Caroline Mytinger, a fearless woman ahead of her time, chose Melanesia in her desire to document as many cultures as possible.
The story of Caroline Mytinger is one of boldness, pluck, and artistic talent. She was born in 1897 in Sacramento, California, and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. A noted portrait artist of important and wealthy American families and business leaders during the first half of the 20th century (including the Pillsburys and Weyerhaeusers, among others), she was a trailblazer for women of her era.
Caroline was a noted beauty of her time. She modeled for Charles Dana Gibson and appeared in numerous advertisements of the day. She developed an interest in practicing art and attended several schools to learn portraiture. She was also intrigued by anthropology, and a concern for disappearing indigenous cultures took her to Guatemala, Haiti, and Panama, where she sketched and painted local culture. Fiercely independent, her need for personal freedom was too strong for the ties of marriage, and she left her adoring husband soon after they married. (“Keep the ring, lover,” he wrote in a farewell letter.)
In her desire to document as many cultures as possible, she chose Melanesia, where hundreds of unique cultures could be found in one region. In 1926, with virtually no financial support, she set out with her childhood friend from Cleveland, Margaret Warner.
Caroline and Margaret were fearless women ahead of their time. Only missionaries, plantation owners, or prospectors had gone before them—mostly male, with the few women who were wives. But Caroline realized the enormous impact that western expansion was having on indigenous peoples at that time in history, and she wanted to record their traditions before they were forever changed or lost.
She recorded their journey in two colorful and inspirational books, Headhunting in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea Headhunt, published in the early 1940s. Both books are fascinating reads of cockroaches the size of hummingbirds, gin-soaked planters, and rust-bucket boats. But most important, and central to their story, are the colorful, exotic local people that the two women encountered. Caroline records important ethnographic detail, and describes each individual with a great respect bordering on affection.
Upon their return to the States in 1930, Caroline’s art was curated and exhibited by famed anthropologist Margaret Mead at the American Museum of Natural History. Other venues included the Brooklyn Museum and the Seattle Art Museum, among others. She spent the rest of her life traveling around the U.S. supporting herself, her mother, and Margaret through her portrait painting and promoting her Melanesian travels. She lived the last 40 years of her life in Monterey, California, where she died in 1980.