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Lorena Phemister (1920-2005)

The Seamstress or Dressmaker's Shop

c. 1945

Oil on Masonite board, 30 x 20 inches. Signed lower right: "LORENA/ PHEMISTER"


"Indefatigable Spirit: The American Work Ethic," Vose Galleries, LLC, Boston, MA, January 12 - March 2, 2019; "Bringing to Light: American Women Artists (1890-1940)," Vose Galleries, LLC, Boston, MA, November 2, 2019 - January 25, 2020.


Lorena Phemister Materials, c. 1925-2005,   Manuscript and Visual Collections Department, William Henry Smith Memorial Library, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, IN.; The Indianapolis Star, November 22, 2004, p. 15; IndyStar obituary (online) at


Collection of the artist until 2004; Christy's of Indiana, Inc., Indianapolis, IN (in partnership with Ripley's Auctions), November 4, 2004, lot 12; Joyce Kirschner Fine Arts, NY, NY; acquired from the foregoing, May, 2017; deaccessioned, December, 2022, to CW American Modernism, Los Angeles, CA. 


Inscribed on reverse: PHEMISTER/ #7/ "DRESSMAKER'S SHOP".  Replacement 3 1/4-inch gold leaf frame with antiqued finish bearing Heydenryk label.

     Indiana native Lorena E. Phemister pursued her art studies at the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis from 1938 to 1943, receiving several scholarships and earning a BFA. Two years later, she received an MFA at the University of Iowa.  An acclaimed instructor, she taught art at St. Francis College (1946-47), Mishawaka High School (1948-50) and her alma mater, Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis, from 1951 until her retirement in 1984.  Plying an artistic vocabulary ranging from Regionalism to Modernism, she exhibited in state and regional exhibitions including the Hoosier Salon and Indiana State Fair.  Her work was little known until 2004, when her accumulated artwork (including The Seamstress) brought more than $25,000 at a local Indianapolis auction.


     The Seamstress is a well-crafted composition featuring three young women arranged in classical pyramidal fashion surrounded by engaging still-life elements in both foreground and background.  At first glance, it is a commonplace rendition of a young woman receiving a fitting in a dressmaker’s shop as her friend looks on.  At another level, however, the painting exposes the contrast between fashionable white women of leisure and the African-American seamstress whose crouching position is reflective of her subordinate standing in the social milieu of mid-century America.

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