The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper

The Other Alcott is a novel I’ve been waiting for for a long time. I’ve known about Louisa May Alcott’s younger sister – the artist, the one after whom the fictional Amy March was created – and I knew the outlines of her story. But that is like the difference between sketching a skeleton and the full, live human figure.

In Elise Hooper’s able and generous hands, May’s story is fleshed out. It thrums with life, passion and imagination, and becomes one that we can relate to. It speaks to us across the centuries, a timeless story of one woman artist that can inspire, encourage and guide 21st century women still trying to figure it out today. What else could you possibly ask from historical fiction?

I have to admit that even I underestimated May Alcott. When I first saw the illustrations May drew for her sister Louisa’s book Little Women, I agreed with her contemporary critics. The drawings were amateurish, not lifelike enough, the product of an artist not without natural born talent, but still, with a long way to go.

The Nation’s critique was brutal: “May Alcott’s poorly executed illustrations in Little Women betray her lack of anatomical knowledge and indifference to the subtle beauty of the female figure.”

The criticism stung. But yet she persisted.

May might have been hurt, but she was humble enough to understand that she needed professional instruction. (Lesson #1: Accept valid criticism.) So she figured it out.

In 1860s America, art training wasn’t an easy thing for a woman to find, especially in a small town like Concord. Victorian society was squeamish about women looking at naked bodies or studying anatomy. Nevertheless, May found a doctor in Boston who offered anatomical drawing classes to women. (Lesson #2: Ignore the prudes.) Thanks to the money from the sale of Little Women, her sister Louisa was able to afford an apartment in Boston for the two of them to share. (Lesson #3: Accept help graciously.)

May absorbed everything in Dr. Ritter’s drawing classes, but there was no drawing from life. Day after day, the women copied sketches of hands and wrists or they drew from plaster casts of skulls and human bones. May’s skills improved; her eye for the human form awakened. (Lesson #4: Start at the beginning.)

In Elise Hooper’s novel, May meets a number of established women artists who show her the way. The first is Elizabeth Jane Gardner, a Paris-trained American artist who in 1868 was one of the first women (including Mary Cassatt) who had a painting accepted in the Paris salon. They meet at a Boston art gallery (Lesson #5: Go to art galleries) where Gardner holds court and tells shocking tales about her bohemian life in Paris: dressing like a man so she could have access to live models, dragging a sick lion into her studio in order to study animal anatomy. It might have been a bit of shock and awe, but it inspired May to go to France. (Lesson #6: Listen to the stories of those who’ve come before.)

Elizabeth Jane Gardner as painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (her mentor, teacher and future husband) in 1879. I love how little this portrait reveals of her true spirit, except for that hint of a smile.

Inspired by Gardner’s stories, May and Louisa head off on a European adventure together in 1870. I’ve previously written on this blog about May’s first trip to France in a post titled Little Women in Dinan, France. I walked in their footsteps in the pretty historic village where May first stayed in Europe. May was frustrated that she couldn’t get to Paris for art lessons, but she spent the season exploring and sightseeing with a sketchbook in hand. (Lesson #7: Take your sketchbook.)

14 Place Saint Louis, Dinan, France, the location of Madame Coste’s pension where the Alcott sisters stayed from April to June, 1870. As Louisa May Alcott described it in a letter dated April 24, 1870: “We are living, en pension, with a nice old lady just on the walls of the town with Anne of Brittany’s round tower on the one hand, the Porte of St. Louis on the other, and a lovely promenade made in the old moat just before the door.”

May’s first trip to France was disrupted by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, but on their detour to Italy, May finally had the chance to see nude paintings and sculptures and to draw from a live nude model. In the book, May encounters the “sniggers and chuffs” of  from the men in the studio, but she ignores the sexual harassment and soldiers on, overcoming her own embarrassment in order to learn valuable skills. (Lesson #8: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.)

May’s studies would continue back in Boston with William Morris Hunt, advancing from live drawing to oil painting, and then in London, where she copied the masters in the National Gallery and discovered the wonders of J.M.W. Turner. (Lesson #9: Study the masters.) While sketching at the gallery, May met John Ruskin, the Trustee of the National Gallery’s Turner collection, who connected her to London art dealers interested in selling her Turner copies. May finally began to earn an income from her art. (Lesson #10: Make connections.) 

In 1874, May’s efforts to pursue her art in London would be interrupted by family caregiving demands. Her sister Louisa demanded that she come back to Boston to help take care of their ailing mother. But somehow May figured out a way to juggle her responsibilities at home with opportunities to study and teach art in Boston, all the while saving her money and dreaming about her chance to study in Paris. (Lesson #11: Become a skilled juggler.)

By 1877, May was making her way in the Paris art world. She got a painting accepted into the Paris salon, she met Mary Cassatt, and was seeking a way to earn a living by selling her own original paintings. In the lovely painting below, you can see how far May had come from her early days in Concord.

May Alcott Neiriker, La Nigresse, oil on canvas (1879). Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abigail_May_Alcott_Nieriker

May’s final challenge would be to find a way to balance love and art, to make sure she continued to pursue her painting even after she fell in love and faced the responsibilities of keeping a home and starting a family. (Lesson #11: Find the nearest Planned Parenthood?)  

As you can see, Elise Hooper’s book is a lovely story about May Alcott Niericker’s struggle to overcome criticism, sexism, sibling rivalry and family caregiving demands in order to pursue her dream to become a professional artist. It’s chocked full of lessons in both humility and persistence, lessons we still need today. At least I do.

The Other Alcott: Highly recommended.

 

For further reading:

 

 

 

 

Cecilia Beaux: The Power of Paris (1888)

I’ve often thought about how my time in Paris, as short as it was, managed to change me. And it seems I can’t stop thinking about the change Paris may have had on other artists, other women, in other times.

I’ve taken a look at some of their lives to see if I can spot the power of Paris. American portrait painter Cecilia Beaux (1855-1942), who lived and studied in Paris in 1888-89, makes a great example.

Celia Beaux, Self Portrait (1894)

Celia Beaux, Self Portrait (1894)

Maybe you don’t know much about Cecilia Beaux, but she has some pretty amazing paintings at the Art Institute of ChicagoMetropolitan Museum of New York, or my favorite, Sita and Sarita at Musée d’Orsay.

Most people know her, if they know her at all, because William Merritt Chase called her “the greatest woman artist who has ever lived.” I’ve previously written about her struggle to obtain an art education in Philadelphia during the Victorian era. But what interests me the most is her time in Paris.

When Beaux took her shot to study in Paris, it seems like it changed her life. She only  spent a year and a half there, but when she returned home to the States in 1889 her career really took off. True, she was no slouch before Paris – she’d already studied for over a decade, worked as a professional and received numerous awards. She’d already had a painting accepted in the Paris Salon of 1887.

