Anna Massey Lea Merritt

Self portrait by Anna Massey Lea Merritt (1910-15)

Sometimes when I am searching for a new artist to write about, I come across a painting which just sticks in the mind and I know I have to learn more about the painter who has delivered such a beautiful depiction.  This blog is a prime example of this modus operandi.

Right Reverend Talbot
Right Reverend Talbot by Anna Lea Merritt (1899)

Today I am looking at the life and times of the American painter, Anna Massey Lea Merritt who spent most of her life painting whilst living in Britain.  Anna Massey Lea was born on September 13th 1844 in the city of Philadelphia. She counted among her ancestors Andrew Robeson, the first Chief Justice of Pennsylvania back in 1693. Anna was brought up in a wealthy Quaker environment and was the eldest of six children of Joseph Lea and Susanna Massey.  Her affluent upbringing allowed her to attend politically progressive schools where she studied classics, languages, mathematics, and music with private tutors.  As far as her artistic upbringing was concerned, she began to study drawing with the portrait painter, William Henry Furness, at the age of seven.   Admission to the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts was probably not possible for her but later she studied anatomy at the newly founded Women’s Medical College of Philadelphia.

War
War by Anna Lea Merritt (1883)

In 1867, when she was twenty-three, she and her family took a trip to Europe.  continuing her art studies at the Louvre in Paris, in Rome, and in Dresden with the painter the German painter, Heinrich Hoffman, at the Academy of Art in Dresden. In 1870 Anna was living in Paris.  She was at a boarding school living with her sister but that July the Franco-Prussian War broke out and the Prussian army was marching on the French capital.  Fearing for their safety, she and her family were forced to abandon France and make their way to London.  Rather than return to America with her family she persuaded her father to let her remain in London.  He acquiesced and arranged for her to live with family friends.  However, at their house there was no room for a studio but after searching for a suitable place she found one in the house where Henry Merritt lived. Later in her 1879 biography, Henry Merritt: Art Criticism and Romance, she wrote about the early days in the studio and her timidity towards Henry Merritt:

“…I soon heard that he was a restorer and a connoisseur, but with timidity natural in a woman living alone in a foreign country, I avoided every acquaintance which might seem to arise in an accidental manner. I shut myself into an ugly studio, with a window through which I could look neither on the earth nor into the sky, and produced ugly pictures with no truth in them…”

Henry Merritt

Once Anna had got over her initial shyness, she became quite close to Merritt and took advice from him with regards her paintings.  She offered to pay him for his guidance but he refused stating his “rules”:

“… if I teach you, I must have the right to do it my own way. I must come when I like and scold you as much as I choose, and be altogether my own master if I am to be yours…”

And so he began to critique her work and was often quite blunt as Anna remembered:

“…So it was : how he scolded me ; how ruthlessly he rubbed out again and again the work of days, bidding me do it better ; what pains he took to make me appreciate true points of excellence ! When my work was dry, and had lain by awhile, he would sketch upon it in crayon, de- signing backgrounds or trying various effects of chiaroscuro. No one ever witnessed as I have done his fertility of invention, his refinement of colouring, his variety in touch. Often, he would work thus for a couple of hours, transforming my tame study of a model into a vision. The picture would go through a succession of different effects, any one of which could have satisfied a less imaginative mind. He would then throw down the chalks or the brushes, as the case might be, just give me time to study it, and wash off all he had done, bidding me make another design according to similar laws…”

Over time Anna’s relationship with Henry Merritt changed from Master and Pupil to a more intimate relationship.  Around the winter of 1875 Henry’s health deteriorated and he developed a never-ending cough which he downplayed to Anna saying:

“…It would be impossible to cough so splendidly with weak lungs…..My cough is no better although I have practiced it continually…”

The cough didn’t get better, in fact, it worsened and he began to cough up blood which he tried to ignore using a coloured handkerchief to catch the phlegm and disguise any signs of blood.    In the Spring of 1876 Anna was forced to leave London and travel to America as escort for her younger sister who had to return to the family.  She told Henry that she did not want to leave him but it was her duty to the family but she promised to return in the Autumn.

Anna, once in America, now found herself having to pay for two studios – the one in America and the rent on her London studio and to afford this she had to find some commissions for her work.  All the time Henry was writing to her telling her to concentrate on her art and look for work.   The tone of his letters showed how he had become devoted to Anna.  He would address his letters to:

“My dear little pupil”

In a letter from his Devonshire Street studio, dated May 8th 1876, he tried to ease Anna’s worries that during their enforced separation he would forget her and write words to boost her self-belief.  He wrote:

“…You imagine that I shall forget you. Am I likely after all the trouble I have taken to make a painter of you ? Do we plant fruit trees in order to leave them when the blossoms that are to produce peaches and apples appear ? Some day you will learn to value your many precious gifts better than to surmise that anyone possessing understanding will fail to appreciate a talented girl. Those who have hearts—there are not many—will not fail to see that Anna M. Lea is also a generous girl. I saw it long ago, or I should hardly have taken the trouble to teach her to spread colours upon canvas…”

Portrait of Henry Merritt with a Pipe by Anna Lea Merritt (1877)

Their separation lasted until March 1877.  It was a time when Anna was grieving for two close relatives who had died and it made her more conscious with regards life and death and that Henry was still ill and living alone in London.  It also coincided with having completed a number of lucrative commissions so that she was in the financial position to buy a sea passage to England.

In mid-March 1877, Anna arrived in Liverpool and travelled down to London to see Henry.  A small celebratory party followed.  Of the evening Anna recalled what Henry said to her.  In her 1879 biography of her husband, Henry Merritt: Art Criticism and Romance, she recalled his words:

“…Little Pupil we shall be married.  I cannot part from you again.  I am like a ship at the end of a long voyage, after ploughing the ocean for many a year, become covered with barnacles and all sorts of queer clinging weeds. But I do not see why I should give up our happiness for the sake of ungrateful people, who only think of what money they can get from me. We can still spare something for them, but in time perhaps you will have to defend me from them. You will be happy living in a cottage, as we soon shall, when I show you what a beautiful life it can be made. You are my only true friend, we must never be separated…”

On April 17th 1877 Anna and Henry married privately at St Pancras Church, London.  She was thirty-three years old, he was fifty-five. It was a happy time for the couple.  However Anna was ever conscious that her husband’s facial expression could not mask the pain he was in.  On July 22nd, Henry’s fifty-fifth birthday they drove to Hampton Court and talked about their future plans and buying a small cottage in the country.  Henry’s health took a turn for the worse and Anna recalls those last days with her husband:

“…Suffering became intense, but was never more nobly borne. His constant thought was for me. He feared my fatigue, he-feared my anxiety; but it was my great comfort that he could not spare me from him. No one else could be permitted to wait upon him, and for every trifling service he was so grateful, as though he did not expect to be tenderly nursed. ‘I have borne years of loneliness,’ he said, ‘ but happiness is too much for me.”

Henry Merritt died in July 10th 1877, shortly after his fifty-fifth birthday  and he was buried in Woking and as she promised Henry, Anna had an elm tree planted above his grave. Anna had decided that she would give up painting when she married Henry but now, with him dead, her plans had to change and she survived financially by her portrait paintings and her depictions of Victorian subjects.

Love Locked Out: a nude figure stands with her back to the viewer, leaning against a closed door.
Love Locked Out by Anna Lea Merritt (1889)

Now, I come to that painting I mentioned at the beginning of the blog.  It is looked on as her great masterpiece.  It is entitled Love Locked Out which she completed in 1889.  This painting shows young Cupid, the god of desire, pressed against the door of a tomb. Anna painted it as a memorial to her husband.  The thorny rose around the door frame symbolises the pain of bereavement and the persistence of love. Cupid has abandoned the world, his arrow and extinguished lamp lie on the ground with the autumn leaves. Anna described the depiction as Cupid attempting in vain to force open the door of a mausoleum, as ‘Love waiting for the door of death to open’ so that the ‘lonely pair’ might be once again reunited.  In a way it symbolised her desperate effort to be with her husband in the next life.  The work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1890 and is now part of the Tate Britain collection. She was the first woman artist to have a work acquired for the Tate collection. 

The Watchers of the Straight Gate by Anna Lea Merritt (1894)

In 1894 Anna Merritt completed another painting which depicted the two worlds – pre-death and after-death, The Watchers of the Straight Gate is Anna Merritts take on the transition between Earth and Heaven, between the living and the dead. The setting is just inside the gate to Heaven.  The reddish marble columns were reminders to Anna of the columns at the National Gallery, where she sought special permission to bring her canvas so that she could paint them directly, rather than from memory.  The artist has depicted two angels.  One carries a scale on which to weigh the soul of who wishes to enter the kingdom of heaven.  The other angel is seen holding a crown of wild roses with which to welcome accepted souls into glory. If we look between the gate we are offered a view of a verdant landscape transected by a path, which Anna described as depicting the ‘steep road descending to our village’ of Hurstbourne Tarrant in Dorset, where she was living at the time.

In 1890 Anna Merritt moved out of London and settled permanently in the Hampshire village of Hurstbourne Tarrant.  It was her love of the rural village that made her put pen to paper years later and produce her 1902 book, A Hamlet in Old Hampshire.

Eve Overcome by Remorse by Anna Lea Merritt (1887)

In 1893 she received medals for two works at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, a mural in the Woman’s Building and the painting Eve Overcome by Remorse which she had finished six years earlier.

Wall murals at St. Martin’s Church in Surrey by Anna Lea Merritt (1893/4)

She then accepted the commission to paint murals for St. Martin’s Church in Surrey (1893-94).

 Museum Art Reproductions | James Russell Lowell, 1882 by Anna Lea Merritt (1844-1930, United States) | ArtsDot.com
Portrait of James Russell Lowell by Anna Lea Merritt (1882)

Merritt was a member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and carried out numerous portrait commissions, including her 1882 portrait of James Russell Lowell, the American Romantic poet and is now part of the Harvard University Portrait collection.

Often I have written about the obstacles put in front of aspiring female artists but strangely Anna Merritt was not convinced about this and in 1900, she wrote an amusing article in Lippincott’s Magazine entitled Letter to Artists in which she cited problems in domestic life as being the main problem for female painters.  The article concluded:

“…The chief obstacle to a woman’s success is that she can never have a wife. Just reflect what a wife does for an artist: Darns the stockings; keeps his house; writes his letters; visits for his benefit; wards off intruders; is personally suggestive of beautiful pictures; always an encouraging and partial critic. It is exceedingly difficult to be an artist without this time-saving help. A husband would be quite useless…”

Anna Lea Merritt died in Hurstbourne Tarrant, Hampshire on 5 April 1930, aged 85.

Frederick Frieseke. Part 3. The latter years.

Portrait of Frederick Carl Frieseke by Lawton Palmer (1912-13)

Frederick Frieseke and Sadie O’Bryan became great friends with an American couple, Richard and Billee Miller who were also staying in Giverny.  Richard Miller had arrived in France a short time after Frederick Frieseke. Miller was a St Louis-born artist who had been honoured by receiving the first scholarship to study in Paris, awarded by the St. Louis School of Fine Arts Student Association.  He too relocated to Giverny for periods and leased a house adjacent to Monet’s property.  Mary Colman Wheeler was the founder and first head of the Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island and in 1887, she started a practice of taking groups of students to France during the summer to learn the French language and study painting and art history and also rented a house close to Monet’s residence.  In 1906 Richard Miller was giving summer art instruction in Giverny to the female students of Wheeler’s group.  In the mornings Miller and his students worked indoors with a model, and in the afternoon they sketched outdoors. In 1907 Roger Miller married one of Miss Wheeler’s students, Henriette Adams, known as Billee.

Nude Seated at her Dressing Table by Frederick Frieseke (1909)

Richard Miller was well connected in America and had attained European success very early in his career.  He was offered a chance to fill a whole room with his paintings at the Eighth International Venice Biennial during April and in May 1909, being a close friend and admirer of Frieseke’s work he offered to give up some of that space for Frederick’s paintings.  Frieseke exhibited some of his plein air works as well as a studio work entitled Nude Seated which he had completed that year. A work very similar to this and painted the same year was Nude Seated at her Dressing Table which is now part of the Smithsonian Collection.

[Frieseke_Frederick_C_The_Garden_Parasol.jpg]
The Garden Parasol by Frederick Frieseke

Frederick Frieseke along with other artists, often referred to as Giverny Luminists, put on a joint exhibition of their work at the Henry Fitch Taylor’s Madison Art Gallery in December 1910. Fitch Taylor, an American artist, who had spent time in Giverny with the other artists, on returning to the United States, rented a studio in New York City and began to exhibit his Impressionist landscapes. In 1909, Taylor was appointed to direct Madison Art Gallery by Clara Davidge, an avid supporter of the arts and Taylor’s future wife.

This exhibition of Frieseke’s work was a turning point for him as far as the American market was concerned as William Macbeth, the most successful and influential of the New York dealers in contemporary painting at the time, might well have seen Frieseke’s work at the Madison Art Gallery exhibition. He had already seen some of Frederick’s Giverny paintings whilst in Paris in the early winter of 1908, at the Société International.  By September 1911 Macbeth and Frieseke made plans for Frederick to hold a one-man exhibition at the Macbeth Art Gallery on New York’s Fifth Avenue.  It opened on January 17th, 1912. 

