By Nicolas Noxon

For art work details place mouse cursor over image. All art works courtesy the Noxon Family Trust unless otherwise noted. Italicized passages in text are from Betty Lane's letters and journals.


"In third grade (about 1916) we had art once a week. Water, a brush, and a piece of heavy paper was handed out to us at our desks. Our teacher, a goddess whom I adored, showed us how to make a wash halfway down the page, the color was gray. It had to dry. Then came the miracle. We loaded our brushes with black color and drew a leafless tree; it began in the white, which suddenly became snow and voila! We had made a landscape. It was magic, it was painting."

Front Street  Niagara  1940s  watercolor.

Betty Lane was born in 1907, in Washington D.C., the daughter of a Marine Corps officer and one of six children. Her father was often stationed abroad as a military governor of America's new territories, notably the Philippines and Santo Domingo in the West Indies. The youngest daughter, pretty and outgoing, Betty was certainly indulged and got plenty of attention. She was close to both her parents but her mother especially seems to have fostered her ambition and independence. Betty, who also played the violin, was considered something of a phenomenon. But she was not a good student, and except for the actual doing of music and art, she got very little classroom education. She was painfully aware of this all her life.


"I was a worker and in my family work was supposed to conquer all. I was said by my mother's friends to be precocious and original; in fact I was ignorant and restless and groping for help."

  Self Portrait. 1926  oil. (Collection of William Nicholson)

Help came from a number of people. One was Betty's cousin Charlie, a fond relative who was a successful and highly respectable painter living in Dedham, Massachusetts. Another was a wealthy uncle in Ohio and a third was her older sister, Mary, who was an honors student in French. Paris was Betty's dream and with the endorsement of the cousin, finance from the uncle and her sister as a chaperone, she was off to study painting there in the fall of 1928. She was just 21. Of course it was a memorable and formative experience. Once there, it all seemed so easy...

  Cousin Charlie at 99. 1950s

"I found my leader quite by chance -- I recognized a very beautiful and worldly girl I had known slightly at Corcoran and she told me that everybody flocked to Andre L'Hote, and she told me how to get there. His studio was in an inside stairway tucked in behind the Gare Montparnasse. There it was -- a large studio, a stove, a sink and a crowd of people jockeying for space. There were many easels and there was a model on a platform near the stove. As I remember, one handed over a hundred francs every once in awhile (then about five dollars) and went to work.

Chez L'Hote  1928  oil. (Collection of William Nicholson)

The model posed in the same position for 2 weeks. One had to struggle to get a good place and I was often too hot (near the stove) or too cold away from it. So was the model -- pink on one side, blue on the other. We made paintings barely based on the model's pose. There were certain subjects that were chic, others not. Guitars were highly thought of, fruit was OK, flowers not.

It was heady stuff and I was happy to contemplate a glorious future although I knew perfectly well that this was the wildest nonsense. However it was typical of the Paris atmosphere among art students then. They were doing work that would startle the folks back home and it might be as good, or better, than they thought it was."

Nan Nan and Nick  1940  oil.   Brigadier General Rufus Lane 1941  oil.

Paris in the twenties was all that Betty had expected, and it had one expected result. She drank and stayed up all night at parties. She traveled a lot, sometimes with boyfriends. It was all pretty innocent -- she reported in detailed letters to her mother -- but it drew rebukes and eventually she felt obliged to return home. She returned to Falls Church, Virginia in time for Christmas 1929. She felt stifled there and more restless than ever. Her family was proud but critical and, as she now thought, terribly provincial. She saw little of her old friends and longed for her European companions. One of them was my father, Gerald Noxon, a Canadian living in Europe who urged her to return there where such exciting things were happening. "Picasso," he wrote, "is streets ahead."

Betty yearned to go back to Paris or at least be on her own. Her mother was her champion and provided an out, financing a small apartment in Washington which became Betty's studio.

And then Betty discovered the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington which became her haven and inspiration. Mr. and Mrs. Phillips themselves took an interest in her. Her diary on May 14th, 1930 reads...


"Merci a lui et a Dieu! Duncan Phillips likes my works. Apparently seriously, he declared I have fine color, a sense of design and mystery. Ha, I am a mystic! All the same it was music to my ears and I listened willingly. He talks of buying but probably is only talk..."


Even in this moment of triumph she was skeptical and showed the self-critical streak that was so characteristic of her.


"My opinion of my work remains the same. The work remains the same in spite of having lived in the same room with Cezanne and Derain."


