Demeter’s Choice: A Portrait of Artist Mary Lawrence Tonetti


Demeter's Choice

Demeter’s Choice: A Portrait of My Grandmother as a Young Artist is the story of a young American sculptor named Mary Lawrence Tonetti who began studying under Augustus Saint-Gaudens at a very young age. She came of age in the art studios of New York and Paris in the late 19th century, and is most famous for her sculpture of Christopher Columbus for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

The author is the sculptor’s own granddaughter, Mary Tonetti Dorra, who had access to wonderful personal information to make the story rich with detail and insight. There are even copies of some of Mary Lawrence’s original pen and ink sketches and travel notes.

Demeter’s Choice tells the story of one woman’s choice between art and love. Mary Lawrence led a remarkable, artistic life both before and after her big choice. It’s a life worth knowing more about. And for the followers of this blog who like to hear about art history in Paris, I’ll point out all of the Paris sites and scenes of interest.

Mary Lawrence Tonetti (1868-1945). Source:

Mary Lawrence Tonetti (1868-1945). Source:

Mary Lawrence was a privileged young woman (her ancestors included a mayor of New York and Captain James Lawrence, a famous patriot famous for his wartime utterance: “Don’t give up the ship!”) who began a pampered life in Cliffside, her family’s large estate overlooking the Hudson River in Sneden’s Landing, New York. Mary was known to have grown up with a “robust temperament” and a taste for the outdoors. (Which to me is the Gilded Age way of saying she was a handful, a tomboy, a bit of a rebel. Funny how many of those kinds of Gilded Age girls turned out to be artists, especially sculptors….)

Mary enjoyed art from a very young age. When she was only seven years old, her family arranged for the up-and-coming Augustus Saint-Gaudens to come up to Sneden’s Landing to teach drawing and sculpture to Mary a group of other children. (Not a bad start for a kid!) When she was older, Mary continued art lessons at Saint-Gauden’s Fourteenth Street Studio in the German Savings Bank in New York City. Saint-Gaudens would have a huge influence on Mary’s life and career in art.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, mentor and friend of Mary Lawrence

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, mentor and friend of Mary Lawrence

German Savings Bank around 1872, site of Augustus St. Gaudens studio. Source: Office for Metropolitan HIstory NYC

The German Savings Bank around 1872, the site of Augustus Saint-Gaudens 14th Street studio. Source: Office for Metropolitan History NYC.

By the time Mary was twenty years old, she was personal friends with Saint-Gaudens’ whole crowd, including the architects Charles McKim and Stanford White. Demeter’s Choice has a lovely scene where Saint-Gaudens, McKim and White joined Mary for a picnic at Sneden’s Landing before she set sail on her first Grand Tour of Europe in 1886. There were hints that Charles McKim, a married man of nearly forty, was already falling in love with her despite their vast difference in age.

Accompanied by a supportive aunt and her more conventional sister Edith, Mary Lawrence made the Grand Tour of Europe, including a summer of sightseeing through Belguim and Germany before she would settle in Paris and begin her art studies it the women’s atelier of the Académie Julian.

Passage des Panoramas in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, the location of one of Académie Julian's atelier for women

Passage des Panoramas, just off of boulevard Montmartre in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, the location of one of Académie Julian’s atelier for women. The studio is no longer there, but a stroll through the arcade will still give you a sense of the time and place.

Marie Baskirtsheff, In The Studio (1881). A painting of the women of Académie Julian.

Marie Bashkirtseff, In The Studio (1881). A painting of the women of Académie Julian by a Russian student famous for her memoir, The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff.

Being a friend and an assistant to Augustus Saint-Gaudens opened many doors upon Mary’s arrival in Paris. He introduced her to many of the American artists who worked or studied there, including Mary Louise Fairchild from St. Louis, who was studying with Carolus-Duran and the Académie Julian on a prestigious fellowship. In Demeter’s Choice, the two Marys meet at the opening night of the Paris Salon of 1886, where Mary Fairchild’s portrait of Sara Hallowell was on display. Sara Hallowell was an American art agent for wealthy American art collectors such as Bertha Palmer of Chicago. Sara lived part of the year in Paris developing close relationships with Mary Cassatt, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Auguste Rodin. Mary Lawrence was making all the right connections too, a rare opportunity for such a young artist.

