The woman sits in a field. She holds up a tool of some sort. In the smudged blue distance, we spy two windmills.

We cannot, however, take our eyes off the woman. Dressed in no-nonsense reddish-brown and blue work clothes, she slouches slightly, perhaps from fatigue.

Her dark locks are wrapped tightly atop her broad features. She looks toward the viewer, but her eyes droop above expressionless lips, again as if worn out from labor.

For a 1976 exhibit at The Hague, Netherlands, the 19th-century painting by Anna Huntington Stanley needed a title, so her granddaughter Marni Holbrook Roberson called it “Girl With a Winnowing Basket.”

Later, as part of Roberson’s decades-long research into her adventuresome grandmother’s life and art, she discovered it was really titled “The Sand Sifter.”

“It shows that this woman in Holland was doing dirty, hard work,” says Roberson, who lives in Austin and lent her collection of Stanley’s paintings to the Neill-Cochran House for a small exhibit that runs at the West Campus museum through Dec. 21. “You get the sense of women’s hard work in other paintings, such as a milkmaid carrying heavy brass cans.”

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In a way, the fate of these painted workwomen from the late 1800s reflects part of her grandmother’s life story, which Roberson and her sister, Joanne Holbrook Patton, have pieced together attentively.

“Her life as a military wife, it was terrible,” Roberson says of the painter. “They kept ordering her husband three months here and three months there — Cuba, Kentucky, Arizona, the Philippines. He was in the Philippines a year and a half before she could join him. She had their second child while he was gone.”

Still, her grandmother, trained in Philadelphia, Paris and elsewhere, always painted. Although Stanley was not allowed to attend the top-ranked École des Beaux-Arts in Paris because she was a woman, her art was good enough to be exhibited at the school in 1888 and 1889, while she was studying at the more open Académie Julian.

“She was accepted the year they turned down Auguste Rodin,” Roberson says of one of those Beaux-Arts shows. Stanley’s two exhibited pieces, a charcoal drawing and an oil painting, are now lost.

Although the memory of Stanley’s career was lost as well for decades, her works now, thanks to her granddaughters, can be found in numerous collections, and are included in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's inventory of American paintings.

Stanley’s oils and watercolors — usually grouped in style with the impressionists — have illuminated Roberson’s life ever since childhood.

“The Sand Sifter,” or, alternately, “Girl With a Winnowing Basket,” held a special place in her imagination.

“It reminds me of dinnertime at home,” says Roberson, who grew up in Washington, D.C., and whose family history is crowded with top military leaders and their wives. “It was opposite me while I was eating. It hung over the sideboard. Which is now in my dining room.”

Gathering the clues

It was no easy task to reconstruct the painter’s life.

“Since Anna Stanley died at 42, when my dad was only 8 years old, we knew only about her career that she had studied in Paris and painted in Holland,” Roberson says. “We loved her work and saw the world through her eyes. But we knew nothing about her.”

There were no sketchbooks, no list of paintings sold, no list of exhibitions.

“Joanne and I were determined to bring her the recognition she deserves,” Roberson says. “Through research over years, we discovered that during her lifetime, she exhibited in New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas and Washington, D.C. And that is just the record we have uncovered so far. When we moved to Austin, researching at the LBJ Library, I found several newspaper articles describing paintings we did not know about and presumed lost.”

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At every step in her quest, Roberson, 81, was helped and hindered by her family’s military character. Helped because the military keeps meticulous records, hindered because all branches of her family moved around on assignment — frequently. Yet Roberson never let up as she put together the story.

Warning: It isn’t easy to keep straight the family’s interrelated military connections.

Born in Cornwall, N.Y., Roberson had attended seven schools by the third grade. Her father, Brig. Gen. Willard A. Holbrook Jr., was stationed at West Point when she was born, and her mother, Helen Herr Holbrook, was descended from a military brood as well. Helen’s father, Brig. Gen. John Kerr, was the Army’s last Chief of Cavalry.