Phillips, the millionaire art patron, did buy her work and gave her a show in April of the following year. In her early 20s she had already studied in Paris and now was recognized as a serious talent. The experience of the show was uncomfortable for her but she couldn't have found it quite as tedious as she reported in her diary...


"My catalog is out. Although deeply miserable I love my name in print... Yesterday, my exhibit opened. Today, I interviewed the press. The first press was deaf but agreeable, the second agreeable and young. We had a long talk. The writings will be appalling probably... People were in and out. I felt like a necktie salesman or a floorwalker. Some wrung my hand and I felt congratulated and fatuous."


She was more than ever eager to get back to Europe and Phillips made it possible, buying four paintings at one hundred dollars each. After she had left Washington an even more flattering event took place at the Phillips Gallery. Matisse took notice of one of her paintings, The Walls. One of the museum staff wrote what happened. "... you know that Matisse discovered Miss Lane's picture and demanded to know who did it? And when I described her to him he grunted many "Oui, Oui's" and told us it pleased him very much: "Cela me plait beaucoup." In other words "C'est agreeable."

The Walls 1920s  oil.  (Collection of R. Sumter Brawley)

Betty may have questioned Phillip's judgment - but Matisse! She could not help but be overjoyed. In all, her return to Washington, however reluctant, had turned out very well.


And it was springtime in Paris. By late April she was sitting with my father, an aspiring writer and filmmaker, at the Café du Dome in the old quarter. And, within a few months, they were married.

  Young Betty and Gerald

There followed a tumultuous, confusing and sometimes unhappy period when my parents stayed on in Europe and England. They had various jobs and sporadic allowances from their families, which were relatively well off but were now feeling the pinch of the depression. Proper bohemians, Betty and Gerald were often broke but still managed to travel a lot and live well when money came their way. Betty did not paint very much. Later she could not explain entirely why. For one thing, she was a wife and she took that role seriously. The notion of working as well was hardly respectable where Betty came from. And too, despite her early success, she had little self-confidence. She felt (and was) patronized by many of the people she met in Europe. Gerald was a Cambridge graduate and they were in glittering intellectual company - the Paris art world and the beginnings of the documentary film movement in England. It was inspiring and fascinating for Betty but often demoralizing as well.

And their marriage was rocky from the start. Betty wrestled with conflicting emotions. She yearned to be independent. But when alone she was unhappy and depressed. My birth in 1936 was a traumatic experience. It came at a bad time in her relationship with my father and, during her pregnancy, she felt none of the maternal warmth the idealized notions of motherhood in those days had led her to expect. She would later joke that it was lucky I turned out well because she wouldn't have ever tried that again.

The Sunflower  1937 oil.

Eventually, things settled down. My father found a good job in London and they began to get ahead. Then their whole world came apart with the beginning of World War II. While little changed immediately in England, there was a sense of impending disaster when Hitler defeated France in just a few months. After much uncertainty, separations and anxiety our family was able to get to Canada where my father wrote for films and radio. Still, shaky finances and general uncertainty kept us moving. During the war we lived in three different small towns in Ontario.

Betty was by now determined to return to the U.S. as soon as she could and resume her painting career there. Between the frequent moves, caring for a child and working when she could, it seems amazing she found any time at all for painting. But in this period she did a great deal of memorable work and hit her stride as a painter. Rural Canada, unspoiled not to say raw in those days, fascinated her.

Unttitled Street Scene (Niagara)  1940s  Watercolor  (Collection Of Court and Pam Noxon)
Root Fence 1940s  oil.  (Collection of Court and Pam Noxon)
Niagara  1940s  watercolor.  (Collection of Court and Pam Noxon)

She also did portraits of family and friends in a style that is both arresting and revealing. One of her subjects was Gerald's nephew, Court Noxon, then a teenager, who remained - with his wife Pam - close friends of Betty's and collectors of her works. Of Court's portrait, painted in 1942, Betty wrote…


"If I condemn portraiture as profane love because the camera can do it better, Court is about as profane as I can do it. But I have come to feel that this argument is too simple, in fact I know it is. La Bete Humaine is too difficult and complex to dismiss like that. Some of them must be as interesting as a tree stump."

  Court 1940-1945 oil.  (Collection of Court and Pam Noxon)

Another of her subjects was me - between 1940 and 1945 she must have done at least a dozen oils. Some were full portraits, in others I am just a small figure - in one I am running home from school in a gathering storm under bleak skies and great ominous elm trees. Looking back, it seems like an allegory of all our lives then.