Mlle S. H. (Sara Tyson Hollowell) by Mary Fairchild (1886). Source:

Mlle S. H. (Sara Tyson Hollowell) oil on canvas by Mary Fairchild (1886). Property of The Warden and Fellows of Robinson College, University of Cambridge. This is the portrait that was exhibited in the 1886 Paris Salon where Mary Lawrence met Mary Fairchild and Sara Hallowell. Source:

Within a week of her arrival in Paris, Mary Lawrence was invited to Auguste Rodin’s art studio which he shared with his student and young mistress Camille Claudel. Together they strolled through the studio where Mary got to see the models for The Burghers of Calais and some of the figures from The Gates of Hell. Today you can see these works for yourself at the Musée Rodin, one of my favorite museums in Paris. Inside you can even see some of Camille Claudel’s sculptures as well.

Mary and her sister settled into their apartment at 56 rue Notre Dame des Champs in the heart of the Left Bank of Paris, within a few blocks of some of the biggest names in the art world, such as John Singer Sargent, Carolus-Duran, James Whistler and William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Saint-Gaudens and his wife lived nearby, at 3 rue Herschel just on the other side of the Luxembourg Gardens. Like many Americans ever since then, Mary came to adore Paris, from the macaroons at LaDurée, to the baguettes from her local boulangerie to a lovely stroll through the Palais Royal.



Being a young woman of privilege in the Gilded Age meant you had the opportunity to travel throughout Europe instead of having to freeze or starve your way through a miserable winter in Paris. Mary Lawrence left Paris for a few winter months in Italy with her family entourage before she returned to New York in the summer of 1887. By the spring of 1888, she had returned to Paris for another season of classes at the Académie Julian.

Once her second session of Paris art studies were over, Mary returned to New York, where she taught at the Art Students League, served as Saint-Gaudens’ assistant and worked on her own sculpting projects.

In the fall of 1891, Mary learned that she would be awarded a contract to create a statue of Christopher Columbus for the Chicago World’s Fair under the supervision of Saint-Gaudens. It was a huge honor. Most women who received commissions for the fair (such as Mary Cassatt, Mary Fairchild MacMonnies and Sophia Hayden) were contracted through a separate Board of Lady Managers led by the Chicago society queen Bertha Palmer. Mary Lawrence received her commission directly from the Fair Commissioners, who were all male. You can read a fun 1893 New York Times article about Mary’s commission here.

Demeter’s Choice tells the wonderful story of a fight between Mary Lawrence and her supporters versus Frank Millet, a particularly odious fair organizer, who objected to the prominent placement of her Columbus statue because it was made by a “female novice.” Millet actually arranged to have it moved to a spot near the train station. You’ll have to read for yourself to learn what happened next. If you look at the image below, it is amazing what a good job young Mary Lawrence did – she was young, but certainly no novice.

"Columbus Taking Possession." The Administration Building From Columbian Gallery: A Portfolio of Photographs of the World's Fair, The Werner Company. The prominent and handsome figure of Columbus, which stood in the portal, was the work of Miss Mary T. Lawrence, and represented the landing of Columbus, and the planting of the Spanish flag in the colonies of the New World. 1893. Source:

“Columbus Taking Possession.”  Mary Lawrence’s statue of Columbus, which stood in the portal of the Administration Building at the Chicago Worlds Fair. Source:

After the excitement of the Chicago World’s Fair was over, Mary went back to Paris. She continued her studies at the Académie Julian and renewed her many friendships with the artists of the Left Bank and beyond. Mary was on everyone’s guest list, attending soirées hosted by the likes of Charles Dana Gibson and James Whistler. It was at Gibson’s glamorous ball and then again at Whistler’s home at 110 rue de Bac that Mary Lawrence met François Tonetti, a sculpting assistant to Frederick MacMonnies. The rest, as they say, was history.

The plaque at James Whistler's home in rue de Bac where Mary Lawrence first met François Tonetti in 1893. Source:

The plaque at James Whistler’s home on rue de Bac, where Mary Lawrence and François Tonetti met for the second time in 1893. Source:

A close-up image of a portrait of François Tonetti by François Flameng. Source:

A close-up image of a portrait of François Tonetti by François Flameng. Source:

Even after she met the charming and passionate François, Mary Lawrence continued to work as a sculptor in her own Twenty-Third Street studio in New York and to teach Saint-Gaudens’ classes at the Art Students League through most of the1890s. Charles McKim continued to pursue her, as did François, her favorite Frenchman.