Frederick Carl Frieseke (American, 1874-1939) Two Ladies in a Garden 32 x 32in
Two Ladies in a Garden by Frederick Frieseke

Frederick Frieseke continued to depict females in a state of undress in various settings and this could be one of his reasons for remaining in France and not returning to live in America.  Once when asked if he considered himself an ex-patriot, he said:

“…I am not an expatriate. I often return to the States, and I look forward to finally locating there. I stay on here because I am more free and there are not the Puritanical restrictions which prevail in America…I can paint a nude in my own garden or down by the fish pond and not be run out of town…”

The following month Frederick and Sadie returned to France and apart from a brief visit to America at the end of 1928 Frederick would never again step foot on his homeland.

Cherry Blossoms by Frederick Frieseke (c.1913)

One such painting was his work entitled Cherry Blossoms which he completed around 1913.  The setting for the painting is Frieseke’s lush garden in Giverny.  The colours used in this painting bedazzle the viewer.  Frieseke has blended deep shades with light pastels of greens, blues and yellows, which are set off by traces of white and red.  A female figure, dappled in sunlight, looks relaxed as she enjoys the outdoor space. It is an explosive display of both colour and light, a grand depiction of a day of full sun but with conflicting shadows.  In Dr. William H Gerdt’s 1993 book, Monet’s Giverny: An Impressionist Colony, he wrote of Frieseke’s Giverny works:

“…it was Frieseke who introduced into the repertory of Giverny painting the concern for rich, decorative patterns, related to the art of Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, and the other Nabi painters. There are patterns of furniture, patterns of parasols, patterns of fabric and wall coverings, patterns of light and shade, and patterns of flowers, all played off one another in bright sunshine…”

The dappling effect of sunlight in this work can often be found in other paintings by Frieseke around this time.

Reflections (Marcelle) by Frederick Frieseke (c.1909)

One of Frieseke’s favourite models was a red-headed French lady simply known as Marcelle.  She had posed for his well-known work entitled Reflections (Marcelle) which he completed around 1909.  This painting is typical of Frieseke’s many works depicting nudes relaxing in elegant boudoirs, which were often adorned with sumptuous fabrics and rugs. Marcelle stares tranquilly into the mirror at her reflection. She touches the string of her blue necklace.  We are positioned in close proximity to her beautifully rendered figure, which combines what is termed, the “serpentine curve”.  A curve of the body which has been looked upon by centuries of artists as a trademark of beauty.

On the Dunes by Frederick Frieseke (1913)

Having undergone a dreadful summer of bad weather in Paris, Frederick, after completing a number of paintings which he was pleased with, crated them up and sent them to the Macbeth Gallery in New York. He then decided to take his wife, Sadie, away from Paris and travel to the island of Corsica where he planned to stay over the winter months.  Once they arrived, they found a house with a garden which they liked, and Frederick set up his studio.  He then contacted his favourite Parisian model, Marcelle, and had her come to Corsica.  She would feature in six large paintings he completed which were exhibited at the Salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.  The weather on Corsica was a great improvement to the previous Giverny summer and even though it was winter, Frederick was able to get Marcelle to pose naked on the beach.  His painting On the Dunes was painted en plein air with Sadie keeping a look-out to warn her husband of approaching tourists !

The Hammock by Frederick Frieseke (c.1915)

In 1915 Frieseke completed another Imressionist-style painting entitled The Hammock.  He was now painting using softer colours and strived to emphasize the natural light.  The predominant colour is periwinkle blue which gives a feeling of coolness afforded by the shade from the nearby trees.  To show how the sunlight as filtered through the leaves of the trees Frieseke has painted vivid white spots.  Frederick had always been fascinated by sunlight, writing that he preferred to paint sunshine, flowers in sunshine; girls in sunshine; the nude in sunshine.

Before Her Appearance by Frederick Frieseke (1913)

The sale of Frederick’s paintings in America had being going well and his arrangement with Wannamaker to purchase a regular number of his works was still in force.  One of his biggest sales was for his painting, Before Her Appearance, which he completed whilst in Corsica during the winter of 1912.  It was later shown at the 1913 Salon before being bought by the wealthy socialite, Mrs Gertrude Whitney Vanderbilt, for $2500.   In the painting we see the young lady, modelled by Marcelle, applying the last bit of ardent rouge to her lips before going on stage.  The female dancer is seated on a stool in her dressing room, looking at herself in the mirror. It is a very intimate scene with a very tender, almost monochromatic palette of pink, pale blue, marble white, and an occasional patch of yellow.

File:Frances, Frieseke.jpg
Frances (The artist’s daughter) by Frederick Frieseke (1924)

By the end of 1913, Frederick Frieseke and his wife Sadie found themselves in a financially sound position and bought themselves an apartment on the rue du Cherche Midi in Montparnasse.  The other good news the couple received at the end of 1913 was that Sadie, after a number of miscarriages, was once again pregnant.   Sadie gave birth to their only child, Frances, in Paris on August 2nd 1914, just about the time the French military forces were mobilizing for war with Germany.  By the end of 1914 most American painters had returned home but the Friesekes decided to remain in Paris.  In a letter to his American art dealer, William Macbeth on September 11th 1914, he wrote:

“…You see we are still staying by the flag. Things were sufficiently exciting with aeroplanes dropping bombs. We are provisioned for a six months’ siege. I couldn’t stand leaving Paris after the years I’ve lived here. Seemed like running away…”

See the source image
Peace by Frederick Frieseke (1917)

The war progressed and the Friesekes continued with their normal routines living and working in Paris and Giverny, and between October 1917 and the Spring of 1918 they spent time in the south of the country.  One of Frederick’s paintings completed during 1917 was entitled Peace which he sent to Macbeth in New York.  It is a depiction of a mother sitting beside her child’s cradle as she sews.  The model for this painting was Louise, who came from Giverny who often posed for Frieseke around this time.  The cradle in the depiction was that of Frieseke’s daughter, Frances, who had long since outgrown it.

See the source image
The Mother (Sadie and their one-year-old baby Frances) By Frederick Frieseke (1915)

One of Frederick Frieseke’s greatest honours was winning the Grand Prize at the Panama–Pacific International Exposition, which was held in San Francisco in 1915.   Among his entries was his painting entitled Summer, which is now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection.   Of the painting, the New York Times of June 1915 declared:

“…Mr. Frieseke, whose accomplished work is well known to New Yorkers, says the last word in the style that was modern before the Modernists came along. Whatever he does has a sense of design, color, and style. A sense of gayety, an entertaining and well considered pattern, a remarkable knowledge of the effect of outdoor light on color are found in nearly all of his most recent paintings…”

Summer by Frederick Frieseke (1914)

After the first World War, Frieseke purchased a country home, the farmhouse, La Beauvairie, in the Normandy village of Le Mesnil-sur-Blangy, where Frederick could sate his desire to fish.  

La Beauvierie

Also, after the Great War had ended, there was a slow but steady waning in Frieseke’s popularity and this was despite him winning many awards and the purchasing of his works by a number of museums.  However lessening sales and discouraging reviews signaled a change in tastes in art buyers.  Art critics saw his work as outmoded and overly conservative and Frieseke as a painter of pretty women.  It was also during this time that his style was becoming less  French-Impressionist and moving more towards realism.

The Library by Frederick Frieseke (1934)

In the latter weeks of 1928, Frederick and his family returned to America for a short time.  It was to be their last visit to their homeland.  When they returned to France, Frederick’s fifteen-year-old daughter Frances became seriously ill and was diagnosed as having a pre-tubercular condition.  It was decided that due to her health conditions the family should move to the cleaner air of Switzerland where they spent the next two years.  By 1932, Frances had recovered and the family returned to Normandy.  However by 1934 the family finances had become dire and Frederick was forced to sell his Paris studio. However he did complete two works which featured Frances. One was entitled The Library whilst the other was Blue Girl Reading.

Blue Girl Reading by Frederick Frieseke (1934)

By 1935 people were sensing that the political turmoil in Germany would lead to another large-scale war.   Also in Europe the effects of the Great Depression were still being felt and the sale of his paintings in America had dipped alarmingly.  On the family front, Frederick and Sadie’s daughter Frances, now twenty-one and fully recovered from her illness, had become engaged to Kenton Kilmer, a young American poet and editor with whom she had begun a correspondence in the winter of 1933—34. Add all this together and Frederick and Sadie began to contemplate returning to America.

Considering their daughter’s impending marriage and other factors, the Friesekes contemplated the possibility of moving to the United States.   The marriage ceremony of Frances Frieseke and Kenton Kilmer was held in Le Mesnil sur Blangy on June 2nd, 1937 and it proved a great village celebration.  A few days later the newly-weds travelled to America to live. At the end of 1937 Frances told her parents that she was pregnant.  With the announcement of Frances’s pregnancy at the end of the year, the issue of the Friesekes’ possible return took on additional impetus. But they had to consider what would happen to Frederick’s career if they went ahead with the re-location, since painting is a reaction to where you live. Frances gave birth to a baby boy, Hugh, in late 1938, in Arlington Virginnia. He was the first of their five children and like his grandparents Hugh became an accomplished painter, and also a sculptor, and poet. He taught English, philosophy, and theology at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I.  This new addition to the family put further pressure on Frances’ parents to at least go to America for a visit.

Sadie and Frederick at La Beauvairie (1939)

The Friesekes purchased tickets for a visit to the United States to see their daughter, Frances, Kenton, and  their new baby. But it was not to be. On the afternoon of August 24, 1939, shortly after the German invasion of Poland, Frederick Frieseke died suddenly at his home in Normandy. The cause was an aneurysm. Sadie cabled Frances:

…Darling our Papa could not stand the overpowering emotions of the last few days with no suffering he left us last night … be brave and help me to bear my sorrow …”


Most of the information for these three blogs on Frederick Frieseke came from the Telfair Museum of Art, Savannah’s catalogue which accompanied the exhibition, Frederick Carl Frieseke  The Evolution of an American Impressionist

.

Frederick Frieseke. Part 2.

Frederick Frieseke

In the Spring of 1902, Frederick Frieseke was back in America after a five-year stint in France.  His reason for returning to his country was two-fold.  He wanted to take care of his American side of his career and probably more importantly he had come to be with his stepmother who was seriously ill.  Once on American soil he wanted to have some of his artwork exhibited at two prestigious exhibitions – the Art Institute of Chicago and then the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  Having exhibited in Paris at the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts and the Salon stood him in good stead.  Frederick held a series of meetings with William R. French, director of the Art Institute of Chicago, which resulted in a special exhibition of eight of his paintings, which were hung together in Chicago’s annual exhibition.

Gertrude, Girl with a Book by Frederick Frieseke (1902)

During the next seven months Frederick spent time in Owosso, transacted business in New York and Chicago, and was able to maintain his flow of drawings for Wanamaker, as well as visiting Sadie in New York. Frederick continued to paint whilst in Owosso and he employed a local young woman, Gertrude Hallowell to model for him. One such work was his painting, Gertrude, Girl with a Book, which he completed in 1902, featured Hallowell.

Woman Reading beside a Lamp by Frederick Frieseke (1902)

Another portrait featuring Hallowell was his painting entitled Femme lisant a cote d’line Inmpe (Woman Reading beside a Lamp) which he also completed that year.

The Green Sash (Medora Clark) by Frederick Frieseke (1904)

Frederick returned to Paris in November 1902 and moved into his new studio and apartment at 6, rue Victor Considerant, which was situated on the opposite side of the Place Denfert Rochereau. The rooms he rented were on the first floor above the apartment of the newly married Alson and Medora Clark, with whom he was to build up a great relationship with for the next few years.  The couple were pleased to provide Frederick with a kind of domestic permanency and friendship. The three often shared meals and spent evenings together. Medora soon became Frederick’s model and posed for his 1904 painting entitled The Green Sash.

Sleep by Frederick Frieseke (1903)

Fredeick Frieseke also engaged the services of a Parisian model, Jeanne Blazy, someone who had worked with the leading artists at the time.  For Frederick she was not just his model, she was also a great help to him taking over some of his domestic chores.  In a letter to Sadie Byers dated March 27th 1904, he wrote:

“…I’ve had a nice model. She’s as useful as anything in other things besides posing. Brings my things for luncheon and cooks them before she leaves, hunts up anything I wish and is always cheerful. Always late but works on as long as I wish. She has posed for Whistler and lots of the big men. Posed for MacMonnies’ statue in the Luxembourg…”

See the source image
Bacchante with Infant Faun by Frederick McMonnies

The bronze statue he wrote about was Bacchante with Infant Faun by the American sculptor William Frederick McMonnies’ 1894 work and it was Blazy’s talent of standing on one foot for a long time while balancing an infant on her arm, as she apparently did for MacMonnies’s Bacchante with Infant Faun.  It was exhibited at the 1893 Salon of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts and later purchased for the Luxembourg Museum.  Frederick used Jeanne Blazy for his 1903 painting entitled Sleep.

Sadie O’Bryan and her family returned to Paris in October 1903 and took a small apartment at 206, boulevard Raspail.  Just around the corner was the Dome, the cafe-restaurant where the American artists were often to be found and Frederick lived a short ten- minute walk away.  Sadie’s father, Judge O’Bryan died suddenly on March 1st, 1904, following an operation for appendicitis. This meant that the family had to make a hasty return to America.  Frederick had been with the family around the time of Sadie’s father’s death and decided to return to America with them.  The family and Frederick left France on March 5th 1904 on the SS. Saint Paul and arrived in New York on March 13th and then travelled to Pittsburgh.

