Natalie Papamichael. Part 2.

At work in my studio

During her first pregnancy, Natalie and her husband became increasingly unhappy with where they lived in London. They believed it was not a safe place to bring up children and so, decided to move. The problem for them, as it still is for most people, owning an affordable property in a good area in London is almost impossible. As they had had their wedding ceremony in Brighton, they knew something about the area and one of her friends from Paris who had previously lived in the seaside town told her that it would be a good place to bring up children. Knowing that it was a commutable distance to London and her beloved art galleries, the couple moved out of the capital in 2002 and relocated to the south coast town. In 2004 Natalie gave birth to her second child, another son, Tadhg. Now having two young sons, who were not great sleepers, put a lot of pressure on Natalie as she tried to continue with her art.

A collage of her life

In 2007, motivated to focus on combining her research with her studio practice, she went to Florence for a short Intensive Painting Course at the Angel Academy of Art, a private institution, founded by the English artist, Michael John Angel, in 1997, where one is taught drawing and learns the classical painting techniques of the Old Masters.

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Phoenix Art Space, Brighton.

In 2009, finding it difficult to work from home, Natalie took a studio in the Phoenix Art Space, a five-storey building in the centre of Brighton close to her where she lived. There are four floors dedicated to a diverse community of artists. It was originally started as an artist-run space and a charitable organisation offering affordable studios. Initially Natalie had to share a space but eventually she got her own studio on the second floor.

Casting Call by Eleanor Antin (2007)

One of the artists who influenced Natalie was Eleanor Antin.  She had created a body of work that explores history, contemporary culture, and identity from a feminist perspective.    In 2007 Antin produced photographic tableau entitled Casting Call and from that work evolved Natalie’s 2016 painting, The Masquerade.  Antin’s tableaux was based on the story of the Greek painter, Zeuxis. He was considered the greatest artist of the era and was asked to do a painting of Helen of Troy, considered to be the most beautiful woman. Claiming that there was no such thing as a perfect woman, Zeuxis took the five most perfect women from the town of Croton and took a different characteristic from each. In Antin’s photography, the women appear as if at a casting call for a movie.

The Masquerade by Natalie Papamichael (2016)

In The Masquerade, Natalie replaced Antin’s women with her own performance stills, which she made whilst at college, in different masquerades and at various stages of her pregnancy. She is rewriting the narrative from her own perspective whilst inserting herself into an artistic historical discourse.

The Society of Outsiders (1) (after Eleanor Antin) by Natalie Papamichael (2017)

In 2017, Natalie completed two large works (200 x 170cms) entitled The Society of Outsiders (after Eleanor Antin) I and II.   

The Golden Death from the Last Days of Pompeii by Eleanor Antin (2001)

These were again based on the photographic tableaux by the conceptual artist, Eleanor Antin, entitled The Golden Death from the Last Days of Pompeii by Eleanor Antin (2001).

The Roses of Heligabalus by Lawrence Alma Tadema (1888)

One of the original photographs by Antin was based on the Lawrence Alma Tadema’s 1888 painting, The Roses of Heligabalus. In this painting the decadent Roman Emperor, Heliogabalus, kills his guests by smothering them to death with rose petals.

The Society of Outsiders (II) (after Eleanor Antin) by Natalie Papamichael (2018)

There is an unusual story behind these two large works of art.  In late 2016, Natalie had been invited to create two paintings for an exhibition in Central London for a charitable event.  She was shown where the paintings would be hung so that she could tailor the canvases to fit neatly in place.   She worked on the paintings up until the end of 2018 in preparation for the exhibition which was due to take place in January 2019. She eventually completed the two works but a month prior to the exhibition the Charity organisers baulked at the depictions and said they did not want them in full view and allocated her an alternative space on the back staircase.  They then said they did not want them at all and later excluded more of her paintings, deciding that it was best not to show any of her work.  Who said the life of an artist is easy !!!

In her painting, Self-Portrait at La Salpêtrière, Natalie is once again reimagining an original work of art. 

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A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière by Andre Brouillet (1887)

This time the artist is Andre Brouillet and the painting is A Clinical Lesson at La Salpêtrière which he completed in 1887.   La Pitie-Salpêtrière is a famous hospital for the mentally ill in Paris. The original work depicts the renowned neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot, giving one of his regular Tuesday lectures in how to treat an hysteric. It depicts the ‘queen of hysterics’ swooning and being caught by the nurses.

Self-Portrait at La Salpêtrière by Natalie Papamichael

In Papamichael’s painting the hysteric is replaced by Natalie’s own Self Portrait. Instead of passively swooning like Brouillet’s hysteric she is actively reading a book entitled ‘The Science of Woman’ and defiantly challenges the gaze of the male doctors.  Of the depiction, Natalie comments:

“…In my paintings I am both performing as the ‘male artist’, but also as the traditional, passive, female subject of the painting, thus challenging the binary opposition inherent in Art History. It is a way of inserting myself into the narratives and combining the past with the present to illustrate the similarities as well as to subvert the meaning…”

Anatomical Venus by Natalie Papamichael (2018)

Another of Natalie’s works featuring the science of medicine is her 2018 oil on aluminium panel, Anatomical Venus, which is based on the wax model which was created in 18th century Florence and displayed as part of the city’s public science museum, La Specola. It was used for instruction in anatomy. The models were also entitled ‘Slashed Beauties’ and ‘Dissecting Graces’. The doctors in the painting are from the 1931 black and white Frankenstein film. The painting juxtaposes the grotesque with the beautiful.

Herstory Rhymes by Natalie Papamichael

One of Natalie’s works which she considers as being of great importance is her painting entitled Herstory Rhymes which she feels encapsulates everything that is relevant to her practice and shows the most development from her early stages. There is reference to the film ‘Fahrenheit 451’ as the setting. She has changed the book titles so that each book is important in terms of censorship as well as her personal story. The poster which is about to burn in the background is ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials. This references the deep recession of the 1980s and suggests the notion that ‘history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.’  Of the painting she said:

“… My self-portrait is again a reflection of the apathy of people ignoring what is happening around them whilst looking at their mobile phones …”

Docile Bodies by Natalie Papamichael

Natalie Papamichael’s painting entitled Docile bodies is a re-imagined painting adapted from a still from a Karl Lagerfield fashion show.  The original image resembled an old Masters setting with the futurist models walking forwards. Natalie explains:

“… I wanted to integrate the absurdity and the futuristic look of the models walking forward in a regimented style and integrate this with a reference to the setting of the Old Masters and integrate this with my performance stills from the LSHTM (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine). In this performance I reference the poses of models from 16th and 17th century medical dictionaries and had misogynistic quotes from throughout history in which woman is subjugated because of her body and her bodily functions. Relating the historical subjugation of women through their bodies to culture today. The last model at the top of the staircase, is overtly referencing an eating disorder by pointing as if she is about to put her fingers down her throat. All the models also have a bar code on their wrists which references the commodification of people and is somewhat more pertinent than I realised it would be...”

Although the writing on the “shields” held by the three women is probably not visible in the picture they were three quotes:

Woman’s sexual needs have less of a mental character because generally speaking her mental life is less developed’ ( Emile Durkheim 1858-1917)
Every woman would prefer to be a man, just as every deformed wretch would prefer to be whole, and every idiot and fool would prefer to be learned and wise”. (Torquatto Tasso)
‘For 15 or 20 days (one could say almost perpetually) women is not only ill but wounded’ Jules Michelet 1798-1874
The Hydra by Natalie Papamichael (work in progress)

Natalie’s “work in progress” is her oil painting depicting the mythology of The Hydra. It is an allegorical piece based on contemporary world events. It is a pendant piece to ‘Herstory Rhymes.’  She explains her thoughts about the depiction:

“…For the beginning of the piece I used a still from a Percy Jackson film with the mythical creature, The Hydra. The Hydra is a monstrous serpent with nine heads and when a head is cut off another one simply grows back to replace it, thus the evil continues.  In my painting I have replaced the heads with politicians and people accused of orchestrating the constraints emerging on civil rights around the world. I am in the forefront of the painting looking at a mobile phone.  I have on my Marie-Antoinette wig and I am oblivious of what is happening around me. I have used one of my performance stills, as Salome, and I am about to strike one of the serpent heads. In the background there are screens depicting the widespread propaganda prevalent in the major media outlets around the world…”

She said that as she worked on it, it has evolved in its references and meanings. It also referenced the poem Jerusalem by Blake:

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
 
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

Dress made from the painting.

Around 1620 Artemesia Gentileschi completed her famous painting, Judith Beheading Holofernes. She portrays the moment that Holofernes is killed by the hand of the determined and formidable Judith. The overall effect is both powerful and frightening: the drunk corpulent general is lying on the bed, his head grasped by his hair and the sword plunged into his neck.