So here is Beaux before Paris:

beaux les derniers jours

Cecilia Beaux, Les Derniers Jours D’Enfance (1883-85), oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This painting was awarded the PAFA Mary Smith Prize for best work by a local woman and was accepted into the 1887 Paris Salon. According to PAFA, Beaux considered this to be “a coup” that marked “a turning point in her career.”

 

And this is Beaux after Paris:

Cecilia Beaux, New England Woman (1895), oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Cecilia Beaux, New England Woman (1895), oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

 

 

Isn’t the difference stunning? It’s as if she moved from one century to another.

And the difference wasn’t just in the vibrant new light in her portraits. As successful as Beaux was before Paris, her output of high profile portraits soared upon her return. She completed over 40 portraits in five years, including some of the most remarkable of her career. By 1895, Beaux was hired to be the first full-time female faculty member of the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts, becoming the Head of Portraits.

If Paris did indeed spark Beaux’s success in the 1890s, what was it? The training in the Paris ateliers? The exposure to and networking with other artists? The chance to study from the masters in the Louvre? The experience of freedom as a traveler, an outsider and an expatriate? Or maybe it’s just in the air in Paris.

Before I set out to walk in Beaux’s footsteps through Paris I decided to read her autobiography, Background With Figures (1930). I wanted to hear her Paris stories in her own voice and her own words. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the time I spent reading her book – she had a wicked sense of humor and a masterful ability to walk the fine line between truth and discretion. Here was a woman who had seen and achieved a great deal at a time when women of her social background weren’t really supposed to.

Beaux is at her best when she tells the story behind her first trip to France. She had long dreamed of studying art in Paris. All the serious American art students were going. But Beaux had an additional, more personal draw: she was half French and was ready to claim her father’s heritage as part of her own. Once her first painting (Les Derniers Jours D’Enfance) was accepted at the Paris Salon of 1887, it seemed as though she’d earned the right to go.

But she couldn’t go alone. In spite of the fact that she was 33 years old and had been studying and practicing art for over 17 years, she still wouldn’t travel to Europe without a female companion. Beaux was no rebel; she wouldn’t be breaking the social code that her fine Philadelphia family still observed.

And so it was that Cecilia Beaux and her cousin May Whitlock arrived in Paris in a miserably cold January in 1888 and moved into an underwhelming pension at 12 rue Boccador, on the right bank between the Seine and the Champs-Élysée. Today this address would be considered one of the nicest in Paris, in the middle of the Triangle d’Or and just off of the incredibly expensive Avenue Montaigne. But in 1888 it was another story. Beaux described it in her autobiography with biting wit:

Our pension was in the quarter of the Pont de l’Alma, but not near to the river and its beauty. All that a skimping French pension could mean in mid-winter was ours. . . . I had never known the damp, penetrating chill of never-heated houses in winter. . . . Until May, we never saw the sun.

Beaux’s art training had developed her talent for looking at faces and recognizing the traits and quirks that nail a likeness, whether in pictures or words:

Mdlle. de Villeneuve, our keeper, bore her considerable years, which had borne much skimping too, under a brown wig and a long nose. She carried Fi-Fi, a tiny, old dog, with rattling teeth and a cracked bark, constantly under her arm. She had bony fingers, and for the first time I heard the rattle, also, of keys.

 

The visit of our blanchisseuse was one of our pleasures. She had apparently been forgotten in the gathering at the Judgment Seat of the Tricoteuses, left over from the Terror. She was huge, had an immense head with bold pompadour, and a beard.

Isn’t Beaux hilarious? Can you imagine how entertaining she was in person? A bit like another one of my favorites, Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

quote-if-you-haven-t-got-anything-nice-to-say-about-anybody-come-sit-next-to-me-alice-roosevelt-longworth-17-86-74Together, Beaux and her cousin investigated the different private art studios open to women (L’´Ecole de Beaux Arts would not accept women for ten more years, in 1897) and chose the Académie Julien’s right bank studio at 28 rue de Faubourg. (This atelier would close at the end of the 1888 season and move to 5 rue de Berri, another address in the aristocratic part of the right bank. Also, I am following Beaux’s spelling here rather than the usual Académie “Julian.”) The Académie Julien was at the time the largest art school in Paris with over 17 locations, 7 of which were devoted to women. Beaux quickly learned that the rue de Faubourg location, housed in an attic near the Madeleine, was more for diletanttes than serious art students.

In spite of the relishable novelty of the cours, and the new world I had expected and found, in the Life-Class, I had to sustain a grand déception. More even than on the instruction, I had counted on an association of superiority.

I had worked alone, and fully believe that, in Paris, I should be among brilliant and advanced students, far ahead of a practically untaught American. I was to learn that the Académie Julien was a business enterprise, and could not be maintained for gifted students only. The personnel was heterogeneous (pp. 117-18).

“The personnel was heterogeneous.” I can just picture Beaux saying that with a wicked little twist of her eyebrow. It turns out Beaux was disappointed with her fellow students’ level of talent, the instructors’ level of input and the overcrowded classrooms. The famous instructors came in to criticize only once a week, and when they did they rarely spent time demonstrating or analyzing the student work. Instead, they would go around the class with comments like pas mal and a reserved smile. Each class was filled to capacity. Punctuality was key or you wouldn’t get an easel close to the model. Beaux gave up the painting class and concentrated on nothing but drawing because she found it too frustrating to try to paint without enough elbow room.

Atelier Julian, undated, so it is possible it is from the other women's atelier on rue de Berri. Source:http://verat.pagesperso-orange.fr/la_peinture/Mixite_Beaux-Arts.htm

Atelier Julien, undated, and unknown which of Julien’s women’s ateliers this represents. Source:http://verat.pagesperso-orange.fr/la_peinture/Mixite_Beaux-Arts.htm

Beaux had some limited praise for “the English girls” who came to study at Académie Julien, noting that they reached “a high average in their work.”

To my surprise they were all original types. Later, I accounted for this by the fact that at the time few English women broke away from custom and tradition, Most of them were clergymen’s daughters who had decided against gardening, tea-parties, and the old women of the parish. This had required energy, and also that they should have had a pretty good start already (p. 118).

Although there were some “original types” at the rue de Faubourg atelier, Beaux learned that another one of Julien’s ateliers was more competitive. Female students of the atelier at the Passages Panoramas included Russian Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884), and Americans Anna Klumpke (1865-1912), Lydia Field Emmet (1866-1952) and Abigail May Alcott Nieriker (1840-1879). Beaux looked forward to competing with her more accomplished peers, but when she did, she received a quick and sobering dose of humility.

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

You can still walk through the Passage des Panoramas in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, the location of one of Académie Julien’s atelier for women.