Frederick and Sadie were now apart once again.  She in Pittsburgh with her family and he in New Jersey.  They kept on with their correspondence and in one poignant letter he tried to console her.  He wrote:

“…Yesterday morning I went to see Foote, and he was surprised enough to see me. Got me onto the floor and jumped on my—what one should keep covered—and we had a nice day together. It was horribly hard for me to leave you the other night. And when I came back for my umbrella and found you crying —dear me—I most disgraced us all by putting my arms around you. Dearie, the first days of your getting home are going to be hard ones for you all…”

Le Thé au Jardin by Frederick Frieseke (1904)

Frederick Frieseke had associated with a group of Americans artists and their partners, including the Clarks, who frequented the residence of Grace Lee Hess, at her house in Moret-sur-Loing, some fifty kilometres southeast of Paris, beyond Barbizon and Fontainebleau.  It was here that Frederick and his friends celebrated the Fourth of July, and it was also here that Frederick executed his first large figure painting done plein air, Le Thé au Jardin (Tea in the Garden), featuring Grace Lee Hess and friends. This is a classic work in the Impressionist manner and a magnificent example of Frederick Carl Frieseke’s early style. His paintings completed between 1904 and 1919 epitomise his ambitious and important ventures into the world of Impressionism.  It was the first true en plein air work that Frieseke painted and Le Thé au Jardin marks the most noteworthy turning point in the artist’s career.

Frieseke had not only had Grace Lee Hess model for his large painting, Le Thé au Jardin but had also completed a portrait of her.  Their relationship blossomed and may have given Hess thoughts of romance but Frederick, and even though he liked to be spoiled by Hess, was wary of this turn of events.  It all came to a bitter end when Frederick announced his engagement to Sadie and in a letter to his betrothed, he talked about his rift with Grace Lee Hess:

“…It’s all over between Miss Hess and myself. She refuses to see me and insists that I’ve not acted honorably etc., which is very much too bad. And I’m sorry to lose her friendship but, well, I love Sadie very much and she loves me and while she may not be so keen at discovering my faults and correcting them—yet I think for that reason we will get along beautifully . . . and not quarrel as was the habit of Miss H and myself. At least I corrected the offenses and she did the quarrelling…”

Rest (Femme au Sofa) by Frederick Frieseke (1906)

Frederick Frieseke and Sadie O’Bryan were finally married on June 27th 1905.  In 1906 Frieseke completed a formal wedding portrait of his wife entitled Rest (Femme au sofa).  This work, which appeared at the Salon that year, marked a new direction of Frieseke’s work. It was the start of what was to be many of his domestic depictions that would occupy him for the rest of his life – the embellishment of his intimate relationship he had with his wife and family.

Hotel Baudy (now a restaurant)

Beginning in 1906 they began to escape the cold smoky atmosphere of Paris and spend the warmer months in Giverny, which at the time was a small rural village fifty miles west of Paris on the right bank of the Seine as it runs towards the sea.  At the time it was a well-established art colony which was popular with American artists who had crossed the Atlantic to further their artistic experience.  It was not just a community that solely painted.  It was a group of like-minded people who enjoyed socialising.  The men would take time off to fish. There was also numerous evenings where they would listen to or play music.  Days were often spent playing tennis at the courts of the nearby Hotel Baudy.  Models were brought in from Paris and posed nude in the protected gardens. Often the artists would pose for each other.  The Friesekes would often take tea with the Monets, who were neighbours and Monet and Sadie, who both loved gardening would spend hours deliberating on the proposed expansion of Monet’s garden, and the new bridge from which his water lily garden could be enjoyed.

…………………………………….to be continued.

Frederick Frieseke – The American Impressionist.

Frederick Frieseke

Many American painters after having completed their artistic training in their homeland were drawn across the Atlantic to Europe.  The lure of what was happening in France was hard to resist in the nineteenth century and more so in the latter part of that century when the world of Impressionism was in full flow.   My featured artist today was one of many to sample the delights of this art genre and became one of the great American Impressionists.  Let me introduce you to Frederick Carl Frieseke.

File:Frederick Frieseke Birthplace and Boyhood Home.jpg
Frederick Frieseke’s Birthplace and Boyhood Home  in the central Michigan town of Owosso

Frederick Carl Frieseke was born on April 7th 1874 in the small central Michigan town of Owosso.  He was among the first of the Friesekes to be born in America.  His grandfather, also Frederick Frieseke, who had fought in the Battle of Waterloo, came to America with his wife and family from the German village of Pritzerbe in Brandenburg, and settled in the small central Michigan town of Owosso in 1858.  Two years later two of his sons Julius and Herman enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War.  After the war was over Herman set himself up in the business of manufacturing bricks and drain tiles, using the local salmon-coloured clay.  After a number of years, the two brothers became well known and well liked and held various offices in the town council.  Herman Carl Frieseke married a local Owosso girl, Eva Graham and the couple went on to have two children, a daughter, Edith in 1871 and a son, Frederick Carl in 1874.

In 1880, when Frederick was just six years old, his mother died.  The next year Herman and his family left Owosso and relocated to Florida where he and his brother Albert set up another brick-making business in Jacksonville.  Frederick returned to Owosso and attended the local public school.  During his early years he was influenced by his maternal grandmother, Valetta Gould Graham’s love of art.  Thoughts of a career as a professional artist intensified after he visited the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893 and he was amazed by the numerous paintings and posters.  He enjoyed sketching and painting and realised that he too could earn a living from his art.

In 1893, Frederick Frieseke, after graduating from Owosso High School, enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago studying with the American artist, Frederick Warren Freer and the Dutch-American figurative painter John Vanderpoel. Fredrick remained there until 1896.  Having successfully completed his studies at the Art Institute he persuaded his father to give him money so he could take a trip to New York and enrol at the Art Students League.  His father acquiesced to this financial plea and Frederick headed for New York and enrolled in the men’s afternoon life class at the Art Students League. To make some money he decided to complete some cartoon drawings and sell them to popular magazines such as Puck, Truth, and the New York Times.  He later remembered the hard times of his New York stay, writing in a letter to his fiancée, Sarah O’Bryan, dated February 18th 1902:

“…I remember I didn’t much like my winter in New York.  I was doing jokes, and it wasn’t much to joke about, trying to make a living out of them. If I had had more success, though, I should never have come abroad, never have painted, and most important of all should never have known the dearest girl in the world…”

Art Students. Pen and ink drawing by Frederick Frieseke

It would appear that Frederick did just enough to survive.  He would submit a pen an ink cartoon to a publisher and would wait to see if was published and only then would he receive payment.  Having been paid Frederick would go to the library and read for days on end and would not put pen to paper again until he was almost broke.

See the source image
Montparnasse Landscape (Hilltop Street) by Frederick Frieseke

It was in 1898 that Frederick made the decision not to carry on with his cartoon drawings which were much in demand but instead concentrate on painting.  Once again he approached his father for financial support to pay for his sea passage to France.  Once again his father acquiesced and in September 1897 Frederick set sail on the SS Massachusetts, accompanying him was a fellow art student from the Art Institute of  Chicago and long-term friend from Michigan, Will Howe Foote. In early 1898 Frederick enrolled at the Académie Julian and for that first summer on foreign soil Frederick travelled to Holland and spent time in the artist colonies of Katwijk and Laren, where he concentrated on landscape painting using watercolours. 

Self-Portrait, 1901, Frieseke.jpg
Self Portrait by Frederick Frieseke (1901)

The Académie Carmen, also known as Whistler’s School, was a short-lived Parisian art school founded by James MacNeill Whistler.  It was named after Whistler’s Neapolitan model Carmen Rossi and it practiced the successful formula devised by Académie Julian, in which a model was available to artists, all day.   It operated from 1898 to 1901. The school was situated in a large house and stable at No. 6 Passage Stanislas, near the Rue Notre Dame du Champs, in the midst of the Montparnasse artists’ quarter. Frieseke along with his friend and travelling companion, Will Howe Foote, attended some of the classes.  Whistler taught without pay as a “visiting professor,” and appeared once a week to offer criticism.  It was Whistler who persuaded Frederick to paint in oils.

Holland, 1898 - Frederick Carl Frieseke
Holland by Frederick Frieseke (1898)

For an artist to survive he must sell his work and to sell his work he needs the chance to exhibit his paintings.  The Salons of Paris offered vital opportunities to the struggling artists but for young Americans who had come to Paris to further their ambitions there was another opportunity to show their work.  This opportunity was due to the American painter and philanthropist Abraham Archibald Anderson who conceived the idea of establishing an association for the benefit of American students in Paris. All he needed was a meeting place. 

Through his personal efforts, and those of his friends, such as Whitelaw Read, the US Ambassador to France and Rodman Wanamaker, the son of the millionaire department store magnate, John Wanamaker. Anderson had bought a half-ruined and abandoned building which he had discovered on the boulevard du Montparnasse. He then entirely restored it to its former glory and in May 1890 American Art Association of Paris finally opened its doors.

Misty Morning on the Seine, 1899 - Frederick Carl Frieseke
Misty Morning on the Seine by Frederick Frieseke (1899)

The Association would hold exhibitions of members paintings and at one of these Rodman Wanamaker noted the excellent drawings on the exhibition programme done by Frederick Frieseke, so much so that he invited Frieseke to become the illustrator of catalogues and advertisements for John Wanamaker’s stores in Philadelphia and New York.  After much discussion Friedeke accepted the position on the proviso he could remain in Paris.  Wanamaker agreed and Frieseke’s close relationship with the Wanamakers led to many painting commissions including Frieseke painting mural decorations which were installed in Wanamaker’s New York department store in 1904. In 1906 the murals he painted for the Shelbourne Hotel, Atlantic City, NJ, were put in place.

Sadie O’Bryan (1901)

It was not all work and no play for Frieseke as in 1900 love came a’calling in the shape of Sarah Anne O’Bryan.   Sarah Anne O’Bryan of Pittsburgh, known as Sadie, was the daughter of John Duross O’Bryan, an American judge, who had made and lost a series of fortunes in speculative ventures in the American West.  O’Bryan was fond of crossing the Atlantic to take vacations with his family and residing in Paris.

Luxembourg Gardens, 1902 - Frederick Carl Frieseke
Luxenbourg Gardens by Frederick Frieseke (1902)

In 1900, the O’Bryans had arrived in Paris and were living in an apartment at 72, rue Herschel, a very fashionable address not far from the Luxembourg Gardens,.  Their daughter Sarah, who, along with her younger sister Janet had accompanied them on this trip, was studying drawing and painting.   Soon after her arrival in the French capital she and Frieseke met. Very soon the couple fell in love and had, between themselves, agreed to an informal engagement.  However, when her father found out about this planned engagement he vetoed it as he would not approve his daughter marrying a poor artist. Frederick and Sadie were polar opposites.  She was very tall, almost six feet in height and elegant.  Frederick was short and dumpy and not the best dresser.  He was modest, single-minded and introverted.  She was vivacious, affected, gregarious and probably even more determined than him.  She was religious and her parents were staunch Catholics.  Frederick had a “take it or leave it” attitude to religion.  However love conquers all or would it?

Landscape, Le Pouldu by Frederick Frieseke (1901)

During the uncomfortably hot and often humid summer months, Paris was certainly a place to avoid and it signalled the departure of the artists from the French capital for this period.  In the summer of 1901 Frederick along with some fellow painters left Paris for a three-month stay in Britanny at the small fishing village of Le Pouldu.  Having begun to paint landscape scenes set around the Luxenbourg Gardens of the capital Freerick was eager to concentrate on landscape paintings and depict the area around Le Pouldu.  In a letter to Sadie in June 1901 he wrote about where he was living and what was happening:

“We are staying in a private house, a fine old country house, part of it built in 1728, so it says on the sun dial. . . . The country seems so lovely, and the sea and the river too…. It seems so peaceful down here. The people are so slow and I like everything: the black and white cows, the narrow little lanes with the trees meeting overhead, the dunes with one lonely cottage almost hidden, and the farms, houses of stone with thatched roofs and surrounded by trees which the sea winds have blown and twisted in strange shapes…”

However, all was not well with the decision of Frederick to concentrate on landscape depictions and at the end of June in another letter to Sadie Frieseke despondently wrote:

“…I have to confess that landscape is by far the most difficult thing I have tackled and that I am utterly unable to grasp it so far…”

With summer ending he and his fellow artists returned to Paris and resumed atelier painting and Frederick began the first of a life long series of female nude paintings

The Blue Bowl by Frederick Frieseke (1901)

In 1901, Frederick completed the painting entitled The Blue Bowl.  It was his first finished painting of a nude.  In a letter to Sadie Frederick, dated October 15th, 1901, he wrote about the painting:

“…I have a model mornings now. A blonde girl with rather reddish hair. Am trying to paint a nude–the first thing I have ever tried like that..”

Nude in a Glade, 1910 - Frederick Carl Frieseke
Nude in a Glade by Frederick Frieseke (1910)

If you peruse the illustrated Salon catalogues of the period you would find that academic artists depiction of nude females was simply part of storytelling, often a case of insincere moralising, or just a puerile fantasy.  However, Frieseke’s depiction of nude females was always more serious sober and quite simple, the painting’s purpose being directed not towards its subject matter but its manner. His down-to-earth approach to the subject and the subsequent resistance to it in his puritanical native land would create a stand-off that lasted throughout his career. Frieseke returned home to Owosso, Michigan for the first time in 1902 and again in a letter, that August, to Sadie, he wrote that he derived much pleasure in shocking the good Church people with the nudes.

Frederick Carl Frieseke, 1903 - Before the Mirror.jpg
Before the Mirror by Frederick Frieseke (1903)

Frederick Carl Frieseke, 1903 - Girl in Pink.jpg
Girl in Pink by Frederick Frieseke (1903)

Above are two further example of this genre of paintings which Frieseke completed during the first decade of the twentieth century.

