During a Mother’s Day visit to Molly and Mark in San Francisco last year, we explored the North Berkeley neighborhood where my mom grew up and my grandparents and their parents lived.
We located a house I grew up thinking was owned by my great-grandparents, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon, an impressionist painter, and her botanist husband, Dr. William Austin Cannon, in the North Berkeley Hills and had a chance encounter with the home’s current owner.
Last week, in another serendipitous connection, Daniella Thompson, website editor for the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, commented on the blog post I wrote about that day and connected more dots in my sketchy portrait of the great-grandmother I never knew:
Jennie V. Cannon owned not one but three houses on the 1600 block of La Vereda Road. The house at 1631 La Vereda (the first acquired by her) is one of the oldest on Berkeley’s Northside. It was built in 1895 for Theodore C. W. Petersen, a painting contractor who specialized in friezes and is known for having decorated the interior of California Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.
In 1927, Jennie Cannon had a charming painting and drafting studio built directly to the south of her house … at 1633 La Vereda. … In 1928, Jennie Cannon commissioned architect and neighbor Lilian Bridgman to design for her a new house-cum-studio at 1629 La Vereda.
[Later correction from Daniella: the studio-like house at 1633, the small structure, was actually built in 1931 and replaced an earlier and smaller studio dating to 1927. The much larger Bridgman designed structure in the photograph with Jennie below was a rental from the first. Jennie was apparently an asute real estate investor and landlord!]
When Daniella emailed photos of the two studio/houses, I recognized them. I had shot my own pictures that May day, intrigued by their architectural details.
Daniella also sent a biography from An Encyclopedia of Women Artists of the American West. As I read it, stories I knew fell in place in the context of her life. (My comments are in parenthesis.)
Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon
Born in Albert Lea, Minnesota, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon became a painter, lithographer and writer of newspaper articles about art. She was especially known for her paintings of the Arizona landscape.
She grew up in Battle Lake, Minnesota. Both her mother and step-mother died when she was young, which caused her to drop out of school at the age of nine and enter again at age 17. By 1888 (at age 19), she was a teacher in her home-town area (one of the few respectable jobs open to young women).
Later she studied at Hamline University in St. Paul, 1891–1895, and in 1897, attended Stanford University in Palo Alto, California where her art teacher was Bolton Brown from whom she received her first formal art training.
In 1898, she married William Austin Cannon, who was also a Stanford student (and whose first wife had died in Yosemite several years earlier), and they moved to New York where she enrolled at the National Academy of Art and the New York School of Art under William Merritt Chase. Her husband earned a PhD (in Botany) from Columbia University.
In 1905, she and her husband relocated, this time moving to Tucson, Arizona (he arrived in Tucson in 1903 to found the Carnegie Institute’s Desert Botanical Laboratory; Jennie and my granddad Milner and his toddler brother George followed after their house was finished) where she stayed primarily… except for trips to London–1910–1911, (while Dr. William botanized the Sahara Desert in North Africa) and New York–1917–1918. Until 1913, she stayed in Carmel during the summers. In 1918 (when Dr. William sailed to Australia to study the deserts there), she moved to Berkeley, California, and remained there until 1948 when she went back to Tucson (where she lived with her younger son, George).(They separated in 1918 and eventually divorced. Dr. William, a founding member of the Ecological Society of America, married again–twice. Jennie never remarried. She participated in the lively art colony of the Berkeley Hills, where she met poet and journalist Mira Maclay, who wrote about architecture for Sunset Magazine. In 1929, Jennie’s eldest son, Milner, married Mira’s daughter, Janet Maclay, after the two met at University of California Berkeley. Mira built my grandparents a house, where they raised my mom. She lived in the attached mother-in-law apartment. Jennie died in Tucson.)
(Jennie’s) exposure to the Arizona desert launched her serious career as an artist, and she did many paintings of the desert and mountains as well as the Grand Canyon, historic missions, and native Indians. She also painted in New Mexico and along the California coast, especially at Carmel and La Jolla. Among her titles are “In Old Tucson,” “Taos Indian Pueblo,” “Carmel Mission,” and “Along the Apache Trail.”
In addition, Cannon painted still lifes and city scenes of New York and San Francisco, and she exhibited widely including the Carmel Art Association, the San Francisco Art Association, and with the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors.
She was also art editor of the Berkeley Gazette in the 1920s, and lectured on art. Her autobiography of her early life is titled “Watershed Drama, Battle Lake, Minnesota.”
Her work is in the John Vanderpoel Art Association of Chicago and the Otter Tail County Historical Society Museum in Battle Lake (and in private collections).
A talented woman who apparently found happiness by building a life–and a room–of her own. I want to know more.