Judith Beheading Holofernes. by Artemesia Gentileschi (c.1620)

Furthermore, Artemisia did not shy away from adding the gory detail of blood spurting so profusely as to stain Judith’s breast.

Below we can see Natalie’s version of the famous painting.

Judith beheading Holofernes (after Artemesia Gentileschi) 2009-2011

Natalie has been continuing to teach herself using the methods she learnt in Florence. She has exhibited widely including exhibitions both within her studio as well as at Gallery Different and at the Society of Women Artists in London. Her practice has evolved in recent times to become more overtly political and she has started turning her paintings into merchandise to try to reach a wider audience.

The artist and I in her studio (Brighton 2021)

It has been my pleasure to collaborate with Natalie with these two blogs featuring her life and works of art. I wish her well in the future.

Natalie Papamichael. Part 1.

Natalie Papamichael in her studio

I have told you on a few occasions that I tend to write about artists who have passed away and steer clear of living artists as they may take offence about what I have written!  My featured artist in the next two blogs is a living painter who I was fortunate to meet and talk to her about her art.  She is an utterly fascinating person, as are her works of art.  She is strong-willed and holds very strong opinions with regards feminism and things that face us with twenty-first century living.  Her works, which I will show you, are hard-hitting and thought-provoking and although they may not be liked by all, I am amazed by them and of course you all well know that I like paintings with a background story. My artist today, Natalie Papamichael, who is based in Brighton on the south coast of England where she has her own studio, which I was fortunate to visit.  However, let me start this story before she was born and as we meander along her life’s path, I will introduce you to some of her paintings.

Natalie Papamichael in her studio with some of her paintings

Natalie was born on September 5th 1971 in Slough, Berkshire. She has one sister, Helen, who is three years older than her. Her father Nicholas came from Greek and Cypriot parentage and grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. He and his brother left Egypt to study in UK in 1956. Natalie’s mother, Nicole, is French and came from Paris. She moved to the UK in order to study English and it was in London that the couple met. They married in Athens in 1965 and had intended to live in Greece but a far-right military junta overthrew the caretaker government that ruled the country in April 1967 and the couple decided that it would be safer to stay and live in England. They settled in south-east London. Natalie’s father, a mathematician, worked at Brunel University in the Uxbridge area of west London, and her mother worked at the French Consulate in central London. Natalie was born on September 5th 1971. Her only sibling, a sister, Helen, was born in May 1968.

Self portrait as Medusa by Natalie Papamichael (2016)

Natalie started her schooling, aged five, at the Seer Green Church of England Primary School in 1976, and in 1983 she moved to the Chesham High School, Buckinghamshire where she remained until the age of sixteen. In 1987, having achieved good grades in nine GCSE subjects, she attended the Further Education establishment of Amersham College where she attained her A Levels in French, English Literature and Art. Natalie left the college in 1989 and applied for a place on an Art Foundation Course but was rejected. Subsequently she was offered a place on the “Reserve List” but still feeling aggrieved that they had turned her down initially, she rejected the place and decided to spend her “Gap Year” in Paris, where she had some friends and relatives. There she began working as an au pair, an occupation her sister had undertaken years before.

Self portrait as Marie Antoinette by Natalie Papamichael (2018)

Natalie returned to the UK where she had a place at Leeds University to study French and Brazilian Portuguese. Her reason for choosing this combination of subjects was less to do with future career ideas but more to do with the fact that she would get to spend time in Brazil and France. However, her university plans were abandoned when she became very unwell. Her illness was due to her excessive alcohol consumption combined with a debilitating eating disorder. Her weight at that time was down to below eighty pounds. Around this time, her parents had taken the decision to leave England and settle in Greece.  But in the meantime her father accepted a visiting professorship in Portugal . Natalie’s father was a Socialist and the re-election of Margaret Thatcher was more than he could bear !!! Her father eventually was offered a temporary teaching post at the University of Braga, near Porto and he and his wife travelled to Portugal. Later, due to her illness, Natalie joined them.

Watercolour pencil sketch on paper of Lily Cole by Natalie Papamichael (2005) with pencilled notes of her life at the time

At this time, her sister was living in Paris and so Natalie decided to leave Portugal and join her in the French capital. Initially she lived with her sister but later lived on her own in many different arrondissements around Paris. She loved Paris and continued with her painting. She would often visit the Musée d’Orsay where she would sit for many hours sketching. She loved films and would regularly go to the cinema. Another pleasing pastime was reading and she loved to while away the time sitting and reading in the many city parks. Natalie took on a variety of jobs such as working in some Irish pubs. She also had part time jobs at Chicage Meatpackers, Habitat, Galleries Lafayette and finally she got a job which she stayed at for several years as a receptionist at KPMG. At weekends she would sometimes visit and stay with relatives who lived in the suburbs of Paris.

Totem 01 by Natalie Papamichael (2019)

But all was not well and she began to have health problems due to her continuing high alcohol consumption exacerbated by her constant partying and this coupled with an eating disorder soon took its toll. She had made many friends and went to parties but as her drinking got worse, she became much more isolated and began to self-harm. Finally, she was admitted as an in-patient at L’ Hôpital Sainte Anne. She recalled later:

“…I did not realise at the time that it was a psychiatric hospital. I discovered that it was a famous psychiatric hospital in 2006, when I was sitting in a lecture at the Courtauld Institute. My tutor was talking about Nancy Spero and Antonin Artaud. She mentioned that Artaud had been in Hôpital Sainte Anne in Paris. I nudged my friend (who was also half French, half Greek) and told her I was in that hospital. She said did I realise it was a psychiatric hospital! I then looked into the history of the hospital and realised it had really interesting links to another artist, Unica Zurn. What was also very interesting about this was that Unica Zurn had lived a few doors down from where I lived with my sister in Rue Mouffetard…”

Massacre of the Madwomen by Natalie Papamichael (2019)

The narrative behind Natalie Papamichael’s 2019 painting entitled Massacre of the Madwomen resonated with her own story and her time spent in L’hopital Sainte-Anne in Paris. The characters that she used are pertinent for the stories that they are taken from. The women she enacts are the typical ‘hysterics’.  Her work is based on a black and white print of the event entitled Massacre at la Salpêtrière, 3 September 1792.

La Salpêtrière was a famous asylum in Paris, which, during this period, was operated more like a prison, housing women who were prostitutes, the poor, the mentally ill and the disabled. The Massacre was part of the bloody September massacres in Paris during the French Revolution. On the nights of September 3rd and 4th 1792, La Salpêtrière was stormed with the intention of releasing the detained women. However, out of fear that the inmates would join the foreign and royalist armies, thirty-five of the women were dragged into the streets and murdered. Natalie’s painting is a re-imagaing of the Massacre once again using her own performance still images as well as characters from other sources, such as her favourite films, The Red Shoes and Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari.

Self Portrait with her painting *Society of Outsiders” by Natalie Papamichael (2018)

When Natalie was finally released from the Paris hospital she began to concentrate on her art and plan for the future. She created many paintings whilst in hospital which she exhibited at Finnegan’s Wake. Her excessive drinking became worse and after a progressive mental and physical descent, she managed to stop drinking. She has not had a drink now for twenty-seven years!. Natalie knew the only thing she really wanted to do was art. She had hoped to apply for entrance to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris but they did not recognise her English qualifications and so in 1996 she returned to London. She gained employment as a receptionist at Talkback TV Production and it was whilst working there that they allowed her to work part time so she was able to enrol on a part-time Foundation Course at the prestigious London art school, Central Saint Martins. In 2000 she married Mark, an English teacher and musician, at a civil ceremony at Brighton Registry Office, followed by a small wedding in Agios Dimitrios, a small church at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens. Having completed the Foundation Course at CSM, she went on to do a full time BA in Fine Art at the school. During her final year at Central St Martins, she became pregnant with their first child. She used her pregnant body for performances at a time when she was looking at the feminist performance artists of 1979’s. She became involved with the Women’s Art Library, researching feminist performance artists of the 1970s and creating her own performances. In 2002 her first born, Ziggy, was born. Four years later, in 2006, she studied for a MA in Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, a degree she attained the following year. It was at the Courtauld that she explored the exclusion of women from academic training and how art history had recorded the struggle of female artists to gain deserved recognition.

Self portrait with Ziggy (as Madonna and Child) by Natalie Papamichel (2013)

One of her most beautiful works is her 2013 painting, Self portrait with Ziggy (as Madonna and Child) which she completed in 2013.  She used the Madonna and Child painting by Artemisia Gentileschi as the direct reference and re-interpreted this to show the reality of motherhood.  It is such a tender depiction of Natalie and her first-born son.  Did the baby sit still for the portrait?  Actually she used a teddy bear !! (She said that she collaged two photos together, the calm pose was the one with the teddy bear and the other was the one with Ziggy crying).