Sadie and her family had returned to America in 1901 and did not return to France until 1903. She and Frederick had to survive on long-distance love but that was all about to change.

…………………………..to be continued.

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith

Self portrait (1908)

Self Portrait (1908)

At the turn of the twentieth century, the South Carolina city of Charleston was a shadow of its former glory. Charleston had historically nurtured a celebrated art and architectural heritage during the Colonial Period and Antebellum period but following the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the Reconstruction period 1865-77, it struggled to continue doing so. Between the two World Wars, beginning in the second decade of the 20th century, Charleston experienced a renaissance that flourished in part due to the work of authors, architects, artists, poets, & preservationists who rallied behind the common cause of ‘the betterment of the city’. It was a period known as the Charleston Renaissance and is credited with helping to spur the city’s tourist industry. Of the various artists associated with the movement, four of them stand at its forefront: Alfred Hutty, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Anna Heyward Taylor, and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner. In this blog I am looking at the life and artwork of one of the four, Alice Ravenel Huger Smith.

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Age 25.

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, aged 25.

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith was born in Charleston on July 14th 1876. She was the fourth of five children and was descended from prominent rice planters and was the daughter of Daniel Elliott Huger Smith and Caroline Ravenel and was part of a socially prominent Charleston family. Although artistically self-taught she later did attend some classes in drawing and painting at the Carolina Art Association. Louise Fery, a Frenchwoman, instructed her students in the basics and, most importantly for Alice, in the technique of watercolour. The Art Association was established in 1857 by a group of prominent low country planters and factors and was officially chartered by the General Assembly on December 21, 1858. Its purpose was the cultivation of the arts and art education. It is now part of the Charleston’s Gibbes Museum of Art.  Alice Smith began her artistic career by making money from her portraiture, copying old family images and painting friends and relations.  She also dabbled with painting fans and dance cards. 

Celestial Figs by Alice Smith.  Colour woodblock print. (1917)

Of her early artistic influences, one was Birge Hirston, the American genre and landscape painter, teacher, and writer who was a prominent practitioner and advocate of Tonalism.  Tonalism was an artistic style that emerged in the 1880s when American artists began to paint landscape forms with an overall tone of coloured atmosphere or mist.  Alice met him during his extended visit to Charleston in 1908.  Later she would credit Hirston as being her guide when it came to her romantic style with regard to her landscape depictions.

HELEN HYDE (1868–1919) TEN WOODBLOCK PRINTS, MEIJI PERIOD (20TH CENTURY) Woodblock Print by Helen Hyde

Another influence which inspired Alice Smith was the Japonisme aesthetic of the American etcher and engraver, Helen Hyde, who is best known for her colour etching process and woodblock prints which echoed the portrayal of Japanese women and children. Around about 1917, Smith undertook an intense study of Japanese colour woodblock prints, largely from the ukiyo-e school, which had been collected by her cousin, the Harvard professor Motte Alston Read. Motte Alston Read built up a collection of almost four hundred Japanese woodblock prints during the first two decades of the twentieth century, working meticulously to assemble a group of prints that were representative of the history of Japanese woodblock printing. She also began to teach etching during the 1920s, and one of her most famous students was Elizabeth O’Neill Verner.

Smith catalogued the collection and, began trying out with actual blocks and she taught herself how to print in the traditional Japanese manner.  She managed to produce a body of work which was characterized by sophisticated design and yet retained a sense of tranquillity.  In 1923 Smith helped the founding of the Charleston Etchers Club, a collaborative group that jointly acquired a press and shared expertise and criticism. However, by the late 1920s Smith gave up her work in prints and began to concentrate on watercolour.

Branford-Horry House by Alice Smith (1917)

Branford-Horry House by Alice Smith

Alice Smith is probably best remembered for her scenic views of Charleston streets and in 1917 she produced a beautiful graphite sketch of one of Charleston’s famous buildings, the Branford-Horry House.  The house was built for William Branford, a wealthy planter, in 1765-67 and is rated one of Charleston’s finest examples of a three-story brick Georgian townhouse, or “double house.” In 1801 it was purchased by Thomas Horry, who had married Branford’s daughter. His son, Elias Horry, president of the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company, inherited the house and altered it somewhat. The house is a three-story Georgian brick building with stucco-covered walls. Unfortunately, in 1988, a speeding car crashed into the house, knocking out two of the columns and sending one into the front door of the house.

St Phillips Church Spire, Charleston by Alice Smith

St Phillips Church Spire by Alice Smith

Another graphite on paper sketch of a Charleston building is Alice’s depiction of St Philip’s church spire.  St. Philip’s is the oldest congregation in the United States south of Virginia.  The church was built in 1836 and the spire completed in 1850.  On November 7, 1973, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark.

House-Tops-View-from-69-Church-Street-689x1024

House Tops View from her home, 69 Church Street Charleston by Alice Smith

Alice Smith became so interested with the old buildings of Charleston that in 1917 in collaboration with her father, Daniel, she had a book published, The Dwelling Houses of Charleston, South Carolina, in which the authors demonstrate how the fashions of its architecture, often brought over from England, have maintained local characteristics and resulted in a distinctive style.

See the source image

For Alice and her father, it had not simply been their object to list or to describe these dwelling houses after the manner of a guidebook, but to show how the fashions of its architecture, though imported and constantly modified by new ideas brought chiefly from England, had yet maintained local characteristics, resulting in quite a distinctive style which has steadily persisted and been developed.

The Winter Vegetable Garden from the series A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties by Alice Smith (c.1935)

The Winter Vegetable Garden from the series A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties by Alice Smith (c.1935)

However, Alice Smith is best known for her lyrical and expressive depictions of the Carolina Lowcountry, the cultural region along South Carolina’s coast, including the Sea Islands. It was once known for its slave-based agricultural wealth in rice and indigo, crops that thrived in the hot subtropical climate, and is known now for its historic cities and communities, natural environment, cultural heritage, and tourism industry.  Smith summed up her love of the area saying:

“…my own lovely flat country of rice fields, of pinewoods, of cypress swamps, of oaks, lotus, and all their attendant feathered folk would yield me a full harvest if diligently spaded…”

Sunday Morning at the Great House by Alice Smith

Sunday Morning at the Great House from the series A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties by Alice Smith (c.1935)

Around about 1924 Alice Smith changed her favoured painting medium and resorted to working with watercolours. After experimenting with oil paints and printmaking, Smith eventually settled on watercolour in which she would work for the rest of her life.  The reason being she said was that watercolours were most conducive to achieving the atmospheric effects she sought in her landscapes. Her landscape depictions are generally devoid of figures as she wanted to concentrate on the beauty of nature itself.  Many of her mature watercolours depict scenes from rural salt marshes.

Mending a Break in a Rice-Field Bank from the series A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties

Mending a Break in a Rice-Field Bank from the series A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties by Alice Smith (c.1935)

Alice Smith was also a noted illustrator, and contributed illustrations to two volumes her father, the historian Daniel Smith, who wrote about the history of Charleston and its architecture, as well as other books relating to South Carolina, most notably the 1936 book, A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties, which contained thirty paintings in water-colour, by Alice Huger Smith, and a narrative by Herbert Ravenel Sass, with chapters from the unpublished memoirs of her father Daniel Huger Smith.

A Winter Field Still in Stubble from the series A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties by Alice Smith

A Winter Field Still in Stubble from the series A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties by Alice Smith (c.1935)

Alice was also engrossed in recording vanishing ways of life in South Carolina and her best-known work is the series of thirty watercolours known as her Rice Plantation Series which can be seen at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston’s Historic District. She donated the Rice Plantation Series to the Gibbes in 1937.  Alice was able to pictorially tell the history of plantation life in the antebellum South, and by doing so, she took it upon herself to preserve that period in a series of nostalgic images that would be accompanied by her father’s memoirs and an essay on rice cultivation by the historian Herbert Ravenel Sass.  Alice made these plantation paintings during the height of the Jim Crow era, when black people in Charleston and throughout the country were subjected to humiliating discrimination and life-threatening abuse.  She was well aware of this as she, a single woman, lived in downtown Charleston, close to areas of extreme poverty, surviving only through the sale of her art.  As I said at the beginning, this period was in the 1930’s when Charleston was a city in limbo.  Gone were the days of the glorious affluence of the rice years with its economic revival still years away.  It was a time for those who lived in Charleston to hanker for the “good old days” and like to remember when times were relatively calm, when blacks knew their place and white planters were firmly in charge, when life for the privileged class was simple and wealth abundant.  In Alice Smith’s 1950 autobiography, Reminiscences, she wrote about change:

“…Small places and big places alike show it. Perhaps small happenings show it as sharply as great events, and one looks with surprise at the differences that one never noticed during the endless moments of what might be called trivial evolution…”

The Grove of Oaks from the series A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties by Alice Smith (c.1935)

The Grove of Oaks from the series A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties by Alice Smith (c.1935)

Her series of watercolours reflect her sense of change, and her profound nostalgia.  Maybe it was a nostalgic view of plantation life of the past but maybe it was pure fantasy but one has to remember paintings were made to be sold and maybe the public preferred this “happy plantation life” image rather than the cruelty that existed and by studying her depictions the public it probably helped people believe that the past was lovely.

A Visit from the old Mistress by Wilmslow Homer (1876)

A Visit from the Old Mistress by Winslow Homer (1876)

Almost sixty years before Alice Smith’s Plantation series the great American painter Winslow Homer created his 1876 work, A Visit from the Old Mistress, a picture depicting an idealised situation when blacks as freed slaves and living in a ramshackle cabin were shown as mixing happily with a white person, their former mistress of the “big house” who, until recently, owned them. It represented a scene from the present, a meeting of different classes and colour which caused an inevitable awkwardness when it was exhibited.

1 / 22
Woods at River Bend on Wando River, by Alice Smith (c. 1936)
 

Alice Smith donated the Rice Plantation Series to the Gibbes in 1937, and since that time the watercolours have been among the most popular works owned by the museum. The problem however was that the delicate works on paper were slowly deteriorating due to the acidic boards mounted to the back of each of the paintings. The acid then began to discolour the works and deposit on them brown spots known as foxing and with many of the watercolours, the damage was well advanced.

At the Head of the Valley by Alice Smith

The management of the Gibbes, realised the need to intervene, reverse the damage, and prevent future damage through professional conservation of Smith’s entire series of watercolours. To accomplish this, they established the Welsh-Blakely Fund, a substantial financial commitment that funded the five-year conservation project carried out by the Straus Center for Conservation at the Harvard University Art Museums.

Along the Beach by Alice Smith (c.1926)

Like many other leading painters from the Southern states of America during the early twentieth century, Alice Smith had a steadfast belief in the South, which was both idealized and energetically favourable, but this was simply down to her love of where she lived.  Smith was at the centre of Charleston’s artistic reawakening during the early twentieth century.

Larger memorial image loading...

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith died on February 03, 1958, aged 81 and is buried at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston.

Dorothea Tanning, her early life and her love of Surrealism. Part 3

Dorothea Tanning, Sedona, Arizona
Dorothea Tanning in Sedona (1943)

Dorothea and Max Ernst divided their time between their Arizona home in Sedona and their apartment in New York.  Often Tanning would return to New York to show her work at the Julien Levy Gallery in Midtown Manhattan.  In April 1944, the Julien Levy Gallery held Dorothea’s first one-person exhibition.

See the source image
Fête Champêtre by Dorothea Tanning (1944)

That same year, 1944, Dorothea completed her painting entitled Fête Champêtre depicting a popular form of entertainment in Baroque France during the 18th century, taking the form of a garden party.  In Tanning’s work an unusual desert landscape provides the setting and she has added a marble mantelpiece and an ornate rococo clock.  She has also populated the depiction with a number of unidentifiable figures, some of which are human others are anthropomorphic, adding human characteristics to nonhuman things.  However, we can clearly see a bearded man and a girl who sits beside him, both staring out at something invisible to us.  The whole depiction remains a mystery as to what it is all about.

The Temptation of St Anthony by Dorothea Tanning (1945)

Whilst in New York,in 1945, Dorothea Tanning, completed a work which focused on a biblical scene that has been depicted by many famous artists, such as Dali and Hieronymus Bosch.  The painting is entitled The Temptation of St Anthony, which is now the property of Philadelphia’s La Salle University Art Museum. The painting portrays the supernatural temptation reportedly faced by Saint Anthony the Great during his stay in the Egyptian desert.  Saint Anthony, then aged 35, decided to spend the night alone in an abandoned tomb. A great multitude of demons came and started beating him, wounding him all over. He lay on the ground as if dead and the claws of the demons prevented him from getting up. According to the hermit the suffering caused by this demonic torture was comparable to no other.  Terrified and brought to his knees in fear, the habit that he is wearing wafts upwards as if caught in a gale-force updraft.  The blue, green and pink folds of the habit expose images of feminine shapes that seem to be the cause of his anguish. 

