Almost four years ago, when I was looking at the life of the French artist Balthus, I included some of his works of art featuring nude young girls. This was part of his main body of work but some of my readers were offended by their inclusion, so I believe it is necessary to alert readers of this edition of my blog that near the end of it I have reproduced paintings of young girls, in a state of undress, painted by today’s featured artist. Some may find them disturbing but it is art and it was the artist’s decision to have his children model for him in the state of undress.
Nowadays, remembering people and places is done by the media of photography. It is becoming ever simpler and more accessible with the advent of camera phones. For a lot of people taking a photograph of a friend or a “selfie” has become a daily ritual. It may seem trivial but it is an aide mémoire of a time past and, at times, to look back at ones we love is a potent reminder. If, however, we lived in the mid-nineteenth century, recording an event, a place or a loved one was far from easy, almost impossible. So, what could one do? The answer of course, was owning a portrait carried out by an artist. For that to happen, one had to be wealthy or be friends with an artist. For portrait artists, completing portrait commissions was a lucrative business and for many artists whose genre was not portraiture, they would often subsidise their income by carrying out the odd portrait commission. My artist today was a master of portraiture. He is most famous for his paintings of his three young daughters with his wife. Let me introduce you to the nineteenth century American painter William Sergeant Kendall.
William Sergeant Kendall was born on January 20th 1869 in Sputyen Duyvil, which is now a bustling upper middle-class neighbourhood of the Bronx in New York City. However, at the time when Kendall was born, prior to the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad passing through the town, it was a much quieter town. William Sergeant Kendall started painting when he was twelve-years-of age. There is nothing strange about that but what was strange that he signed all his work Sergeant Kendall, omitting his Christian name, William. Sergeant was his mother’s maiden name and had been given to her first-born child.
William’s parents must have seen their son’s love of painting as well as his burgeoning artistic talent, because two years later, in 1883, when he was fourteen years old they enrolled him at the Brooklyn Art Guild. A year later he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. One of his tutors there was the prolific Realist painter, Thomas Eakins. Eakins was a controversial character who fell foul of the Academy board over the use of nude male models in mixed classes and was forced to resign in 1886. Kendall was greatly influenced by Eakins and in a letter to his mother and father in 1885 he wrote about Eakins:
“…Eakins came in today and criticized my work. He said my work ‘was not bad’ which as you know is good praise for him!..”
In 1886 William Kendall left the Academy in Philadelphia and went back to New York where he enrolled at the Art Student League, an art school which had been created twenty years earlier. Among his tutors were the American painter, Professor James Carroll Beckwith and Harry Siddons Mowbray who taught drawing at the Art Students League. Both of these tutors had come back to America to teach at the Art Student League having spent time in Paris honing their artistic skills. It could well be their tales of life in Paris, which many would say was then the centre of the Art World, which instilled a desire in Kendall to follow in their footsteps.
In 1888 Kendall and a fellow artist and friend, John Lambert, from his days at the Academy in Philadelphia, set off for Paris, where they worked at the atelier of Luc Olivier Merson. Kendall then enrolled at the Academie Julian and remained there for three years eventually passing the entrance exam to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
The Spanish painter Velazquez had always been one of Kendall’s favourite artists and in 1891 he travelled to Madrid in order to copy some of his works. He returned to Paris and like many other artists, left the bustling city every summer to find peace and beauty in rural Brittany which offered a beautiful countryside ideal for landscape painters and the southern Brittany coastal towns of Concarneau and Le Pouldu, which was favoured by many of the seascape painters. Rural life in Brittany could be hard and realising an income could be quite difficult for the young Breton women and so, for many of them, money could be made by modelling for the various visiting artists. Young girls in striking Breton costumes were one of the favoured genres of the Salon hanging juries at the time.