868px-Madonna-and-child-Gentileschi
Madonna and Child by Artemesia Gentileschi (c.1612)

Maud Allan, born as either Beulah Maude Durrant or Ulah Maud Alma Durrant in August 1873. She was a Canadian dancer, chiefly noted for her Dance of the Seven Veils.  She was a favourite of the music hall and popular theatres, where a population from diverse social backgrounds went to watch a variety of plays, sketches, comedy and songs- much like a modern variety show.

Maud Allan

As a tribute to Allan, Natalie has crafted her oil on aluminium painting Self-portrait as Salome (after Maud Allan).

Self-portrait as Salome (after Maud Allan) by Natalie Papamichael

……………………….to be continued


The idea to write about Natalie Papamichael came from an interview I read in Natasha Moura’s excellent art blog:  Women’n Art

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.

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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 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

Lilla Cabot Perry. Part 2.

                                                 Portrait of Alice Frye Leach by Lilla Cabot Perry (c.1880)

It was in 1889 that Lilla Cabot Perry first encountered Claude Monet’s work at the prestigious Galerie Georges Petit in Paris which staged a Monet/Rodin collaboration exhibition (Claude Monet-Auguste Rodin, centenaire de l’exposition de 1889), that opened on June 21st.  It was also in that summer of 1889 that Lilla and her husband first met the great French painter.  According to an article written by Lilla, which appeared in the March 1927 edition of the American Magazine of Art, a young American sculptor who was living in Paris mentioned to her and her husband that he had a letter of introduction to meet Monet but he was very nervous and shy with going on his own to the great man’s house so asked the couple if they would accompany him on his visit.  Lilla and Thomas Perry were delighted to accept the invitation as they had greatly appreciated what they had seen at the Claude Monet-Auguste Rodin exhibition.

In the article Lilla recounts her first impressions of Monet.  She wrote:

“… The man himself with his rugged honesty, his disarming frankness, his warm and sensitive nature, was fully as impressive as his pictures and from this first visit dates a friendship which led us to spend ten summers at Giverny.  For some seasons, indeed, we had the house and garden next to his and he would sometimes stroll in and smoke his afternoon-luncheon cigarette in our garden before beginning on his afternoon work…”

The Impressionism style that Lilla encountered with the art of Monet was an epiphany moment for her. She immediately took to this style even though it was still rejected and scorned by the art world around her.  The way the Impressionists managed the colour and light was a great inspiration to her and during those summer days at Giverny she also worked with many American artists, who had found their way to the small French town to sample the joys of plein air painting in the rural surroundings, such as Theodore Robinson, John Breck, and Theodore Earl Butler.

                                               La Petite Angèle, II, by Lilla Cabot Perry (1889)

One of her painting during her time in Giverny was her 1889 work entitled La petite Angèle II.  It is impressionistic in style with its free form brushstrokes that capture the impression of light and colour.   Claude Monet, inspired Perry to work en plein air, and use impressionistic brushstrokes, soft colours, and poppy red. If you look through the window depicted in this work you should note the early stages of what would become Lilla’s love affair with the way the Impressionists treated landscape depictions.

Angela by Lilla Cabot Perry, 1891, High Museum of Art.jpg
                                                                  Angela by Lilla Cabot Perry, (1891)

A similar work by Lilla was entitled Angela.  It was a portrait of one of her favourite models in Giverny. The clearly defined figure posed in a freely brushed and light-filled setting typifies academic American Impressionism of the time.

A Little Girl in a Lane in Giverny - Lilla Cabot Perry Painting
                                            A Little Girl in a Lane in Giverny by Lilla Cabot Perry

In late 1889 Lilla Cabot Perry and her husband left Giverny and embarked on a tour of Belgium and the Netherlands.  In 1891 she returned to Boston with her family bringing home a painting by Monet and a number of landscapes works by John Breck.  Once back in Boston she began to spread the word of Impressionism especially the works of Monet.  However, like many art critics in France, Impressionism was not favoured by either the American critics or the buying public and Lilla had to begin with a hard-sell of his works.  She would exhibit his works at her home and give talks about him and the world of Impressionism to the Boston Art Students’ Association. 

                      Portrait of Baroness R by Lilla Cabot Perry, (1895)

Whether Bostonians accepted the merit of Monet’s work or not, the one thing for sure was that they appreciated the paintings of Lilla Cabot Perry, especially her portraiture.  Several of her paintings were exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and were greeted with great acclaim.   In 1897 she exhibited work at the St Botolphs Club in Boston and the art critic of the Boston Evening Transcript wrote:

“…Mrs Perry is one of the most genuine, no-nonsense, natural painters that we known of………………Such work must be taken seriously…”

The Letter, 1893 - Lilla Cabot Perry
                                           The Letter (Alice Perry) by Lilla Cabot Perry (1893)

Lilla Perry’s artistic success in 1889 had made it possible for her to be one of the select few young artists to be admitted to Alfred Stevens’ class in Paris.  The works of Lilla Perry were often influenced by the time she spent with Stevens. A good example of this is her 1893 painting entitled The Letter [Alice Perry] and the way she has depicted the chair, especially the careful attention she has paid to  the colouration of the wood, and the way she has depicted her youngest daughter’s clothes in such detail.  It is a loving portrait of a nine-year-old daughter by her mother.

Black-and-white interior photograph of a light-skinned adult woman in profile with dark hair in a bun and a light-color dress. She stands in front of an easel and holds a palatte and brushes in her left hand. She rests her right hand on a painting of a light-skinned young girl.
                                                                       Lilla Cabot Perry at work (c.1890)
Lilla Cabot Perry, 1896 - Haystacks, Giverny.jpg
Haystacks, Giverny by Lilla Cabot Perry (1896)

In 1894, sheonce again exhibited her impressionism paintings at the St. Botolph Club in Boston together with other Impressionism artists, including Edmund Tarbell, Phillip Hale, Theodore Wendel, and the British-born painter Dawson-Watson. Three years later, and in the same gallery, Lilla held a solo exhibition.  On show were her Impressionist-style portraits and landscapes. 

Giverny Landscape, in Monet’s Garden by Lilla Cabot Perry (1897)

This proved to be a major turning point for Lilla Perry as it showed that her work was gaining the recognition of the American art world and that Impressionism was finally being acknowledged as a legitimate artistic expression. Lilla Perry was a devoted Impressionist painter and she loved the work of the Impressionists, especially the works of her friend Claude Monet.  Now back in America she took every opportunity to endorse French Impressionism and urged her friends to invest in their work.  She also gave many lectures and wrote essays for journals and magazines supporting this French art movement.

In a Japanese Garden by Lilla Cabot Perry (1901)

Between 1868 and 1872, Lilla’s husband, Thomas Perry, was a tutor in German at Harvard and from 1877 to 1881, he was an English instructor in English as well as being a lecturer in English literature from 1881 to 1882. Thomas Perry was offered a new challenge in 1897 when he was presented with the opportunity to take up a teaching position in Japan as an English professor at the Keio Gijuku University in Tokyo.  Lilla and her husband along with their three children left America and travelled to Japan.  Not only was this and exciting time for her husband it was also a stimulating time for Lilla and offered her new opportunities to paint.

In 1898, he became professor of English literature in the Keio University, in Tokyo, Japan.  The Perry family lived in Japan for three years and Lilla immersed herself in its artistic community.  Lilla Perry met Okakura Kakuzō, one of the Imperial Art School co-founders and became an honorary member of the Nippon Bijutsu-In Art Association, an artistic organization in Japan dedicated to a Japanese style painting known as Nihonga.

Portrait of a Young Girl with an Orange by Lilla Cabot Perry (1898-1901)

Such an involvement in the Japanese art and Asian art in general helped Lilla develop her unique style which fused western and eastern artistic traditions.

Child in Kimono by Lilla Cabot Perry (1898)

The result of this coming together of east and west can be seen in her Impressionist portraits.  

Lilla Cabot Perry, Mount Fuji with Gravestones, Harvard.jpg
Lilla Cabot Perry, Mount Fuji with Gravestones, 1898-1901

It was not just her portraiture that Lilla focused on during her three-year stay in Japan, she also completed a number of landscape works.  By far her most favoured subjects were ones depicting Mount Fuji.  Of about eighty paintings she completed whilst in Japan, thirty-five depicted the iconic mountain.

Open Air Concert by Lilla Cabot Perry (1890)

Lilla and her family left Japan for America in 1901 and settled back into their house in Boston.  Her three daughters were now all in their twenties and their mother had completed a number of paintings feature all of them or as individuals. In an early painting entitled Open Air Concert, which she completed in 1890, she depicts her three daughters in a garden setting with her eldest, Margaret, with her back to us, posed playing the violin.

