Elizabeth Dolan, perhaps known by most only for her painting “Spirit of the Prairie” in the state Capitol and her wall-sized background paintings at the Nebraska State Museum in Morrill Hall on the University of Nebraska campus, was once considered one of the finest fresco painters in the United States.
Elizabeth Honor Dolan’s childhood is difficult to chronicle, and though her parents, John and Mary Dolan, emigrated from Ireland and she was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, even the year of her birth is difficult to nail down. Various biographical articles have her born in 1871, 1875, 1884 and 1887.
The Dolans and their six children were said to have moved to Tecumseh when Elizabeth was a baby. Elizabeth Dolan enrolled at the University of Nebraska in the 1891-92 school year, indicating that the 1871 birth year, as reported by a cousin well after she died, is probably a fairly accurate one. Although Dolan did not register for 1892-93 or the following year, she did pop up again in 1894 when she studied art with Sarah Hayden. Although her father does not ever show up in Lincoln, her mother, Mary, is noted as being a teacher at Park School, the widow of John Dolan, and living at 1320 D St. in 1895.
After a considerable unexplained gap, Dolan enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute in October of 1912, then continued as a scholarship student until graduating in 1914. One of her teachers called her “the most talented student he had ever had.” Dolan then spent three years at the Art Institute League in New York City before attending the Julian Academy in Paris. Another scholarship at the Conservatoire Americain Fontainebleau south of Paris, enabled Dolan to study fresco painting, which, in turn, led to commissions for frescoes in France and Italy. In 1925, while designing windows for Tiffany, she also exhibited at the Paris Salon.
In 1926, Dolan received a commission to do a series of murals for the new Elephant Hall and adjacent rooms at Morrill Hall and thus returned to Lincoln, living at 1637 D St. These paintings were applied directly to the plaster walls, some of which were not smooth surfaces, enabling her to match brush strokes and designs so that they appear three-dimensional. It was noted in an article at the that time that she was “probably the only woman in the country practicing the once lost art” of fresco painting.
Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, architect of the state Capitol, amidst an argument as to whether he had to put out for bid artwork for the new building, “as you do plumbers,” commissioned Augustus Vincent Tack as the first artist. His works were all to be oil on canvas which in turn would be glued to the walls. Elizabeth Dolan then became the second artist to be hired. Her work, “Spirit of the Prairie,” was, though also oil on canvas, painted on site and literally donated, because she charged the state $85 for paint, $25 for canvas and two months’ living expenses of $200. The painting, which is above the north door to the state library, depicts a mother with a baby in her arms, a boy and dog at her feet, looking to the east. With no damaging direct sunlight but east and west-facing windows, the large painting, which slightly surrounds the upper portion of the door, is nearly perfectly placed.
The year 1930 also saw Dolan selling Miller & Paine department store 10 paintings for its ever-growing collection in honor of the store’s 50th anniversary; the most famous of this set was placed in the ladies’ lounge and visible from the store’s interior. When Miller & Paine closed, the painting was placed in an O Street window and offered for sale. Then-Gov. Kay Orr suggested it be purchased by the state, and it then was moved to the south wall of the mall level of the State Office Building. From there it traveled to the conference room of then-State Auditor John Breslow and today is in the Supreme Court’s ladies’ lounge in the southeast quadrant of the Capitol.
In 1932, Dolan received a commission to paint a mural for “The Age of Man” in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In the early 1930s, she had maintained a studio in Lincoln on the second floor of the Lansing/Oliver Theatre building on the southwest corner of 13th and P Streets and for at least a year said it was her residence as well.
Lincoln’s Masonic Temple purchased 10 6-square-foot murals for its new building, nine of which still adorn the second floor lodge room, the 10th in the main entry hall. During the same period she also completed a number of smaller portraits of Lincolnites and landscapes to order and also finished a number on spec, which she offered for $5 through a local paint store.
Among her other commissions were those for the university’s Student Union, Lincoln YWCA, the New York City YWCA, Lincoln’s Unitarian Church, the New York World’s Fair, The University Club and Lincoln Public Library. Some simply have disappeared; the south wall of Elephant Hall has been covered up; others, such as “The Age of Man,” have been destroyed. Three are on display in the Capitol, many remain in Morrill Hall, the Masonic Temple’s examples are still on site and many others are to be found in galleries and private collections.
Still, today, the once widely renowned, chain-smoking, strikingly red-haired, Elizabeth Honor Dolan, who was said to have stunning large blue eyes and literally was paranoid about people watching her at work, is largely unknown/forgotten outside Lincoln.