“It never occurred to me that there was anything special about being an artist since everyone around me painted. I always assumed that I would be one too – it just seemed as natural as breathing.”
By Michelle Breeze
Lanford Monroe was born on May 12, 1950 into a family brimming with artistry. Her father, C.E. Monroe, was already a prominent wildlife artist while her mother, Betty, was an accomplished portrait artist. The community that Lanford grew up in was steeped in artistic talent, and she was always encouraged to do what she wanted to do, not waste time making money, but to do what moved her. Monroe said of her life, “Of course I planned to be an artist. It literally never occurred to me to be anything else.”
We saw this scene together in England, but she painted the foxes into the big one. This painting expressed her personality in so many ways – with the sun coming up, and the foxes whipping across the land. She always said that her spirit animal was the fox. You can see that affection for them in the painting.
~ Chipper Thompson
Monroe was a child prodigy, selling her first piece of commercial art to a doll company for $250 at the age of six. In 1968, Monroe won the Gold Medal Award for Watercolor as well as the Alabama State Award for Sculpture. She briefly attended the Ringling School of Art and Design but had no interest in pursuing pop art and abstract painting, so she left to pursue her career on her own, painting her way across the country.
Her landscapes and wildlife paintings were both evocative and haunting, and it’s easy to see where in the early ’70s, she began to incorporate more emotion into her work. “It’s hard to talk about a painting because what you’re trying to put into it, it should be something that’s felt, like music.” While painting in the Southwest, Monroe met and married Willy (Bill) Burnette, and for several years, she lived a hardscrabble life with no heat, no running water, no money, and not much to eat.
On their primitive ranch, just outside Buffalo Gap, South Dakota, her daughter Charlotte was born. Inspired by the scenery, Monroe painted dozens of watercolors, sharing her work at various art shows and exhibitions. She also painted a Bob White on the cover of the Georgia phonebook, and when Jimmy Carter mentioned it on Barbara Walters, the reproductions sold out immediately.
She and Burnette divorced, and she moved back to Alabama. She would later recall those years with humor, but she never had any desire to return to South Dakota.
This was a really interesting painting because when we arrived at the Merced River, it was actually flooding, and part of Yosemite was closing. It was just luck that we were there.
~ Chipper Thompson
Close to her parents once again, Monroe started exhibiting at the Huntsville Museum of Art. It was during that time that she discovered American and French Impressionism, and it changed her art and her life forever. Two of her inspirations, Singer-Sargent and William Merritt Chase, influenced major changes in her painting style, lending easier and freer strokes to her work. While in Alabama, she met and married foxhunter Bob DeNeefe, and as her love for the hunt increased, she added horses to her repertoire of subjects. For a time, she was an avid hunter, but during her first “blooding,” she lost a taste for the sport entirely. Her marriage was also over shortly thereafter.
During the years that followed, although she traveled all over the country exhibiting and selling her work, she stayed close to her parents. Her level of professionalism and seriousness about her work increased dramatically during this time, and she gained a reputation as an artist to watch.
This period of prolific painting led Monroe to begin sculpting horses when she needed a break from painting. She sculpted and molded four equine bronzes which caught the attention of the Franklin Mint, who commissioned cold casts of the four horses. They sold exceptionally well and just added one more dimension to Monroe’s artistry.
Monroe often preferred to paint on moody, atmospheric days, so when it was sunny, she would ride through the meadows and visit properties adjacent to her, which is where she met her final husband, Chipper Thompson. Thompson and Monroe had a heady courtship that resulted in a year of intensive painting all across Yorkshire, England, Normandy and Paris, France, rural Ireland, and Tuscany, Italy. They eventually returned to Alabama, married, then moved to Taos, New Mexico where they purchased a 250-year-old adobe and orchard.
“In our estimation, there is no one painter today who uses light and dark contrasts with the skill of Lanford Monroe…”
The artistic scene in Taos was ripe with opportunity for Monroe, and it was during these years that she garnered various awards and accolades that resulted in pieces going to the permanent collections in both the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Wyoming and The Sporting Gallery in Virginia. Shortly before she died, Monroe was included in a prestigious list of “The Important and Enduring Work of America’s Treasured and Most Compelling Artists.”
One of the editors said of her work, “In our estimation, there is no one painter today who uses light and dark contrasts with the skill of Lanford Monroe. She is a master of mood, who, without fail, is able to capture in her painting exactly the mood she seeks. Monroe’s magical moods will continue to win the hearts of collectors for generations to come.” Monroe died six months later. She was 50.