The Trio, Tokyo, Japan by Lilla Cabot Perry (1901)

Almost ten years later Lilla’s three musically-talented daughters featured in her 1901 painting entitled The Trio, Tokyo, Japan (Alice, Edith and Margaret Perry).  In 1903 Lilla and Thomas Perry bought a farm in Hancock, New Hampshire.  She said she immediately fell in love with the area as it reminded her of Normandy, an area she knew well from her days at Giverny. 

Portrait of Mrs Joseph Clark Grew (Alice Perry) by Lilla Cabot Perry (1905)

Alice Perry, Lilla’s youngest daughter featured in her mother’s portrait entitled Portrait of Mrs. Joseph Clark Grew [Alice Perry].  Joseph Grew married Alice Perry on October 7th, 1905 and became her husband’s life partner and helper as promotions in the diplomatic service took them around the world.   The couple went on to have two daughters, Lilla Cabot in 1907 and Elizabeth Alice in 1912.  Lilla’s portrait of her daughter won her a bronze medal at the prestigious International Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis.

Portrait of William Dean Howells by Lilla Cabot Perry (1912)

In the first decade of the twentieth century Lilla Cabot Perry divided her time between Boston and France but her health had started to deteriorate possibly due to all the travel she was doing but also because of financial problems.  Her inheritance had dwindled and she was the main source of the family income through the sale of her paintings.   The financial difficulties the family were experiencing meant that she had to spend a lot of her time completing portraiture commissions to make up for the money that her family was losing in investments.  She once declared that she had had to complete thirteen portraits in thirteen weeks, four sitters a day at two hours each.   It also rankled with her that she had to concentrate on portraiture as her Impressionistic landscapes were viewed as too experimental by her conservative patrons.  An example of her portraiture work around this time was her 1912 Portrait of William Dean Howells, the prolific American novelist, playwright and literary critic.

See the source image
Portrait of Edith Perry Ballantine and Edward Ballantine by Lilla Cabot Perry

In 1923 Lilla was struck down with diphtheria and at the same time she was struggling to support her middle daughter, Edith, who had suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to a private mental health institution in Wellesley, Massachusetts.  Lilla spent two years convalescing in Charleston, South Carolina.

Lilla Perry, like many other nineteenth century painters, was unhappy with the new avant-garde trends in Modern art such as Fauvism led by Henri Matisse and André Derain and so in 1914 she, along with Edmund Tarbell, William Paxton and Frank Benson, helped form the ultra-conservative Guild of Boston Artists in order to oppose the art world’s avant-garde trends.  In 1920 Perry received a commemoration for giving six years of loyal service to the Guild.

A Snowy Monday by Lilla Cabot Perry

During her time convalescing she discovered a new inventiveness for her landscape works, what she termed as “snowscapes.” These beautiful winter landscapes laden with snow became a craving 0f Lilla’s and she would go to extreme lengths to capture winter scenes en plein air, even bundling herself up in blankets and hot water bottles in order to capture the beauty of a 4 a.m. sunrise. One of her most famous “snowscapes” was her 1926 work entitled A Snowy Monday.

Lilla Perry by Frederick A Bosley (1931)

Her summer home in Hancock soon became her main residence and she and her husband Thomas settled into village life in the picturesque New Hampshire foothills.   Thomas Perry died of pneumonia on May 7th 1928, aged 83.  Lilla Cabot Perry continued to paint prolifically until her death on February 28th, 1933.   Lilla and Thomas Perrys’ ashes are buried at Pine Ridge Cemetery in Hancock.

Lilla Cabot Perry. Part 1.

Lilla Cabot Perry, self portrait
                                               Self portrait by Lilla Cabot Perry (1913)

The artist I am looking at today, born Lilla Cabot, comes from a long line of powerful and wealthy descendants.  The Cabot family was part of the Boston Brahmin, also known as the “first families of Boston.  It all goes back to John Cabot, who was born on the Isle of Jersey on April 7th 1680.  At the age of twenty he set sail for America and settled in Salem, Massachusetts in 1700.  John was not part of the first community to have arrived in the New World but by the end of the eighteenth century, the Cabots were the pre-eminent family of New England.  By 1800 John and his son Joseph Cabot were extremely wealthy, largely because of their privateering during the American Revolution, smuggling, and trading in slaves and opium.  Shipping during the eighteenth century was the lifeblood of most of Boston’s first families.  In the nineteenth century, the Cabot enterprises multiplied and took in oil and gas production, railroads, and chemicals.  The Cabots maintained their wealth and social status into the twentieth century, in the main, by educating most of their sons at Harvard and carefully arranging their marriages and the marriages of their daughters.

Lilla Cabot was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 13th, 1848.  She was the eldest of eight children of Doctor Samuel Cabot III and her mother, Hannah Lowell Jackson.  She had six brothers and one sister.  Her family was one of the most important in Boston society, and the family were on friendly terms with such literary luminaries as Louisa May Alcott, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

                                         Child in Window by Lilla Cabot Perry (1891)

Lilla had a good and fulfilling childhood and was given the freedom to think for herself by her parents.  She was an avid reader and liked taking part in outdoor sports.  During her school years she studied literature, language, poetry, and music but during her early teenage years there she had no great interest in painting and drawing except that occasionally she would take part in sketching sessions with her friends.  As a child and teenager she never received any formal art training, This would not happen until she was thirty-six years of age !

The Cabots played an active role in Boston society and through that young Lila came into contact with many people who would congregate at the Cabot residence.  On April 12th, 1861, when Lila was just thirteen years old, the American Civil War began.  Her parents, coming from the North, were passionate abolitionists and they took a hands-on role in the war effort by offering care to wounded soldiers and helping to safeguard runaway slaves.  Lilla Cabot was seventeen when the Civil War finally ended and it was around this time that her father moved his family out of the city and relocated them to farmstead in Canton, Massachusetts, a small rural town about 15 miles southwest of downtown Boston.  It was probably here that Lilla Cabot became interested in landscapes and rural life.

Portrait of Thomas Sergeant Perry by Lilla Cabot Perry, (1889)

Thomas Sergeant Perry was an American editor, academic, literary critic, literary translator, and literary historian. From his early childhood days, he was a close friend and associate of Henry James who would become one of Americas greatest novelists.   Perry was a member of the faculty at Harvard University and after graduating in 1866, went to study in Germany.  He returned to America and in 1872 worked for the literary magazine, North American Review. He was the grandnephew of U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry and a Harvard professor who was once described as ‘the best-read man in Boston’.  He and Lilla Cabot became friends and the relationship turned into love and on April 9th, 1874, twenty-six-year-old Lilla Cabot married twenty-nine-year-old Thomas Sergeant Perry.   The couple went on to have three daughters, Margaret born in 1876, Edith in 1880, and Alice in 1884.

Lilla Cabot Perry, Portrait of an Infant, Margaret Perry.JPG
                               Portrait of an Infant, Margaret Perry, by Lilla Cabot Perry (c.1877)

The answer to why Lilla became interested in art is thought to be due to the encouragement to take up painting by her husband’s brother in-law John LaFarge, an artist famous for his stained-glass windows, and the husband of Thomas Sergeant Perry’s sister Margaret.  One of Lilla’s first works was that of her infant daughter Margaret.

Lilla Cabot Perry, The Beginner, 1885, University of Arizona Art Museum.jpg
                  The Beginner (Margaret with a Violin) by Lilla Cabot Perry (1885)

In the same year that Lilla’s youngest daughter was born she enrolled on her first artistic course.  She began with private lessons in 1885, with the portrait painter Alfred Quentin Collins and one of the first works she completed under the tutelage of Collins was the 1885 work entitled The Beginner which depicts her ten-year-old daughter Margaret playing the violin.

See the source image
     Portrait of Alexander Stewart Wetherill by Alfred Quentin Collins

Looking at this portrait of her daughter playing the violin, it can be seen the input Collins must have had on Lilla as seen in Collins’ Portrait of Alexander Stewart Wetherill.  The depiction has the same dark background and the sitter has the same serious facial expression.   

See the source image
                                     Robert Vonnoh, Self portrait

In 1885, Lilla’s father died and left her an inheritance and this financial backing gave her the chance to enrol at art institutions which would afford her the chance to study art more earnestly. In January 1886, she began to study with Robert Vonnoh, an American Impressionist painter known for his portraits and landscapes.  At the time, Vonnoh taught at both the Cowles Art School in Boston and at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Lilla was inspired with Vonnoh’s more unorthodox work which was very different to that of Alfred Collins and it was to be the beginning of her artistic journey and lifelong commitment to Impressionism.  Another tutor she worked under at Cowles School was Dennis Miller Bunker, a leading American Impressionist, who was the Cowles School chief instructor of figure and cast drawing, artistic anatomy, and composition.