Saint-Gaudens didn’t want his protégée to marry, worried that she would give up her art for a house full of “festive children.” He asked: “wIll she just die and fade into the wife of François Tonetti…?” Others objected because François wasn’t from the “same stock” as the Lawrences. Mary’s own sister pressed her to choose Charles McKim, who offered a more proper and promising future than a bohemian artist could.

No matter what choice Mary Lawrence would make, it was clear that she wouldn’t die and fade away. She would always live in a world of art. Mary Lawrence lived the rest of her life surrounded by artists, founding and developing an artist’s colony in Sneden’s Landing. Generations of artists and actors have enjoyed living there, including Gerald and Sara Murphy, Orson Wells, Lawrence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Al Pacino, Angelina Jolie, Bill Murray and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Just for fun, you can check out this recent gossip article about Tom Cruise checking out the real estate in Sneden’s Landing.

Quite a story and quite a legacy. We are so lucky that Mary Lawrence’s granddaughter wrote it all down. 

Mary Tonetti Dorra. Source:

Mary Tonetti Dorra. Source:

Author Mary Tonetti Dorra has a list of appearances scheduled in early 2014. You can check them out for yourself on her website.

Review and Recommendation by Margie White of the American Girls Art Club in Paris

Fanny and Louis in Grez

wide starry sky

Nancy Horan, the bestselling author of Loving Frank, comes now with her long-awaited second novel, based on the nineteenth century love story between Fanny van de Grift Osbourne, a not-exactly-divorced American mother of three and the much younger writer Robert Louis Stevenson.

The pair met in the summer of 1875 in Grez, an art colony in France in the Fountainebleu Forest. Fanny had arrived in France the year before to escape her unhappy marriage and to study art alongside her 17 year-old daughter Belle.

Fanny and Belle were enjoying their studies in the women’s drawing classes at the Académie Julian alongside other international students, including May Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s little sister. (You can read more about May Alcott’s art studies and travels through France at my previous post, Little Women in Dinan.)

After enduring an unspeakable tragedy in Paris, Fanny decides to bring her children to Grez for some quiet recovery time in the country. A fellow art student at the Académie Julian suggested a quiet place, “an inn at Grez, on the Loing River. It’s close to Barbizon but away from all the bustle, and cheap. It’s near the Fountainebleu Forest.” Fanny talks her estranged husband from California into supporting them for one more year in Europe.

Nancy Horan describes Grez-sur-Loing well:

[N]estled in the midst of vast farm fields, the village was a smattering of stone houses, a picturesque bridge, and a ruined twelfth-century tower with ferns growing in its cracked walls.

During my year in France I loved to plan field trips to art history sites, and I just happened to spend a gray day in Grez myself. You can read another post (Visit an Art Colony in France: Grez-sur-Loing) about my trip to Grez, which includes directions and more information about the different artists who lived and painted there.

Here are some photos of Grez that readers of Under the Wide and Starry Sky and fans of Robert Louis Stevenson might especially enjoy:

Standing in front of the bridge at Grez-sur-Loing in 2012.

Standing in front of the bridge at Grez-sur-Loing in 2012. The picturesque  12th century Tour de Ganne is in the background.

The 17th century Tour de Ganne in Grez

The 12th century Tour de Ganne in Grez

The Tour de Ganne in Grez from the grassy walk down toward the river

The Tour de Ganne in Grez as seen from the grassy walk down toward the river

On the main street in Grez: Church of Our Lady and Saint Lawrence, 12th century

On the main street in Grez: Church of Our Lady and Saint Lawrence, 12th century

In the book, Nancy Horan has Fanny’s friend Margaret Wright tell her about the Hotel Chevillon in Grez, “one of the most bohemian of the bohemian gathering places near the Fountainebleu Forest.” Says Margaret:

Barbizon has become too fashionable. It’s overrun by poseurs more interested in the mis-en-scene than in producing any actual art. The real painters go to Grez. . . . And you needn’t worry. They will leave you alone, I think.