The Temptation of St Anthony by Salvador Dali. His entry to the Bel Ami competition

Dorothea created the work for the Bel Ami International Art Competition, where twelve surrealist and magic realist painters were asked to submit a painting to be used in Albert Lewin’s film The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, based on Guy de Maupassant’s novel Bel Ami. The rules of the competition for a cash prize were that the painting should be 36 × 48 inches and on the subject of the temptation of Saint Anthony. It would be shown as the only colour segment in the otherwise black and white film in which paintings of The Temptation of St. Anthony. Both American and European artists participated, including Ivan Albright, Eugene Berman, Leonora Carrington, Salvador Dalí, Paul Delvaux, Max Ernst, O. Louis Gugliemi, Abraham Rattner, Horace Pippin, Sydney Spencer, Leonor Fini and Dorothea Tanning.  All artists who submitted a painting received $500, while the winner received a prize of $3000. Max Ernst won the competition and his painting was shown in the film. Dali’s entry also became famous in its own right.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony (Ernst painting).png
The Temptation of Saint Anthony. The winning entry by Max Ernst

The competition was judged by Marcel Duchamp, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., and Sidney Janis. Max Ernst wining submission was not loved by all as the film critic Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called Ernst’s painting “downright nauseous” and wrote that it “looks like a bad boiled lobster.

Of her work and the meaning behind the depiction Dorothea Tanning wrote:

“…It seems to me that a man like our St. Anthony, with his self-inflicted mortification of the flesh, would be most crushingly tempted by sexual desires and, more particularly, the vision of woman in all her voluptuous aspects.  It is this phase which I have tried to depict in my painting. St. Anthony, alone in the desert, struggles against his visions; half-formed, moving in indolent suggestion, colored with the beautiful colors of sex, his desires take shape even in the folds of his own wind-tossed robes…”

Dorothea Tanning painting the Temptation of St Anthony (1945)

A photographer took a picture of Dorothea whilst she was working on the St Anthony portrait as a promotional photograph for the Bel Ami competition.  It was at a time when she had been ill and had contracted encephalitis and the photographer had to prop her up for the shot as she was so unwell.  She has her back to us but we see her long flowing locks of hair and on the wall is her famous Birthday self-portrait.  In her autobiography, Between Lives, she tells of how the illness caused her and her soon-to-be husband Max to return to the peace of Sedona in 1946 and sub-let their New York apartment to their friend, Marcel Duchamp.  Dorothea and Max married in October 1946.  Although they had regular guests come to their Sedona home, Dorothea always maintained that the period in Sedona, when it was just her and her husband, were the happiest days of her life.

The newlywed couple would separately paint all day and then come together in the evenings to listen to music, read and often play chess which was one of their favourite pastimes.

Max in a Blue Boat, 1947 - Dorothea Tanning
Max in a Blue Boat by Dorothea Tanning (1947)

Their love of chess is depicted in Dorothea’s 1947 work entitled Max in a Blue Boat.  It depicts the couple in the boat in the midst of a desert landscape and they seem to move effortlessly despite the lack of water.

Maternity, 1946 - 1947 - Dorothea Tanning
Maternity by Dorothea Tanning (1947)

In 1947 Dorothea completed the work entitled Maternity, which focused on motherhood and the psychological and physical problems associated with bearing and raising a child.  In the setting of a sand-strewn desert we see a young woman holding a young child in a shielding encirclement.  At the feet of the woman, on the rug, lies her dog which has a child’s solemn face staring out at us.  The features of the dog resembled her own Lhasa Apso dog, named Katchina.  Mother, child and dog make for a strong family unit set against a hostile setting.

The dog was depicted in one of her favourite works entitled Tableau Vivant.  It was then purchased by the National Galleries of Scotland. The painting was the first by Dorothea Tanning that they had acquired and joined up with major artworks by Surrealists Leonora Carrington, Salvador Dalí and René Magritte held at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA).  The work was first shown at Tanning’s first exhibition in France in May 1954 at the Galerie Furstenberg, Dorothea Tanning: Peintures 1949-1954.   She had inscribed the title L’Etreinte on the verso, which can be translated as The Embrace.   A few months later the inscription was crossed out and substituted with Tableau Vivant and it was under its new title, Tableau Vivant that it was included in the artist’s first exhibition in Britain, at the Arthur Jeffress Gallery, London in 1955.

Tableau Vivant by Dorothea Tanning (1954)

It was not uncommon for Surrealist artists to include animals in their paintings.  Numerous Surrealist artists took animal embodiments which played the role of their alter-ego in their work: Max Ernst used a bird, Leonora Carrington favoured a horse; and Tanning took Katchina. Whreas other Surrealist depicted various types of the animal, Tanning’s choice was more specific.  It was her own pet, Katchina, whose insertion into Tanning’s work was not of necessity a personification of the artist; sometimes it acted as a witness, other times as a protagonist, the Katchina affected different roles in different works. These works started a change of Tanning’s painting style.  She moved away from the meticulous, controlled, illustrative technique which was the hallmark of her Surrealist work. In its place she began to decide on much looser, softer, more painterly brushwork and her colour switched from bright, intense primaries to ashes and ochres.  It was a move towards her Abstract period.

The painting is a depiction of many feelings.   Power, love, the erotic, the humorous, the dream and the nightmare, Tableau Vivant brings together many key moments in the artist’s life and career. Tanning loved the painting and it was included in almost every major exhibition of her work, notably her solo shows in Brussels in 1967, Paris in 1974, and the Malmö Konsthall and Camden Art Centre in 1993. The work of art remained with her for the remainder of her life until 2012, when she died at the age of 101, almost sixty years after painting it. Towards the end of her life, she specified it as one of a small number of works reserved only for sale to a museum.  Simon Groom, Director of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Galleries of Scotland said of the painting:

“…We’ve been looking for a major painting by Dorothea Tanning for many years. This was one of her favourite works: she kept it for more than sixty years, hanging it above her desk in her apartment in New York. It’s a stunning addition to the Galleries’ world-famous collection of Surrealist art…”

Sarah Philp, Director of Programme and Policy at Art Fund, which helped the National Galleries of Scotland financially with the purchase of the work which cost £205K  said:

“…Tableau Vivant is an astonishing work with a fascinating biography and we are proud to help National Galleries of Scotland purchase this painting for their outstanding Surrealist art collection…”

Interior with Sudden Joy by Dorothea Tanning (1951)

The Tableau Vivant dog appeared in a number of her paintings after 1946, including Interior with Sudden Joy.

Interior with Sudden Joy is a strange painting.  In the depiction we see two girls standing to the right. They strike a provocative pose.  They are both dressed in white garments which harmonise with their pale skin, the buttons are unfastened and expose a camisole top and red bra, which reminds one of the bared chest in Tanning’s self-portrait Birthday. The girls pose with their arms wrapped around each other and both exude an air of nonchalance. They are young women and are only too aware of their sexuality.  The girl furthest to the right pats the head of a large shaggy dog.  The dog, which faces away from us, takes little notice of the two girls and instead stares at the blackboard on the back wall like a pupil ready to learn. On the blackboard there is chalked writing. In her memoir, Tanning says she took writings written in poet Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘secret notebooks’ and put them on the blackboard in this painting.  Rimbaud was admired by the surrealists because of his belief that poetry passed through the body in the manner of a musical instrument, which reaffirmed the surrealist idea of automatism as a creative outlet using the body as a vehicle.

The Boy

On the floor, close to the feet of one of the girls, lies a burning cigarette.  The girl’s hand is held up as though the cigarette had once been held between her fingers. To the left of them is a naked boy embracing a strange amorphous mass which imitates a human figure and wraps itself around him. The whiteness of its fabric-like flesh contrasts with the boy’s dark skin, and abundance of dark curls which form a halo around the boy’s head. The boy looks completely at peace. If the painting’s title Sudden Joy derives from any part of the depiction it is from him. In her memoir, Tanning described the girls as being like Sodom and Gomorrah.  On the floor in the left-hand corner of Tanning’s painting is an open book atop an ornate purple cushion. Its pages are blank, perhaps waiting to be written in. It is an eerie depiction.  We see a figure standing in the doorway in the left-hand top corner of the painting, and the black door stands ajar waiting for someone or something to enter the room.

 Dorothea Tanning died on January 31st 2012, at her Manhattan home at age 101. Her husband Max Ernst had died thirty-six years earlier.

Most of the information in my blogs about Dorothea Tanning come from the excellent 2020 biography of the artist, entitled Dorothea Tanning: Transformations by Victoria Carruthers.

Dorothea Tanning, her early life and her love of Surrealism. Part 2.

New York 1944

Dorothea Tanning (1944)

By the later part of 1942, Dorothea Tanning was well established with the Surrealist Movement within the New York art scene.  At the party hosted by the art dealer, Julien Levy and his wife, Muriel, she had been introduced to many of the Surrealist luminaries who were living in New York, including the German-born painter, Max Ernst.  Following on from his meeting with Dorothea, he visited her at her sprawling, sparse apartment studio to look at her paintings.

31-women-m101.jpg

It was not just idle curiosity that had brought Ernst to Tanning’s studio but he had come at the behest of his then wife, the art collector and socialite, Peggy Guggenheim, in order to select one of Dorothea’s paintings for the Exhibition by 31 Women.  This exhibition was organized by Peggy Guggenheim and ran for a month starting on January 5th 1943 in her New York gallery and included works by Frida Kahlo, Louise Nevelson, Leonor Fini, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Leonora Carrington.  Many of the artists were Surrealists, and many were wives of artists with whom Guggenheim was acquainted.  Georgia O’Keeffe declined an invitation to participate in the show, saying that she refused to be categorized as a “woman painter.”

Birthday by Dorothea Tanning (1942)

Birthday by Dorothea Tanning (1942)

The one painting which caught Max Ernst eye was the one Dorothea completed around the time of her thirty-second birthday, simply entitled Birthday, a title actually suggested by Ernst.  It is a self-portrait.  She has depicted herself in the process of metamorphosis.  She stands before us semi-naked.  Her hair is pinned back and she is wearing an Elizabethan-style purple silk and lace shirt, open to the waist, exposing her chest and breasts.  Her direct and open gaze emanates a sense of calm. Her semi-naked stance is probably her way of challenging her oppressive past and demonstrating her desire to rid herself of past parental control when she was a recalcitrant teenager.   She does not fear people looking at her body as this is how she sees herself.

Skirt 2

Her skirt seems to be disintegrating and being replaced by a thick layer of jagged brambles that cascade down to her bare feet. However, look closely at the brambles and you will see that they are made up of writhing naked bodies which are spiralling and intertwined to create a fabric of woodland sprites which adds a touch of menace to the depiction.  On the floor in front of her crouches a winged famulus.  The art historian Whitney Chadwick called it the “winged lemur.” These fantastic animals are associated with the night and the spiritual world and are a combination of hybrid parts, a fusion between realism and fantasy, the commonplace and the supernatural.

Corridor

The other interesting aspect of this work is what we see on the right of the depiction.  Within the confines of her apartment, we see a passageway which leads to a suite of rooms with doorways in line with each other, known as an enfilade.

The catalogue for the 1944 exhibition held in New York, Abstract and Surrealist Art in America, contained a piece by Dorothea Tanning in which she described her painting, Birthday.  She wrote:

“…One way to write a secret language is to employ familiar signs, obvious and unequivocal to the human eye.  For this reason, I chose a brilliant fidelity to the visual object as my method in painting Birthday.  The result is a portrait of myself, precise and unmistakable to the onlooker.  But what is a portrait?  Is it mystery and revelation, conscious and unconscious, poetry and madness?  Is it a demon, a hero, a child-eater, a ruin, a romantic, a monster, a whore?  Is it a miracle or a poison?  I believe that a portrait, particularly a self-portrait, should be somehow, all of these things and many more, recorded in a secret language clad in the honesty and innocence of paint…”

Fifty-five years later in 1999, the painting was bought by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and in the brochure which accompanied the survey show eighty-nine-year-old Dorothea Tanning once again talked about the work, saying:

“…It was a modest canvas by present-day standards.  But it filled my New York studio, the apartment’s back room, as if it had always been there.  For one thing, it was the room:  I had been struck one day by a fascinating array of doors – all, kitchen, bathroom, studio – crowded together, soliciting my attention with the antic planes, light, shadows, imminent openings and shuttings.  From there it was an easy leap to dram of countless doors.   Moreover, alone and taking stock of myself, I felt a sort of immanence as if my life was revealing itself at last – real birthday…”

See the source image

Self-portrait by Leonora Carrington (1938)

Many art critics highlight the similarities between Tanning’s self-portrait which is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the self-portrait done four years earlier, in 1938, by another Surrealist painter, Leonora Carrington, which is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of art in New York.  Both paintings combine fantasy and reality, each artist is depicted in the company of some magical creature.

See the source image

The Magic Flower Game by Dorothea Tanning (1941)

Similar to the depiction of the girl transforming in her self-portrait painting, Birthday, we can once again see another transformation in her painting The Magic Flower Game in which a boy is depicted in a state of organic transformation.  The boy in the painting is part human and part fashioned of beautifully coloured flowers which lie flattened against his legs and thighs like a second skin.  They also burst from his back in an assemblage of colour.  Again, his two upper limbs are part human and part nature with one being a branch-like appendage which end in claws.  In his hand he holds a ball of thread that seems to have come from the petals of a sunflower which lies at his feet.  Behind him in the fireplace we see the blue sky on which is the outline of a cat.  A second figure, possibly a mirror image of the boy is seen disappearing into the wall above the mantlepiece.  This part human, part nature is a classic occurrence of juxtaposition which is familiar in Surrealist works of art.

See the source image

Arizona Landscape by Dorothea Tanning (1943)

Dorothea Tanning often delved into the motif of hair as being symbolic of transformation in her early 1940’s paintings.  It was almost her iconographic autograph.  One of my favourite works of this type was her 1943 painting entitled Arizona Landscape.

