Gina Knee was born on Oct 31, 1898 to a prevalent family in Marietta, OH. Knee was raised in the mindset of the most affluent families at this time, where one was to place the family and social obligations above the search for self-identity and happiness. Painting and visual arts were a part of her life at a young age. Sharon Udall, her biographer, recalls Virginia’s statement: “As a child and into my teens, I always painted something-- from paper dolls to attempts at pictures of my friends or family.” As most society women raised during the 1910s, Virginia was brought up in preparation for her arranged marriage that was set in motion at an early age. Consequently, she married Goodlow Macdowell and spent ten years focusing her life around him. They went to parties, polo games and all other sophisticated activities a proper married couple at this time were supposed to participate in.
Around 1930, the marriage ended with Knee’s sudden departure from her home, leaving behind everything that she knew. Since divorce was still very shameful in the 1930s, she was considered a “fallen” woman. Yet, as a newly single woman, she was able to look at her life from a completely new vantage point, and it allowed her to find her true passion to become an artist. This would not be the only time a divorce would influence a change in her lifestyle. She married twice more with each marriage and divorce challenging her artistic identity.
She studied briefly at the Art Students League in New York in 1930. After seeing a John Marin watercolor show at Alfred Stieglitz’ gallery, An American Place, in November of 1930, she moved to New Mexico. Marin had spent a short time in Taos, and the thirty-two watercolors in the show inspired Knee. She noticed how he had captured the distinct forms of the New Mexico region. When she visited Santa Fe, she only intended to stay a few weeks, but made it her home for the next ten years.
Shortly after her arrival in New Mexico, she changed her name from Virginia to Gina and started to sign her works accordingly. During the winter of 1932, Gina had met Ernest Knee, a young photographer, who would later join her on her educational visits to local Native American dance rituals and ceremonies. Late in the following year, Ernest stayed in Santa Fe to study photography, while Gina went to Taos to study with artist Ward Lockwood. Upon her return to Santa Fe in 1933, Gina and Ernest were married. As her husband gained recognition for his photography in and out of New Mexico, Gina longed for her own success.
Her marriage to Ernest Knee came at a time where she was on the cusp of her artistic discovery. An energetic and active woman, Gina gained great popularity among the arts community for her lively personality and enthusiasm. However, the perpetual commotion and entertaining that took place around her studio kept her from focusing on the art she yearned to create. Thus, 1935 marked the beginning of her most productive year. The new couple had moved to a house in the Tesuque Valley, just a few miles from Santa Fe. The Knee’s relationship thrived in the secluded Tesuque house regardless of their desire for a child and Gina’s inability to conceive. In the beautiful, tranquil setting away from the distractions of the hectic “Camino” downtown of Santa Fe, she cast her energy into painting.
With the onset of World War II in 1941, Ernest, like many New Mexicans, moved to Los Angeles, California to get work in the defense industry. Gina was left behind in New Mexico to care for their house and to continue her art. She was deeply concerned with the inhumanity of war and her feelings of displacement were beginning to set in. Most of all, she didn’t want to give up the artistic life she had grown to love so much. She knew that she would have to work harder than ever to keep art in her life.
Her confidant, Marian Willard, owner of the Willard Gallery in New York, encouraged Gina to continue her art making. They made plans for a 1942 solo exhibition. She struggled with making the deadline for the exhibition, but in the end got rave reviews and encouraging remarks. Alfred Morang, for Art Digest wrote “Gina Knee is probably the most important painter of well-controlled abstract-creative patterns in the country. Her color is intense even when she understates, a quality which she shares with only a very few living Americans.”
By December 1942, the isolated feeling of being in the country alone became overwhelming, and she made the decision to join Ernest in Los Angeles. He had provided a steady, calming influence in her life, and without him in it, she lost her drive to paint. It was a need for physical closeness to Ernest that contributed to her artistic ability.
Gina hoped that being in Los Angeles with Ernest, would prove productive for her. While she waited for her painting supplies to arrive from New Mexico, she sketched with pencil and paper. As she and Ernest explored the art scene in California she met the owner of Hatfield Gallery, who quickly offered her a solo show for June later that year.
With Ernest working long hours at Howard Hughes Aircraft Company in Culver City, she found her priorities shifting without her control. Her time and energy were spent doing all the household chores that she had been accustomed to having help with. As she felt more and more a loss of control, Gina started to feel resentment towards Ernest. Consequently, the depressing nature of her new life in California took its toll on her. By winter 1942, she fell into an unproductive state. It was not until the spring that her depression lifted and that she found a renewed strength within herself to collect her spirit and move forward.
At this point, her relationship with Ernest had become more and more distant. She felt that he was no longer simply removed from her work, but completely apathetic. After finding out that he was involved with an attractive younger woman, she left him in the fall of 1943 and returned to New Mexico.
The divorce took its toll. For a time, she felt a sense of anguish and fragility that she hadn’t experienced before. She began to doubt herself and her beautiful paintings, which she packed up and sent to New York for the November show at Willard’s Gallery. The reviews proved different as critics commended her for the emotional qualities that she so gracefully developed on the surface of her canvases.
Not long after her divorce from Ernest was finalized in April 1944, Gina started a new life with artist Alexander Brook. The new couple settled in Savannah, Georgia, where they remodeled and personalized their home. Brook’s personality was completely opposite to what Gina had become accustomed to with Ernest Knee. He took great interest in her work and actively commented on her paintings with fervor and criticism. In late 1946, she ventured into using oils; a completely foreign medium to her. After incredible dedication, she mastered the technique and won a first prize at the national painting exhibition in New Orleans that year.
The final years of her life were split between Georgia and New York, finally settling in the Hamptons in 1948, where she stayed actively involved in the art world. In 1953, the Guild Hall show “Seventeen East Hampton Artists” featured four artist couples: Gina Knee and Alexander Brook, Gertrude and Balcomb Greene, Elaine and Willem de Kooning, and Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. Gina would remain an asset to Guild Hall, organizing her own solo shows and dynamic group shows for the remaining years of her life. Gina Knee died on her eighty-fourth birthday, October 31, 1982 at the hospital of Suffolk, New York.