Recommended Art History Novels

As readers of this blog know, I’m a little obsessed with art history books, both fiction and nonfiction, and there have been quite a few good ones lately. I just took a stack to my painting class and passed them around. Here’s your chance to find out my recent art history reading recs too.

last paintig of sara de vosThe Last Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April, 2016). Haven’t heard of it yet? You will. It was named a New York Times Editor’s Choice, earning this fabulous review from the New York Times.

This novel is a mix of your favorite art history novels, but it’s still uniquely its own. It blends themes from The Goldfinch (with fast-paced suspense, a mysterious art theft and its grasp of what power a painting can have over its beholders), The Girl With a Pearl Earring (in its gorgeous, tender depiction of painters in 1600s Holland) and The Art Forger (fascinating passages about forgery techniques; insightful consideration of the psychological effects on an artist who uses her skills to commit artistic fraud).

To summarize, an art history grad agrees to “copy” a valuable but lesser known Dutch painting, At the Edge of a Wood by Sara de Vos (an imaginary painting by a real artist), knowing full well that it is probably going to be used as a forgery. The original is stolen and replaced with the copy. Decades pass. The art forger is now a respected curator and art historian specializing in female Dutch painters of the Golden Age, and when she mounts an exhibition, both the original and her forged copy of At the Edge of a Wood arrive on loan to the art museum. Which one is real? How can you tell? Will the curator’s shameful secret be revealed and her career destroyed? And what about the woman who painted it so many centuries ago?

I especially appreciated the author’s enlightened approach to the psychological evolution of the female characters. (Is it relevant that the author is a man? Does that make it more of a writerly/moral accomplishment — or is that lowering the bar for men? Discuss amongst yourselves.) Too often in historical fiction, whether the author is male or female, women become powerless pawns in service of plot, or victims of gender-based restrictions. While it might be true to the period, it can make for dull, uninspired reading. And yet, to give a historical female character too much agency can feel false and anachronistic.

In The Last Painting of Sara De Vos, Dominic Smith manages to capture the truth of the historical era without sacrificing the depth of female character development. Seriously, I almost stood up and cheered at the end when I learned the full story of the last painting of Sara De Vos. So bravo to the author for pulling that off.

In addition, the author has a wonderful website you really need to visit to check out such things as: How to Forge a 17th Century Dutch Painting and “Forgeries and Figments.”

Very highly recommended.

 

improbability of love

I just burned through The Improbability of   Love by Hannah Rothschild (Knopf, November 2015). I just love the U.S. cover — very clever turning  palette into a heart, don’t you think? I’m pleased to recommend it as another suspenseful art history novel.

Once again we have an imaginary painting (“The Improbability of Love“) by a real artist, this time a French Rococo painter from the 1700s, Antoine Watteau. Check out the author’s website where she answers the question, Why Watteau? A young chef named Annie McDee stumbles upon the painting in a second-hand shop where no one knows its true value. Annie buys is for a song, and then curious, begins to research its provenance.

The fun part of this book — a really clever move, if you ask me — comes when the painting speaks for itself. He has a distinctive voice, funny and full of insult and injury about the state of his neglect. As the painting says in his first turn to speak:

I knew I’d be rescued but never thought it would take fifty years. There should have been search parties, battalions and legions. Why? Because I am priceless and I am also the masterpiece that launched a whole artistic genre. And if that isn’t enough, I am considered to be the greatest, the most moving, and the most thrilling representation of love.

. . .

Imagine being stuffed away in a bric-a-brac shop in the company of a lot of rattan furniture, cheap china and reproduction pictures. I would not call myself a snob but there are limits.

In addition to the droll little quips from the painting, you have Russian oligarchs, greedy art dealers, clueless art experts and a Nazi art hoarder who has tried to cover up his past. Not all of these elements work, and some of the characters just clutter up the less-than-perfect plot. Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed the passages about the cleaning and restoration of the painting as well as the research into its provenance. The plot is suspenseful, and you’re never sure whether Annie will be able to keep the painting safe from the many interested parties who would do anything, pay anything, to lay claim to it.

Recommended.

 

georgia

Another art history novel I’m really excited about is Georgia, A Novel of Georgia O’Keefe by Dawn Tripp. I am hoping my Chicago book club will read it this summer, paired with a visit to O’Keefe’s work at the Art Institute of Chicago.

We all know Georgia O’Keefe from her later years as a painter of the Southwest. Maybe you’ve even been to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. I knew that O’Keefe was born in Wisconsin and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, but then what? Hmmm, wasn’t there something about an affair with a New York photographer?

