Abby Williams Hill (1861-1943) was a landscape artist best known for her oil paintings created en plein air depicting the scenery of the American West. Her work was exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair (1904), the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland (1905), the Jamestown Tercentennial (1907), and the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle (1909).
Abby Rhoda Williams was born on September 25, 1861, to Henry Warner Williams and Harriet Porter Hubbard in Grinnell, Iowa. Hill showed an early aptitude for art and was taught by her aunt, Ruth Hubbard, a botanical watercolorist. Hill also studied painting at the Chicago Art Institute under H.F. Spread. In 1884, she moved to Berthier-en-Haut, Quebec, where she taught painting and drawing at a school for girls. In 1887, Hill moved to New York City to study with American painter William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League. She married Dr. Frank Hill of Marietta, Ohio, in Brooklyn, New York, on December 22, 1888. In 1889, the couple moved to Tacoma, Washington. Soon after, Hill gave birth to a son, Romayne, her only biological child. The Hills would later adopt three daughters: Ione, and siblings Ina and Eulalie DeRosier.
Studio portrait of the Hill family from left to right: Ina, Abby, Ione, Frank, Romayne and Eulalie (1901)
The Pacific Northwest offered Hill a plenitude of scenes for her continued artistic creation. She joined a 26-day camping trip to Mount Rainier in July 1895, followed immediately by a 12-day expedition to the Hood Canal. Hill also camped with her children on nearby Vashon Island during the summer months, while her husband Frank remained home in Tacoma to work. These trips contributed to Hill’s interest in hiking, camping, and painting en plein air, and led to a brief career as a professional landscape painter for the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads.
Between 1903 and 1906, Hill accepted four commissions from the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads to paint scenery along their rail lines. This included views of the North Cascades and Mount Rainier in Washington and Yellowstone National Park, among other locations. The commissions allowed for extended stays in the wilderness, often in the company of her four children. Hill’s paintings for the railroads were used in promotional materials and exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair (1904), the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland (1905), the Jamestown Tercentennial (1907), and the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle (1909).
Painting of Cabinet Gorge, Idaho (1904); Snapshot of Abby Williams Hill and her children (left to right: Eulalie, Romayne, Ina, and Ione) in a tent at Yellowstone National Park (1905)
In addition to her work as an artist, Hill was the founder and first president of the Washington State chapter of the Congress of Mothers, known today as the Parent Teacher Association (PTA). She advocated for the importance of early childhood education and for equal education for immigrants and African Americans. Hill was also interested in Native American life and culture and visited many different reservations in the early 1900s, including a 5-week stay on the Flathead Reservation in Montana with her children in 1905.
In the 1910s, Frank Hill suffered from a period of severe mental illness. The family relocated from Tacoma, Washington, to Laguna Beach, California, in hopes that the warmer climate would help him. There, Hill became a founding member of the Laguna Beach Art Association and painted scenery in the Laguna Mountains and along the Pacific Ocean.
In the 1920s, the family purchased their first automobile and traveled extensively around the western United States and Canada. During this time, Hill became concerned with the threat that increased tourism and development posed to the natural environment. In response, Hill created a series of paintings of the national parks in the American West during the late 1920s and early 1930s, which she considered her legacy to future generations. She also embarked on a letter writing campaign to create a system of national sanitariums for tuberculosis patients.
Abby Williams Hill died on May 14, 1943 in San Diego, California.