                                          The Red Hat,” or “Edith,” by Lilla Cabot Perry

In 1887 Lilla Cabot Perry received a commission to paint the portraits of the three daughters of Aaron Lufkin Dennison, one of the founders of the Waltham Watch Company.  It was a valuable assignment and covered the cost of first-class sea voyage to Europe in June 1887 for her and her husband.  Upon arriving in France, Perry enrolled in the Académie Colarossi where she worked with Gustave Courtois and Joseph Blanc. She also studied with Felix Borchardt, a German painter. In addition to receiving formal academic training, Perry spent much of her time studying the old masters at the Louvre in Paris.  She also travelled to Madrid and spent time copying works at the Museo del Prado. Her 1888 painting The Red Hat, is testament to her previous formal training she had received back in America as well as the time she spent in Europe studying the works of the old Masters, especially the work of Sandro Botticelli.

                                                   Fritz von Udhe in his studio

In 1888 Perry travelled to Munich where she studied with the German painter Fritz von Uhde, who mainly worked with genre painting and religious motifs .  Over the years, his colour palette became stronger and more colourful, similar to those of his impressionist artist colleagues.  His painting style could be described as being between Realism and Impressionism, and he was once known as “Germany’s outstanding impressionist” Fritz von Udhe became one of the first painters to introduce plein-air painting in Germany.

                                                                     Tony  Robert-Fleury in his studio

Lilla Cabot Perry left Germany in the Autumn of 1888 and returned to Paris where she enrolled in art classes at Académie Julian under the tutelage of Tony Robert-Fleury, a French painter, known primarily for historical scenes.

                       Le Grand Salon, Musée Jacquemart-André, by Walter Gay (1913)

One of Lilla’s fellow artist friends was Walter Gay, the Massachusetts born painter who was residing in Paris.  Many young American artists who arrived in Paris in the late 19th-century became Gay’s pupils so much so that the New York Times labelled him the “Dean of American Artists in Paris”.  At the start of his career he would often depict realist scenes of French peasantry but later in life he began to depict stylish interiors with exquisite furnishings.  It was Walter Gay, in 1889, who persuaded Lilla to put forward two of her paintings for inclusion at an exhibition held by the Société des Artistes Indépendants

See the source image
                                    The Red Tunic(Portrait of Edith Perry) by Lilla Cabot Perry (1889)

The paintings were portraits of her husband, Thomas Sergeant Perry, (seen earlier on) and one of her middle child, nine year old daughter, Edith, also known as The Red Tunic.  They were accepted into the exhibition and that success marked the start of Lilla Cabot Perry’s artistic career. 

                                                            Elegant Figures in a Salon by Alfred Stevens

The success of her paintings also enhanced her reputation as an artist, so much so that she was admitted as a student at one of Belgium artist’s Alfred Stevens’ class in Paris.  Stevens like Walter Gay depicted opulent French interiors but in his case he added genteel ladies to his depictions.

In the summer of 1889 Lilla and her husband met Claude Monet…………………

……………………………….to be continued.

Hilda Rix Nicholas. Part 4.

                                                                            Hilda Rix Nicholas (1910)

Many of Hilda’s works were sold and the success of the exhibition led to many of her Australian works of art touring London and British regional art galleries.   The most prestigious of these being at the Royal Academy in London and at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers,

                                                                          His Land by Hilda Rix Nicholas

A solo exhibition of her work was on view in December 1924 at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London, and one of the works on display was His Land, which was described as having “the rare quality of conveying the spirit of life in the Commonwealth.  Back in Australia, the December 5th 1925 edition of the Newcastle Morning Herald printed an article about the painting and the exhibition:

AUSTRALIAN WOMAN ARTIST.

Something of the beauty and grandeur of life in Australia is to be found in the art exhibition opened at the Beaux Arts Gallery, Bruton-place, by the Australian High Commissioner. The artist. Mrs.Hilda RIx Nicholas, is an Australian and her works possess the rare quality of conveying, the spirit of life in the Commonwealth as well as portraying) that life pictorially. “His Land.” The most important work of the exhibition. might almost be termed great. It is a perfect example of the difficult art oil figure and’ landscape combination. In the foreground ‘is a young settler on horseback; contemplating a vast sunlit valley, which stretches away to the distant Blue Mountains. A. J. Munnings himself could not have painted horse and rider better. The trees, fields, and mountains are brightly coloured, and the whole picture. seems.to convey, the sunny heat-laden atmosphere of Australia.

It was not just in English galleries that her work was exhibited,  for in Paris, she appeared at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts Spring exhibition in Paris, in which she had eight works, a very large number for a single artist. The Société not only hung many of her paintings and drawings, she was elected an Associate to the organisation in that year.

            Les fleurs dédaignées by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1925)

One of her most famous paintings was completed in 1925 whilst she was living in Paris.  It was entitled Les fleurs dédaignées (The scorned flowers).  It was a monumental painting, the largest of all her works, measuring 193.0 x 128.5 cm (76 x 51 inches).  Rix Nicholas concentrated on details of costume and decoration.  The ornate eighteenth-century-style floral dress we see on the model was created by the artist specifically for the painting.  The female stands indoors before an early twentieth-century pastiche of a seventeenth-century Flemish tapestry, which was once owned by the artist.   So, what is going on in the depiction we see before us?  Look at the female.  Her pale skin appears smooth and without blemish, almost like a porcelain doll.  Her head looks so small in relation to her voluminous dress.  The model for this work was a Parisian professional model and a prostitute, apparently with a reputation for being moody and cantankerous and this comes across as we study her face.  She stands upright in a dignified but arrogant manner.  She pouts.  What is she thinking? Look at her facial expression, is it an expression of contempt or maybe sullenness?   On the floor at her feet, we can see a bouquet of flowers which she has discarded and which are mirrored in the pattern of her dress.  What was the artist’s reason for that?   Are they from her lover who she has now rejected?  Look at her gaze.  Who is she looking at out the corner of her eyes?    So many unanswered questions.  Many art historians have had their say but few agree and so it is up to you to come up with answers!

When the work was displayed in Sydney in 1927, the art correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald of June 27th wrote:

“…For combination of grace, dramatic strength, and clearness in technique this picture would be difficult to surpass. There is nothing finicky about it; it tells its story with vivid directness. As a background to the figure Mrs. Rix Nicholas has set a piece of antique tapestry, so that the trees on either side lean in arch-wise over the head, the face and shoulders stand out clearly against an expanse of sky, and behind the body and limbs extends a countryside full of towers and rivers and trees. The quaint conventionality of this background accords exactly with the late eighteenth-century costume, all sprigged with roses and heliotrope; and the whole mass of detail harmonies [sic] perfectly with the type of the model’s face. It is a cold, selfish face. The artist has brought out with revealing strokes an expression of vindictive malice which is for the moment resting there; and the hands, the fingers of one grasped tightly by the other, give a clear indication of nervous tension within. The treatment of flesh tones and the general arrangement [sic], drawing attention gently but not too obtrusively to the columbines scattered on the polished floor—those are excellent…”

The painting was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 2008 from the artist’s son, Rix Wright.

                                               Le Bigdouen by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1925)

During her period in France Hilda put together a number of new paintings including portraits of traditional life and costume, whilst she spent her summers in Brittany.  Before she left Europe, she had Le Bigouden, a painting she completed in 1925, hung at the Royal Academy’s 1926 Summer Exhibition.  Le Bigouden and La Bigoudène were the names given to men and women who inhabited the Pont-l’Abbé region of Brittany

                                                      The Fair Musterer by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1935 )

At the end of 1926, Hilda Rix Nicholas and Dorothy Richmond returned together to Australia. They decided to continue with their painting adventures and bought a car, modified it to hold all their painting paraphernalia and set off to roam New South Wales and Queensland and paint the Australian landscape from Canberra and the Monaro plains to the south, up into central Queensland .  Hilda returned to Delegate where she had spent time before setting sail to Europe.  Once again, she met up with farmers, Neil, and Edgar Wright.  For Hilda it was a welcome return to the man she loved and On June 2nd 1928 she and Edgar Wright married in Melbourne.   In 1930, Hilda and her husband had their only child, a son, whom they named Rix.  Hilda stopped painting during their son’s infancy but once he became a young boy, she resumed with her art.  Coincidentally, her friend and travel companion, Dorothy Richmond, married Edgar Wright’s cousin, Walter, and settled in the same region.

                 The Shepherd of Knockalong by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1933)

Hilda and Edgar Wright went to live in a property called Knockalong in the Tombong valley which was situated close to Delegate.  It was a large and successful pastoral station, run by Edgar and his station hands and he is represented as the Shepherd of Knockalong in Hilda’s 1933 painting.  The painting, which is one of the first works that Hilda Rix Nicholas produced, following her return to painting in 1934, after the birth of her only child,  was one of many which depicted the life on the land in the Monaro of New South Wales, which is one of the centres of Australia’s rich and productive farmland.