Nicky Running Home.  Canada  1940  oil.

For me, modeling for portraits was a form of torture and I posed only in response to threats or because of bribes. It isn't surprising that my expression is usually serious if not downright grim. I was plotting my escape…

Nick at 10  Niagara  1946  oil.   Nick and Two Dogs  1940s  oil.

Beyond her studies in Paris and occasional classes later, Betty was never again a student-artist. In fact she clearly recalled the moment when, still in her twenties, she decided to go her own way.


"I knew I was still ignorant and not a good painter, but I was my own painter, and I would have to find out - not be told."

  St.  Tropez  1931

Others are better able to point out what influenced Betty's work, which continued to evolve throughout her lifetime. She knew many artists, and admired some, but I never knew her to paint like them. She paid a price for this independence and freedom. By the end of World War II, her early success was fading.


"I had (by that time) sold a painting to the Met and had three New York exhibitions, the last two almost unnoticed… I was painting Canada, a bit abstracted, strongly patterned, somewhat romantic… dead trees and stump fences and melting snow patterns and local scenes. Most of these paintings eventually sold, but not in New York."

Untitled  (Dead wood dunes)  1940s  oil.  (Cape Museum of Fine Arts. Dennis  MA)   Thaw (Melting snow. Canada) 1940s  oil.

With the New York school on the rise and painters like Jackson Pollack being celebrated, Betty was out of fashion and she would remain so, more or less, for the rest of her life. She took it harder than she would let on, but it would not stop her painting.

In 1946 my family finally came to the U.S., buying a fine old house on Lower Road in Brewster. Five years later, Betty and Gerald's marriage came to an end. (By this time my father had begun a long academic career, founding the Boston University Film School where he remained for more than 30 years. He married Olga Skerston in 1951 and lived with her in Dennisport from his retirement until his death in 1991.)

After she and my father separated, Betty wanted to get on with her life but in those days the only "no fault" divorce to be had was in the state of Nevada where one party or the other had to live for 6 weeks to establish residence. This seemed out of the question as we were flat broke and Nevada seemed very foreign and far away.


But Betty was determined, so the next summer she and I set off for the West in a 1938 Ford which was so rusted it was literally dropping pieces on the road. We had just $100 and neither of us were exactly suited to the workaday world. I was 15, a nerd before any good was seen in them, and so immature I was virtually unemployable. Betty didn't look a lot more formidable.

  Nick and The 38 Ford

At first, it didn't seem that we could possibly make it. Car repairs ate our cash almost entirely before we even got to Reno. We trudged around that bizarre city being turned away, sometimes quite unkindly, everywhere we applied for work. It was in those days that I first began to appreciate my mother. She just set her jaw and got on with it. And at the end of every day she would rally our sagging spirits by talking it all over with great humor and detachment. And in the end our luck did turn and we not only survived but prospered in the most amazing way. She was hired as a chambermaid at a Lake Tahoe resort where she became so indispensable that they gladly kept me on as a golf caddie. We returned East at the end of the summer tanned and strong, worldly and rich.

Betty had her divorce and would not marry again. She once wrote with that bluntness that was meant to be humorous (or not, often you weren't quite sure), "I had liked being a wife, running a house, cooking, making it happy. But I was jealous of my time and energy and no man available seemed worth it." It was not quite that simple of course. There were suitors, and the independence she sought was not always an unmixed joy. If it hadn't been for painting I think she would not have been so contented to stay alone, and her life might have taken quite a different course. Betty was once quoted by a newspaper as saying, "I don't do what other people do." It was not a bold statement of unconventionality but a way of explaining how she found time to do so much work. It had taken her awhile to set her priorities, but once she did she lived by them.

From her divorce until her retirement, Betty was a teacher. This was not a choice. It was simply the most bearable way she could find to make a living, and it had many benefits. For one, it made her a student again. She remembered…


"The history of art… I scorned it… but when I had to devise my own visual material I became an avid student and demonstrator… I couldn't get enough of facts, of iconography, detail. I was, in fact, studying the history I had never had in school - holding it in my hand."


She deeply enjoyed this self-education and it seems to me it broadened the scope of her painting. And too, having to grapple with her students I think accounts for much of the variety of her later work.

Miss Porter's School  1963  oil.   Students With Yellow Chair 1970s  oil.

Fourteen years in the classroom - all but one at Miss Porter's School in Farmington Connecticut - was enough for Betty. With great trepidation she took early retirement. Her pension was not enough to live on, but she trusted she could make out on the small income from her painting and what odd jobs she could find. Between part time teaching in summer schools and camps, being a restaurant hostess and even working one summer making mass-production silkscreen prints of other artist's work, she did nicely.