Born in 1864 in Greene County, Ohio, Roberson’s grandmother, painter Anna Stanley, was married in 1896 to Lt. Willard A. Holbrook Sr., an 1885 graduate of West Point and later as major general, the Army’s first Chief of Cavalry.

“They all knew each other,” Roberson says. “In fact, Anna’s husband was her father’s aide when Brig. Gen. D.S. Stanley was commander of the Department of Texas.”

Despite her family’s peripatetic existence, Anna received an exceptional education. She attended high school at the Buffalo Female Academy in Buffalo, N.Y., where German-trained Ammi Farnham provided art instruction. She later studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where she came under the influence of Thomas Eakins, one of the most important American artists of the period.

“Not a lot of letters from that time period survive,” says Rowena Dasch, director of the Neill-Cochran House, an Abner Cook-constructed Greek revival gem built on the edge of the Texas wilderness in 1855. “Mostly what we have is from her time in Europe. We do know that the Pennsylvania Academy at the time was a hot mess. Eakins, who taught there, had progressive views. Women usually weren’t given access to male nude models, so he posed nude himself. He was fired for removing the loincloth of a male model in a coed class.”

Stanley moved often, but because her father had been stationed in San Antonio, she always returned there, and it became her home base in the 1890s.

“We have no idea what her father thought about her going into art,” Roberson says. “He didn’t mention her career in his memoirs. But he must have supported it. It would have required means.”

Stanley sold paintings from her studio at 22 South Alamo St. in San Antonio. Her picture of Andrea Castañón Villanueva, known as “Madam Candelaria,” one of the last survivors of the Alamo, sold for a “good price,” Stanley told a reporter at the time. A second version by Stanley hangs in the current exhibition.

“We purchased this a year ago from a guy who found it behind a dehumidifier in Florida,” Roberson says. “He was settling his parents’ estate and found her signature, then he looked up our website, AnnaStanley.com, and contacted us. The one I most wanted to recover was ‘Madam Candelaria.’ I’m so glad she has come home to Texas.”

In addition to landscapes and domestic scenes, Stanley painted many portraits, including military figures and the little daughter of the owners of the Menger Hotel in San Antonio.

She died of pneumonia on Feb. 20, 1907, in Chester, Pa.

“My father remembered that she asked for her two sons to come to be with her,” Roberson says. “She also wanted to be by a window so she could have fresh air and look out.”

Disposition of the art

Roberson’s own mother and father died within a few months of each other in 1986. She split the paintings with her two siblings, Joanne Holbrook Patton — daughter-in-law of the late Gen. George S. Patton — and Col. Willard A. Holbrook III, who is retired from the military.

Since the disposition of Stanley’s paintings in 1986, her artwork has toured Europe and the United States, including in a show called “Dutch Utopia,” which consisted of work from Americans who painted in Holland.

More paintings kept showing up.

“We've been writing to descendants of Anna's nephew who received a bequest of paintings,” Roberson says. “Their reply: ‘We have nothing here.’ Then they wrote: ‘We found this in a drawer,’ then wrote back: ‘This one was in a barn.’”

Perhaps the most remarkable find was at the Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C. When Roberson and her sister attended an event there, they were confronted with a row of paintings.

“'That’s a portrait of our great-grandfather!'” Roberson remembers. “'Could it be by Anna?' We found her signature with the light on a keychain; there it was. Now they have the special place for great-grandfather’s portrait alongside his medal of honor and sword.”

So how did a tidy selection of Stanley’s paintings end up at a small historical house museum in West Campus?

“Marni is friends with a member of our board, Karen Pope, herself an art historian,” Dasch says. “We were in the process of re-evaluating our spaces, changing things up, giving people more reasons to visit the museum. Karen was interested in ‘Candelaria,’ given that it’s the tricentennial of San Antonio, and there’s a strong female narrative in the history of the Cochran House, so a little-known 19th-century woman painter fits in well.”

Roberson and her sister anticipate finding out even more about their grandmother after this exhibition.

“It's been a remarkable journey of discovery,” Roberson says. “All but one of the exhibited paintings here are mine. Lucky me.”