                                                    Rix – The artists son by Hilda Rix Nicholas (c.1948 )

Their son, Rix attended boarding school at Tudor House and then at Geelong Grammar. It was whilst attending the grammar school that he fell in love with sculpting. in fact, he created the two gateway sculptures that still adorn the entrance today.  There was a differing of opinion between mother and father as to what their son’s future path should be.  His father wanted him to take over the Merino stud and his mother wanted him to pursue an art career. In the end, to keep both happy, he combined his love for the southern Monaro landscape and his sculpting He managed the property and when he had free time, he created his sculpted works of art.

                                                                     The Shearer by Rix Wright (1949)

Rix created The Shearer when he was just 19 years old. Cast in bronze, The Shearer bends at the hip over a held sheep, its fleece almost entirely removed and laying at its feet.

Hilda carried on producing works of art for the next twenty-five years and had them shown at numerous exhibitions but by the time of her last exhibition, her love of painting was diminishing and the thoughts of what she had achieved and what was her future began to depress her.  In a letter to her son she talked of that depression, writing:

“…Not doing anything creative is nearly killing me. The trouble is that there is no one near me who cares whether I ever do any more work or not … I feel the artist in me is dying and the dying is an agony … only one’s self knows the craving and the best part in one is aching unsatisfied…”

                   Rix Wright, son of Hilda Rix Nichols Wright

At this juncture in her life, with her health deteriorating, and her fervour for art fading, she did exhibit for the final time in 1954 in Sydney.  It was a group exhibition with two of her oil paintings shown alongside her son’s sculpture The Shearer also on display.

Hilda Rix Nicholas Wright died in Delegate on 3 August 1961, a month before her seventy-seventh birthday.

Fern Isabel Coppedge. Part 2.

                                                      The Coal Barge by Fern Isabel Coppedge

One of Fern Coppedge’s later paintings, The Coal Barge, which she completed around 1940, featured the Delaware Canal.  The sixty-mile canal and the coal barges, which ploughed their way down its length, were an important means of transporting anthracite coal from north-eastern Pennsylvania to Philadelphia.  This barge trade lasted a hundred years and started in 1932 and in its heyday, over three thousand mule drawn boats travelled up and down this waterway carrying more than one million tons of coal every year.  This mode of transport became obsolete with the transporting of coal by rail.  This depiction of the canal and towpaths was a favourite depiction of many artists at the time.  There was a connection between Fern and the mules, which were used to tow the barges, as her studio was in a barn which once housed the working animals.

                                            Evening Local, New Hope by Fern Isabel Coppedge (C.1930)

In 1933 Fern completed a painting entitled Evening Local, New Hope which originally had the title, Five O’clock Train, which pictorially presents historical documentation of the schoolhouses which were in the New Hope-Solebury School District.  The painting depicts New Hope Elementary School which can be seen on the hill off West Mechanic Street in New Hope.  The building is no longer a school but is now the home of the New Hope Jewish congregation Kehilat NaHanar known locally as the “Little Shul by the River.”

                                                         The Opalescent Sea by Fern Isabel Coppedge

Coppedge divided her time between her Boxwood home in Lumberville, her studio in the coastal town of Gloucester where she often spent summers, and a studio in Philadelphia which she used during exhibitions.  In 1916 Fern spoke about her plein air painting at the Massachusetts fishing town of Cape Ann, Gloucester, and how she had many ardent onlookers.  She wrote:

“…In the waters shown in my paintings, there were a number of lobster traps. The fishermen were so much interested in the development of the picture of this familiar scene that in order to have an excuse to see it they would bring me a freshly boiled lobster, and the old sea captains would entertain me with thrilling stories of stormy nights spent in their little fishing schooners on the Newfoundland Banks and the Georges…”

                                       The Philadelphia Ten.
                             Fern Coppedge, back row on left)

In 1922 Fern was accepted into the all-women art society known as the Philadelphia Ten and exhibited regularly with them through to 1935.   They were an exclusive and progressive group of female artists and sculptors who ignored society rules of the time by working and exhibiting together. 

Coppedge once talked about her favoured methodology of painting and how she favoured working plein air to capture the essence of nature, notwithstanding inclement weather conditions:

“…I may erase most of my sketch, but after I have it the way I want it in charcoal, then I work over the entire canvas with a large brush. I use thin paint in trying to get the right value. I test different spots to see whether the scene should be painted rich or pale. Then I proceed with the actual painting using paint right from the tube. I hold the brush at arm’s length and paint from the spine. That gives relaxation…”

                                            Winter Solitude, Lambertville by Fern Isabel Coppedge

Pennsylvania Impressionism was an American Impressionist movement of the first half of the 20th century that was centred in and around Bucks County, Pennsylvania, particularly the town of New Hope. The movement is sometimes referred to as the “New Hope School” or the “Pennsylvania School” of landscape painting. Fern Coppedge was the only female member of The New Hope School.  She was part of that art movement and devoted numerous pictures to her Bucks County environment especially her winter scenes and she would suffer for her art with her plein air painting in the sub-zero conditions.   She was fascinated with the beauty of the snow.  There is no doubt that the extreme cold winters challenged her devotion to plein air painting.   She tried to get round this and carry on painting as long as she could by removing the back seat of her car to paint from an enclosed warm area. In cold windy conditions she would often tie her canvases to trees to fight off the wind and would wear her unfashionable but fit-for-purpose bearskin coat.  It was said by a local art critic for The New Hope magazine in November 1933:

“…We remember seeing Mrs. Coppedge trudging through the deep snow wrapped in a bearskin coat, her sketching materials slung over her shoulder, her blue eyes sparkling with the joy of life…”.

                                              Carversville by Fern Isabel Coppedge

There was a difference between her paintings and the other New Hope Impressionists.  Unlike other New Hope Impressionists, Fern Coppedge looked at the landscape scenes she was to paint with different eyes than them.    Of course, the first thing she acknowledged was what the eyes saw or the true photographic image.  However, she would also want an input from her imagination and how the scene felt like to her, and it was this power of imagination that led her to paint scenes with colours and tones which did not exist in reality.

       The Brook at Carversville by Edward Redfield (ca. 1923), (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

An example of her differing style can be seen if you compare her depiction of Carversville with the depiction of the same place by her fellow New Hope School artist, Edward Redfield.

Often her scenes would not be topographically correct.  Again, it was down to her power of imagination which countered reality and the finished result was an idealised version of the scene which was all about pleasing the artist.  In her mind, the depiction was a battle between what was actually there in front of her against what she imagined should be there.  Instead of depicting building using true brown and grey colours, Fern preferred to use pink and turquoise to, as if by magic, brighten facades. A travesty of art ?  Maybe we should think of how nowadays we adjust photographs, using photo editing packages, to achieve, not a true result, but a result we find more pleasing !  The fact her paintings sold so well is testament that the buying public had no problem with her idealisation or colour shifts.

                                                 Back Road to Pipersville by Fern Isabel Coppedge

Fern joined “The Philadelphia Ten” in 1922 and exhibited regularly with them for the next thirteen through 1935. The Philadelphia Ten, which was founded in 1917, was both a unique and forward-thinking group of women artists and sculptors who ignored the rules of society and the art world by working and exhibiting together for almost thirty years. Their work was varied and included both urban and rural landscapes, portraiture, still life, and a variety of representational and myth-inspired sculpture.  The group of local female artists started with eleven founding members, who were all alumnae of either the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts and the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (known today as Moore College of Art and Design), but over the years the membership rose to thirty artists, twenty three who were painters and seven who were sculptors.

                                               The Golden Arno by Fern Isabel Coppedge (c. 1926)

In the summer of 1925, Coppedge travelled to Italy and immersed herself in painting local scenes.  She stayed in the city of Florence, which was a base for her travels around Tuscany, ever recording pictorially the beauty of the Tuscan landscape.  It is thought that during her time in Tuscany Fern was inspired to change her painting style.  She began to simplify the natural elements she saw before her, often flattening them and she also became much more audacious when it came to her colour choices.  One of my favourite works from this period is Coppedge’s painting entitled The Golden Arno.  She had sketched views of the great Italian river as it passed through Tuscany and the painting was completed back in her home studio.  Coppedge talked about this painting and how it came about:

“…From my hotel, overlooking the Arno in Florence—looking from the balcony window—I saw the Arno River flowing gently like molten gold. It was late afternoon, and lazy Italian boatmen floated past in the dark, sturdy barges, wending their way down the river. Along the opposite bank were charming old stucco houses in colours of pale and rusty yellow, rose, pink, and old red. Tiled roofs, arched doorways and deeply recessed windows, balconies, towers and turrets against the background of cypress trees—all mirrored in the waters of the Arno. Church towers and ancient castle walls patterned against the hills inspired me and thrilled me with an irresistible desire to put on canvas my impressions…”

         The Literary Digest March 1st 1930 edition with Fern Coppedge’s picture on the front cover

In 1926, the painting of the Arno was included in an exhibition of The Philadelphia Ten.  It received great praise from both viewers and art critics. The painting was later exhibited in exhibitions in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and it is now regarded as one of her best works. It was also reproduced on the cover of The Literary Digest in March of 1930. The painting was acquired by her local high school, mostly likely after the school opened in 1931.  Around 1934, Fern stopped exhibiting with The Philadelphia Ten and instead focused on exhibiting at her studio,

                                                  Lamplighters Cottage by Fern Isabel Coppedge (1928)

During her artistic career she received several awards including the Shillard Medal in Philadelphia, a Gold Medal from the Exposition of Women’s Achievements, another Gold Medal from the Plastics Club of Philadelphia, and the Kansas City H.O. Dean Prize for Landscape.

