She lived in every decade of the 20th century, and painted portraits in most of them.
Minnesota artist Genevieve "Gene" Ritchie Monahan was born and raised in Duluth, schooled in Minneapolis and ran an art program in Faribault during World War II.
Then it was off to Colorado and Alaska, along with her Army officer husband and three kids. By 1953, she had landed in the middle of the high-art world of Greenwich Village in New York City. "The fragrances of the coffee, turpentine and cigarette smoke mingled in the air," recalled her daughter, Jean E. Kelly.
Of all the places she planted her easel, however, Monahan's true home was the tiny Minnesota border town of Ranier, up where the Rainy River meets Rainy Lake and Fort Frances sits just across the river in Ontario.
She first visited Ranier, then numbering 205 people, in 1931 when she and soon-to-be husband George were courting at the University of Minnesota. Nearly 30 years later, they returned and moved into a house at Main and Oak streets when George retired. He died of cancer in 1965 but Gene spent her remaining 29 years in Ranier, painting into her 80s.
She opened an art colony on the shores of Rainy Lake, teaching classes and workshops and submitting weekly sketches to the Rainy Lake Chronicle that grabbed the attention of renowned nature writer Sigurd Olson.
"You caught the details of the changing season, the little things that appear almost without expecting them," Olson wrote, "the flash of a gull's wing in early spring, the freezing of the lake … Somehow you have caught the mystique of the North in an unforgettable way."
Monahan's portraits — "People painting," she called them — spanned 60 years, a period when they won her critical acclaim.
As an unknown artist attending the Duluth State Teachers College in 1930, her self-portrait landed on the cover of Art Digest magazine under the headline "Girl of 21 Wins First Prize at Duluth." The story said: "Here is something to inspire art students."
She went on to win prizes in New York and Washington, D.C., where her paintings hung in the Smithsonian, not to mention the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
"Clear, forceful, and sympathetic," art historian Douglas Skrief said, describing her work for a 2016 exhibition in Grand Marais. Monahan, he said, often painted "with broad brush strokes or passes of the palette knife, always communicating a warm kinship with her subjects whom she made present and contemporary."
Skrief first met Monahan when he was only 9, visiting an open house at her modest Ranier home, studio and gallery in the 1960s. He remembers her oversized easel, her portraits of women and paintings of geraniums, rocky islands and bridges.
Monahan counseled Skrief, while still a teenager, to turn his back to his subject — in one case, a Ranier boathouse.
"Then bend over and look at the scene between your legs," she told him, "to get an upside-down view divorced from your preconceptions and better reflective of the proportions and lines and color dynamics of the subject."
Skrief wonders if her career might have been different had she been a man. Kelly said her mother was "particularly tickled" when a national art critic once assumed Gene was male — such "strong brush strokes" — rather than a woman using a short version of her name.
"I think Gene Ritchie Monahan had it all," said longtime friend Patricia Daugharty, who was a nursing student in New York City in the 1950s when she first met the artist. "She was a beautiful and accomplished artist as well as a beautiful person who was an inspiration to her children and to the people around her," Daugharty said.
Monahan died in 1994 at the age of 85. Her family owns about 200 oil paintings and hopes to have her "recognized as a significant woman portrait artist of the 20th century," said Kelly, who splits her time between Ranier and Arizona.
Kelly said her mother's creativity underscored all aspects of her daily life, not just her paintings.
"If it was a recipe book she needed, she bound a book. An ashtray? She hammered one out of brass. A bowl? She threw one on her wheel. A dress for an opening? She made one" without a pattern, Kelly said. Monahan served up dinners, her husband once said, based on "color schemes."
Monahan herself once said that to her, the creative arts were "a wonderful responsibility … a creative flowering or out-flowing from the mind and the heart."
Added her daughter: "She felt it was a responsibility to enrich the lives of other people through her creative talents. She had a wonderful sense of humor, and she touched the lives of every person she came across in some way. She was extremely gifted, and she shared her gift with everybody."
Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.