In March of 1888, two months into her Paris art studies, Beaux realized that she had missed the deadline to submit a painting to the spring Salon. She still hoped for an opportunity to compete at a school show, so she decided to enter a concours against the students in The Passages atelier. Her competition included the Californian Anna Klumpke, who had been studying at The Passages for years and who knew it was faster and easier to pull off a competitive piece in pastel rather than oil. Beaux, on the other, hand, attempted a large oil canvas and in her own words, it was a “nasty failure.” (No images of this painting remain.) Beaux didn’t even receive an honorable mention. For a woman who’d already had a painting accepted in the Paris Salon? Ouch.

Beaux knew she needed to do something more in order to benefit from her time in Paris. The Académie Julien wasn’t going to change her life. But what could?

Beaux was drawn to visit the Louvre, where she admired the Old Masters and Greek and Roman sculpture. One of her favorite things to do was to visit the drawing gallery early on Saturday mornings, before it opened to the public, and copy from the drawings of Raphael.

Like most visiting Americans, Beaux made time to socialize with other Paris artists. Her aunt, Sarah Leavitt Austin, lived in Paris and studied with John Singer Sargent’s teacher, Carolus-Duran. Beaux’s Philadelphia art school friend, Florence Esté, enjoyed a nice little apartment and studio across the street from Luxembourg Gardens, near the heart of the art community on rue Notre Dame des Champs. Esté introduced Beaux to the prominent Philadelphia artists Alexander Harrison and Charles Lasar, both of whom had graduated from L’`Ecole des Beaux-Arts and had settled in Paris.

Beaux fully expected to befriend and network with fellow artists Harrison and Lasar. They were all from Philadelphia, they’d each studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts, and they were all in their mid-30s. They’d all had paintings accepted into the Paris Salon, and were about to exhibit their work together at the Pennsylvania Academy’s Annual Exhibition. The big difference was that Harrison and Lasar had studied at L’`Ecole des Beaux Arts. And of course they were men. Harrison gave Beaux the cold shoulder the first time they met, putting her in the category of all of the other “American girls” who were mere amateurs at art.

That first spring of 1888 Beaux would attend her first Paris Salon, but it left her feeling discouraged. Although she was familiar the famous artists’ names on the plaques, she didn’t recognize them when she saw them in person. She remained an outsider, looking in: “The world of Art in Paris was in no wise opened to me, and in fact was too far out of sight to even be longed for.”

And then came the summer that changed everything. And it wasn’t it Paris at all.

When the Académie Julien closed for the summer, all of the artists of Paris deserted the city for visits to the countryside. Some left for the art colony in Giverny, while others heading south of Paris to the artistic villages near Fontainebleau like Barbizon or Grez. (Read my prior post, Visit an Art Colony in France: Grez-sur-Loing). Beaux’s friend Lucy Scarborough Conant, a fellow American artist, was planning to spend the summer in Brittany with her mother. The Conants invited Beaux and her cousin May to join them in the artistic village of Concarneau.

The seaside village of Concarneau today

The seaside village of Concarneau today

 

Alexander Harrison, Concarneau

Concarneau then: Alexander Harrison, Haunt of the Artists (no date), Pen and ink.

 

Beaux discovered that the same male artists who had snubbed her in Paris were friendlier in the countryside. Alexander Harrison and Charles (“Shorty”) Lasar were in Concarneau that summer too. Away from the gender politics and good-old boy networks of Philadelphia or Paris, they didn’t mind socializing and painting with women artists. They often went out to paint in plein air as a mixed group.

Beaux started turning out lighter, looser canvases, learning to play with rich outdoor color, bigger brushstrokes and bolder cropping.

Beaux, Seaside Inlet (1888)

Cecelia Beaux, Seaside Inlet, (1888), oil on cardboard, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Cecilia Beaux, A Country Woman, Concarneau, France (1888), Oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts

Cecilia Beaux, A Country Woman, Concarneau, France (1888), Oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine  Arts

1888. Concarneau, France. oil on canvas, 11x14in. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

Cecelia Beaux, Landscape with Farm Building (1888), oil on canvas, 11x14in. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts

 

Beaux was now welcome in Harrison and Lasar’s studios, and they began to visit hers as well. They soon became her friends and mentors.

You can watch Beaux’s transformation take place in the course of one painting. She decided to paint two Breton women in their traditional collars and coiffes. Following Harrison’s example, she started with several preparatory oil sketches. It was the only way to capture the fleeting, blending colors of twilight, (as Beaux herself said)  “the tones of coiffe and col mingling with the pale blue, rose and celadon of the evening sky.”

It seems that it was right then and there that Cecilia Beaux learned about color and light. That white is never white, and that surfaces absorb and reflect the light around them. That a change in color and light can create your form.

 

Cecelia Beaux, Study of Two Breton Women, Concarneau, France (1888), Oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

Cecelia Beaux, Study of Two Breton Women, Concarneau, France (1888), Oil on canvas, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

 

 

Cecelia Beaux, Twilight Confidences (1888), oil on canvas, Private collection

Cecelia Beaux, Twilight Confidences (1888), oil on canvas, Private collection

 

Harrison and Lasar began to believe in Beaux and urged her to continue her art studies in Paris if she truly wanted to “clinch it.” Their support was important. Beaux had proven she was no amateur and that she deserved to be taken seriously.

Beaux’s summer in Concarneau gave her a taste of the power and joy that can be found within a circle of artists who have mutual respect and admiration. She finally found encouragement, affirmation, criticism and collegiality among her peers. And refreshingly, there is no evidence of any romantic entanglements in the group that could have complicated or compromised their professional relationship. In fact, Beaux rejected the proposal of an American suitor that summer, believing she couldn’t combine her promising career with marriage.

Urged on by Harrison and Lasar, Beaux wrote to her uncle and talked him into financing another season of art studies in Paris for the winter of 1889.

I believe it was the turning point of her life. And maybe it wasn’t the power of Paris at all, but rather, the the power of a summer outside of Paris. And now, her palette is now in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian.

Cecelia Beaux, Palette and 2 Brushes, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art

Cecelia Beaux, Palette and 2 Brushes, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Light of Paris by Eleanor Brown

I’m thrilled to tell you about a new book featuring The American Girls Art Club in Paris. It’s called The Light of Paris, authored by Eleanor Brown, who also wrote the fun and quirky The Weird Sisters a few years back.

light of paris

Whether you’re a longtime follower of this blog, or you’re interested the history of the Reid Hall in Paris, or maybe you’re just a fellow Francophile, then you’ll love reading about Margie, a young American débutante who defies her family’s traditional expectations to spend a Jazz-Age summer at the American Girls Club in Paris, writing in cafés, meeting avant-garde artists and working at The American Library in Paris.

My name is Margie too. How fun is that? It feels a little like reading one of those children’s books that you can have personalized with your child’s name.

I was like, “Go Margie Go!”

Margie’s story is told through the lens of her granddaughter Madeleine who finds Margie’s old diaries in a trunk in her mother’s house. The diaries reveal Margie’s secret life in Paris, inspiring Madeleine to rediscover her artistic talents and to pursue her own dreams.