Coppedge died at her New Hope home on April 21st, 1951 at the age of 67.  Her husband, Robert W. Coppedge, died in New Hope, Pennsylvania in 1948. The Coppedges, who were married in 1904, remained husband and wife for 44 years.  Fern Coppedge was one of America’s most prolific painters, having completed over five thousand works during her lifetime.  I will leave the last word on Fern Coppedge and her paintings to Arthur Edward Bye, an American landscape architect born in the Netherlands who grew up in Pennsylvania who said:

“…Man and his activities seem pleasantly remote but not absent in her landscapes. She fills them with houses and churches, lanes, bridges, and canals. They have therefore, that suggestion of human life, coloured with brightness, exuberant, which best answers the needs of most of us…”


Most of the information for this blog came from the website Pennsylvania through the eyes of Fern I Coppedge.

Fern Isobel Coppedge. Part 1

Fern Isabel Coppedge in her studio

My featured artist today was one of the Pennsylvania Impressionists, an artistic movement of the first half of the 20th century that was centred in and around Bucks County, Pennsylvania, particularly the town of New Hope. Often the movement was referred to as the New Hope School or the Pennsylvania School of Landscape Painting.  Leading artists of the movement taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. There was a difference between Pennsylvania Impressionism and Impressionism practiced in other parts of America as, with the former, the personification of their art was the thick brushwork and the way they almost had a dedicated concentration on landscape painting.  Today’s artist was one of the great American painters of her time and although she has been tagged with the term, Impressionism, Fern Isabel Coppedge has of late been labelled as a follower of Colourism,  which is a painting style characteristic for its use of intense colour, and for making colour itself the main compositional language in the resultant work of art.  Thus, her paintings are looked upon as part Impressionism part Colourism, which is a painting style characteristic for its use of intense colour, and for making colour itself the main compositional language in the resultant work of art. Coppedge’s paintings offered up her bold and unorthodox use of bright vibrant colours similar to Fauvism, which is also characterised by strong colours and fierce brushwork.

Gloucester Harbour by Fern Isabel Coppedge

Let me introduce you to the nineteenth century American painter, Fern Isabel Coppedge, a landscape artist, who was famed for her depiction of the villages and farms of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, often blanketed with snow, as well as her harbour scenes of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where she spent her summers.

Fern (Kuns) Coppedge, Dessie (Kuns) Garst, George Dilling Kuns, Margaret Effa Kuns, Vada Dilling Kuns, Maria (Dilling) Kuns, John L. Kuns, Mary (Kuns) Klepinger

Fern Isabel Kuns was born on July 18th 1883 in the small town of Cerro Gordo which lies about twelve miles east of the central Illinois city of Decatur.  Her parents were John Leslie Kuns and Maria Anna Dilling.  Fern was one of six children.  She had four sisters, Margaret Effa, Dessie, Vada, and Maria and one brother, George Dilling.  Sadly, the first-born of John and Maria’s family was a boy, Joseph, who died in 1873 aged ten. 

Home of Fern Kuns and Family in McPherson, Kansas (c.1900)

Her father had a small farm which he had inherited from his father, but was constantly struggling to make ends meet, so much so that in 1886, when Fern was aged three, he had to sell the farm, at a loss, so as to feed the family and pay for their education.  John and his family moved west to California in the hope of finding work but nought came of it, although Fern’s eldest sister Margaret, nine years Fern’s senior, said that life in California was the best year of her childhood.  When potential opportunities did not work out for their father, they headed back east and arrived in Kansas. In 1889, the Kuns’ finally settled in McPherson, Kansas and occupied a house on the campus of McPherson College.

Watercolour by Margaret Effa Kuns (c.1935)

When Fern was thirteen years old, she went back west to Palo Alto in California where her sister Margaret Effa was studying at Leland Stanford University.  Fern,  still too young to leave the school system, enrolled at the Pasadena High school.  During her stay in California she enjoyed the company of her elder sister, Margaret Effa, and was fascinated watching her painting in a watercolour class.  This was what first instance which eventually made Fern fall in love with painting and drawing.  Effa encouraged her sister’s newly found love of art and would take her to museums to study famous paintings.

An early insight of Fern’s early work can be gleaned by a comment she once made about her art and her unusual views of the use of colours.  She said:

“…People used to think me queer when I was a little girl because I saw deep purples and reds and violets in a field of snow. I used to be hurt over it until I gave up trying to understand people and concentrated on my love and understanding of landscapes…”

Robert William Coppedge

In 1900, at the age of seventeen, Fern Kuns went back to Kansas and, upon her return to the Midwest, she studied at McPherson College and later the University of Kansas.   Shortly after her return to Kansas, she met her future husband, Missouri-born, Robert William Coppedge, a high school science teacher, botanist, and amateur artist.  On January 2nd, 1904, Fern Kuns and Robert Coppedge were married in her parents’ home in McPherson, and the ceremony was followed by a four-course wedding breakfast. Fern and her husband moved east to the Kansas state capital, Topeka.  Robert continued with his teaching profession whilst Fern continued with her love of painting and four years later, when they moved to Illinois, she attended the Art Institute of Chicago from 1908 to 1910. 

Back Road to Pipersvill by Fern Isabel Coppedge

From Chicago she moved to New York, where she enrolled at the Arts Student League.  She studied with the artist, muralist and illustrator, Frank Vincent DuMond and the Impressionist painter, William Merritt Chase.  In 1917, Fern spent time studying at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where one of her tutors was the Pennsylvania artist and art teacher, Daniel Garber and that year she had some of her artwork accepted into that year’s annual exhibition.  In that summer she studied at the Art Students League summer school in Woodstock where winter painting specialist, John Fabian Carlson, was director.  Carlson was one of the great interpreters of the wooded landscape and was a great influence on Fern Coppedge.

Pigeon Cove by Fern Isabel Coppedge (c.1930)

In 1917 Fern visited Pennsylvania for the first time. She immediately fell in love with its picturesque-wooded hills and the many old-fashioned Bucks County towns which reminded her a little of her home state, Kansas. She remained in Pennsylvania for over thirty years and went on to own homes in Philadelphia, and the Bucks County towns of Lumberville, where she purchased a home and art studio in 1920, which she named Boxwood, sometimes referred to as The Boxwood Studios. 

Lumberville in Winter by Fern Isabel Coppedge

In her painting,  Lumberville in Winter, we see depicted a yellow building which is believed to be her first Boxwood studio which had once been a Quaker meeting house dating to the 1700s and is featured in several other works by the artist.  The small two-storey building would feature in many more of her paintings.  Living close to her in the small village of Cuttalossa was her former tutor, Daniel Garber.

October by Fern Isabel Coppedge (after restoration work)

There is an interesting story about Fern Coppedge’s painting entitled October.   In May, 2011, a man with a small but pleasant oil painting entitled October, fresh from a New Jersey estate, walked up to the owner of a hot dog stand in North Carolina, Alison Bledsoe.  The hot dog lady, looked at the dirty landscape of a bridge, some yellow leafed trees, and some brightly coloured houses. She was not quite sure if the interesting painting was worth buying, but as it was not expensive she purchased it.   Seven months later, on December 4, 2011, Les and Sue Fox of West Highland Art Auction Brokers and authors of The Art Hunters’ Handbook, in cooperation with Alasdair Nichol of Freeman’s Auctioneers, sold the professionally cleaned New Hope, Pennsylvania bridge scene by Fern Isabel Coppedge for $29,800 at auction. 