See the source image

Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning (1947)

Dorothea’s encounter with Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim’s husband, prior to The 31 Women exhibition, led not only her having one of her works included in the show but led to a romantic entanglement with Guggenheim’s husband.  Max Ernst left his wife and went to live with Tanning and the couple eventually married in a double wedding with photographer Man Ray and Juliet Browner in Beverly Hills, California in October 1946.  This was Ernst’s fourth marriage and Tanning’s second and for both of them it was their last. Guggenheim expressed her sadness in losing Ernst to Tanning and painfully and caustically recalled the important exhibition, famously saying: “I should have had 30 women.”

T07346_10

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Dorothea Tanning (1943)

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst first visited Sedona, Arizona together in 1943.  He had first visited Sedona in 1941 with his son, Jimmy, and his third wife, Peggy Guggenheim.  Dorothea and Ernst rented a small studio space and it was in Sedona that Tanning painted her masterpiece, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.  It is another painting in which the motif of hair is depicted and is one of her most famous early works, which she also completed in 1943.  The painting is now part of the Tate Modern’s collection in London.   It depicts what appears to be a hotel corridor along which are numbered doors on the left and a steep stairway on the right, the door at the end is open slightly and offers us a glimpse of light radiating from within. On the floor of the landing, we see the head of a giant sunflower.  Two of its petals lie on the stairs to the right and a third is held in the hand of a life-like doll which lies against one of the doorways. There is a similarity between the tattered clothes worn by the reclining doll and the girl walking along the hallway.  It could be that the ragged state of the clothes worn by both the doll and the girl indicate that a struggle with a malevolent force may have taken place and note how the girl’s long hair streams upwards as if blown up by an extremely forceful gust of wind. Tanning herself commented on the meaning of her painting saying:

“…It’s about confrontation. Everyone believes he/she is his/her drama. While they don’t always have giant sunflowers (most aggressive of flowers) to contend with, there are always stairways, hallways, even very private theatres where the suffocations and the finalities are being played out, the blood red carpet or cruel yellows, the attacker, the delighted victim…”

See the source image

Max and Dorothea and their home in Sedona (1947)

Tanning and her husband Max Ernst lived in Sedona on and off from 1943 to 1957.  They had constructed a three-room rough-hewn dwelling which Dorothea named Capricorn. It was a simple home which had no running water, a precious commodity which had to be hauled daily from a well five miles away.   At the time Sedona was a small town with just a few hundred inhabitants.  Dorothea lovingly described their house and living there in her autobiography:

“…Alone it stood, if not crooked at any rate somewhat rakish, stuck on a landscape of such stunning red and gold grandeur that its life could be only a matter of brevity, a beetle of brown boards and tarpaper roof waiting for metamorphosis………Up on its hill, bifurcating the winds and rather friendly with the stars that swayed over our outdoor table like chandeliers…”

See the source image

Dorothea and Max with his outdoor sculpture “Capricorn” (1947)

Ernst had his own studio at the rear of the property whilst Dorothea painted in the house.  In the summer of 1947, their home was connected to the mains water supply and to celebrate the arrival of water, Max Ernst, commemorated the moment with a large outdoor sculpture which Dorothea recalled in her autobiography:

“…In the summer of 1947, Max Ernst, exuberant and inspired by the arrival of water piped to our house (up to then we had hauled it from a well five miles away), began playing with cement and scrap iron with assists from box tops, eggshells, car springs, milk cartons and other detritus.  The result:  Capricorn, a monumental sculpture of regal but benign deities that consecrated our ‘garden’ and watched over its inhabitants…”

Capricorn, which refers to the tenth sign of the zodiac, is normally represented by a goat with a fish tail but Max Ernst divided Capricorn’s attributes between two figures, the horned male and the mermaid.  The two main figures can be identified as a king and queen seated on their thrones.  Ernst reportedly called Capricorn a family portrait, although his wife cast doubt on that.  The couple did not have children together, but they did own two dogs, one of which may have inspired the animal in the king’s lap with its long tongue hanging out.

Capric

Capricorn by Max Ernst (cast in 1975)

The statue remained in Sedona but in Washington’s National Gallery of Art there is a large bronze replica of the sculpture.

………………………………to be concluded.

Dorothea Tanning, her early life and her love of Surrealism. Part 1.

Dorothea Tanning
Dorothea Tanning aged 18. (1928)

What does one mean when one says they like art.  What is art?  By definition, art is a diverse range of human activities involving creative imagination to express technical proficiency, beauty, emotional power, or conceptual ideas and it encompasses the three classical branches of visual art are painting, sculpture, and architecture, but the term “art” also embraces theatre, dance, and other performing arts, as well as literature, music, film and other media such as interactive media. So, I need to narrow down what I mean when I say I love art.  I should maybe say I love visual art and yet I am not a fan of conceptual or performance art.   I love the paintings created by numerous artists.  However, that is not quite true as I do not love all painting genres.  I neither find pleasure in looking at works of abstract art such as those by Kurt Schwitters nor the black lines and blocks of colour by Mondrian nor the works of abstract expressionist painters such as those by Robert Delaunay, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning nor the disturbing imagery of Francis Bacon. Having told you what I do not like I suppose I should tell you what I do like but if you have been following my blogs over the years, you will probably already know.

I love the paintings of the Dutch and Flemish Masters.  I like many of the painters of the Victorian era.  I like “busy” multi-figure paintings and love to delve into the depiction to see what is happening in narrative paintings.  I like narrative paintings which have a tale to tell or a moral to enforce.  Surprisingly, having said all that I also have a reluctant love of Surrealism and enjoy trying to figure out what the depiction is all about and what was in the painter’s mind when he or she put brush to canvas.

Dorothea Tanning with her mother, Amanda Tanning
Dorothea Tanning with her mother, Amanda Tanning, 1911

This was a somewhat long-winded introduction to today’s artist, the American Surrealist painter, printmaker, sculptor, writer, and poet, Dorothea Margaret Tanning.  Tanning was born on August 25th 1910.  She was the middle child of Andrew Tanning and Amanda Marie Tanning (née Hansen), who were of Swedish descent.  She had an elder sister Maurine and a younger sister Mary Louise.  Andrew Tanning, born Andreas Peter Georg Thaning, came alone from Skåne in the southernmost county of Sweden and settled in the conservative Midwestern town of Galesburg, Illinois.  In her memoirs Dorothea Tanning recounted that both her parents were very loving, indulgent and imaginative, the latter trait which she believed led to her creativity.  In her 2001 autobiography, Between Lives, Tanning wrote lovingly of her mother:

“…How could a tiny artist grow into a big one without the quilt of maternal love with its pattern of solace for hurts, its curving comfort, cloud-soft, its consolation for having to exist, its sweet smell?  The mother-goddess (the term would have embarrassed her), doctor and protector hovered over us in the full conviction that we were worth the trouble…”

Dorothea Tanning
Dorothea Tanning, aged 5. (1915)

By her own admission Dorothea was a small and delicate child prone to bouts of illness which often confined her to bed.  Like similar stories of young children who became well-known artists, it was this time during bed rest that she developed artistic skills and immersed herself into reading picture books.  Her favourites were the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, and the stories and colourfully mesmerising characters from Greek mythology and the Bible.  It was from the likes of these that Dorothea gained an insight of the outside world, a world free from a cosseting mother.  She would also amuse herself by the simple game of staring at patterns on the wallpaper or furnishings and allow her imagination to form images which were not real.  In a way she was slipping from the real world into an imagined parallel existence.  Maybe it was this which would eventually lead her into the world of Surrealism.

Dorothea Tanning, Galesburg High School Yearbook, Senior Year
Dorothea Tanning, Galesburg High School Yearbook, Senior Year, 1926

In 1926, aged sixteen, Dorothea Tanning graduated from Galesburg Public High School.  The following year she managed to get a part-time job at Galesburg Public Library which gave her access to a world of literature.  She termed it the House of Joy.  One of her earlier jobs was cataloguing the books with a senior assistant who decided on whether the contents were deigned immoral and unfit for minors and were marked with a red cross in the catalogue.  Dorothea said that it was then much easier to find the “best” books.  In her biography she wrote about the time at the library and how it made her consider her future:

“…Over the years, the library became my haven, its treasures slyly challenging the voice of “art” in the tug-of-war for my ambitions, its sirens singing and crying by turns, its weight crushing my famous certitudes forever…”

Some Roses and Their Phantoms, 1952 - Dorothea Tanning
Some Roses and Their Phantoms by Dorothea Tanning (1952) represents a domestic world transformed by mysterious eruptions and inhabited by unnamed creatures. The table top setting, with its crisp white tablecloth and marks of ironed folds, suggests a safe world of bourgeois ritual. A recurrent motif, the white table cloth can also be found in other works of the same period. 

In 1928 she enrolled at Knox College in Galesburg and remained there for two years.  In 1930 she quit the college in order to pursue an artistic career and set off for Chicago under the guise of meeting up with a friend.  She had surreptitiously packed a trunk with her belongings which she left in her bedroom and later, once in Chicago, asked her parents to forward it to her !

Chicago at the time of Dorothea’s arrival, was a city in the grip of Prohibition, jazz-filled nightclubs and violent gang wars.  She lodged with an ex-library colleague.  She revelled in the nightlife of the Windy City and began a relationship with the writer, Homer Shannon.  To earn a living, she took on a number of jobs including waitressing at the Colonial Room.  She operated marionettes in the 1933 Chicago World Fair.  She must have accumulated some money as she loved to travel going to New Orleans in 1934 where she exhibited some of her watercolours. 

December 1936 newspaper cuttings about the Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism exhibition. 

She also made a number of trips to New York searching for work as a commercial artist and during one visit in 1936 visited the Museum of Modern Art to see the Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism exhibition.  The exhibition was rife with controversy and provoked fierce reactions from battling factions among the Dadaists and the Surrealists.  The press release by MOMA identified Surrealism and Dadaism as such:

“…”Surrealism, which developed in Paris around 1924, was the direct descendent of the Dadaist interest in the bizarre, the spontaneous, and the anti-rational. But while the Surrealist program carried on the iconoclasm of Dada it added serious research into subconscious images, dreams, visions, automatic and psychoanalytic drawings. Surrealism, so far as its serious adherents are concerned, is more than a literary or an art movement: it is a philosophy, a way of life, a cause which has involved some of the most brilliant painters and poets of our age…”

In a later interview Dorothea said of the exhibition:

“…For me it was the revelation, and I wasn’t the only one.  I would even say that most American artists – as well as poets – were deeply affected by that explosive event.  So, I became more impatient than ever – I just had to live in Paris…”

Once again in her autobiography Dorothea was certain that what she saw at the exhibition at the MOMA was a turning point in her artistic life.  She wrote:

“…Here, gathered inside an innocent concrete building, are signposts so imperious, so laden, so seductive and yes, so perverse that, like the insidious revelations of the Galesburg Public Library, they would possess me utterly…”

Deirdre
Deirdre by Dorothea Tanning (1940)

Dorothea had now caught the Surrealism bug and knew to explore the genre more she had to go to Paris.  She set sail on SS. Amsterdam for the France in July 1939 with the intention of meeting some of the Surrealist artists living there but her plans were thwarted by the onset of the Second World War.  Artists had hurriedly escaped from Paris and she managed to escape France and makes her way through Holland Belgium Germany and Sweden in August to the home of her paternal relatives. From there, in October, she managed to gain passage back to America on the SS. Gripsholm.  Another artist to take flight from France and journey to America was the leader of the Surrealism Movement, German-born Max Ernst who before his salvation had been interned twice in 1939, once by the French government having been labelled an “undesirable foreigner” and once by the Gestapo but he managed to escape with the help of Peggy Guggenheim, a member of a wealthy American art collecting family, and the journalist Varian Fry. 

Dorothea Tanning, Music Hath Charms. 1940.
Music Hath Charms by Dorothea Tanning (1940)

Once back home in New York, Dorothea Tanning sought employment as a commercial artist and for a time worked on the advertisements for Macy’s department store, producing adverts for perfumery products, clothing and accessories.  She continued with her own art and in 1940 produced a small painting entitled Music Hath Charms.  It was the beginning of her love of Surrealism being translated into her own work.  The painting depicts a young girl, dressed in red, playing the piano formed by the roots of one of two large trees which act as a frame for the scene.  She has long blonde hair which runs down her back.  Look at the background and at first it seems to be just a snow-capped mountain but with closer inspection it is the gigantic wave of a stormy sea in which we see a sinking tall ship.  The terrifying sight of the doomed ship is in stark contrast with the pastoral scene of the middle-ground with the grazing sheep and yet there is more.  Look carefully at the dark brown/olive hills which divide the space between the sheep-grazing field and the wild stormy sea.  It is the prone body of a hybrid beast, part human in the shape of a woman’s body and part animal being the face of a wild cat. Again it, like the sea and the fields, is the juxtaposition of human and animal.  The creature stares at the girl as if mesmerised by the sound of the music.  The depiction implies that the melodious sounds emanating from the piano is causing a metamorphosis in the landscape with the creature materialising from the “softened rocks”.

Portrait of Julien Levy by Jay Leyda (c.1932)

In 1942 after an up-and-down relationship and short marriage to Homer Shannon, the pair split up and Dorothea concentrated on her art and immersed herself in the artistic community and became great friends with Julien Levy, a gallery owner who offered her an exhibition at his gallery once she had built up a sizeable collection.  Levy had opened his new gallery in midtown Manhattan in November 1931 with a photography exhibition that included works by his friend and mentor, Alfred Stieglitz. As selling photographs became more difficult Levy shifted his gallery’s focus to Surrealism and to showing the work of artists like Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Man Ray and Joseph Cornell.