The plot might be a bit predictable, but who doesn’t enjoy a story set in Paris? And especially, who wouldn’t love to visit the Left Bank scenes around the Rue de Chevreuse and The American Girls Art Club in Paris?

Here is a post I wrote during my own year abroad about the history of the American Girls Art Club in Paris, which includes some of my own photos to accompany the book. I’m posting a few more below. They may not be the best quality, but hey, I was there and it was cool. You get the idea.

 

 Courtyard Image 2011

Reid Center Courtyard  (The former American Girls Art Club in Paris)

 

Reid Center 1

 

Reid Center 3

 

 

Street View, 4 rue de Chevreuse

Street View, 4 rue de Chevreuse

 

 

There are more (and better quality) photos on the Reid Hall – Columbia Global Centers – Paris website. You can watch a video on their website too, which shows some fabulous historical photos and informs you about their current global initiative.

Isn’t it good to know that new generations of students and travelers get to have their own adventures in Paris, like those of Margie and other young women of the American Art Club?

 

Cecelia Beaux: “The Greatest Woman Painter”

In The Footsteps of Cecelia Beaux

I once spent a whole day in Paris walking in the footsteps of Cecelia Beaux. I’d read her autobiography and was eager to feel the same Paris that she did. I mapped it all out and took my camera. When I tried to tell friends and family back home about my little adventure, it nearly broke my heart when they said “Who?”

Celia Beaux, Self Portrait (1894)

Celia Beaux, Self Portrait (1894)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s when I pulled out the famous quote from William Merritt Chase, and said pretty indignantly, well, another famous artist once said “Miss Beaux is not only the greatest woman painter, but the best that has ever lived.” — William Merritt Chase, 1899. And they raised their eyebrows, like, “really?”

So that’s when I resolved to dig deeper into Cecelia Beaux’s story. Who was she and why has her legacy faded so much in the last 100 years? And what about that interesting praise from William Merritt Chase?

Wholly aside from the gender politics within that quote, Chase is making an unavoidable comparison between Cecelia Beaux (1855-1942) and Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). Cassatt would have been the main competition for the honor, such as it is. And yet today, Mary Cassatt is a household name and Cecelia Beaux is not.

It shouldn’t be that way.

Beaux and Cassatt’s Beginnings

Cassatt and Beaux had much in common. They each had French blood: Beaux’s father was from Avignon, Cassatt’s ancestors on her father’s side were French Huguenots from Normandy. Both Cassatt and Beaux spoke fluent French, which might just seem like an interesting coincidence, but then, they both found success in Paris art circles, which is no small thing for an American.  Beaux later attributed her talent to “the priceless heritage” she received from her French father, who did indeed have some natural talent for art, often drawing charming little animal sketches for his daughters.

Both Beaux and Cassatt were raised in Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s. Their well-off families could afford to support their art studies, although the Levitt-Beaux family was less so due to some reversals and hardships, including business failures and the death of Cecelia’s mother 12 days after her birth. However, both families still considered themselves “proper” and tended to follow the social proprieties of the Victorian era, which limited the opportunities for their daughters.

Cassatt (1844-1926) was a decade older than Beaux (1855-1942), but they both started studying art at a very young age, first privately and then at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia, Cassatt from 1860-1862, Beaux from 1876-1878.

Together, their stories reflect the achingly slow pace of change in 19th century art studies for women. Cassatt studied in PAFA’s Antique Class (copying from plaster casts) from 1860-62 during the “fig leaf era,” a time when women were deemed too sensitive to observe sculpture in mixed company unless the male sculptures were discreetly adorned with fig leaves. There were no life drawing classes for women. In 1860, Cassatt’s class of women did receive permission to pose for each other, but it would only be for one hour at a time in a private modeling room and without an instructor. And one would assume with their clothes on. Given these restrictions, Cassatt left the United States to travel and study art in Europe with her family in 1865, when she was only 21 years old.

In case you missed it, I’ve previously written about Mary Cassat in Paris and in her country homes outside of Paris, Chateau de Beaufresne in Le Mesnil-Theribus and Bachivillers, France.

Beaux’s Art Studies in Philadelphia

Unlike Cassatt, Beaux studied art in Philadelphia for over 10 years, beginning at age 16. Her studies would be very start-and-stop as she hopped from one teacher to another, and given the limitations of her early instruction, her talents would be slow to develop. Which just goes to show that Linda Nochlin (author of “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?”) was right, it really does matter how you study art and with whom.

From the beginning, Beaux’s studies were subject to the approval of her uncle, William Foster Biddle, not her father. Beaux’s father had returned to France in 1861 after his American textile business failed, and did not return for 12 years. He left his daughters in the hands of their grandmother, their aunts and their Uncle Will, who would act as the patriarch of the family.

By the time Beaux was 16 years old, it was clear she did not excel in her academic studies at the Lyman School for Girls. “My reports were not bad, but they were not very good,” admitted Beaux. In 1871 Uncle Will decided she could quit school and pursue art studies instead. He sought not professional instruction but a ladylike approach suitable for a young woman who would soon be thinking of marriage.

Professional art classes at the PAFA were out of the question. The progressive women students of PAFA had filed a petition to enroll in life drawing classes. While the petition was granted in 1868, they were only allowed to use female models. Still, Uncle Will would not have approved. He was spared that decision because in 1870, PAFA closed its doors in order to build a new building with much more room for art classes. His niece would need to study elsewhere.

The Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, 118-128 N Broad St, Philadelphia, PA

Standing since 1876, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 118-128 N Broad St, Philadelphia, PA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uncle Will was able to make what he thought to be a thoroughly safe choice for Beaux’s first teacher: his own relative Catherine Ann Drinker (“Aunt Kate”), who had already studied at PAFA and opened her own studio by the age of 30. As Beaux herself said, “I think that, secretly, my uncle shrank from launching me away from the close circle of home, and thought that if I must go out, I could not be in a safer place.” Beaux’s studies with Drinker, which started in 1871 and lasted only a year, consisted of making conté crayon copies of lithograph copies of Greek sculptures. (So in other words, Beaux would be 3 times removed from actual contact with a real live model. Can’t get much more proper — or inadequate — than that.)

It turned out that Beaux was frustrated with her drawings at Catherine Drinker’s studio, calling them “correct and ugly, a hateful travesty to the eyes.” But Drinker offered a different kind of education: what the life of a professional female artist could be like. It turns out it was more sophisticated and social than Uncle Will had expected. Drinker invited Beaux to stay at the studio after lessons were over and to join her artistic circle of friends. Beaux was inspired but Uncle Will was not pleased.

When Drinker became engaged to one of the men in her circle (a man 8 years younger, go Aunt Kate!), she recommended that Beaux sign up for art school. Knowing Uncle Will would expect a segregated class for women, Drinker recommended a class offered by the Dutch artist Francis Adolf Van der Wielen.