The Tow Path by William Langson Lathrop
Landscape painter William Langson Lathrop (1859-1938) moved to New Hope in 1898, where he founded a summer art school, which became known as The New Hope School

Nine years later, in 1929, Fern Coppedge moved seven miles down-river to the small town of New Hope.  It  was a  town located along the route of the Old York Road, the former main highway between Philadelphia and New York City.  At the time when George Washington crossed the Delaware in 1776, it was known as Coryell’s Ferry, after the owner of the ferry business, and got its current name after a fire destroyed several mills in 1790. It was said that once the mills were rebuilt, there was a “new hope” for this small town on the Delaware river.  The town would later be joined by a bridge to Lambertville, on the New Jersey side. Artist William Langston Lathrop and his family moved to New Hope in 1898 and founded an art school and he is now considered the father of The New Hope School

Snow And Sunshine by Fern Isabel Coppedge

Fern Coppedge lived on North Main Street in the centre of New Hope, in an early American style stone house and studio which she had built and was designed by architect Henry T. MacNeill in 1929.  This too was named Boxwood !   Over the years Fern Coppedge painted a number of pictures of her Boxwood home, at which she held many exhibitions of her work.  In 1907 Daniel Garber, who had once tutored Fern at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1900’s,  joined the early group of American Impressionists who would evolve into The New Hope School of Pennsylvania Impressionists. Fern became a member of the group and at the time she was the only female member of the New Hope School. Members of the New Hope School lived and painted in a number of Bucks County towns near New Hope, including Lumberville and Carversville. But the “New Hope School” name stuck and that is what these talented artists who followed in the footsteps of the French Impressionists are now called.

………………………to be continued.


Most of the information for this blog came from the website Pennsylvania through the eyes of Fern I Coppedge.

The Red Rose Girls. Part 3. Jessie Willcox Smith.

The third of the Red Rose Girls was Jessie Willcox Smith.  She became one of the most prominent female illustrators in the United States, during the celebrated ‘Golden Age of Illustration‘.  Jessie was the eldest of the trio, born in the Mount Airy neighbourhood of Philadelphia, on September 6th 1863, the youngest of four children.  She was the youngest daughter of Charles Henry Smith, an investment broker, and Katherine DeWitt Willcox Smith.  Her father’s profession as an “investment broker” is often questioned as although there was an investment brokerage called Charles H. Smith in Philadelphia there is no record of it being run by anybody from Jessie Smith’s family.  In the 1880 city census, Jessie’s father’s occupation was detailed as a machinery salesman.  Jessie’s family was a middle-class family who always managed to make ends meet.  Her family originally came from New York and only moved to Philadelphia just prior to Jessie’s birth.  Despite not being part of the elite Philadelphia society, her family could trace their routes back to an old New England lineage.  Jessie, like her siblings, were instructed in the conventional social graces which were considered a necessity for progression in Victorian society.   It should be noted that there were no artists within the family and so as a youngster, painting and drawing were not of great importance to her.  Instead her enjoyment was gained from music and reading.  Jessie attended the Quaker Friends Central School in Philadelphia and when she was sixteen, she was sent to Cincinnati, Ohio to live with her cousins and finish her education.

The Princess and the Goblin, by George McDonald, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith, (1920)

On completion of her education, instead of returning to the family in Philadelphia, she remained in Cincinnati to look for a job.  Jessie had always been fond of children and managed to secure a position as a kindergarten teacher which would fulfil her need for money whilst doing a job she loved.  However, the belief that all young children are angelic was soon dispelled and she found her charges obstreperous and ill-mannered and soon realised that teaching at a kindergarten was not for her.  One of her friends was interested in art and soon she had managed to inveigle Jessie into the pastime and soon she showed a certain amount of promise as a budding artist.  She remembered this change of direction writing:

“…I knew I wanted to do something with children but never thought of painting them, until an artist friend saw a sketch I had made and insisted I should stop teaching (at which I was an utter failure) and go to art school – which I did…”

John Rogers figurine

Jessie Smith returned to Philadelphia to look for some artistic training and initially wanted to study sculpture.  At the time there was a popular small table-top sculptures called Rogers Group which were relatively inexpensive, mass-produced figurines in the latter 19th which graced the parlours of homes in the United States.  These figurines, often selling for as little as $15 a piece were affordable to the middle class.  They were sculpted in more affordable plaster and painted the colour of putty to hide dust.  She did try her hand at sculpture but soon realised it needed a certain talent, one which she was lacking.  She wrote:

“…my career as a sculptor was brief for my clay had bubbles in it and burst when it was being fired. ‘Heavens’ I decided, ‘ being a sculptor is too expensive!  I will be a painter…’ ”

An illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith from A Child’s Garden of Verses is a book written by Robert Louis Stevenson

However, Jessie realised that to become a painter she needed formal artistic training and it was difficult for that to happen for a woman in 1884.  It was the age-old story.  Men who wanted to train to become professional artists had academies and teachers to support them but for women, up until the 1850’s, there were few institutions which catered for women and anyway, it was generally thought to be totally ill-advised for a woman to contemplate or prepare for a professional career, art or otherwise.  Life was mapped out for women.  Acquire certain accomplishments which would attract a man, marry that man and give him children, and then be educated at home in the skills needed to look after one’s husband and children.  For women of the middle and upper-class who were interested in art, then a private tutor could be hired but studying in mixed life-drawing classes was deemed unsuitable for women as was sketching nude statuary.

Edwin Forrest House, formerly the home of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women.

Despite this, twenty-one-year-old Jessie Willcox Smith, on October 2nd 1884, enrolled at The Philadelphia School of Design for Women, which was housed in a fashionable Philadelphia neighbourhood in an imposing mansion that had once been the home of actor, Edwin Forrest.  The School had begun when Sarah Worthington King Peter, the wife of the British consul in Philadelphia, established an industrial arts school in her home in 1848 so as to teach a trade to women, who were without a means of supporting themselves.  It was not in direct competition with the Pennsylvania Academy as its emphasis was on decorative pattern and ornament and until 1886 steered clear of controversial life-drawing classes.  After a year at the School of Design, Jessie hankered for more than it could offer her.  She wanted to study the techniques associated with Fine Art and so decided that she had to enrol at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. 

Thomas Eakins, circa 1882

She managed to persuade her parents to fund her tuition and in 1885 she enrolled in the class of the brilliant but controversial painter, Thomas Eakins.  Master and student were so different.  Jessie Willcox Smith was a conservative and shy young woman whilst her tutor was brash, carefree and provocative and cared little for the Academy’s attempt to reign him in.  Eakins represented an outrageous departure from the social norms which had structured Jessie Smith’s life.   Many complaints had been levelled at Eakins and his teaching methods especially those regarding female students.  The following year, 1886, forty-one-year-old Eakins was sacked by the Academy.   It is interesting to note that although there is no doubt her artistic ability flourished under the tutelage of Eakins she viewed him with disdain, once confiding in a friend that she thought he was a “madman”.  Jessie did attend Eakins’ life-drawing classes but of the life models used, once declared:

“…I always wished there were children in the life classes, the men and women were so flabby and fat…”

After Eakins was dismissed from the Academy, he held private classes at his studio and many of his former students attended them, but not Jessie.  She presumably did not agree with Eakins’ way of teaching and decided to remain at the Academy and study under Thomas Anshutz and James B. Kelly, two of Eakins’ former students.

Jessie Willcox Smith graduated from the Academy in June 1888.  She looked back on her time at the Academy with a certain amount of disappointment.  Although her technique had improved, she had hoped to be part of an artistic community in which artistic collaboration would be present but instead she found dissention, scandal and in the wake of the Eakins’ scandal, institutionalized isolation.  Jessie talked very little about her time at the Academy.  It had been a turbulent time and she had hated conflict as it unnerved her and made her extremely distressed.  This desperation to avoid any kind of conflict in her personal and professional life revealed itself in her idealistic and often blissful paintings.  Jessie wanted to believe life was just a period of happiness.

Illustration by Jessie Wilcox Smith for the book of verse, The Seven Ages of Childhood

In 1909 a book of verse entitled The Seven Ages of Childhood by Carolyn Wells with accompanying  illustrations by Jessie Wilcox was published.

After graduation, Jessie became interested in illustration and in 1889 took a job with the advertising department of Ladies’ Home Journal, one of the leading American women’s magazines.   In 1894, nearly six years after graduating, she learned that Howard Pyle, the noted illustrator, was starting a School of Illustration at the Drexel Institute and she was accepted into the inaugural class along with Violet Oakley and Elizabeth Shippen Green.

Jessie Wilcox Smith, cover for Good Housekeeping Magazine. May 1921.

Her illustrations appeared on the covers of Good Housekeeping  resulting in most people becoming familiar with her art. For over 15 years she painted the covers for one of America’s most popular magazines. Month after month, from December of 1917 through March of 1933, a new Jessie Willcox Smith image was on the newsstands and in countless homes.

The Red Rose Girls were finally together.  In my next blog I will look at their time at the Drexel Institute with Howard Pyle and their life together.

……………………to be continued


Most of the information I used for this blog came from an excellent book by Alice A. Carter entitled The Red Rose Girls, An Uncommon Story of Art and Love.