Dawn Tripp’s novel begins in New York City in 1916, the year Georgia O’Keefe meets Alfred Stieglitz, “the father of modern photography.” Stieglitz and O’Keefe form a passionate partnership as lovers and fellow artists. Tripp was lucky enough to have access to the recently released letters between O’Keefe and Stieglitz  as she wrote the book (they’d been kept under seal for 25 years after O’Keefe’s death in 1986). All of those powerful, tumultuous scenes between her characters are the real deal. As Tripp has said herself, “their love affair was a loaded one: Ambition. Desire. Sex. Love. Fame. Betrayal. A search for artistic freedom.”

This story is about a woman’s fight to create and retain her own artistic identity. Stieglitz wants to control her but she’ll have none of it, even after their marriage. O’Keefe fiercely guards her independence and insists having “a room of her own.” (The key to any artist’s happiness, right?) In the end, O’Keefe’s “room of her own” was her home and studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she spent over 50 years of her life. In charge of her own life and art.

The author’s website is worth a visit if you’re interested in learning more about Georgia O’Keefe, including a fabulous Book Club Kit I plan to use myself.

Very highly recommended.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

The Painter at the Fountain: Jane Emmet de Glehn

 

John Singer Sargent, The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy, 1907. Art Institute of Chicago, oil on canvas 71.4 x 56.5 cm (28 1/8 x 22 1/4 in.) Signed, lower left: "John S. Sargent" Friends of American Art Collection, 1914.57

John Singer Sargent, The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy, 1907. Art Institute of Chicago, oil on canvas

I’m a little obsessed with this painting of the woman at the fountain.

It is John Singer Sargent’s The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy (1907) from the Art Institute of Chicago. It  has been a favorite painting of mine for decades. I love the idea that Sargent painted a turn-of-the-century woman artist in such a complimentary way.

 

I decided to do a deep dive into the story behind this painting.  It was 1907. The subject of the painting is a female artist in her smock, accompanied by a man who observes her in the act of painting. She is tall, confident, and is looking over the man’s head. She is concentrating on her subject, refusing to be distracted. He is relaxed, scrutinizing the painting in progress. Is he pleased? Is he critical? Is he offering advice? It’s hard to tell. And then there is Sargent, another artist, studying and painting them both. The woman is in the middle. How interesting.

Sargent’s subjects in this painting were his friends and fellow artists Jane and Wilfred de Glehn. Wilfred de Glehn (1870-1951) was a British landscape painter who had studied in London and at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He was 37 years old at the time of this painting.

Jane Erin Emmet de Glehn (1873-1961) was 34 years old, and had been married just 3 years, no children. (It turned out she never did have children.) She was a member of the prestigious Emmet family of New Rochelle, New York, the youngest of ten siblings. Jane’s great-grandfather Thomas Addis Emmet was the Attorney General of New York and one of the top lawyers admitted to appear in from of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jane came from a long line of successful women artists. Her mother, Julia Colt Pierson Emmet (1829-1908) was an artist and noted illustrator. Jane’s older sisters, Rosina Emmet Sherwood (1854-1948) and Lydia Field Emmet (1866-1952) were both successful painters and illustrators, as well as her cousin Ellen (“Bay”) Emmet Rand (1876-1941) from San Francisco. The Emmets were also distant cousins of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Success, talent and privilege ran freely through the Emmet blood.

Jane Emmet began studying art at a young age, following in the footsteps of her older sisters. Rosina and Lydia Emmet had studied at the Académie Julian in Paris for six months in 1884-85, after which they returned to New York to live and work as professional artists. Rosina married in 1887, had five children, and for two decades gave up most of her professional painting projects in favor of informal family portraits. Lydia continued her studies at the Art Students League, studying with such names as William Merritt Chase and Kenyon Cox. Both Rosina and Lydia were actively involved in Chase’s Shinnecock Summer School of Art from 1891-1893, and both of them were commissioned for major works in the Woman’s Building of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

Jane’s older sisters helped Jane make incredible contacts in the New York art world. Jane got to meet John Singer Sargent in 1890, when she was just 17 years old. Sargent had arranged for the Spanish gypsy dancer La Carmencita to give a private performance and pose for a portrait at Chase’s 10th Street studio. The Emmet sisters were invited, along with a elite group in the New York art world, including William Merritt Chase, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Augustus Saint Gaudens and James Carroll Beckwith. Jane was lucky to be rubbing some pretty legendary elbows at such a young age.