Beaux entered Van der Wielen’s class in 1872, but was required to prove herself proficient in enlargements and perspective in order to be promoted to the Antique Class, where she would draw copies of plaster casts.

Drawing studio at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in what would have been an "Antique Class"

Undated photo of a drawing studio at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in what would have been an “Antique Class.”

In her autobiography, Beaux offers a delightful rant that explains exactly why copying from plaster casts was such an “impoverished” way to study art.

I soon found myself before a large piece of white paper and one of the plaster busts. It was not the head of the Medici Venus, which I had never seen, of course, but something like it, and even less interesting, and it was placed in a broad hard light and had no silhouette, or mystery of lighting, no motivity. It was an object which took me nowhere and brought me nothing, as I now see, because it represented a series of contradictions. I suspect that it was a Roman bust, and without original impulse. Of course, it had the highly sophisticated syntheticism of the Greek ideal for its origin, but refined away to negative import and diluted artificialdom, it had only in the plaster pretended substance, which the marble would have made existent and absolute, even in abstraction.

The surface of plaster of Paris gives no clue to its substance, though the forms it is the mould of were decisive, though abstract. So firm, in fact, that thinking back to the original that must have been, the idea of youthful body, tender cheek, lip and throat, seem to have been qualities to be rejected.

Beaux wrote these impassioned words nearly 60 years later, after she had spent most of her life painting with live models. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a better explanation why women needed to be allowed to draw and paint from life, and not the cheap plaster casts available in their “Antique Classes.”

Beaux’s fondest memory of her year with Van der Wielen was when a fellow student brought in a gift from her fiancé, a young doctor, complete set of bones of the skull. The students copied them all in pencil, enjoying the play of organic curves, modeling and lighting for the first time. Years later, Beaux credits this knowledge of the human skull for giving her a “predilection for portraiture, and the manifestations of human individuality. I always saw the structure under the surface, and its capacities and proportions.”

Classes at Van der Wielen’s would end in 1872, when a female student “succumbed to the manly charms of our director,” and with “her ample fortune floated them away, far from the ennui of class exercises in drawing.” (Isn’t Beaux hilarious?)

Van der Wielen’s departure would lead to a teaching opportunity for Beaux. Catherine Drinker stepped into Van der Wielen’s position and in 1872, Beaux stepped into Drinker’s post as a part-time art teacher at Miss Sanford’s School for Girls. Beaux taught for 3 years. In 1874, Uncle Will introduced Beaux to a printer and she was offered her first professional illustration assignments, including a commission to illustrate fossils for a book on paleontology. In 1876, she would have attended the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and was most likely inspired to enroll in additional art instruction of her own.

Although Beaux denies it in her autobiography (interesting, that in 1930, after a long successful life in international art circles, she would still feel the need to defend her propriety), in 1876, the new PAFA building was completed and 21 year-old Celia Beaux enrolled in the antique, costume and portrait classes.

Why the reversal for Uncle Will? For one, his fortunes had turned around and by 1876, there was plenty of money for more art classes for Beaux. Perhaps Uncle Will saw her as a more serious artist with professional potential, or perhaps Beaux was one of those insistent young women who finally wear down their father figure. Beaux even signed up for the life drawing class with the famous instructor Thomas Eakins, but only attended once. (I’ll bet she didn’t mention that to Uncle Will.) By this time, the women of PAFA were allowed to draw and paint nude models, although male models were required to wear a loincloth.

 

Woman's Life Class

Alice Barber Stephens, The Women’s Life Class (illustration for William C. Brownell, “The Art Schools of Philadelphia, Scribner’s Monthly 18 Sept. 1879)

 

Beaux claimed that she avoided Eakins’ class because of Uncle Will’s “chivalrous and Quaker soul,” but in truth she might have quickly realized in just one session that Eakins’ life class was ripe for rumor and scandal. Although Eakins was greatly admired by many of his female students and has since been recognized as one of the most progressive teachers of the era with his emphasis on anatomy and the live human form, he would be forced to resign his PAFA teaching post in 1886 amidst allegations that he encouraged the female students to pose in the nude, that he exposed himself to a female student, and that he lifted a loincloth from a male model in the women’s life class.

Beaux only pursued her studies at PAFA for a couple of years. It is possible that her uncle, who had been generously supporting her studies, decided that two years was enough. It’s also possible that life just got in the way, as it is known to do. These years were a time of courtship for Beaux and her older sister, which brought its social and domestic distractions.

When Beaux’s older sister Etta married Henry Sturgis Drinker in 1879 and Beaux had no acceptable offer of her own, Beaux turned back to art classes. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Beaux found no man who was more interesting than her art.

This time she would study china painting, a popular decorative craft that would have given Beaux something from which to make a living. After lessons at the National Art Training School of Philadelphia, she started to make money painting portraits of children on porcelain plates. She gave it a try for awhile but kind of hated it: “I remember it with gloom,” she admitted in her autobiography. From the image below, you can tell that Beaux’s ability to get a likeness is developing, but that her subject appears utterly joyless. (Then again, maybe he was a joyless little snot and she nailed it.)

Working Title/Artist: Plaque: Cecilia BeauxDepartment: Am. Decorative ArtsCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: photography by mma, Digital File DT5403.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 3_27_12

Cecelia Beaux, Child on Porcelain Plaque (1880), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (not on display)

 

 

 

 

 

Beaux’s Turning Point: Life Classes

The turning point for Beaux came in 1881, when at the age of 26 a friend from her early days at the Lyman School invited her to join a life drawing and painting class supervised by William Sartain, a French-educated artist and successful New York professional. It would be the first time Beaux would ever take classes with a live model. She clicked with Sartain’s gentle style. Beaux began painting portraits with confidence and inspiration. Her work took a huge step forward.

 

When Beaux wrote about her first life classes 50 years later, you can just feel the powerful impact the experience had on her:

… the unbroken morning hours, the companionship, and, of course above all, the model, static, silent, separated, so that the lighting and values could be seen and compared in their beautiful sequence and order, all this was the farther side of a very sharp corner I had turned, into a new world which was to be continuously mine.

Sartain was one of those rare artists who was also a magnificent teacher. Beaux describes his ability to communicate his vision:

What I most remember was the revelation [Sartain’s] vision gave me of the model. What he saw was there, but I had not observed it. His voice warmed with the perception of tones of color in the modeling of cheek and jaw in the subject, and he always insisted upon the proportions of the head, in view of its power content, the summing up, as it were, of the measure of the individual.

This ideal, the most difficult to attain in portraiture, is hidden in the large illusive forms; the stronger the head, the less obvious are these, and calling for perception and understanding in their farthest capacity.

When our critic rose from my place and passed on, he left me full of strength to spend on the search, and joy in the beauty revealed; what I had felt before in the works of the great unknown and remote now could pass, by my own heart and hands, into the beginning of conquest, the bending of the material to my desire.