Little did Fanny know that the bohemians who enjoyed the summer season at Hotel Chevillon were dismayed to hear that an American woman and her children had arrived at the inn. Bob Stevenson (Robert Louis Stevenson’s cousin, and an artist in his own right) arrived ahead of the group of “Glasgow Boys” from Scotland with the intention of chasing Fanny away. In the book, Bob Stevenson hints Fanny might want to find other more suitable accommodations:

There’s an onslaught about to begin. . . . Once the others start to arrive you’ll discover this isn’t the place to be if you are hoping for a little peace. Madame Chevillon said you had come for the quiet. . . . There are places not far from here that would serve you much better if you are here to rest. . . .

But things would turn out much differently than the Stevensons had planned. Within a few short weeks, both of the Stevenson cousins would have a crush on Fanny. Although Fanny was 10 years older than Louis, they found comfort in each others hearts and minds. In the meantime, Fanny’s 17 year-old daughter Belle fell in love with the Irish artist Frank O’Meara.

The Hotel Chevillon still stands today, although it is not open to the public. It is a private art residency center operated by The Grez-sur-Loing Foundation in Sweden, which manages a stipend program for visiting artists, authors and photographers. There is even a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship available for interested writers (the application deadline for 2014 is February 28th, but it looks like it is limited to residents of Scotland.)

Hotel Chevillon is located on rue Carl Larsson, which is named after the Swedish painter.

Hotel Chevillon, the place where Fanny and Louis met,  is still standing! It is located on rue Carl Larsson, which is named after the Swedish painter. It was restored in 1994 and serves as an art center and residency program.

Hotel Chevillon: the place where Fanny Van de Grif Osbourne met Robert Louis Stevenson.

Hotel Chevillon from the street.

A view of the back balcony of Hotel Chevillon where Fanny, Louis and their fellow bohemians gathered to paint and relx by the river

A view of the back balcony of Hotel Chevillon from the nearby bridge. Just on the other side of this wall is where Fanny, Louis and their fellow bohemians gathered to paint and relax.

The backyard of the Hotel Chevillon today. Can you picture Fanny and Louis back there? Source: Carol Ferrelly,

The backyard of the Hotel Chevillon today. Can you picture Fanny and Louis back there back in the day? Source: Carol Ferrelly,

Hotel Chevillon by Sir John Lavery (1883), an Irish artist who visited Grez and painted this captivating picture of the garden at Hotel Chevillon.

Hotel Chevillon by Sir John Lavery (1883), an Irish artist who visited Grez. This painting captures the feel of the garden at Hotel Chevillon back in the time of Fanny and Louis. Source:

After their summer meeting in Grez, Fanny and her children returned to Paris, where they settled into an apartment in Montmartre. Louis would continue his pursuit of Fanny from Paris to California and beyond. They would finally marry in 1880 and spend their years traveling the world.

John Singer Sargent would paint a strange but perceptive portrait of RLS and Fanny when they were all living in Bournemouth, England in 1885. Apparently, Fanny was not too happy about the way she is marginalized and made to look so Moorish in this painting. As for me, I find it fascinating. What an odd pair.

Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife by John Singer Sargent (1885)

Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife by John Singer Sargent (1885)

Under The Wide and Starry Sky is an interesting portrait of an unorthodox and artistic couple from history, not unlike the story of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney. However, this love story didn’t seem nearly as compelling as Loving Frank, and I’m not sure why. Neither RLS nor Fanny are particularly admirable people, but then, neither were Frank and Mamah. For some reason, it bothered me that Fanny lacked any substantial talent or drive as an artist, that she acted so passively in the face of her son’s serious illness, and that she waffled over her commitment to a horrible marriage. Maybe it’s my mistake, expecting a 19th century woman to act with as much agency as a 21st century woman, but still, it interfered with my ability to identify and sympathize with Fanny. I have to admit, I take strange delight in the take-down Fanny suffers under the paintbrush of John Singer Sargent.

Even if Under the Wide and Starry Sky doesn’t measure up to Loving Frank, I would still recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, especially if you are interested in learning more about the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson or the 19th century art scene in Paris. And if you happen to be visiting Paris anytime soon, I highly recommend a day trip out to Grez.