Paris, France was a hot bed of artistic exploration during the Belle Epoque era that stretched from 1871 to 1914. This era received its name, translated to the golden age or beautiful era, after and in contrast to the tragedies of World War I. Looking back, the Belle Epoque was a time of romanticism, love, peace and creative exploration. If you saw the movie Moulin Rouge back in 1997, this is the era, and location, they were portraying. This is when impressionism took off with the likes of Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Mary Cassatt, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and inspired a Brown County resident named Frank Clifford Ashford.
Frank Ashford? Maybe you’ve heard of him. Maybe not. If you used to go the Alexander Mitchell Library in the ’60s and ’70s you probably have seen some of the paintings. If you heard the story about Frank Hatterscheidt’s exotic hunting trips to Africa while touring the Dacotah Prairie Museum, you would have seen his portrait painted by Ashford hanging near the elephant mount.
Frank was born in Iowa in 1878 but moved to a farm near Stratford, SD, in 1893. A few years later, when he was 17, he left to go to art school in Chicago. He ended up in New York studying with an accomplished impressionist painter named William Merritt Chase. In 1907, he was lured to Paris. He painted constantly for seven years and traveled around Europe.
One day before the Titanic departed, Frank got on a boat from France in 1912. The Titanic sank while he was en route, and he provided comments to the local media about the frenzy in New York when he arrived. His boat had traveled through the same iceberg field, but in the daylight. He returned to Europe shortly after but came home in 1917 due to the unrest that ultimately led to WWI.
For the next several decades, Frank traveled around the country settling in Minneapolis, Sioux Falls, Portland, his family farm near Stratford, and Aberdeen, SD. He established a studio for a period of time where ever a commission presented itself.
At an early age, Frank was encouraged to become a portrait painter by teachers and he became quite popular. He made his living doing portrait painting, but dabbled in landscapes for his own pleasure. The James River, his family farm, and his family farm in Oregon were popular subjects of his landscapes.
The local media would often publish a story when Frank returned to the area. Frank would always eat at the Virginia Café and would often invite pretty women who came into the café to pose for him. He was well respected, and posing for him was considered to be an honor. Newspaper clippings at the Library report particular women who were to be painted by Ashford.
Frank’s biggest single claim to fame (aside from a lifelong career as a successful artist) is that he and Peter Norbeck arranged for him to paint a portrait of President Calvin Coolidge in 1927 while the White House was in residence at the Game Lodge in Custer State Park. He painted Coolidge’s wife Grace a couple times and also did one of Norbeck. All three still hang on the main floor of the lodge.
This presidential notoriety led to many, many other official commissions. He painted three South Dakota Governors (Lee, Jensen, and Foss), and several judges (many from Wisconsin and Washington). In this post-Coolidge period, Ashford was commanding $500 to $1,000 or more for a portrait.
After 1956, Frank ultimately settled into a lifestyle in downtown Aberdeen, living in the Boyd apartments (above Malchow’s). When some friends noticed he hadn’t shown up for his routine coffee or luncheon, they knew something was wrong. Frank was found dead in his apartment from a heart attack. He was 82 at the time. The year was 1960.
Just as detailed information is difficult to find online, so is any information about the values of his paintings. After his death, local attorney Douglas Bantz mounted an auction of all his paintings from his studio. Many paintings were sold, but not at tremendous values. Another attorney, Hugh Agor bought several paintings and eventually would donate all 11 of them to the Library in Aberdeen. Many had been on display there, which is why some of the ones shown on this site are easily recognizable. The Dacotah Prairie Museum has a fine collection as well.
Frank did get married but divorced not long after. There is at least one known portrait of his wife, Marjorie that exists. The couple did not have any children. Frank’s two brothers went on to have descendents and at least one is on the lookout for Frank’s Oregon landscapes. Perhaps there are others that collect his works. So far, we’ve not found many. Each painting leads us down a new rabbit hole.
I’ve not found a person who knew Frank. Peg Lamont spoke to several in the Stratford area who knew him and mentioned them in her 1991 paper, Frank Ashford of Stratford on the James. We don’t know what motivated him, what prompted him to move around the world, why he lived in an apartment downtown, or, where his paintings are in the world.
If you have any stories about Frank, or if you are familiar with or own any of his paintings, please contact us.
I would like to thank Shirley Armendt of the K.O. Lee Aberdeen Public Library, Cristy Biegler from Bantz, Gosch & Cremer Law Firm, Sue Gates and Patricia Kendall of the Dacotah Prairie Museum, The Mead Cultural Education Center in Yankton, the South Dakota Art Collection, and Scott and Meleah Ashford of Oregon for assisting me and allowing access to their Ashford collections. I am also appreciative of individuals who let me into their homes to photograph their Ashford paintings. // –Troy McQuillen