What moxy! Beaux’s world had just exploded with confidence and inspiration. She would soon begin her own conquest of the art world, “bending material to her desire.”

 

Cecelia Beaux’s Portrait Career is Launched

It was about this time that Beaux rented her own art studio on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia (at first shared with cousin Emma Leavitt) and began painting portraits in earnest. The PAFA Archives contain some interesting photographs of the cousins in their studio in the 1880s.

In 1883, Beaux found herself in the “large barren studio” with tall ceilings and full light, dreaming of a large picture. She began to sketch a composition in the style of Whistler’s famous Arrangement in Gray and Black #1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871), which she would have seen at the Centennial Exhibition of 1881. Beaux’s sister agreed to pose for the oversized canvas along with her wiggly 3 year-old son. She claims that “the presiding daemon spoke French in whispering the name of the proposed work”: Les Derniers Jours D’Enfance. Even if you don’t speak French you can still somehow understand “the last days of infancy” and the bittersweet intimacy that conveys.

beaux les derniers jours

Celia Beaux, Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance (1883-5), oil on canvas, 46 x 54, Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts

 

It took Beaux two years to finish the double portrait. She had never before done anything but heads. Here she had to figure out not only the full body, but the interaction of the two, as well as a background, table and flowers. And then the rug, which is way more difficult than it looks. (I know, I’ve tried it. My needlepoint rug looked great, but completely overpowered the rest of the painting.) It was ambitious to say the least. She received regular criticism from her former teacher William Sartain, who stopped by her studio whenever he could get away from New York, but other than that, she kind of figured it out on her own. She was 30 years old when she entered it into the Annual Exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy and won the Mary Smith Prize for the best painting by a female artist.

Now she was on a roll. She would soon complete Ethel Page as Undine (1885) — again, on her own in her own studio without dedicated instruction — and would win the Mary Smith Prize at the Pennsylvania Academy for the second year in a row. Beaux would work on over 40 portraits in the next few years, seeking to distinguish herself as a serious professional and not a dilettante, much like Mary Cassatt did in France.

Celia Beaux, Ethel Page as Undine (1885), oil on canvas, private collection

Celia Beaux, Ethel Page as Undine (1885), oil on canvas, private collection

The Paris Salon

Beaux’s biggest triumph as an up-and-coming artist would come in 1887 when her friend and fellow artist Margaret Lesley Bush-Brown offered to take Les Derniers Jours d’Enfance to Paris and to submit it to the Paris Salon on Beaux’s behalf. Bush-Brown was a friend from PAFA who had studied in Paris at Académie Julian with Jules Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger, as well as Carolus-Duran and Jean J. Henner. Bush-Brown carried the painting on the top of a cab to the studio of Jean Paul Laurens for his advice. Laurens urged Bush-Brown to send it to the Salon. Despite Beaux’s lack of connections in the Paris art world, it was accepted. As Beaux said in her autobiography:

It had no allies; I was no one’s pupil, or protégée; it was the work of an unheard-of American. It was accepted, and well hung on a centre wall. No flattering press notices were sent me, and I have no recorded news of it. After months it came back to me, bearing the French labels and number, in the French manner, so fraught with emotion to many hearts.

Beaux describes how she sat and stared at her painting when it was returned to her in Philadelphia, resolving to go to Paris herself to continue her studies.

I sat endlessly before it, longing for some revelation of the scenes through which it had passed; the drive under the sky of Paris, the studio of the great French artist, where his eye had actually rested on it, and observed it,. The handling by employés; their French voices and speech; the propos of those who decided its placing; the Gallery, the French crowd, which later I was to know so well; . . .

But there was no voice, no imprint. The prodigal would never reveal the fiercely longed-for mysteries. Perhaps it was  better so, and it is probable that before the canvas, dumb as a granite door, was formed the purpose to go myself as soon as possible.”

 

 

Next Post: Celia Beaux in France

 

 

Sources and for Further Reading:

Cecilia Beaux, Background with Figures, Autobiography of Cecilia Beaux, Houghton & Mifflin Co. (1930)

Alice A. Carter, Cecilia Beaux, A Modern Painter in the Gilded Age, Rizzoli (2005) – although note the book cover which appears below curiously says “Victorian Age.” My copy, and I am looking at it right now, clearly says “Gilded Age.”

Sylvia Yount, et. al. Celia Beaux, American Figure Painter, High Museum of Art, Atlanta (2007), accompanying the 2007-8 exhibit by the same name at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta Georgia, The Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, Washington and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Cecilia Beaux: A Modern Painter in the Gilded Age by Alice A. Carter

Cecilia Beaux: A Modern Painter in the Gilded Age by Alice A. Carter

 

 

Little Woman in Blue: The Story of May Alcott Nieriker

I just finished Little Woman in Blue by Jeannine Atkins, the fictionalized life story of Louisa May Alcott’s sister May Alcott Nieriker. Fans of Little Women will remember the artistic little sister Amy from Little Women, but in this book the real May gets her own voice and tells her own true and timeless story.

little woman in blue

In Little Women, Amy gives up art in favor of a marriage to the wealthy neighbor Laurie, spending the rest of her life as a genteel society woman and devoted mother.

In Little Woman in Blue, Atkins reveals that the real May did no such thing; in fact, May was ahead of her time in her desire to “have it all.” But she met criticism from both sides. Her parents said they “didn’t raise our daughters to earn a living” and believed that “motherhood is woman’s highest calling.”

But it was the criticism and advice from her own sister that May struggled with the most. Louisa May, who attained literary success but never married, didn’t seem to take May seriously. Louisa May often discouraged May’s pursuits, criticizing May’s artwork quite publicly. On the other hand, Louisa May did pay for May’s art studies in Paris. Oh my goodness, what a complicated relationship those sisters had.

Even Mary Cassatt, who May befriends during her years in Paris, says “. . . women must choose. We can be artists or mothers.” Cassatt was known to be highly critical of amateur women artists who didn’t do serious work. “It’s best to be thankful to miss the danger of childbirth, then the diapers, the scuffles, and the noise,” she warns.

The scenes with May Alcott and Mary Cassatt were some of my favorite passages of the book. In what must have been the spring of 1878, they go on a stroll to watch deliverymen carrying paintings into the jury for the Paris Salon (the same jury that would accept May’s still life but reject two of Cassatt’s). Later, May visits Mary Cassatt’s studio to find her finishing up “a sulky girl in a lacy dress sprawled on a big blue chair,” no doubt referring to one of my favorite Cassatts: Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Finally, Cassatt invites May to view the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition of 1879 in which Cassatt made her impressionist debut.