In May 1942 Julien Levy invited Dorothea Tanning to one of his afternoon soirees held in his Chelsea apartment.  Dorothea remembered stepping into Levy’s apartment and at that party, seeing her future road map lying before her:

“…A May afternoon as only May afternoons can be in the city.   And an apartment in Chelsea, all dark woof and those slated shutters peculiar to old New York.  A Recamier sofa, an iron sleigh-bed breathing Paris, a Bellmer doll, the Duchamp window and scattered everywhere, objects, pictures, books and more pictures.  Indeed, coming time, you were overwhelmed with vertigo that it was hard to register Julien’s easy, smiling introductions to – as I remember them – Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Kurt Seligmann, Kay Sage, Bob Motherwell with beauteous wife, Maria, Virgil Thomson, Max Ernst, Consuelo de Saint-Exupery, Peggy Guggenheim, Sylvia Marlowe, Max Ernst……Doesn’t the repetition say it all?  Because quite simply, this was a new door for me to open, and it was Julien Levy who held the key, who did it all, not deliberately – he didn’t believe in plans – who very nonchalantly launched my art and found me a life companion…”

………………………………….to be continued.

Most of the information in my blogs about Dorothea Tanning come from the excellent 2020 biography of the artist, entitled Dorothea Tanning: Transformations by Victoria Carruthers.

Many pictures of Dorothea came from the Dorothea Tanning Organisation website

The Talented Paxtons

 

William McGregor Paxton and his wife, Elizabeth Okie Paxton

William McGregor Paxton

Elizabeth Okie Paxton

 

 

 

 

 

 

       William McGregor Paxton                                               Elizabeth Okie Paxton

My blog today features an artistically talented husband and wife who were born in America in the late nineteenth century.  Let me acquaint you with Mr William “Bill” McGregor Paxton and his wife Mrs Elizabeth “Betty”  Okie Paxton.

     

Portraits by William Mc Gregor Paxton of his father and mother (1902)

William McGregor Paxton was born in Baltimore on June 22nd 1869.  He was the only child of James Paxton and Rose Doherty Paxton, a daughter of Irish immigrants.  The family left Baltimore before William’s teenage years and settled in Newton Corner, a village just west of Boston, where his father set up a baking and catering business.  Whilst at school, William became interested in art and became a very proficient painter, so much so, whilst still at the suburban high school he was accepted into the Cowles Art School in Boston which was one of the largest art schools in the city.  Cowles Art School offered instruction in figure drawing and painting from the flat cast and life, artistic anatomy, perspective, and composition, painting still life, drawing, and painting the head from life, drawing still life, oil and water colours. He studied with the American Impressionist Dennis Miller Bunker, a friend of John Singer Sargent, who was the chief instructor of figure and cast drawing, artistic anatomy, and composition at the school.  Bunker was so impressed by the work produced by Paxton that he persuaded him to travel to Paris to further his artistic tuition.

paxtoninstudio

In the Studio by William McGregor Paxton (1905)

From this Boston art school, William Paxton travelled to Paris in 1889 and studied at the Académie Julian.  Later he transferred to the government run, prestigious all male, art establishment, École des Beaux-Arts and studied under the French Academic painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme in his Paris atelier. William Paxton remained in Paris for four years and did not return to America until 1893.  On his return, William returned to the Cowles School and studied with Joseph DeCamp and became a junior instructor.   Around the same time, Elizabeth Vaughn Okie was also studying art at the Cowles Art School, under Ernest Lee Major and Joseph Rodefer DeCamp. 

Elizabeth Okie Paxton

Elizabeth Okie Paxton

Elizabeth Okie was born into a well-to-do family on March 17th, 1878 in Providence, Rhode Island.  She was the daughter of Dr. Howard Okie who had studied medicine in Germany and Elizabeth Coleridge Vaughn whose family were stockbrokers and bankers.  Elizabeth had a younger sister, Adele. Both Elizabeth and Adele were home-schooled by a governess which gives you an idea as to the financial status of the family.    While Adele loved music, Elizabeth loved her art and her parents enrolled her at Cowles Art School when she was sixteen-years-old.   One of her tutors at Cowles Art School was William Paxton during his brief tenure teaching at the school.  Love blossomed between teacher and pupil despite a nine-year age difference and in 1896, she and William became engaged. 

My Wife, Elizabeth (Wedding Portrait of Elizabeth Okie Paxton) (1899).

On January 3rd, 1899, just a few months before her twenty-first birthday, the couple married.  The long length of the engagement could well have been down to Elizabeth’s well-off parents being concerned with the future financial prospects of their future son-in-law.  After their marriage, William and Elizabeth lived with his parents at 43 Elmwood Street, and later bought a house at 19 Montvale Road in Newton Centre, one of a number of villages within the city of Newton in Middlesex County, Massachusetts.  William Paxton would continue to commute daily into Boston.

Elizabeth Vaughan Okie by William McGregor Paxton (1894)

In the collection of the Boston Athenæum’s is one of the earliest portraits of Elizabeth by her husband which he completed in 1894.  It is thought that it may have been painted specifically for her. It is fortunate that the work still survives as most of Paxton’s early paintings were destroyed in a studio fire in 1904, making this a rare survivor from that period of his professional life.

In 1906, now back in Massachusetts, William joined the faculty of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as an instructor and became friends of Frank Weston Benson, head of the Painting department and the Impressionist painter, Edmund Tarbell.  These three artists and art educators believed passionately in teaching art and conveyed to their students an in-depth understanding of painting methods and composition. All three of them had studied at the Parisian art academies where demanding technical classes were coupled with an intensive study of the most well-known painters of the past. For them it was important to try and convey to their students what it was about the great paintings of the past that made them timeless.  William Paxton summed it up, saying:

“…Other people can look at pictures just for the pleasure they get out of them. We painters, when we are on the job, must always be looking to see how they achieve their effect. Just as an actor, when he goes to the theatre, never loses sight of the scenery, lighting, pulleys, gestures and tricks of inflection, the sum of which stirs the audience, so we painters must always be watching to discover the procedures by which the great masters produced beauty…”

Art of Impressionist Painter William McGregor Paxton

La Russe by William McGregor Paxton (1913)

William Paxton, along with Edmund C. Tarbell and Frank Weston Benson, was one of the founding members of a group of Boston-based painters active in the first three decades of the twentieth century, known as the Boston School.   Their preferred subject matter was of a genteel nature such as portraiture, picturesque landscapes, and young women posing in well-appointed interiors. They were influenced by artists such as John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet, and Jan Vermeer.  The Guild of Boston Artists was established in 1914 by the three artists and was created to be an artist-owned and artist-operated gallery. With the mission of promoting both emerging and established artists living in the region, the Guild developed a reputation for excellence in quality and presentation.

Elizabeth Okie Paxton featured in a number of her husband’s paintings.  One such example was his 1906 work entitled The Red Fan.

The Red Fan by William McGregor Paxton (1906)

The Red Fan (Portrait of Mrs Paxton) by William McGregor Paxton (1906)

Paxton had been brought up in a middle-class background and was well aware of Society’s hierarchical rules.  On getting back to America from his time in France William Paxton completed a number of paintings which featured the domestic opulence of the upper-class. His favoured depictions were those of composed females of the leisure class, often his patron’s wives, often with their domestic servants, with sumptuous backdrops of richly decorated interiors.  He was an important genre and portrait painter in the Beaux Arts style. 

paxtonfigurine

The Figurine by William McGregor Paxton (1921)

The females that featured in his genre and portraiture varied from dowagers and schoolgirls to servants, and his paintings helped identify idealized female roles of upper-class New Englanders at the beginning of the twentieth century.  It was all about female beauty and elegance which was in stark contrast to the work of the Ashcan School painters of New York who featured the gritty, and unglamorous realities of city life, often featuring New York women wandering down busy streets, flirting openly, and willingly catching the eye of passing strangers.  Paxton’s females oozed confidence and a sensual wistfulness but at the same time exuded demureness and respectability in stark contrast to the vulnerable yet gregarious Ashcan School’s women

William McGregor Paxton (1869–1941), Tea Leaves (1909),

Tea Leaves by William McGregor Paxton (1909)

A fine example of this is his 1909 painting entitled Tea Leaves.  We see two well-dressed young women taking tea together. The woman in the blue-trimmed hat looks closely at the leaves at the bottom of her cup, which was a popular way of telling one’s fortune. 

William McGregor Paxton (1869–1941), The String of Pearls (1908

The String of Pearls by William Mc Gregor Paxton (1908)

His 1908 painting String of Pearls was another work which portrayed a sophisticated and cultured female enjoying a period of leisure, studying her pearl necklace.  Paxton often depicted ladies with expensive and beautiful accoutrements in luxurious settings.  For affluent male observers of Paxton’s works, it was if it were not just the furnishings and the jewellery which were items they would like to possess, but it was also the females themselves.

 

paxtonwomanwithbook

Woman with Book by William McGregor Paxton (1910)

Like many of his Boston colleagues, Paxton was influenced by the work of the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Paxton was fascinated not only with Vermeer’s imagery, but also with the system of optics he employed. He studied Vermeer’s works closely and discovered that only one area in his compositions was entirely in focus, while the rest were somewhat blurred. Paxton called it “binocular vision,” crediting Vermeer with recording the slightly different point of view of each individual eye that combine in human sight.  His painting, Woman with Book, we see the sunlight beaming through the window at the left, a woman (who even looks like one of Vermeer’s models) stands and reads a large book, with a painting on the wall behind her. The optical focus of the work appears to be the purse which the woman holds high against her left shoulder. 

The New Necklace by William Paxton (1910)

William Paxton began to use this system in his own work, including his narrative painting The New Necklace, where only the gold beads are sharply defined while the rest of the objects in the composition have softer, blurrier edges.  The New Necklace, which he completed in 1910, is one of Paxton’s best-known paintings.  It is an intriguing work and we are made to wonder what is going on.  In the depiction, we see a younger woman, dressed in fashionably coloured clothes, sitting at a narrow bureau writing. She has turned her chair so that she can reach behind and hold out her left hand to receive the new necklace mentioned in the title. The jewellery is being placed into her hand by a slightly older woman, in a drabber dark blue-green dress.  She rests her chin on her left hand.  She purposefully does not make eye contact with the seated woman.  What is going on?  We, the observer, are provoked to use our imagination as to what is taking place in front of us.  There is obviously an air of subservience between the standing and seated woman but how does the handing over of the jewellery come into the story.  What hold does the seated woman have over the other?   I leave it for you to decide.

Nude by William Paxton

Nude by William McGregor Paxton (1915)

This blurring effect can be seen again in Paxton’s 1915 painting simply entitled Nude, which is part of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts collection. In the depiction, we sees a young woman seated on a blue dress that is spread across the seat of a backless divan. She leans to the right as she reaches out for her pink underwear.  We observe the woman partly from the back and partly from the side.  Paxton has slightly blurred all the items in the room and the woman herself with the exception of her right breast and parts of her right arm.  From seeing the props used in this painting in other of his works, we know they are part of the trappings of his studio.

The Beach at Chatham by William Paxton (c.1915)

The Beach at Chatham by William McGregor Paxton (1915)

Paxton completed a number of landscape paintings such as his 1915 work Beach at Chatham.  Chatham is a town in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, located at the southeast tip of Cape Cod.  It is an unusual painting format with a low horizon line and seven-eighths of the work taken with the sky.   The result being the minute figures of those people on the shore.  However, the unusual format gives us, mere mortals, the feeling of how little we matter in the Grand Plan.  When Paxton began painting The Beach at Chatham, he envisioned the same problems that confronted the first Dutch landscape painters, namely, how to perfectly balance the visual expansiveness of a seascape with the presence of the human element. Adopting an extremely low horizon line and filling seven-eighths of the canvas with sky, the beachgoers appear diminutive, allowing the artist to promote the infinite over the everyday, and create a powerful, even awe-inspiring composition.

Nausicaa by William Paxton

Nausicaä by William McGregor Paxton

William McGregor Paxton delved into mythology with his painting Nausicaä.  It is based on Homer’s story of the trials and tribulations of Odysseus on his journey back home after the fall of Troy.  Odysseus has finally escaped on a raft from the clutches of Calypso and her island of Ogygia.  The raft is wrecked in a storm inflicted by Poseidon, and Odysseus has to swim ashore on the island of the Phaeacians.  After swimming along a river estuary he manages to clamber up the banks exhausted and naked and heads into a wood, where he falls asleep.  The next morning, Nausicaä, the daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Phaeacia, and her handmaidens go to the seashore to wash clothes. Awakened by their chatter and play, Odysseus emerges from the forest completely naked, scaring the servants away, and begs Nausicaä for aid.  William Paxton’s depiction is at the point in the story when the naked Odysseus approaches Nausicaä and her handmaidens.

See the source image

Red Apples by Elizabeth Okie Paxton (1920)

Elizabeth Paxton continued with her art studies under her husband’s guidance and became known for her beautiful still life paintings and her timeless works which featured everyday domestic objects, beautifully depicted with a sensitivity to light, colour, and form.  By shifting from interior scenes to still life works, Okie Paxton avoided competing with her husband’s subjects.  Elizabeth Okie Paxton painted still life works, finding a ready market with private collectors. Unfortunately, this meant that very few of her paintings are on show to the public in a museum.

ELIZABETH VAUGHAN OKIE PAXTON (American

Copper Jug with Apples by Elizabeth Okie Paxton

Copper Jug with Apples is a still life of a table covered partly by a white tablecloth upon which a copper-handled jug, three apples and a green cup and saucer.