  Self Portrait Retired. Liberation. MPS (self portrait) 1966  oil.  (Cape Museum of Fine Arts)

For the rest of her life Cape Cod was Betty's happy hunting ground. The beaches on Cape Cod Bay near her home in Brewster fascinated her. When the tide is out the water recedes a mile or more revealing vast sand and mud flats dotted with occasional large rocks, populated by screaming sea gulls and visited by walkers with their scampering children and delighted dogs. The beach presented an ever-changing spectacle and Betty painted it for decades in many moods and styles.

Dennis Breakwater  1950s  watercolor.
Beach With Blue Rocks  1958  oil.   Running Dogs on Orange Beach  1964  oil.
Marsh IV  1960s oil.   Flats  1960s  oil.
Wildflowers On Beach  1960s  oil.   Beach with Orange Rocks  1960s  oil.
Sailboat with Red Pennant  1960s oil.

By any measure Betty's life on the Cape was her happiest period, but she hardly settled down. She went to Europe many times over the next few decades and often to Mexico. She was a fearless traveler and thought nothing of doing the Greek Islands alone on a shoestring, sleeping overnight on the decks of inter-island steamers. She toured the Soviet Union when that was still unusual and daring, and crossed Australia by train, an expedition which even she had to admit after the fact was extremely tedious. As she grew older she kept insisting that each trip would be her last until finally she sent us a post card written on the bus down from Boston which read "I think I'll stay home now," which she finally did when she was 81.

French Landscape  1920s  oil  (Collecation of Stanley Willis)
Street In Alba  1957  oil.
Mexico 1985  oil.
Venice  1960s  oil.

Until her last few years Betty kept painting and showing her work. She never said much about it but, looking back on her records, I'm amazed at how much art she sold. She was never comfortable with these transactions and I always felt she was in a no-win situation. The only thing she hated more than taking money from her friends was taking it from strangers. For most of her life she thought that $100 was the proper price for a painting and explanations of inflation didn't impress her. For portraits, she would charge more - maybe $150 - but for that she would often do a second one at no charge if the first didn't suit the client.

Three dealers, Mildred Bredemeier in Buffalo and Nieta Cole and Ethel Putterman on the Cape, were Godsends to Betty. I remember with great amusement Ethel's raids on Betty's basement studio. She would, with perfect nonchalance, wade into the racks of recent work blandly ignoring Betty's protests and attempts at diversion. She would then set a stack of her selections aside near the door. "We'll talk about it." she would say and then visit awhile upstairs. At a strategic moment, when Betty was on the phone or feeding the chickadees, Ethel was gone in a flash, and the deal was done. Later, Betty would say nothing when Ethel called about a sale or a check came in the mail, but I could tell she was deeply pleased.

As for New York and all it represented, Betty took one last stab at it in the 1950s, quickly decided she didn't belong, and didn't try again.

But the art went on, happily and incessantly. To teach her students, Betty had learned a multitude of crafts and techniques - silkscreen, block printing, pottery and making jewelry of ceramics and melted glass. She loved to experiment. Opening her little kiln after a firing she was sometimes so enchanted that I am reminded of what she first experienced in third grade - art continued to be a miracle for her.

Ceramic horse, cup and saucer. 1950s.   Stained glass ornaments.  1970s.   Ceramic Birds. 1950s.
Untitled (mustached man) 1970s  etching.   Untitled (seated nude) 1970s etching.   Untitled. (woman) 1970s print.

"Today it is cold and (on days like this) I completely shut out the real world with its blatancies and necessities and I live happily in an aura of beautiful color and sensation, full of belief and pleasure in myself. It is just cold enough to be clammy outside - but not in my studio - oh no!"


Perhaps one can never really know one's parents. They are always distorted for better or worse. But reading Betty's voluminous papers and thinking about it all I am struck by certain contradictions in her character which seem to define her. One was a streak of self doubt and insecurity which was overcome as she found the confidence and self-assertion to create her art and indeed, create her life according to the ideas that were distinctly her own.

And there was her independence that contrasts so vividly with her desire to communicate - to show us her vision. Around 1944 she wrote:


"I'm sure it is time I made another effort to understand these people who talk so much about painting… but I've never read anything I liked or that seemed even to approach what painting is all about… I see things that look wonderful and then I paint them to look as wonderful as I possibly can."


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