May refuses to be discouraged by Cassatt’s professional advice, and instead takes her inspiration from Berthe Morisot, who by that time had married Eugène Manet, given birth to their daughter Julie, and still kept painting. As Mary Cassatt said to May: “She has a strong will and a bonne to help with the child.” (Ah yes, the key to every working woman’s success.)

If you don’t know the rest of May’s story I won’t spoil it here. It’s a timeless story about persistence, hope, imagination and regret. I highly recommend that you read the whole book for yourself. In the meantime, you might enjoy reading the interview I had with the author Jeannine Atkins, in which we discuss women, art and the story of May Alcott Nieriker.

Q: In your book, Louisa May Alcott was a difficult woman. Although you softened her a bit, Mary Cassatt was known to be quite difficult as well. So it made me wonder, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Were these women successful because they were tough and uncompromising, or were they difficult because of the unusual challenges they faced as ambitious, talented women of that era? Is “difficult” a gendered judgment in a world where mothers say “we didn’t bring up our girls to earn a living”?

A: What great questions. I’m sorry the only honest answer is that I don’t know, but perhaps that’s where complicated questions lead. And I’m happy to speculate, which novelists get to do! Journals and memoirs suggest that Louisa was often carefree in her youth, despite the family’s hardships. Louisa notes a change in herself after the Civil War, when she was given calomel to treat the typhoid fever she caught as a nurse, and which we now know gave her mercury poisoning. Some of what we might call “difficulty” certainly came from physical pain.

I think May saw a bit of her sister in Mary Cassatt, in that uncompromising drive toward art, and the way she chose a life without the comforts and compromises of a sustained romance or partnership. Mary Cassatt seemed to show a softer side in her relationship to her sister and women friends, and her paintings celebrate such tenderness, but was also driven as both an artist and businesswoman, promoting both her own work and that of other Impressionists. Both Louisa Alcott and Mary Cassatt became wealthy due to their own efforts, and I hope they felt some quiet satisfaction in that.

Re your last question, I think that even today we tend to be harsher on uncompromising women than we are on men. I can think of some pretty harsh language that is reserved for women who persevere at work.

Q: I was shocked at the unflattering preface that Louisa wrote in May’s Concord Sketches book and I assume it’s true. I’ve seen some of May’s artwork and I would agree that her talent at times appears undeveloped. To call her a student was probably fair, unless of course, you’re family and you should know it’s better to be kind than right. Why you think Louisa wrote it the way she did? Of course, I don’t have a sister, so maybe that understanding will evade me. 

A: I was floored when I opened Concord Sketches and saw the work within described in the preface as valuable for its subject matter, though not its execution. It’s one thing to critique verbally, and another to put it in print. Also, I can’t fathom what the publisher was thinking: how could this possibly help sell a book?

Louisa was enormously critical of her own work. She enjoyed writing Gothic or lurid tales, but those who’ve read Little Women know she felt embarrassed by her interest in such, which Jo March’s beau chastised. Louisa had nothing good to say about Little Women, which would become almost instantly a bestseller and has never gone out of print. So being critical was her way of being, and she saw it as part of her role as a sister who was eight years older than May. Louisa left home to work at sixteen, when May was still a child. Some sisters can find it hard to see their grown siblings as they are, and Louisa came down hard on May, until it was rather too late.

Q: How much fact vs. fiction is involved in your story about May’s Boston art lessons with William Rimmer? I loved the tough advice you had him give to May, and it seems clear that she would have benefitted from additional instruction at that level. Was Rimmer known to have been inappropriate with women students, or was that a creative inspiration? I loved the way you had May blame and punish herself for the incident in the hall.

A: There are records of some of William Rimmer’s lessons and even guidebooks to the teaching artists of the time that would be considered libelous in ours. He had a bit of a reputation. I did make up the incident in his class but it seemed plausible to me. In classes today, there’s certainly still abuse of sexual power from instructors, and I know of young women who stopped taking classes or even making art in reaction to remarks made by professors. I hardly think such is new, or the self-blaming that often happens, and wanted to show that as one of the things that impeded May and other women from getting the sort of instruction they needed and deserved.

Q: How did you do the research for the Paris chapters in the book? Did you get to go to Paris, or did you have to rely on research and imagination? What sites in Paris would be on your dream literary tour for your book?

A: I did go to Paris, but also loved combing through old guidebooks (it’s great to live near university libraries!). Enough Americans were in Paris then that I also found details in the letters of Henry James, John Singer Sargent, and others, including May Alcott’s charming small book that she wrote with a primarily female audience in mind: How to Study Abroad and Do it Cheaply. She scolded Paris teachers for charging women often three times what they charged men and encouraged women to resist. (She also mentioned the best shops not only for paints but for hats and stockings: buy your shoes in England, but gloves in Paris).

 This book is now available as a reprint online. I was also delighted to visit Dinan on your blog. My dream tour would be to visit May’s home in Meudon, where Rodin also had a studio.

Q: Where can we find images of May’s artwork online or in person? I’ve seen some of her work but I’d love to see more. I don’t think I’ve ever seen images of her two pieces that were accepted into the Paris Salon.

A: As you inferred earlier, May’s art showed talent, but didn’t reach the heights where we’d expect it to be in museums. It’s the sort of art that a proud family might put on walls, which the Alcotts did, and because of her sister’s fame, it was saved rather than possibly being stored in attics or forgotten. At Orchard House in Concord, MA, which is open to the public, you can see some of May’s work. Drawings of gods and goddesses are on her bedroom walls, as well as her portrait of an owl and a flower panel in Louisa’s bedroom. Around the house are her watercolors of landscapes, copies of Turner, and a copy of La Negresse and the still life with a stuffed owl displayed in the Paris Salon.

Q: I think you’re on to something here. Any chance you’re thinking about writing about another woman artist? I’d love to read a novel about Berthe Morisot, Celia Beaux, Rosa Bonheur, Mary MacMonnies or the Emmets. I hear there’s a novel about Georgia O’Keefe coming out soon. Any other women artists on your dream list? 

A: So many dreams, so little time. I’m not so drawn to write about someone like Georgia O’Keefe who left quite a bit of biographical information (and fabulous letters). I start in the margins. It was the brief allusions to May Alcott in biographies that pulled me in to use imagination to flesh out what wasn’t known. And I wrote Stone Mirrors: A Life in Verse of Sculptor Edmonia Lewis which is coming out from Atheneum/Simon and Schuster in spring 2017. We have some amazing facts about how Edmonia Lewis became the first person of color to gain an international reputation as a sculptor, but there were also lots of intriguing missing pieces. And a new woman with a role in the arts is taking shape at my computer, but she must stay secret until more fully formed.

Thanks so much for the excellent questions!

