Lucille Sinclair Douglass, painter, illustrator, etcher, writer and teacher, was born on November 4, 1878, in Tuskegee, Alabama, the daughter of Walton Eugene Douglass (a Civil War veteran) and Mary Sinclair (Mollie) Douglass. She grew up in a large house but in the genteel poverty that characterized so much of the nineteenth-century, postbellum South. Little is known about Douglass's early years, except that she was a sickly child who spent a great deal of time reading, favoring books about travels to distant and exotic lands. In interviews she gave after gaining a measure of fame, Douglass singled out the all-but-forgotten travel stories of Hezekiah Butterworth, whose seventeen volumes of Zig-Zag Journeys enjoyed considerable popularity among young readers near the end of the nineteenth century-as having stimulated her yearning for adventure.
Douglass received her A.B. (baccalaureate degree) in 1895 at the age of seventeen at Alabama Conference Female College, a forerunner of Huntingdon College, where her mother taught. Unfortunately, records do not survive to describe Douglass's course of study, though it seems safe to assume that she continued to receive art training from her mother, a practice begun when Douglass was a child. In 1899, Douglass moved to Birmingham, where she made a living as both an artist and an art teacher. She occupied a studio in the old Watts Building between 1901 and 1908.
The 1907 city directory listed her as a "china painter." Years later Douglass made reference to the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of roses that she painted on teacups and other crockery. The sale of this china, as well as hand-painted place cards, financed her future art training. In 1908 she banded with fellow artists Delia Dryer, Hannah Elliot, Carrie Hill, and four other female artists as founding members of the Birmingham Art Club.
Even before Douglass left for Europe in 1909, she sought art training beyond what was available in Birmingham. For several summers she attended the Art Students League in New York City, though there is no record with whom she studied. Between the years 1909 and 1912, she received art training in Europe. In Paris she studied with Lucien Simon and René Menard. Of greater importance was the time she spent with Alexander Robinson. With his classes she traveled all over Europe-Holland, Spain, and Italy-and North Africa and became his assistant and an art teacher. After her first year with Robinson, she asked him for a frank evaluation of her work; his reply was indeed frank: "You have less talent than many, but you will go farther than the rest because once you undertake a thing you see it through."
With two exhibits of her paintings displayed in Paris in 1911, she was on her way to establishing herself as an artist. By 1913 Douglass had returned from Europe. She spent that summer with artist Isabelle Percy, painting in the northern part of Percy's home state of California. World War I ended any further hopes of European travel and training and proved a trying time. City directories show that she kept a residence and studio in Birmingham from 1915 to 1917.
Her life took a fresh turn in 1920, when the forty-two-year-old Douglass accepted a position with the Methodist Missionary Society. She was employed to oversee a workshop in Shanghai in which Chinese women hand-colored an early form of photographic slide used by speakers to publicize the missionary work of the society. The job did not absorb all of her time and energy apparently, for she became first a writer and then associate editor of the weekly English-language publication, Shanghai Times, a position she held until 1924. During these years she traveled extensively in China as a member of the press. These trips were often dangerous, as China was in the midst of revolution and civil war.
The second friend Douglass made in China was Helen Churchill Candee, who had, among other things, the distinction of surviving the 1912 sinking of the HMS Titanic. Roughly two decades apart in age, the two traveled together from November 1926 until January 1927. This journey led them through the Far East-first to Indochina, then to Siam, and on to Java and BaIi. This adventure resulted in the 1927 publication of Candee's book, New Journeys In Old Asia, for which Douglass executed twenty-one etchings. It was also on this journey that Douglass first visited Angkor. Candee had been there before and had published the book Angkor the Magnificent in 1924.
Angkor was the seat of the ancient Khmer empire from the ninth to the fifteenth century and was abandoned, only to be rediscovered in the 186Os by French explorers after Cambodia became part of the French overseas empire. Angkor-best known for the two complexes, Angkor Wat and the larger Angkor Thorn-was the center of what is considered the most prosperous and sophisticated civilization in the history of Southeast Asia. Angkor was not only a religious center but also the administrative center of the Khmer empire, with a vast system of reservoirs, canals, and moats-the basis of an extensive irrigation system for agriculture. Eventually the Khmers were overthrown, and the jungle reclaimed Angkor, though the ruins remained a pilgrimage site for Buddhists.
Douglass saw more in Angkor than simply an exotic artistic subject. She gave detailed lectures on Angkor in both the United States and Europe. She also spoke on Angkor at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the School of Oriental Studies at the University of London, the Royal Asiatic Society (also in London), and at Oxford University, as well as many less august bodies. On January 10, 1930, she gave a talk at the National Geographic Society entitled "Angkor-A Royal Passion." The brochure announcing the lecture gave the following description:
For the last years of her life, Douglass made New York her home base, though she traveled frequently to Europe and occasionally visited Birmingham. From November 1928 until late spring of 1929, she was a faculty member of a "floating university." On the ship President Wilson, Douglass taught art history, sketching, and painting to a hundred "boys and girls" of unspecified age as the ship sailed around the world. An article in the November 6, 1928, New York Evening Post referred to Douglass as "one of America's best known painters and etchers" and stated that the ship's itinerary would include such exotic places as Siam, BaIi, Java, and Singapore, as well as "all the cities ... on the more usual type of tour." In a letter to her friend, Leona Galdwell, Douglass wrote of her "floating university" experience: "I am glad ... to have had the experience, though I should not care to repeat it."
After an illness that lasted several months Douglass died on September 26, 1935, in the home of a friend in Andover, Massachusetts.