Betty Bierne Parsons Biography

Betty Bierne Parsons




Artist and art dealer Betty Parsons was born Betty Bierne Pierson on January 31, 1900, in Manhattan, NY. A precocious child, Parsons attended the esteemed Miss Chapin's School, a private grade school catering to wealthy families that, despite its reputation, left Parsons bored. A fateful trip to New York's historic 1913 Armory Show, the first large exhibition of Modern art in the United States, proved to be the inspiration Parsons needed. At age thirteen, despite her parents' disapproval, Parsons began taking private art lessons. {ainter and sculptor Gutzon Borglum was her first mentor--who she later described as a poor teacher.

Parsons married socialite Shuyler Livingston Parsons in 1919, moving to Paris, where she continued to study on her own. Upon divorcing in 1922, she remained in Paris and enrolled at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere. She studied sculpture under Emile Antoine Bourdelle and Ossip Zadkine, and in the summers she traveled to the Barbary coast to study painting with Arthur Lindsay.


During the Great Depression, she lost her fortune, and with it, her home in Paris. She returned to America in 1936. Not without drive and skill, Parsons traveled directly to Santa Barbara and taught sculpture for a brief time before returning once again to New York for her first solo exhibition at the Midtown Gallery. She soon secured a job at the gallery of Mary Quinn Sullivan, a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art. In 1940, she took a managerial position at the contemporary gallery located in the Wakefield Bookshop; here, she represented the works of Saul Steinberg, Adolf Gottlieb, Alfonso Ossorio, Hedda Sterne, Theodoros Stamos, and Joseph Cornell. In 1944, art dealer Mortimer Brandt approached her about starting and managing a contemporary art division at his gallery. Upon his move to England at the end of World War II, she subleased the space and started her own venture: the Betty Parsons Gallery.


Parson's gallery would prove to be among the most lasting, crucial art spaces in Manhattan. Recognizing the importance of artists whose work was not yet de rigueur, she exhibited and often helped launch the careers of such artists as Rothko, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Kelly, Frankenthaler, and Godwin, among many others whose names would become synonymous with the major art movements of their time. After the Abstract Expressionist movement, another wave of artists, such as Jasper Johns, Walter Tandy Murch, Leon Smith, and others would also be featured at the highly coveted space. Parsons would run the gallery until her death in 1982.


Even as she helped shape the art world of America, she continued to work as an artist. Her style changed in the 1950s from landscapes and realism toward abstraction; additionally, in 1947 she began constructing three dimensional works from found objects. She showed at the Anita Shapolsky Gallery (NYC); Spanierman Gallery (NY); Virginia Miller Galleries (FL), and Whitechapel Art Gallery (London), and she continued to show at the Midtown Gallery throughout her career. Two major retrospectives were held in her honor, at the Montclair Art Museum in 1974, and the Pollack-Krasner House and Study Center in 1992. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.


Betty B. Parsons died on July 23 of 1982 in New York.