Links:

Orchard House http://www.louisamayalcott.org/

https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/tag/may-alcott-nieriker/

 

 

For Further Reading:

 

Little Women in Dinan, France: American Girls Art Club in Paris, a photography tour of Dinan, France in the steps of Louisa May Alcott and her sister May

Berthe Morisot’s Interior: American Girls Art Club in Paris, photos and discussion of Berthe Morisot’s Julie Playing a Violin (1893)

Where the Light Falls: An American Artist in Paris, American Girls Art Club in Paris, a book review and tour of the sights where an American artist studied in Paris in the same era as May Alcott Nieriker.

A list of Alcott sources from Jeannine Atkins: http://www.jeannineatkins.com/books/Alcott_sources.htm

 

 

Travels in Vermeer by Michael White

I’d never even heard of this slim little book, Travels in Vermeer by Michael White, until the National Book Award Longlist for 2015 was released a few weeks ago. I suspected I would enjoy an art-themed travel memoir in the words of a poet, so I ordered it right away. And oh my goodness. What a revelation. I feel like I found an soulmate in art and travel.

travels in vermeer

 

 

This book is indeed “an enchanting book about the transformative power of art” (Kirkus Reviews). We join Creative Writing Professor Michael White on his year-long quest for peace, sobriety and healing following the death of his first wife and his divorce from his second. He’s a wreck, barely hanging on, but he’s soothed and inspired by the sight of Vermeer’s The Milkmaid at the Rijksmuseum.

 

 

Johannes Vermeer, The MIlkmaid

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid (c. 1658-1661), oil on canvas, The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Just study this painting, as Michael White did at the beginning of his book. The milk — the nail on the wall — the Delft tiles — the seeds on the bread — the dirty chipped walls — the ultramarine blue apron — the beautiful foreshortened arm grasping the handle of the pitcher. And what is that object in the lower right corner? A space heater/foot warmer, commonly understood to represent lust in Dutch genre paintings. (What? Whoa, this painting just got way more complicated.) I have seen this painting in person myself, and it’s true, it’s mesmerizing.

Michael White’s quest begins here, in front of The Milkmaid, when his scalp begins to tingle. “Why do I feel this sweet sensation of joy?” he asks, quoting from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem The Moose, which after describing the sight of a moose in the middle of a country road, also wonders:

Why, why do we feel

(we all feel) this sweet

sensation of joy?

White knows he must pursue this question, that his redemption and recovery might depend on it. Pouring over a Vermeer catalog on a park bench near the Rijksmuseum (that’s another thing deserving of wonder: the joys to be discovered in museum bookshops) White learns there are only 35 Vermeers in the world in only a handful of museums. He comes up with an itinerary that will take him from the Mauritshuis at the Hague, to the National Gallery in D.C., the Frick and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Kenwood House, Buckingham Palace and the National Gallery in London.

The only thing missing from this book is illustration. I get it, this isn’t a $75 art book for the coffee table, but I’m already picturing an expanded illustrated edition à la The Hare with Amber Eyes. A girl can dream. Maybe if it wins the National Book Award?

As it is, I had to be happy with Google and my iPhone. Each time White came to a new painting, I had to call it up and look along in order to fully appreciate the text. So I armchair-traveled along with White and studied these public domain/fair use images:

Johannes Vermeer, The Girl With a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), The Mauritius, The Hague

Johannes Vermeer, The Girl With a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis, The Hague

Johanes Vermeer, The Art of Painting (16xx), oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis, The Hague

Johanes Vermeer, The Art of Painting (c. 1662-1668), oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Luckily for White, this painting was on loan to the Mauritshuis in the Hague at the time of his visit, saving him a separate trip to Vienna.

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delt (16xx), oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis, The Hague

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft (c. 1660-1661), oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis, The Hague

Johannes Vermeer , Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664), oil on canvas, Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Johannes Vermeer , Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664), oil on canvas, Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Johannes Vermeer , Girl with the Red Hat (c. 1665/1666), oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with the Red Hat (c. 1665/1666), oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. As White points out in the book, this is a very small painting, only about 7 x 9 inches. And yet. Look at the chair — the scarf — the hat — and to me, the best of all, the highlight on her lip and her nose.

Johannes Vermeer, Officer with Laughing Girl (c. 1657), oil on canvas, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, The Frick Collection, New York

Johannes Vermeer, Officer with Laughing Girl (c. 1657), oil on canvas, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, The Frick Collection, New York. In the book, White tells us that his breath caught in his throat when he saw this painting: “The feeling isn’t Here is art, but Here is life.”

 

Johannes Vermeer, Girl Interrupted in Her Music (c. 1658-61), oil on canvas, Frick Collection, New York

Johannes Vermeer, Girl Interrupted in Her Music (c. 1658-61), oil on canvas, Frick Collection, New York. White points out how poorly this painting has been preserved, something we would never know by looking at a digital image. (Right there, it makes me want to run to the Frick to see for myself.)

After the Frick, Michael White visits the five Vermeers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and finally, he flies off to the last stop on his itinerary, London. Before that, though, White retreats into a contemplation of his two marriages, his battle for sobriety, his almost crushing love for his young daughter and his search for new love after divorce. He is in the perfectly vulnerable place to figure out just what Vermeer and his women are meant to teach him.

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson (1662-1664), oil on canvas, The Royal Collection, England

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson (c. 1662-1664), oil on canvas, The Royal Collection, England

 

Johannes Vermeer, Lady Standing at a Virginal (c. 1670-1673), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Standing at a Virginal (c. 1670-1673), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (c. 1670-1672), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (c. 1670-1672), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

So.

Back to the essential question: Why? Why do we love to study these paintings? And what can this do for us, aside from offering momentary pleasure or joy? What is the point? White comes to his realizations (his “aha” if you will) toward the end of the book, weaving his memories and his losses into his obsession for Vermeer. There are paragraphs toward the end that were so lovely they took my breath away.

Here’s a small taste:

When Sophia was still an infant, I remember the inexhaustible wonder in her gaze. She’d stare so seekingly into my eyes for hours – first one eye, then the other eye, and then doze off before beginning again. . . . In those first months, the child is on a mission, it seems, to memorize the face of love. How astonishing to see and be seen, to be truly seen for the first time.

. . .

What if a painter painted virtually nothing but such moments? . . .

 

He goes on, but it’s too beautiful for me to repeat it here. I swear, it gave me goosebumps. All of a sudden, my love of art and travel and literature, my dedication to this silly little blog, it all makes sense. I want (we all want) that “sweet sensation of joy”  that such moments bring. I am seeking (we all are seeking) to know the world, to know and be known by our loved ones. And that is what art does.

As White said, “the feeling isn’t Here is art, but Here is life.”

I think you should read this memoir for yourself, you might just have “a moment” of your own. Because writing this good is as artful as a painting.

 

For Further Reading:

Jonathan Jansen’s Essential Vermeer, http://www.essentialvermeer.com

Katherine Weber’s novel The Music Lesson

Even if you’ve read Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, you should check out her website, which will remind you how creatively she wove a number of Vermeer’s paintings into the narrative. It might make you want to read it all over again.