Ethel V. Ashton

Life Dates

Ethel V. Ashton (1896-1975) was born and raised in West Philadelphia. An accomplished artist deeply engaged in the cultural life of Philadelphia who enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College of Art & Design) in 1917, she became a prolific painter and pastel artist who spent her weekends capturing scenes of work and urban leisure in Fairmount Park, Rittenhouse Square, and elsewhere around the city. Her depictions of modern Philadelphia are wonderful for their spontaneity and their focus on the diversity of the individuals who share the urban environment. Her interest was initially Fashion Illustration, but she soon switched her focus to Fine Arts.

At Moore, Ashton built close friendships with two other students: Rhoda Myers Medary and Alice Neel. The three young women distinguished themselves through the seriousness of their commitment to becoming artists, which was particularly difficult for women at the time. Together they took classes in life drawing, portraiture, modeling, and art history, and spent their Sundays drawing nude models free of charge at the Graphic Sketch Club (now the Fleisher Art Memorial). There they met artists from across the city, broadening the scope of their relationships and their knowledge of current ideas in the arts.

After graduating, Ashton made several trips to Europe to see art and visit museums. In summer 1923, she spent three months in Paris, Rome, Florence, and London. When she returned to Europe in 1925 and 1926 she created her “Travel Journal,” a visual account of her experiences abroad. Ashton’s father, Charles M. Ashton, was a vice president at the Philadelphia National Bank, encouraging his daughter’s career and financing these trips to Europe's cultural capitals. Ashton would travel extensively throughout her life, visiting Spain, Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, Trinidad, and Panama, among other locations.

In the mid-1920s and then again in 1930, Ashton, Myers Medary, and Neel shared a studio and posed for one another. This gallery includes several portraits that Ashton made of Myers Medary and Neel, Neel’s Rhoda Myers, Nude (1930), and a small painting by Myers Medary. In the 1950s, Ashton became interested in abstraction; this gallery includes several of her abstract paintings as well as her depictions of leisure at the circus, the carnival, and the beach.

Ashton was a forceful personality who “knew everyone” in the Philadelphia art community. As the librarian at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s, she nurtured generations of Philadelphia’s artists. At the same time, she was modest about her talent, and despite her frequent participation in exhibitions at the Academy, Woodmere, and elsewhere, she rarely spoke about her own work.



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