Kendall sent his painting The Little Water Carrier – Brittany and a Breton landscape to the National Academy of Design in New York City in 1890. However, the turning point for his artistic career came when one of his Breton paintings, St. Yves, Priez Pour Nous, was exhibited at the 1891 Paris Salon and was awarded an “honourable mention”. Saint Yves or Saint Ivo was born on 17th October 1253 at Kermartin, Brittany and was the patron saint of lawyers. St Ives was also hailed as the Advocate of the Poor and is the patron saint of abandoned children. Above is a wood engraving on paper by Henry Wolf of William Sergeant Kendall’s 1891 painting which is held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Another painting from Kendall’s time in Brittany was entitled Désirs (Desire) which he completed in 1892. For this painting Kendall used his favourite Breton models. Therese Le Goue and her sister. Kendall arranged for Therese to go to America and act as his parents’ housekeeper. It is said that whilst employed in that role she would wear her Breton costumes. This painting, which hung in Elizabeth Kendall Underwood’s family home, was gifted to the Smithsonian by her before her death. To have one’s work accepted by the Salon jurists was a great feat but to have it win an award was what every aspiring artist strived for. For Kendall, an American, his “honourable mention” resulted in many congratulatory letters from fellow Americans and he even received an offer of a post at the Cooper Union in New York, which had been established in 1859, and was among the nation’s oldest and most distinguished institutions of higher education. Kendall was tempted but on discussing his future with his former tutor, Luc Olivier Merson, he decided to remain in Paris for a further twelve months of studying.
Kendall did eventually cross the Atlantic and return to New York and he established himself in a studio in the University Building on Washington Square and took up the role as teacher at the Cooper Union, where he took a women’s class for the next three years. He also spent some of his time teaching at his own Alma Mater, The Art Students League. One of the students attending his classes was Margaret Weston Strickly. Strickly and Kendall became attached amorously and early in 1896 the couple married. Within a year their first child, Elizabeth was born, on Gerrish Island off the coast of Maine, where he and his wife had spent the summer painting. A second daughter, Beatrice, was born in 1902 and their third and last child, another daughter, Alison was born in 1907. William Kendall now had a wife and three beautiful daughters to model for him for many years to come.
In 1907 Kendall completed his painting entitled An Interlude which featured his wife and her daughter Elizabeth. Once again, the depiction of the two females is Kendall’s favoured pose – the child facing directly towards us while the mother’s face is in profile. Look at the child’s expression. It is a wide-eyed, somewhat troubled expression. We cannot see the facial expression of the mother, Margaret, as she has turned away from us. Should we read something into this depiction? The curtain has been drawn across the window and thus we conclude that it is night time. Is this a simple case of a mother reading her daughter a bedtime story? The title of this work is An Interlude which suggests an interval – but what kind of interval. Is it an interval from reading the book or is there more to the meaning of the painting’s title? When the painting was completed Margaret and William Kendall had been married eleven years. Margaret, who was six years younger than William, had been a twenty-year-old student of his at the Art Student League when the two, tutor and student, started a romantic relationship. Now in 1907, William Kendall’s relationship with one of his present Yale students, Christine Herter, was about to destroy his marriage. So maybe the painting’s title The Interlude, referred to the change in his life.
It all started back in the late 1880’s when Kendall and the artist Albert Herter became friends at the Art Students League. Albert came from a wealthy background. He was the son of Christian Herter, who with his half-brother Gustave formed Herter Brothers, a prominent New York interior design and furnishings firm. It was through this friendship that William Kendall received a number of family portrait commissions. During his time with the Herter family, William met Albert Herter’s thirteen-year-old niece, Christine, and because the young girl had shown an interest in painting, the family arranged for her to take private painting lessons with Kendall. A close bond between Kendall and his young pupil followed as besides their love of art they both enjoyed music and soon, despite the twenty-year age difference, a close friendship soon developed with Christine becoming a frequent caller at Kendall’s studio in New York and later to his home studio in Barrytown. When Kendall and his family moved further afield to Newport, Rhode Island, Christine followed and rented her own studio nearby. Their friendship grew and when she spent the summers away from him in Europe the two would correspond regularly.