In 1897, Jane followed in the path of her older sisters and went off to Paris to study art. Rosina and Lydia Emmet had been underwhelmed with the quality of instruction they’d received at the Académie Julian in the mid-1880s, so it could have been at their urging that Jane and Bay instead sought to study with the famous sculptor Frederick MacMonnies.

MacMonnies was a renowned American artist who had been living and sculpting in Paris since he arrived to study at L’´Ecole de Beaux Arts in the mid-1880s. (See my post “Musée Bourdelle and its American Connection” about MacMonnies’ studio at 16 Impasse du Maine in Paris.) By the mid-90s, fresh off the heels of his success with a giant commission for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893,  MacMonnies had began to offer drawing instruction to some of his sculpting protégés such as Janet Scudder. His classes soon became popular with American female painters as well. By 1897, the word was out and the Emmet women wanted in.

Jane and Bay Emmet arrived in Paris in February, 1897 and found “a fine apartment [in Montparnasse], a cut above the lifestyle of most art students, and access to the inner circle of artists and architects.” (An Interlude in Giverny at 67, see below.) Bay was the first of the Emmet women to be invited to join MacMonnies’ Paris class at Académie Vitti, apparently because she had recently met and impressed John Singer Sargent in London, and had arrived in Paris with his hearty recommendation.

Jane Emmet had to settle for painting classes under Raphael Collin at Académie Colarossi at 10 rue de la Grande-Chaumière in Montparnasse, but kept her eye on Bay’s progress with MacMonnies, hoping for the opportunity to join his class.

In May, 1897, Bay was invited to join MacMonnies at his summer studio in Giverny. MacMonnies and his wife, fellow artist Mary Fairchild MacMonnies Low (an American from St. Louis) had began spending their summers is Giverny, well-known both then as now as the home of Claude Monet. The MacMonnies welcomed Jane and Bay Emmet, as well as other young American artists to Villa Bêche, their summer rental in Giverny. Bay returned to Paris in the fall of 1897 and went on to have a stunning career as an American portrait artist. Jane returned to New York, her talent failing to attract the same attention Bay’s or her older sisters.

In the meantime, Wilfred de Glehn left London in 1891 to study painting in Paris at L’´Ecole de Beaux Arts. While still a student, he was hired  to assist John Singer Sargent and Edwin Austin Abbey on their mural commission for the Boston Public Library. Sargent and de Glehn became lifelong friends. Mutual friends said that they both had the same kind of “cosmopolitan attitude.” De Glehn became a part of Sargent’s inner circle.

Sargent, Abbey and de Glehn did all of the work for the Boston murals in England but traveled to Boston frequently to meet with the architects or to supervise the installation of new panels. In 1903, they traveled to Boston to celebrate the installation of one of Sargent’s murals, Dogma of the Redemption.

It is widely believed that Jane Emmet met Wilfred at the Boston Library installation in January, 1903. Others believe it is possible that Jane and Wilfred met during Jane’s trip to London in 1902. In any event, Jane and Wilfred were engaged by the fall of 1903 and married in 1904.

Wilfrid and Jane’s engagement initially caused tension between Wilfred and Sargent. Sargent may have feared Wilfred would be moving to America. This letter from Sargent to Wilfred (whom he calls “Premp,”) is playful and witty, but also reveals a real sense of shock and apprehension at the news:

My Dear Premp,

I have just opened a packet of letters and find your, let us say, communication.

 

My God! what a trick to play to your sincere well wisher. I will up and marry in the attempt to be quits.

 

Well, troglodyte of the Cordilleras. I foresee that the time will come when, this first shock being over, I will spontaneously and sincerely congratulate you – especially when I see and like the lady which I feel I am sure to do – and the sooner the better – at this moment the cold sweat is on my brow. I feel as if a very boon companion has been carried off, probably for his good, but also probably to live in America which means to me personally a great loss. However and whereas and nevertheless.

 

These small and discreditable and ill-mannered whisperings must be stifled, and I will train for better sentiments by reading your letter which is very convincing that you are happy and likely to be permanently so.

All that your fussy and egotistical of friends will want to hang to, is the chance or the power of contributing a little to your happiness.

 

Be as happy as you like Dear Sir, on those conditions.

Don’t be a troglodyte and show this to her and spoil my chance of becoming her friend as well as yours. You may tell her that is my hope and ambition and that I shall be extremely annoyed if she doesn’t like me.

 

Yours ever,

J.S.S.

 

Is it just me, or does anyone else get a Brokeback Mountain “I wish I knew how to quit you” vibe from this letter? The fact is, no one really knows for sure about Sargent’s sexual orientation, although there are many who insist that he was indeed a closeted gay man. After Sargent’s death, French artist Jacques-Émile Blanche claimed that Sargent’s homosexuality “was notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger.”

This is what a de Glehn relative named John Debruyne has to say about it (which I discovered in the comments on this website):

Sargent always called him Premp and (this is dangerous territory) I think he was possibly romantically keen on his young protégé. When Willie married Jane Emmet he sulked for some months and only finally gave him a wedding present (A secretaire antique desk with a Lowestoft china dining set which I still have) some six months after the wedding.

There are those who say “so what?” and others who say Sargent’s work deserves to be observed and appreciated with a new eye. For my purposes here, I’m just curious (if it is true), what it all might have meant to Jane de Glehn. Did she know? Did she understand? She had been living in an artsy, bohemian millieu for over a decade. She couldn’t have been entirely innocent about homosexuality. Did she turn a blind eye or did she accept that her husband may have had a past? It’s so hard to know.

No matter what history Wilfred had with Sargent, it appears clear that Sargent became a big fan of Jane, at least according to de Glehn family legend:

Eventually he came to value Jane who was a capable American matriarch of the type he appreciated. He liked tough women.

The three of them grew closer after the de Glehns moved to their new home at 34 Cheyne Walk in London, just around the corner from Sargent’s Tite Street studio. Jane became known for being an excellent hostess to the artsy set of London. As is evident from Wilfred’s painting below, their new home was charming.

 

Wilfred de Glehn, Jane on the Staircase, Cheyne Walk, c. 1905

Wilfred de Glehn, Jane on the Staircase, Cheyne Walk, c. 1905

 

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As soon as they were married, Jane and Wilfred began traveling with Sargent, starting with their honeymoon in Venice in 1904. All three would paint on their travels, Jane less prolifically than the two men. Sargent loved painting Jane. It would have given them long, leisurely hours to get to know each other. Jane wrote home that she found Sargent’s paintings of her to be “delicious” and “clever.”

Jane Emmet de Glehn, Wilfred Sketching in a Gondola, 1904

Jane Emmet de Glehn, Wilfred Sketching in a Gondola, 1904. Can you imagine a better souvenir of your honeymoon than this? Jane is very talented, clearly not just a dilettante.

John Singer Sargent, In a Gondola (Jane de Glehn), watercolor on paper (1904)

John Singer Sargent, In a Gondola (Jane de Glehn), watercolor on paper (1904).  This painting is from Jane and Wilfred’s honeymoon in Venice in 1904. Jane wrote home to her mother: “We went out sketching with Sargent the other day and he made a water colour of at the end of the gondola. Awfully clever. There is really no face. It is all white veil and hat, but it is deliciously done.”

 

 

In the summer of 1907, the de Glehns ventured out on a grand tour of Europe, starting in the Swiss Alps with Sargent, then traveling south to Florence, Perugia and Assisi  before meeting up with Sargent in Rome in September. Jane posed and painted.

Wilfred de Glehn, Jane by the Stream, Purtud, Val d'Aosta, 1907

Wilfred de Glehn, Jane by the Stream, Purtud, Val d’Aosta, 1907. In 1907, the de Glehns traveled with Sargent to the Swiss Alps. Jane posed for Sargent in the morning and for her husband in the afternoon. Notice Jane’s hat and scarf. It’s the same one she will be wearing when Sargent paints her again that fall for The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane, Wilfred and Sargent arrived at Villa Torlonia in the village of Frascati in the fall of 1907. Frascati, also known for its white wines, is about 15 miles from Rome. They stayed at the Grand Hotel in Frascati (possibly the Villa Tuscolana today?) and as Jane said in her letters home, “found endless things to paint in the gardens of the Villa Torlonia.”

Wilfred de Glehn, Fountain at the Villa Torlonia, Frascati, oil on canvas, 1907

Wilfred de Glehn, Fountain at the Villa Torlonia, Frascati, oil on canvas, 1907, private collection. This is what Wilfred was working on before he took a break to rest beside his wife’s easel. Clearly, de Glehn and Sargent had similar painter sensibilities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But back to Jane and Wilfred in front of the fountain. Apparently, Sargent was already painting Jane at the easel, when Wilfred took a break beside his wife. That was when Sargent got the idea to put Wilfred in the painting too. According to

The odd pose of Willie lounging beside Jane was an afterthought. “Stay there Premp.You look like her gigalo, I’ll paint you in.” Uncle Willie said it was agony after a while because the stone balustrade cut into his back.

 

http://www.jssgallery.org/Paintings/The_Fountain_Villa_Torlonia_Frascati.htm

Jane wrote home about the painting and the pose. Her letter reveals that the friendship between the three of them had developed nicely. You can tell Jane is a good-natured woman who could be teased without being threatened:

He [Sargent] has struck Wilfred in looking at my sketch with rather a contemptuous expression as much as to say ‘Can you do plain sewing any better?’………Wilfred is in shirt sleeves, very idle and good for nothing and our heads come against the great panache of the fountain.

So according to Jane, the look on Wilfred’s face (the same face I have been struggling to replicate, argh) is a conscious pose designed by Sargent to tell a story.

And what a story. The possible tensions between a husband and wife with equal or similar talent; the joy in artistic friendships, the surprising camaraderie of the three of them. Jane and Wilfred’s heads are both up against the powerful “panache” of the fountain, united but yet separate in their desire and effort to create art out of life. United yet separate in their friendship with Sargent.

They continued to paint and travel together until World War I broke out. In September 1909 Wilfrid and Jane joined Sargent, his sister Emily and Eliza Wedgwood in Venice and Corfu. They discovered the dazzling gardens of the Villa Soteriotisa in Corfu, where Sargent would paint In the Garden, Corfu.

John Singer Sargent,

John Singer Sargent, In a Garden, Corfu, oil on canvas, 1909. This painting was included in the Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, and features Jane de Glehn in a blue gown surrounded by Sargent’s sister Emily and their friend Eliza Wedgwood.

Although Jane enjoyed posing for Wilfred and Sargent, she never gave up her own painting. Here is a lovely painting from a trip to Florence in 1910:

Jane Emmet de Glehn, Loggia of the Villa Toree Galli, Florence, oil on canvas, 1910

 

The truth is that Jane painted for pleasure, but her husband painted to make a living. Wilfred became a celebrated British painter, exhibiting widely and receiving numerous awards. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1932. His exhibit history spans from 1894 to 2002. His paintings appear in dozens of museums today, from London to Australia to Washington, D.C. Jane would occasionally exhibit with him.

Jane would never have children and would never achieve the same success as her older sisters Rosina and Lydia or her cousin Bay. She would never be invited to paint the portrait of a sitting president, as Bay was. She would never experience the domestic pleasures of her sister Rosina, who after many years as a successful artist and illustrator, painted numerous portraits of her own five children.

And yet. She continued to paint nearly her entire life for the sheer joy of it. Here is a painting by Wilfred that shows her painting alongside the river Avon in 1943, at the age of 70. If you look closely under the tree on the right, you can see a woman in a white hat and white artist’s smock in front of an easel.

Wilfred de Glen, Jane de Glehn Painting by the River Avon, c. 1943

Wilfred de Glen, Jane de Glehn Painting by the River Avon, c. 1943

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Sargent’s passing in 1925, Jane and Wilfred’s marriage took them through two World Wars. Wilfred would pass away in 1951, Jane in 1961.

I would like to think she found great happiness. There is something very powerful and inspiring about her image as the painter at the fountain. An accomplished painter in her own right, a woman who painted for companionship and joy, not for fame and fortune, a true friend to John Singer Sargent, and not just a woman in the middle.

Jane and Wilfrid de Glehn in the mid-1940s

Jane and Wilfrid de Glehn in the mid-1940s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources and Recommendations for Further Reading:

The Emmets- A Family of Women Painters by Martha J. Hoppin (1982)

 

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An Interlude in Giverny by Joyce Henri Robinson and Derrick R. Cartwright (2000)

51LpzE72AjL._SY381_BO1,204,203,200_

 

John Sargent by Evan Charteris (1927)

John Sargent by Evan Charteris

And for a wealth of biographical material on Wilfred de Glehn, see: www.deglehn.com.  For John Singer Sargent, see www.johnsingersargent.org.

Paris Red: Manet and his Muse

I’ve always wanted to know more about the woman behind one of my favorite paintings from the Musée d’Orsay, Olympia by Edouard Manet.

Edouard Manet, Olympia (1863), Musée d’Orsay

We might know the model’s name: Victorine Meurent, and we might recognize her as the redhead from some of Manet’s other famous paintings, including Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe (1863), Musée D’Orsay and The Railway (1874), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Edouard Manet, Le Déjeuner Sur L'Herbe (1863), Musée d'Orsay

Edouard Manet, Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe (1863), Musée d’Orsay

 

EdouardManet, The Railway (1874), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Edouard Manet, The Railway (1874), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

But who was Victorine? What was her connection to Manet? What does her defiant, direct gaze tell us about her?

We might never know the true story about Victorine Meurent. For example, we apparently don’t know for sure how Manet and Victorine met. Was she already a model for Manet’s teacher, Thomas Couture? Some say they met on the street near her home at 17 rue Maître Albert, close to the Palais de Justice. Were they lovers, as her nude poses suggest, was she a prostitute, or was it a relationship of collaborators and fellow artists?

Few people know that Victorian Meurent studied painting on her own at the Académie Julian and exhibited her own paintings at the Paris Salon various years between 1876 and 1903. Quelle surprise, non? Only one painting by Victorine has survived (that we know of), a portrait that reveals a great deal of talent.

Victorine Meurent, Le Jour Des Rameaux

Victorine Meurent, Le Jour Des Rameaux (1880), Musée Municipal d’Art et Histoire de Columbes, France.

 

 

Paris RedSo who was she? How did Victorine get from posing for Olympia to painting her own Le Jour des Rameaux?

Lucky for us, mystery and ambiguity are the author’s playground. In Paris Red, Maureen Gibbon has imagined her very own Victorine as a brilliantly alive and psychologically complex character.

Gibbon’s Victorine is a hungry and lusty working class girl who meets Edouard Manet while she is sketching a white cat on a Paris street and wearing “the bottle green boots of a whore.” (One of my favorite images in the book.) They symbolize Victorine’s need, her hunger, her desire for color and beauty, no matter how raw.

Victorine and Manet fall into a tricky kind of love and she becomes his muse. Together, they create a revolution and a scandal in the art world.

Manet does not foresee a romantic future with Victorine. He is already living with Suzanne Leenhof and their son. (Interesting twist, in case you’ve never heard: some say Suzanne’s son was in fact Edouard’s father’s child. Suzanne had been hired as the Manet family piano teacher when Edoaurd was still a teenager, but that’s another story.)  After Manet’s father’s death in 1862 and his marriage to Suzanne in 1863, Victorine becomes involved with another famous Paris painter, Alfred Stevens.

Paris Red is not just another story about how a famous artist exploits his model. You can see that Victorine is a collaborator, a partner and a student. She has agency and self-awareness. She studies Manet’s paintings and truly observes them. She learns about color theory and brush technique. She takes Manet’s leftover paint tubes and paints in her free time. But yet, she is desperate in her poverty and dependent on his money. There is a great deal of sex on the divan in the studio. Victorine is never clear whether the money he leaves for her is a modeling fee or a payment for something more unsavory. Does the money make her a whore, a model or a partner?

Whether or not Paris Red represents the “true story” about Victorine doesn’t matter. What matters is that Maureen Gibbon has created a Victorine who is a fully realized person with complicated motives and a gaze of her own. This is a woman who may attract the gaze of men, but who is so much more. I can’t wait to go back to the Musée D’Orsay to stare back into her eyes once again.

 

For further reading:

alias olympia

Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire by Eunice Lipton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sacré Bleu by Christopher Moore ( and my prior review and blog post here.)

sacre bleu

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation

You really shouldn’t miss this multiple biography of six flappers from the 1920s (Josephine Baker, Talulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald and Tamara de Lempicka).

flappers

Each woman’s story is equally fascinating. Author Judith Mackrell gives us all the scoop, including tales of booze, drugs, adultery, abortions, bisexuality and more. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to pour a martini and put on some jazz. I’m already picturing a Flapper theme party for my book club.

But this book is more than a dishy exposé. Mackrell understands that the flappers represented much more than a new sense of 1920s style and glamour. The flappers were at the vanguard of an attempt to redefine 20th century womanhood. Their personal failures and challenges, viewed together and in full historical context, teach us that the history of the woman’s movement is truly a story of fits-and-starts, a seesaw of hard-fought change and regression. No generation of women illustrate this better than the flappers.

And of course, like most interesting stories about women in the late 19th and early 20th century, the story of the flappers takes you to Paris, where they became dancers, actresses, writers or painters. They frequented the nightclubs and cafés of Paris, including Bricktops, the Dome and the Rotunde, as well as the salons of famous women, such as Gertrude Stein and Natalie Barney.

Most interesting to me was the story of Tamara de Lempicka, the iconic art deco painter whose self-portrait appears on the cover of the book. (Have you read The Last Nude by Ellis Avery? It’s a terrific novel about Tamara de Lempicka and one of her models.) You can enjoy my two-part Last Nude Literary Tour here and here.

Tamara de Lempicka, Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti, 1925 (Private Collection)

Tamara de Lempicka, Self-Portrait in a Green Bugatti, 1925 (Private Collection)

Tamara de Lempicka arrived in Paris in 1918 as a Russian refugee. She came to Paris after losing everything in the Russian revolution and reinvented herself as a professional painter.

Lempicka took only a year of formal instruction from Maurice Denis at the Académie Ransom at 7 rue Joseph Bara in the 6th arrondissement, just off of rue Notre Dame des Champs. Like most art students, she took her sketchbook to the Louvre in the afternoons. At first she rejected the modernist style of Cézanne, Picasso and the Dadaists, preferring the Renaissance masters. But soon she was drawn into the style of cubist André L’hote, an instructor at the Académie Notre Dame des Champs and later at the Académie de la Grand Chaumière. Lempicka studied with L’hote privately for a few months, long enough to absorb his powerful and charismatic portrait style. By 1922, after less than two years of study, Lempicka had three works accepted in the Salon d’Automne in Paris. By 1925, Lempicka had a solo show in Milan organized by Count Emanuele di Castelbarco.

Interestingly, from 1922-1924, Lempicka presented herself as a man in the catalogs for  the Paris exhibitions. She was listed as “LEMPITZKY (Tamara de) Born in Warsaw, Polish (French masculine form)” [delempicka.org].

Lempicka promoted herself with a ferocious sense of ambition, understanding that commercially lucrative portrait commissions would come as much from her talent as her own personal style and connections. She lived a chic and erotic bisexual life, which is exactly what she conveyed in her portraits.

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of Valmy (1924), Oil on canvas, private collection

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of Valmy (1924), Oil on canvas, private collection

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of  La Salle (1925), oil on canvas, private collection.

Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait of the Duchess of La Salle (1925), oil on canvas, private collection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tamara de Lempicka, La Belle Rafaela (1927), oil on canvas, private collection

Tamara de Lempicka, La Belle Rafaela (1927), oil on canvas, private collection

 

Judith Mackrell follows Lempicka’s rise through the 1920s and and her subsequent fall in the 1930s. As Mackrell explains:

[T]he forces of fashion and history that had swept her to eminence were changing course in the early 1930s, and while she was still much talked about in public, in private she felt that she had failed to catch the pulse of the new decade.

 

The rising political tensions in Europe, a new wave of modern art, Lempicka’s dated sense of glamour and lack of youth all combined to Lempicka’s decline after 1935. She remarried and moved to America, where she had a difficult time marketing herself as well as she had in the Paris of the 1920s. She tried living in Beverly Hills, then the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and finally Houston, where her daughter Kizette had settled with her husband and two daughters. Lempicka found Houston “uncivilized” and mundane.

After Lempicka’s bold life in Paris in the 1920s, can you blame her?

 

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation by Judith Mackrell: Highly recommended

 

For Further Reading:

The Last Nude by Ellis Avery (A novel about Tamara de Lempicka and one of her models)

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Camille Claudel: Rodin’s Lover

rodins loverI’ve been anxiously awaiting the release of Heather Webb’s new book  Rodin’s Lover, the story of Camille Claudel, one of Auguste Rodin’s most promising students.

I first learned about her art and her tumultuous love affair with Auguste Rodin when a friend recommended that I read Naked Came I by David Weiss (1970).

But then, during my year in Paris, I got to frequent the Musée Rodin, where I could see her work with my own eyes. Haven’t been? You gotta go, although I’m not sure which, if any, of Claudel’s works are on display since the extensive museum renovations. Check the website before you go.

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Musée Rodin, 79 rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris, France

Musée Rodin, view from the south garden

Musée Rodin, view from the south garden

The view from an upstairs window of Musée Rodin onto the south garden

The view from an upstairs window of Musée Rodin onto the south garden

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The grounds of the Musée Rodin are like an urban sanctuary in the middle of Paris. There's even an outdoor café where you can grab lunch.

The grounds of the Musée Rodin are like an urban sanctuary in the middle of Paris. There’s even an outdoor café where you can grab lunch.

The old Hotel Biron was a dilapidated mess when Rodin first rented out four south-facing, ground-floor rooms opening onto the terrace, to use as his studios.

The old Hotel Biron was a dilapidated mess when in 1908, Rodin first rented out four south-facing, ground-floor rooms to be used as studios. He shared the space with other artists, including Matisse, Isadora Duncan and By 1911, Rodin had taken over the entire building. (Source: Musée Rodin exhibit)

At the time of my visit, Camille Claudel’s work was on display in one of the upstairs rooms of the museum. I would hope and fully expect that her work will return as soon as renovations are complete. The fact that her work is displayed alongside his is itself remarkable. After her love affair with Rodin came to an end (it ended badly – just read Webb’s book) Camille Claudel suffered from financial, professional and mental health issues. Her father supported her, but after his death in 1913, her mother and her brother Paul had her institutionalized, first in Ville-Évrard in Neuilly-sur-Marne, and then, from 1914 until her death in 1943, in the Montdevergues Asylum, at Montfavet near Avignon. Her family rarely visited and refused to bring her home despite the recommendations of the treating physicians.

Before his death in 1917, Rodin continued to provide some financial and artistic support to Claudel, agreeing to reserve exhibition space for Claudel’s works when Hotel Biron was being turned into the Musée Rodin. In 1952, Claudel’s brother Paul finally donated four major works by his sister to the museum. The museum continues to acquire her available works, recently acquiring Young Girl with a Sheaf. Its website features an educational background file on the relationship between Rodin and Claudel, with photos of her best-known sculptures.

Camille Claudel’s sculpture reveals astonishing talent and emotion. Rodin’s influence is unmistakeable in her early work, less so in her later, smaller work.

Camille Claudel, Bust of Auguste Rodin

Camille Claudel, Bust of Auguste Rodin (Bronze, 1892), Musée Rodin

Camille Claudel, Clotho (1893), Plaster. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952.

Camille Claudel, Clotho (1893), Plaster. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952. Musée Rodin

Camille Claudel, The Age of Maturity (1899), Bronze. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952.

Camille Claudel, The Age of Maturity (1899), Bronze. Donated by Paul Claudel in 1952. This is a partial view of the sculpture, featuring a pleading woman, often said to be Camille begging for Rodin, who is being torn away by his long-time companion Rose. Claudel herself would reject such an autobiographical interpretation, and instead claim that it is intended to symbolize the grass of youth versus age.

Camille Claudel, The Wave

Camille Claudel, The Wave (1897), Onyx and bronze. Musée Rodin, purchased in 1995.

Camille Claudel, The Gossips (1895), Musée Rodin. Donated by Rodin in 1916.

Camille Claudel, The Gossips (1895), plaster. Musée Rodin. Donated by Rodin in 1916. Note Claude’s signature in the lower left corner.

And if this small sampling of Claudel’s work isn’t enough for you, there’s more on the way.  In March, 2017, a new Musée Camille Claudel will be opening in Nogent-Sur-Seine, the a small town southeast of Paris where the Claudel family lived when Camille was young.  Over 77 pieces of Claudel’s art will be on display, thanks to a large 2008 acquisition by Reine-Marie Paris, the granddaughter of Paul Claudel. Here is a link to a video from French television about the plans for the museum. Finally, here is a link to the website of Reine-Marie Paris which includes photographs of even more of Camille Claudel’s sculptures.

Maison de Claudel, Nogent-sur-Seine, France.

Maison de Claudel, Nogent-sur-Seine, France.

Rendering of the future Musée Camille Claudel in Nogent-sur-Seine

Rendering of the future Musée Camille Claudel in Nogent-sur-Seine

I can’t wait to hear more about the completion of the new museum. It will definitely be worth a drive out to the countryside southeast of Paris.

In the meantime, we will have to content ourselves with Heather Webb’s new book, which breathes life into the passionate, turbulent life of Camille Claudel. Book clubs will find much to discuss, above and beyond the historical interest in a female artist of the late 19th century.

For instance, what do you think drove Camille Claudel to mental illness, if that’s what it was? Was she paranoid about Rodin, or did he really manipulate and compete with her? Which injured her more, the lack of support from her mother and her brother Paul, or a sexist society that made success in the arts so extraordinarily difficult for women? Would Camille Claudel have been better off if she’d never entangled herself with Rodin? Finally, do you see any parallels between Camille Claudel’s struggles and those of 20th and 21st century women?

I’m definitely recommending it to my own book club. Bring some wine!

Rodin’s Lover by Heather Webb: Highly Recommended.  

For further enjoyment: Don’t miss the 1988 Oscar-nominated film, Camille Claudel, starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu, available on Amazon Prime Instant Video.

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