Continental Breakfast by Elizabeth Okie Paxton (1907)

Another of her still life works is entitled Continental Breakfast which was exhibited at Rowland’s in Boston and described on May 17, 1907, and was described as:

“…she has set forth a dainty little breakfast, daintily arranged on a crisp, clean white tablecloth; there is a silver coffee-pot, a coffee-cup and a saucer of thin white porcelain, with a light green rim, a brown breakfast roll, a dish of fruit containing a half of a grapefruit and a bunch of grapes, and a covered dish of blue and white hawthorn ware. All these things are painted with so much delicacy and loving care, they are so pretty in themselves, and they are so well related together, that it is a pleasure to look at them. It is a long time since we have seen a better piece of still life work…”

Okie Paxton utilized light, texture, and colour like that of other artists of the Boston School. 

auoe5wxru3xb6zpvvkwv

The Breakfast Tray by Elizabeth Okie Paxton (c.1910)

In contrast to this pure still life work she also completed another work which featured a breakfast tray.  The painting is her famous 1910 work entitled The Breakfast Tray.  The painting requests our company into a world of femininity.  What we see before us is a scene of disorder and yet highly sensual, and utterly credible. It has a personality of its own.  Before us is not a depiction of staged harmonious domesticity but one that pricks our curiosity.  It is a provocative, almost erotic narrative work and yet it is almost a still-life work.  What at first glance appears to be a simple depiction 0f morning light streaming through an unseen window.  On the left falling we see the light falling upon the silver service of a breakfast tray which has been placed on a chair next to the unmade bed.  On the tray there is a small samovar, half a grapefruit, a bread roll, and a porcelain mug and jug.

Look at the artists depiction of light and shade.  See how the morning light bounces of the highly polished wooden leg and spindles of the Windsor chair.  It is still early morning and the sun has yet to rise high in the sky and so we see deep shadows under the shoes and along the rails of the chair as well as the space under the bed.  The bedding is rumpled.  A dressing gown has almost slid from the bed.  The lace-trimmed sheets and pillow, still with the marked impression of the sleeper’s head who has now risen and vacated the bedroom and it is all those aspects which prevent it being a still-life and steer it towards a narrative work.  So, what is going on?   The pillows on the bed are intimately close.  On the footboard of the bed there is another item of clothing. What is it?  Maybe another robe or a pair of trousers.  The more we stare and seek out minute details the more we become a voyeur.  A rumpled bed and abandoned shoes allow our mind to race towards the sexual nature of the scene and yet our erotic thoughts are dampened when we realise the breakfast tray is set for just one person.  Who brought the tray to the sleeping person – a servant, a lover?  Where has everybody gone? 

Elizabeth Okie Paxton's Sick a-Bed

Sick-a-bed by Elizabeth Okie Paxton (1916)

A similar setting can be seen in her 1916 painting entitled Sick a-bed. The painting was bought by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  Academy officials said that the work would serve to bolster the museum’s effort to build its contemporary holdings and add to its growing body of art by women.

Is this all just a figment of my imagination and yet I say to you never just flick your gaze over a work of art, study it and imagine what was in the artist’s mind when they put brush to canvas and the painting makes us want to know more about the artist who created it.  What little we know about her is that Elizabeth Okie Paxton enjoyed a harmonious marriage, who would selflessly endorse her husband’s career.  They loved and respected each other.  She was a beautiful woman who also served as her husband’s muse, and often modelled for many of his paintings.  Although she painted The Breakfast Tray which some considered a risqué work, she enjoyed painting less controversial still life works. She and her husband were not blessed with children and consequently her life was devoted to both her and her husband’s art. She continued to manage her husband’s business affairs after his death with correspondence regarding his art estate until 1970, apparently paying even more attention to his posthumous career than her own active one. Of course, this leads to the obvious question – could she have been better known as a painter had she not married William? On the other hand, if she had not married William Paxton would she have missed meeting influential people and teachings that subsequently propelled her own development?   It is just the age-old question “what if?”

paxtonhousemaid

The House Maid by William McGregor Paxton(1910)

Over the decades that followed, both William and Elizabeth became successful artists, William best known as an accomplished portrait painter who painted two US presidents, Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge and Elizabeth gained fame as a painter of still-lifes and interiors.  William Paxton was made a full member of the National Academy of Design in 1928.  He was working on his last painting, a view of his living room at 19 Montvale Road, with his wife posing for him, when he was stricken with a heart attack and died in 1941, at the age of 72.  After her husband’s death Elizabeth once again gave up her own art to focus on promoting her husband’s art and legacy.

Elizabeth Okie Paxton died on April 2, 1972 in Boston, aged 94.

 

John Koch. Part 3.

                                                                        Interlude by John Koch (1963)

Dora featured in many of her husband’s paintings.  One such is his 1963 work entitled Interlude.  In a way it is a narrative painting recounted a day of painting for the artist.  Here we glimpse artist John Koch in his apartment studio with an African American model, said to be one of is favourites.  She dominates the foreground of the painting.  The contrast between the colour of her dark ebony skin, the white bed sheets, and the vibrant red robe of the third person in the painting make for a great contrast.  The shape of her graceful back echoes the lines of the nearby Queen Anne style chair.  The African American model, Rosetta Howard, dominates the foreground as Koch depicts her dark velvety back against the white bed sheet and the vibrant red robe of the third person in the painting, John Koch’s wife, Dora, who offers the model a cup of tea. The three figures neither engage with the viewer, nor do they engage in eye contact with each other.  The artist fixates on his partially completed canvas.  The artist’s wife in the red gown avoids looking at the naked body of the model, who in turn concentrates her gaze on the cup and saucer.  So, like other paintings by Koch, the figures and furniture have been set by the artist.  What are we to make of the depiction?  Is it just a simple portrayal of an artist and the model taking a break from their work or is it something more?  Could it be John Koch wanting to highlight a contentious role reversal – a white woman in 1963 serving a black woman !

                                                        The Breakfast Tray by John Kotch (1970)

Dora Koch appeared in the same red dress in her husband’s 1970 painting entitled The Breakfast Tray.  For John and Dora, breakfast on a tray was a daily ritual.  In this work we see the tray laden with their finest china.  The setting for the painting is the hallway of their Setauket, Long Island house.  John holds the tray in front of himself and it appears to be an offering to his elegantly robed wife who is mounting the stairs.

Photography by Dwight Primiano
                                                              Studio – End of the Day by John Koch

Rosetta Howard appeared in a number of John Koch’s paintings including His work, Studio – End of the Day in which artist and model finally take a rest from painting and posing.

Artwork Title: The Lesson - Artist Name: John Koch
                                                                            The Lesson by John Koch (1970)

Another painting to feature his wife was John Koch’s 1970 work entitled The Lesson in which we see Dora giving one of her piano lessons.

John Koch (1909-1978) Summer Night 78 x 44in (198.1 x 111.8cm) (Painted in 1965.)
                                                      Summer Night by John Koch (1965)

John Koch was known for his sophisticated and stylish depictions of trendy life in and around New York City. His 1965 painting, Summer Night, is a perfect example of the genre.  It was painted on a monumental scale (198 x 112 cms) and highlights Koch’s dextrous skill for assembling figures so as to highlight the interactions and intrigue between his subjects. The scene in this painting is set in the evening on a front porch of a wealthy home with people relaxing after drinks and a meal.  The scene exudes a laid-back and tranquil elegance of a family gathering on a warm evening.  Note how Koch has carefully arranged the props which translate into fastidiously arranged still life elements of the work.  The painting was first exhibited at the Kraushaar Galleries. His time working with the gallery brought him great commercial success for the remainder of his career.  The painting was last sold in 2020 at Bonhams, New York Auction for US$ 162,575

                                                                   The Sculptor by John Koch (1964)

There were a number of paintings by Koch that depicted both artist and sitter and one of my favourites is his painting entitled The Sculptor.  It is a quasi-self portrait with John Koch as the sculptor, surrounded by the tools of his craft, including a caliper, which he is holding – in fact, one should remember that John Koch was not only a painter but a sculptor.  The model in this work was Ernest Ulmer, one of Dora’s former student who was also the subject of Interior of Studio. Ulmer is painted in full view from the back, his muscular body extended in a classic pose.  The sculpture painted in the background was one that he had made. It is a scene from Greek mythology, with Hercules and Prometheus, a mythological individual who stole fire from the gods to bring it to humans. Koch has added a touch of humour to the depiction with the visual pun between that tale from Greek mythology and the depiction in the painting of the model handing a light to the sculptor for his cigarette.  In the painting we see Koch leaning forward with the cigarette in his mouth, and the flame from the lighter held by the model is cleverly reflected in his glasses, as if extending the spark to the man himself.

The Plasterers1957x633
                                                                       The Plasterers by John Koch (1957)

In 1967 John Koch completed one of his most important paintings.  It was entitled The Plasterers.   The two men have come to Koch’s apartment to make good repairs to the walls.  In the background there is a bank of windows, some of which are open.   Look through the windows and you can see that Koch has managed to depict a panoramic skyline, probably a view of the Hudson River from his apartment window at the El Dorado building at 300 Central Park West of the Hudson River.  In the left foreground there is once again depicted Koch’s sculpture, Prometheus, which we saw in his painting, The Sculptor.   Through the windows streams the daylight which dances on the highly polished floor and furniture. 

See the source image
                                             Gustave Caillebotte’s 1875 painting The Floor Scrapers

For some reason, it is this shiny wooden floor which always reminds me of Gustave Caillebotte’s 1875 painting The Floor Scrapers which depicts three workers scraping a wooden floor in a bourgeois apartment.   On May 9, 2009 at the Brunk Auctions in Asheville, North Carolina, the painting, along with six preparatory sketches for the painting, sold for $210,000.  The painting was shown at two major Koch exhibitions. The first in 1973 at the New York Cultural Centre. The second was in 2001-2002 at the New York Historical Society.   The New York Historical Society’s 2001 exhibition catalogue described the painting as:

“…a tour de force of (the artist’s) ability to bring the outside into an interior through reflection of light playing off surfaces…”

See the source image
                                                  The Window Washers by John Koch (1975)

Another painting featuring two workers in the setting of John and Dora’s apartment is the 1975 work entitled The Window Washers.

Artwork by John Koch, THE ACCIDENT NO. 2, Made of oil on canvas
                                                     The Accident No.2 by John Koch (1968)

Another unusual work by Koch was his 1968 painting entitled The Accident. No.2.  It is a narrative work.  In the depiction we are looking into the small artist’s studio, which could also act as the artist’s bedroom.  The props set up by John Koch are a small single-bed with ruffled sheets, a discarded red silk robe, a pair of bedroom slippers which have been casually abandoned, a hand-mirror propped on the rim of a waste.  The window is partially covered by a curtain pulled back and of course the artist’s workstation with his easel, canvas, and palette. The artist and his naked model have rushed to the window to view what is happening outside.  By the title of the painting the artist is telling us that they are looking out at an accident which has happened in the street below.  The model is pointing down to something in the road below which he is straining to see.  It is an unusual scenario as most depictions of artist and model focus on the single-minded concentration of the artist as he studies his absolutely motionless model.  Here the commotion outside has broken the spell of their sensual assignation.

                                                                                Night by John Koch (1964)

In his 1964 painting, Night, John Koch has presented us with the contrast of warmth and coolness.  The coolness of the bodies now divested of clothes and yet the oppressive heat and humidity of a New York summer night when one tries desperately to be able to sleep.  John liked the setting of his painting describing it:

“…a picture of a young couple before they go to bed at night, which I think is as splendid an idea for a picture as any could be…”

The woman has fallen asleep whilst the man bides his time by reading a newspaper.  Besides him the light from a lamp on the bedside table glows through his newspaper.  The bottom of the bed and the white sheets have been illuminated by the soft blue glow of a television which is on a stand at the end of their bed.

Artwork Title: The Bath - Artist Name: John Koch
                                                                            The Bath by John Koch (1973)

John Koch whose oeuvre contained a large number of nude depictions of couples or a single male or a single female.  He was adamant that the depictions were not envisioned to be erotic, even when they depicted couples in bed. If you look over the depictions featuring a male and a female in bed they are not in the middle of lovemaking but simply relaxing, even though it may be in a post-coital state.  The pair who could be lovers or married couples show neither indication of sexual stimulation, lustful craving nor agitated signs of conflict.  There is a kind of neutrality with regards the couple’s personal thoughts.  Koch’s agenda seemed to be one that was to offer viewers a normal heterosexual relationship – one of idyllic well-being, a sense of happiness unsullied by lust or anguish. In his 1973 painting, The Bath, we see a man drying himself on the edge of a tub. He takes time to glance back at the woman who remains in the water. In contrast to his rough and hirsute muscular and bronzed body hers is smooth, pale, and supple.

                                                    Back Scratcher by John Koch 

John Koch became an elected member of the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1970. Five years later, he suffered a stroke and abandoned painting for the first time since his youth. John Koch died on April 18th 1978 from complications of another stroke.  He was 78.  His wife Dora died on September 9th 1987 aged 83.  John Koch’s art was dismissed by the more progressive art scene as just a society painter and was little known outside his circle of wealthy, connected patrons. However, he managed to capture scenes of a New York society that is mostly gone now and therefore many of his paintings were a historical record of a world which was more formal and refined.  His often stage-managed art is classed as being of a realism genre and yet the depictions of opulence were tinged by an element of fantasy.  Maybe it is a fantasy we all hold dear.