In 1910 Kendall completed another mother and daughter painting. It is entitled The Critics. The painting is a depiction of his wife Margaret and their youngest child, Alison, who was three years old. Mother and daughter are carefully inspecting and considering the merits of a bust which Kendall had carved of Alison herself. The painting now belongs to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
His pastel painting, Mother and Child, is part of a series that Kendall did of his wife, Margaret, and their youngest daughter, Alison.
In 1913 Kendall took on the post as head of the department of Fine Arts at Yale University and the Kendall family moved to New Haven, Connecticut. During this period Kendall completed many pastel portraits of his colleagues.
He also completed a pastel portrait of the Breton artist, architect and French soldier, Jean-Julien Lemordant, who had lost his eyesight during the First World War. He received an award from Yale University for the valour and leadership he displayed in the trench warfare of World War I.
Besides Kendall’s mother and child paintings and ones featuring just his children, Kendall completed a series of nude or semi-nude paintings of his children using his middle child, Beatrice, then five-years-old, as model in 1907 for his painting Narcissa.
His youngest daughter, Alison, was the model for his painting entitled Crosslights in 1913. Kendall said he enjoyed the “mirror” format as it gave him a chance to paint two daughters instead of one.
Alison was again her father’s model for his painting A Statuette which he completed in 1915 when his daughter was eight-years-old.
Kendall also completed a painting of his eldest daughter Elisabeth under the title Psyche in 1909 when she was thirteen years old. At the time, the painting became famous and was reproduced on posters and plastered on the sides of streetcars. However, Elisabeth herself never cared for it.
Christine Herter, who had been studying in Paris, in the summer of 1914, returned home shortly after war was declared in Europe, and enrolled as a student at Yale fine-arts department, whilst continuing to work in Kendall’s studio, and sometimes modelled for him. Christine seemed to have been accepted as part of the family group and would spend part of her summer with them in their summer home in the Vermont town of Brattleboro on the Connecticut River.
In the Autumn of 1921 William and Margaret Kendall’s marriage collapsed and they were divorced and the following Spring William resigned from his post at Yale University’s Fine Art department. In June 1922 he sold his home in Newhaven and that summer he married his former pupil and lover, Christine Herter. William was fifty-three and Christine was thirty-two.
Because of the changing artistic taste of New Yorkers, who had now fallen in love with modern art, William Kendall decided to move away from the city and move five hundred miles south-west to Hot Springs, Virginia, a small isolated town close to the Allegheny Mountains. In 1823 the couple set about having a large residence built which they called Garth Newel, a Welsh phrase meaning “new hearth” or “new home. The property consisted of a three-story central block flanked by two, half-story wings. It also had stables in which they raised the Arabian horses they rode year-round. The couple lived there for the remainder of their lives. Their home gave them both a rural and isolated retreat with high-class sophistication.
William Kendall’s love of horse riding had its problems. In 1931, aged 62, he suffered serious head injuries after a riding accident and was laid-up for a month. Six years later, in 1937, he had another riding accident. It was a much more serious one and he was bedridden until the January of the following year. William Sergeant Kendall died, aged 69, on February 16th 1938 at his home in Hot Springs, Virginia. His widow Christine survived him for another forty-three years, dying on June 22nd 1981, aged 90. Following her husband’s death, Christine donated much of the property to the Girl Scouts of America to be used as a summer camp. The Girl Scouts found that it was too much to maintain, so she regained possession in 1969 and began to search for another use. Christine arranged for repairs to long-abandoned buildings, including the conversion of the indoor riding ring where the Arabian horses had once trained into a wonderful concert hall. On her death she bequeathed the property and a modest fund to the Garth Newel Music Centre Foundation.
The majority of information I used for this blog came from an excellent website (http://williamsergeantkendall.com/) whose author is Anne Underwood Enslow, William Kendall’s great-granddaughter and daughter of Kendall’s eldest daughter, Elisabeth.