a good female role model," notes Rubinstein. Pinney died in 1849.


Greer, Germaine. The Obstacle Race. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1982.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts