The Philadelphia Ten. Part 2-The artists

Members of the Philadelphia Ten at their Art Club of Philadelphia exhibition, January 28 – February 11, 1928.

In my last blog I looked at the beginnings of the Philadelphia Ten and how it was made possible for women to seriously study art at an all-women art establishment. Once there, they received the highest quality of training and in order to get more of their work exhibited they decided to set up their group and put on individual shows. So, who were the Philadelphia Ten?
The Philadelphia Ten group was made up of young female painters who had attended art school in Philadelphia, either at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women or the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Originally ten in number but soon the number of them who participated in the Philadelphia Ten group exhibitions eventually increased to thirty, seven of whom were sculptors. The main characters who are now looked upon as the driving force of the group were Isabel Branson Cartwright, Constance Cochrane and Edith Lucile Howard, all of who participated in all of the group’s sixty-five exhibitions held between 1917 and 1945. The other stalwart of the group was Mary Russell Ferrell Colton.  In this blog I take a look at some of the “leading lights” of this group.

Fishing Boat in a Cove by Isabel Branson Cartwright

Isabel Parke Branson was born in Coatesville, Pennsylvania on September 4th 1885. In 1902, at the age of seventeen, she entered the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and was taught by Elliott Daingerfield and Henry B. Snell. She won the School’s travelling scholarship in 1906 which paid for one year’s study in a European city. Her choice of destination was London where she studied under the Anglo-Welsh artist, painter, water colourist, engraver, illustrator and progressive designer Frank Brangwyn. Whilst in Europe she took the opportunity to visit Holland, France and Italy.
In November 1911, at the age of twenty-six, she married the Texan, John Reagan Cartwright, and the couple went to live in Terrell, Texas, and whilst there she held a couple of solo exhibitions in the Texas cities of Fort Worth and San Antonio.

Cotton Picking Time by Isabel Branson Cartwright

John Cartwright died in 1917 and Isabel Branson Cartwright returned to Philadelphia and joined the Philadelphia Ten group of female artists and took part in their exhibitions at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the National Academy of Design. She favoured en plein air painting and soon discovered many ideal painting spots including Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine. The island was one of her favourite places and in the 1940’s she acquired a house on it. In 1953, Cartwright moved to California, to live with her sister Laura and was involved in the artists’ colony at Carmel.   She died in Ross, California in June 1966, aged 80.

In the Valley of the Painted Hills by Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton (1928)

Another of the most influential members of the Philadelphia Ten from the very beginning was the very talented painter, Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton. She was born on March 25th, 1889 in Louisville, Kentucky.
In 1904, at age of fifteen, Mary-Russell Ferrell enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, and after studying there for four years, graduated with honours in 1909. Having left the school with honours, she opened her own studio in Philadelphia and spent her time in art restoration commissions and commercial art projects. In 1912 she married Harold Sellers Colton, a University of Pennsylvania zoologist and the couple took their honeymoon in the wilds of Arizona. Colton and her husband fell in love with the rugged beauties of this American state, and fourteen years later, in 1926, they made their home in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Arizona Plateau by Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton

Colton was a gifted landscape painter and was inspired by the Colorado Plateau and during her time in Northern Arizona she painted in and around that area, a vibrant mix of high deserts and forests, over a mile above sea level. She completed many colourful works which gave a sense of both the beauty of the region and her deep emotional bond with the place that had become her home.

Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff

Colton and her husband established the Museum of Northern Arizona in 1928 and were committed to sustaining the history and cultures of northern Arizona and the Colorado Plateau. Colton wrote many books about the Hopi, a Native American tribe, who primarily live on the Hopi Reservation in north-eastern Arizona. Through her writing, painting and work as an advocate of Native American peoples and Native American arts, she made contributions to progressive education, the Indian arts and crafts movement and archaeology. As curator of art and ethnology at the Museum of Northern Arizona, she established annual exhibitions of Hopi and Navajo art that continue to this day.
Museum of Northern Arizona Fine Arts Curator Alan Petersen said of Colton:

“…Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton’s life and artwork echoed the optimism and modernity of the early twentieth century. Like many other artists and writers during this period, her work reflected the popular romantic perspective of the Southwest. That, and her sense of wonder at the natural world, defined her as an individual and as an artist…”

She was a member of the Philadelphia Ten, exhibiting at the group’s annual shows from 1926 to 1940. She was also a member of the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, the American Watercolour Society, and the American Federation of Arts
Colton died on July 26th, 1971, aged 82.

Coastal Scene by Constance Cochrane

Constance Cochrane was born in 1888 at the U.S. Navy Yard at Pensacola, Florida, where both her father and grandfather were stationed. Constance Cochrane joined a family of career Marine Corps and Navy officers. Constance Cochrane, another of the original artists of the Philadelphia Ten, began to paint at the early age of six and during her passage through high school she always showed a considerable talent as a young artist. She graduated from Chester High School, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, and enrolled in the Philadelphia School of Design for Women where she was an illustration major. She, like many of the other Philadelphia Ten artists, was taught and influenced by her teacher, the painter Elliot Dangerfield. Cochrane studied with Dangerfield at his summer studio in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, as did many other future members of the Philadelphia Ten.
Constance Cochrane devoted her artistic career to painting images of the sea and landscapes showing the nearby shore and its rocks. For a brief time, she even joined the Navy during periods of the First and Second World Wars and was tasked with designing camouflage for ships.

Glory painted by Constance Cochrane whilst at Monhegan, Maine.

Between 1921 and 1927 Cochrane lectured at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and was the art chair for the Delaware County Federation. It was whilst in this role that she organised an exhibition of women artist works. The exhibition proved a great success and was so popular that it led to the Philadelphia Ten circulation of exhibits in the Pennsylvania State Federation. She held many positions in art societies, such as being chair of the Circulating Picture Club of the Philadelphia Art Alliance, and she also sat on the executive committee of the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and was one of their selection jurists for their 1935 exhibition.

Monhegan Island, Maine

As a painter Cochrane used the mediums of both oil and watercolour. Her work varied extensively from tiny thumbnail sketches to very large murals. Most of her work was done on Monhegan Island, Maine. In 1921 she visited the area and in 1930 made it her summer home.
Constance Cochrane died in 1962, aged 74.

Overlooking a French Landscape by Edith Lucile Howard

Edith Lucile Howard was one of the early members of the Philadelphia Ten and showed her work at their exhibitions between 1917 and 1945. She was born in Bellow Falls , Vermont in 1885, the daughter of prominent businessman Daniel DeWitt Howard, a descendent of Henry Howard, one of the founders of Hartford, Connecticut. Her mother, Abigail Adams, was a descendent of a famous Massachusetts family. The family moved to Wilmington, Delaware when Edith was a teenager and at the age of nineteen Edith enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women where her teachers were Henry Bayley Snell and Elliot Dangerfield and she would attend the latter’s summer courses in North Carolina at which time she became very interested in landscape painting. She graduated from the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1908.

She attained two travelling postgraduate fellowships which allowed her to journey to Europe for the first time. She became an inveterate traveller both within America and abroad and it is said that during her life, she crossed the Atlantic more than thirty times. One of her favourite destinations was Ireland.

Impressionist View of a River and Bridge by Edith Lucile Howard

She had a studio in Carnegie Hall, New York but besides being an artist she was also an educator. She taught at the Grand Central Art Galleries and School of Art in New York and taught art history and fashion at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. On weekends she would return to Wilmington where she acted as administrator of the Wilmington Academy of Art. She was also one of the directors of the Delaware Art Centre.

Sunset on the Jersey Marshes by Edirh Lucile Howard

In 1938, aged 53 she married Herbert Roberts and the couple went to live in Moorestown, New Jersey. She retired from teaching in 1949 and the last time she exhibited her work was in 1959.
Edith Lucile Howard died in 1960, aged 75.

Helen Kiner McCarthy

Another founding member of the Philadelphia Ten art group was Helen Kiner McCarthy, who was best known for her painted landscapes. She was born in Poland, Ohio on September 6th 1888. At the age of twenty she enrolled at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women, graduating in 1909. Like many others from the Philadelphia Ten group of female artists she was taught by Henry Bayley Snell and Elliot Dangerfield.

Helen Kiner McCarthy (American, 1884-1927) Autumn Glow

After finishing her art course, she remained in Philadelphia where she shared a studio, first with another Philadelphia Ten artist, Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton and later with Lucille Howard. Helen also spent some time teaching at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women before becoming one of the founder members of the Philadelphia Ten in 1917.

In 1920, McCarthy moved to New York City and established a studio at East 40th St. in Greenwich Village. It was around this time that her signature on her paintings changed. She began signing her paintings with her mother’s surname “Kiner” as her middle name becoming Helen K. (Kiner) McCarthy.
Helen also became a member of Philadelphia’s Plastic Club, an all-female organisation founded by art educator Emily Sartain. Her aim was to form a society which would allow women to promote their work, partly in response to the Philadelphia Sketch Club, which was an exclusively male arts club. The Plastic Club provided a social and professional network for women artists as well as exhibition opportunities at the club’s gallery on South Camac Street. Helen received a number of awards for her paintings from the Plastic Club and the National Association of Women Artists.

Unlike many of the other Philadelphia Ten’s group who lived into their sixties and seventies, Helen Kiner McCarthy died young. She passed away in 1927, just forty-three years of age.

This concludes the story of the Philadelphia Ten.  This group of female artists came into being through the auspices of a wealthy patron and through the tuition of talented painters and educators.

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The Philadelphia Ten. Part 1 – The beginnings and the facilitators.

Members of the Philadelphia Ten at their Art Club of Philadelphia exhibition, January 28 – February 11, 1928.

A month ago, I looked at the life of English artist Louise Swinnerton and told of her struggle to be accepted into the male-dominated art establishment. It was the time of the suffragettes and their struggle for women’s rights. A similar struggle was taking place across the Atlantic in America where, like the female artists of Britain, the American female artists were struggling to get a foothold in their own art establishments.

All artists need to be able to exhibit their work so that they can enhance their reputation and be recognised as talented painters but also they need to be able to sell their paintings. Too often, females who wanted to learn to paint were dismissed as people who just wanted to paint as a hobby. Why should they earn money from their paintings? Surely the female just needs to marry a wealthy man and let him provide for her. Wouldn’t it be much better if she stayed at home and looked after her husband and their children? A simple male philosophy of the time but of course women were determined to strike out on their own.

In my next two blogs I am looking at the birth of the Philadelphia Ten, often simply referred to as The Ten, an embryonic group of female artists and sculptors that went on to exhibit their work together for nearly thirty years. In the second part of the blog I will look at some of these aspiring artists, based in Philadelphia, who were members of the collective and who, through this group, fought their way to success in the world of American art. The Philadelphia Ten existed between 1917 and 1945 and, during this twenty-eight-year period, regularly exhibited their work together in large annual group shows at the National Academy of Design, the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors’ the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Art Club of Philadelphia. Although having their work accepted by the various exhibition jurists at these annual events was a great achievement there were still hurdles to overcome, such as the number of paintings each of the women was allowed to submit and, after having their paintings accepted, the whereabouts of the hanging position of their works within the exhibition, as this was left to the hanging jurists. For young aspiring female artists, it was a long struggle to have all their work displayed and their aspiration of having more paintings exhibited led to the formation of the Philadelphia Ten.

Sarah Worthington King Peter

Before the “formation” of The Ten could take place there had to be an establishment for them to learn their trade and somebody to support their desire to become painters. Enter onto the scene Sarah Worthington, who would later become a renowned nineteenth-century American philanthropist and patron of the arts. She was born into a powerful political family on May 10th, 1800, at Chillicothe, Ohio, the daughter of an Ohio senator. She led a charmed life, going to private schools in Kentucky and later Washington D.C. At the age of sixteen, she married her first husband, Edward King, the son of a renowned New York politician, Rufus King. The couple, who lived in Cincinnati, went on to have five children. Her husband died in 1836 and she moved to Cambridge Massachusetts to be close to two of her sons who were attending Harvard University.

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

In 1844, she married William Peter, who, at the time, was the British consul to Philadelphia. The couple lived in Philadelphia and it was here that Sarah Worthington King Peter began her philanthropic career. Knowing the difficulties women had in progressing with their art, she founded the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in 1848. It was the first American art school devoted exclusively to the training of women. It originally was not simply a fine arts college but one which was set up to teach a trade to women, who struggled to support themselves.  They were taught all about lithography, wood carving, and design, which could then be used during the making of household items such as carpets and wallpaper. The institution was renamed Moore College of Art & Design in 1932 after Joseph Moore, Jr. set up a $3 Million-dollar endowment in memory of his parents.  Sarah Worthington Peter’s original vision continues to drive the College’s mission to educate women for careers in the visual arts.  Sarah’s second husband died in 1853 and she returned to Cincinnati where she would stay for the rest of her life. She continued with her philanthropy and established the Ladies’ Academy of Fine Arts.

Having established the Philadelphia School of Design for Women it was important to staff it with the best teachers. Two of the best and most influential teachers, during the days when the Philadelphia Ten were learning about art, were Henry Bayley Snell and Elliot Dangerfield, both talented landscape artists.

Henry Bayley Snell

Henry Bayley Snell, an Englishman, was born in Richmond in September 1858 where he remained until, at the age of seventeen, he emigrated to New York where he attended the Art Students League. In his twenties, to eke out a meagre living, Snell supported himself by working in the blueprint department of an engineering firm, and by producing marine scenes for a Photoengraving Company. In 1888, thirty-year-old Snell married artist Florence Francis. It was in 1899 that Snell was given the post of art teacher at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women. That same year the couple travelled to visit a fellow painter, William Lathrop in his hometown of New Hope, Maine. Liking the town so much the couple moved there in 1900.

Sailing in Springtime by Henry Bayley Snell

In 1921, along with Frank Leonard Allen, Snell founded the Boothbay Studios in Boothbay Harbour, Maine, which operated as a summer school. Henry B Snell remained as a teacher at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women until his death in 1943 and during his early days there, he taught many artists who became part of the Philadelphia Ten. During his teaching years, he travelled abroad extensively, frequently accompanied by his students. It was his reputation both as a teacher and a painter that lured many artists to the New Hope Area.

Monk Smelling a Bottle of Wine by Elliot Dangerfield (1880)

The other lecturer who greatly influenced the women was the watercolourist, John Elliott Parker Daingerfield. Dangerfield was born in March 1859 at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the son of Captain John Elliott Daingerfield, commander of a Confederate arsenal, and Matilda Wickham DeBrau Daingerfield. However, from a young age he was raised nearby in Fayetteville, North Carolina and he is looked upon as one of the most important artists to come from this area.  From a young age, Daingerfield’s dream was to become an artist and early on in life he learned some basics of drawing and painting from a sign painter in Fayetteville as well as assisting a commercial photographer and a china painter. In 1880, at the age of twenty-one, he decided to pursue a formal art education and went to New York where he enrolled at the National Academy of Design. During his first year there he produced his painting entitled, The Monk Smelling a Bottle of Wine, which was exhibited at the Academy in 1880.

Midnight Moon by John Elliot Parker Dangerfield (c.1906)

In New York, Daingerfield worked as an apprentice in the studio of William Satterle. So impressed by his student that he offered him a job as an instructor in his still life class. To progress further in the world of art, Dangerfield attended classes at the Art Students League.  Daingerfield’s most influential mentor was George Inness, whom he met in 1884 when he rented studio space at Holbein Studios on Fifty-fifth street. “Master and pupil” would often study each other’s work. Innes taught Dangerfield the technique of how to get the atmospheric effects of light by mixing layers of paint with thin layers of varnish and it was this procedure that brought about a wonderful sense of mood and tone.

In 1886, Dangerfield’s health began to deteriorate and he decided to leave New York and return to North Carolina and the town of Blowing Rock where he hoped to recuperate. He fell in love with the area and decided to make his home amongst the peace and tranquillity of the Blue Ridge Mountains

Daingerfield spent the rest of his life travelling between his studios in Blowing Rock and New York City and taught out of his studio in North Carolina in the summers and at the Philadelphia School of Design and the Art Students League in the winters. Dangerfield was a very spiritual man and sensed the connection between art and spirituality. He once said:

“…Art is the principle flowing out of God through certain men and women by which they perceive and understand the beautiful. The office of the Artist is to express the beautiful…”

The Philadelphia Ten’s first joint exhibition was held on February 17th 1917 at the Art Club of Philadelphia at 235 South Carmac Street. In all, 245 paintings were on display and this exhibition was looked upon as the birth of the Philadelphia Ten. Following the great success of the event, the group’s exhibitions became an annual event and art critics and collectors always looked upon them as exhibitions of the highest quality, embracing a wide selection of subject matter and a variety of styles. The fact that the artists were able to exhibit a large number of their paintings at each exhibition soon allowed the observers to be able to easily recognise their individual styles, something that had not happened before due to the small number of paintings large exhibitions would allow each artist to show.

In my next blog I will look at the life and works of some of the artists who formed the Philadelphia Ten.

Grant Wood. Part 3 – the latter years and rumours.

For many people the name Grant Wood is synonymous with the painting American Gothic but in fact he completed many more superb works of art and in this blog I will look at some of my favourites.

Stone City, Iowa by Grant Wood (1930)

In 1930, the same year he painted American Gothic, he entered two of his works in to the Iowa State Fair Art Exhibition and was awarded first prize for the best picture of the exhibition and first prize in the oil portrait category for his Portrait of Arnold Pyle (see Grant Wood, Part 2) and first prize in the oil landscape category for his painting entitled Stone City. Stone City was Grant Wood’s first major landscape painting. It is a tranquil, idealized scene of life in harmony with nature. Stone City which is located on the Wapsipinicon River, twenty-six miles from Cedar Rapids, was once a boomtown but it went bust. The boomtown came to fruition because of its limestone quarries and laid to rest by the development of Portland cement. Wood, through his painting, would like us to believe that the town has since reverted to a purer purpose of grazing animals and growing crops.  In his 1995 book Grant Wood: An American Master Revealed, James Homs wrote about this painting:

“…Although Stone City, Iowa was based on a direct study of a place with which he was thoroughly acquainted, he turned this village and its river valley site into a fantasy of curving contours, ornamental trees and brightly patterned surfaces. Wood considered the “decorative adventures” of his commonplace rural surroundings – their inherent elements of abstraction – as the true origin of the most lasting qualities in his work…”

The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Grant Wood (1931)

In 1931, a year after American Gothic, Wood finished another of his well-loved paintings entitled The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Wanda Corn, a biographer of Wood, wrote that as a child, Wood had been captivated by the tale of Revere’s journey through the night from Boston to Lexington to warn the patriots of the British advance. Like most Americans of his day, Wood would have learned about the American legend from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which was published in 1863:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

Like many young boys, Wood was captivated by the idea of a local hero carrying vital news, raising the alarm, and through this brave deed, achieving immortality. Wood probably liked to imagine himself on just such an assignment galloping from farm to farm to warn his neighbours of an approaching tornado and then being held aloft as the local hero having saved so many lives.

Toy Town like geometric houses

Grant Wood’s depiction is viewed from above. We see a vast sweep of countryside and a village with houses depicted as simple geometric shapes, which resembles a “toy town” where the houses are made with wooden blocks. The painting portrays the hero on horseback as he gallops through a small village which is nestled among the trees which are painted in Wood’s favoured “sponge-like” representation. Ahead of this American hero, as he rides out of town, is darkness, behind the horse and rider are houses with lights on and some of the occupants, woken by Revere’s warning calls, stand in their night clothes on their front steps and in the street.  Woods intention in depicting this piece of American folklore was, as he put it, to save those bits of American folklore that are too good to lose. His intention was, during the Great Depression, to remind people of historic times of the past, to remind people of the greatness of their country. However, his work had many detractors who said that his child-like depiction made fun of this American legend.

Grant Wood painting his Stone City ice wagon quarters (c. 1932) Photographer: John W. Barry, Jr.
Courtesy of the Grant Wood Art Gallery, Anamosa, IA.

By 1932, Wood’s reputation as an artist had risen significantly and he became co-founder of the Stone City Colony and Art School in Iowa. along with Edward Rowan, the director of the Little Gallery in Cedar Rapids, Adrian Dornbush, the former director of the Flint Institute of Art who was an art instructor at the Little Gallery. The Stone City Art Colony was a home and a place to paint for artists in the Midwest. As a teacher at the colony Grant Wood was able to spread the message of Regionalism to aspiring artists. Unfortunately, the art colony was always plagued by financial difficulties and closed in the autumn of 1933.

The Corn Parade mural by Orr C. Fisher, in the Mount Ayr, Iowa, post office (1941)

In 1934 Grant took on a position with the art department at the University of Iowa, and also in that year, he was named director of the Public Works of Art Project in Iowa. Grant Wood later took on many of the artists at the artist colony in that project, a programme which employed artists, as part of the New Deal, during the Great Depression, and which he administered for the state of Iowa. The programme produced a large number of Depression Era murals that can still be viewed on the walls of rural post offices and public buildings in Iowa. In her book Wall To Wall America: Post Office Murals in the Great Depression by Professor Karal Ann Marling, she explains that the concept for nine years, from 1934 to 1943  She said that the Federal Government, under the Public Buildings Administration, commissioned murals for a variety of newly constructed post-offices around the United States. Life magazine,  named it “Mural America for Rural America.” It was a programme designed to get starving artists out of the garrets and into suitable work that would decorate bare walls, edify the public, and put some spare change in their pockets.

Grant Wood in his favoured rural-type bib and braces

In 1935 Grant Wood published the essay “Revolt Against the City,” in which he laid out the tenets of the Regionalism movement. For him Regionalism was a movement to which artists all over the United States must dedicate themselves in order to avoid a colonial dependency on European tradition. He felt that the rural Midwest, (the farmer’s life, dress and setting) would provide the richest kind of material for a truly indigenous regionalist style.

Joseph Chamberlain Furnas was an American freelance writer. He is best known for his article, commissioned for the Reader’s Digest, “—And Sudden Death!”   This article brought national attention to the problem of automobile safety and is the most-reprinted article in the Digest’s history. In it he wrote:

“…An enterprising judge now and again sentences reckless drivers to tour the accident end of a city morgue. But even a mangled body on a slab, waxily portraying the consequences of bad motoring judgment, isn’t a patch on the scene of the accident itself. No artist working on a safety poster would dare depict that in full detail…”

Death on the Ridge Road by Grant Wood (1935)

It could be that Grant Wood read the whole article in the August 1935 edition of the Reader’s Digest and it was that, that made him paint Death on the Ridge Road in 1935. It is a painting all about movement but with a bleak message about death on the roads. The painting vividly depicts the bends of the road, the shapes and positions on the road of the vehicles careering towards one another. It is a bleak and stormy night.  Even the telegraph pole at the top of the hill seems to be bending over due to the ferocity of the wind and, in the background, we sense that the storm clouds are scuttling across the sky depositing rain which will moisten the road surface. The tarmacked road bends are bordered by barbed-wire fences as it cuts through green hills. The large red truck rushes headlong over the crest of the hill towards an on-coming black car which has skidded across the road into its oncoming path. We know what is going to happen next. We know there will be deaths and the arms of the telegraph poles now seem to symbolise crosses on a grave. Maybe Wood was warning us about the dangers of technological progress.

Spring Turning by Grant Wood (1936)

Grant Wood painted a very hypnotic work in 1936 entitled Spring Turning. This type of work by Wood is often referred to as Magic Realism.  The term magical realism, was first expressed in a discussion of the visual arts. The German art critic Franz Roh, in his 1925 book, Nach Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten europäischen Malerei (After expressionism: Magical Realism: Problems of the newest European painting).  In it he described a group of painters whom we now categorize generally as Post-Expressionists, and he used the term Magischer Realismus to both highlight and rejoice at their return to figural representation after a decade or more of abstract art.

With its bird’s-eye view of smooth, swelling hills and nearly abstract banded squares of green grass and ploughed earth, Wood’s depiction is probably from his own memory as a child on the family farm in Anamosa.  There is no evidence in the depiction of cars, farm machinery, paved roads, or electric wires. Wanda Corn in her 1983 book, Grant Wood: The Regionalist Vision, describes the work as a tale about:

“…man living in complete harmony with nature; he is the earth’s caretaker, coaxing her into abundance, bringing coherence and beauty to her surfaces…”

1935 photograph of the happy couple – Grant (44) and his wife Sara (51)

Despite the successes Wood achieved with his paintings in the 1930’s his life was becoming stressful with the IRS chasing him for unpaid taxes and he began finding some solace in liquor. To add to his problems, on March 2nd, 1935, he, without warning, married a divorced woman, Sara Sherman Maxon, the former head of Michigan City’s School of Fine Arts and a former light opera singer  The marriage took place in a small ceremony in Minneapolis, the town in which Sara was living, far from Grant’s home, and with none of his friends or family in attendance, as one report put it:

“…Wood’s neighbours read with astonishment that he was to be married that night in a small ceremony in Minneapolis. The fact that Cedar Rapids’ “bachelor artist” had a secret fiancée was nearly as dumbfounding as the circumstances of the wedding itself – a ceremony conducted with little warning, far from home, and with no friends or family in attendance…”

Grant Wood and his wife Sara Maxon

It was not a “marriage made in heaven” and many of Grant’s friends thought they were ill-matched, as Sara seemed flamboyant and overpowering whilst Grant was a socially awkward and reticent bachelor. Shortly after the couple were married, they moved to Iowa City where Grant was teaching at the University of Iowa.

House in Iowa which Grant restored and served as home for his bride and his mother.

Wood bought an eighty-year-old house for $3,500 and spent almost $35,000 renovating and refurbishing it, which financially crippled him. The pair found it difficult to survive as a happily married couple. The marriage was a platonic affair and never consummated. Did Sara know that her husband was homosexual? It seemed to have been common knowledge of his friends and some of his students.

Boy Milking Cow, by Grant Wood (1932)

In the same year Grant and Sara married, Wood hired a handsome,  athletic, young man, Park Rinard, as his personal secretary. Rinard, who lived in Falls Church, was born in Montana and grew up in Iowa. He graduated from the University of Iowa, where he also received a master’s degree in creative writing. It was while he was in graduate school that he became secretary to Grant Wood. Although not a homosexual himself, Rinard clearly understood Wood’s attraction to him. Rinard was the ghost writer for Grant Wood’s unfinished autobiography, Return from Bohemia.  But Rinard’s presence only further pushed Sara to the side, which made her woefully unhappy.

The relationship between Wood and his wife was so bad at the end that, according to one account, he  enlisted his housekeeper as proxy to deliver his desire for a divorce to Sara. Another account tells of Sara going to hospital because of a suspected heart attack (she was a notorious hypochondriac) and Grant sent a note to her telling her not to bother to return!  The inevitable divorce came in September 1939.

Parson Weems Fable by Grant Wood (1939 )

Another American folktale was the subject for a satirical work depicted in Grant Wood’s 1939 painting Parson Weems Fable. Mason Locke Weems usually referred to as Parson Weems, was an American book agent and author who wrote the first biography of George Washington, entitled The Life of Washington  in 1800, immediately after the first President’s death in December 1799 . The tale of the cherry tree and Washington appeared in the fifth imprint of this bestseller book in 1805. The tale of the cherry tree (I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet) was to highlight George Washington’s virtues, even as a six-year-old child, and was intended to provide a morally instructive tale for the youth of the young nation. Grant Wood created his work in celebration of historian Parson Weems and the first President George Washington. Weems’ anecdote told the story of the six-year-old future President chopping down his father’s favourite cherry tree and then owning up to it. Grant Wood’s regionalism style painting, this satirical work predicts the revolutionary spirit coming to colonial America. His contrast of colours conjures up a sense of impending change, particularly in the storm clouds we see gathering on the horizon.

Father and son, with the $1 bill face

Washington’s father Augustine is depicted as a red coat holding the fallen cherry tree with an outreached hand, while the unruly youth, painted with the adult head and face of Washington, as it appears on the $1 bill, on a child’s body,   The child points at the offending hatchet.   In the right-hand foreground, we see Weems, with a wry smile on his face, pulling a drape aside to reveal this iconic encounter. In the background we catch sight of two slaves picking cherries from another tree, and this could be a reference to another historic and revolution that was to come.

Grant Wood in his studio in1931

Grant Wood was a complex character. He constantly wanted to be known a “farmer-painter” and in many of the photographs of him we see him dressed in overalls which was bizarre as he hated farming. It is more than likely that his showy rural character was part of the style that he, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry promoted in the 1930’s as champions of American Regionalist painting. There is no doubt that they were nostalgic about the past and believed that the healthy values of the Midwest should be maintained as an antidote to their perceived view of the decadence and degenerate European lifestyle and the corruption which they believed sullied life in the American East Coast cities.

Young Corn by Grant Wood (1931)

Unfortunately for Grant Wood, his artistic legacy, which only lasted eleven years, was damaged, firstly by critics’ ridiculing his work, saying it was merely “regionalistic” and light-weight and secondly by wide spread rumours about his sexuality. The final part of the title of this blog mentioned “rumours” and I thought long and hard whether to even include the rumours about Grant Wood’s life. The rumours were about Grant Wood’s sexuality and I was not sure whether it had any bearings on his ability as a painter.  A 1944 biography hinted at Wood’s homosexuality, as did the catalogue written by Wanda Corn that accompanied the travelling exhibition of Grant Wood’s work. However, she and other art historians had to be very careful what they wrote about Wood as his sister, Nan, was quick to litigate against any slurs about her brother. There were  rumours of an attachment Wood had with his wife’s son, Sherman, from her first marriage who occasionally lived with them.  Lester Longman, a modernist-minded colleague in the University of Iowa art department, where Wood had taught since 1935, tried to have him fired, in part on explicit moral grounds. However, the university ignored the charge and retained Wood. It was only after his sister’s death in 1990 that historians could write with more openness and impunity. In a 2010 biography, by R Tripp Evans, Grant Wood: A Life, he unequivocally states that Wood was a closeted gay man and someone who was terrified of having his sexual orientation uncovered.

Sultry Night by Grant Wood (1939)

Probably another work by Wood which made people question his sexuality came about in 1939 when he produced a controversial lithograph, entitled Sultry Night. In it he depicts the farmhand pouring a pail of bathwater over his head in the empty dark of a field. We see water dripping from his mouth, along his chest, and down to his penis. The problem for Wood was that the depiction of the naked man is not posed in the academic postures of the classical nude, which may have made it more acceptable, but instead we see this splay-footed individual with his face upturned to receive the stream of water. Wood created the lithograph for Associated American Artists, a distributor of low-cost reproductions for the masses, but the print was quickly banned by the US Postal Service. Wood maintained that the depiction of the naked man was just a normal scene from his childhood memories of farm life, but despite his protestations that the image was not pornographic, the Postal Service upheld the ban.

Spring in Town by Grant Wood (1942)

Wood’s Regionalism was falling out of favour and that put him at variance with many of the university faculties and he became so frustrated that, in 1940, Grant Wood took a leave of absence from academia although he carried on with his paintings, which continued to show his faithful adherence to American Regionalism, the American art movement he was primarily responsible for founding. During his sabbatical period from lecturing and teaching he still carried on painting. His last works were a pendant pair entitled Spring in Town and Spring in the Country which he completed in 1941. They both illustrate his steadfast devotion to American Regionalism.

Spring in the Country by Grant Wood (1941)

In his sister’s 1993 autobiography, My Brother, Grant Wood, written by her with John Zug and Julie Jensen McDonald. Grant’s thoughts about the paintings are quoted:

“…In making these paintings, I had in mind something which I hope to convey to a fairly wide audience in America—the picture of a country rich in the arts of peace; a homely, lovable nation, infinitely worthy of any sacrifice necessary to its preservation…”

In 1941, shortly after taking his sabbatical, Grant Wood was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the doctors told him that he was terminally ill. On February 12th, 1942, just a day before his 51st birthday, he died.  Park Rinard was at his bedside.  Grant Wood was buried on his family’s plot in Anamosa. Reportedly, on his deathbed, he repeated over and over again that he wanted to paint his dead father, whom he had “lost” at the age of ten. Thomas Hart Benton, a fellow Regionalist, who visited Wood before his death, later remarked:

“…It was if he wanted to destroy what was in him, and become an empty soul before he went into the emptiness of death…”

He died in debt and his contribution to American art was mostly forgotten by the late 1930’s with international political concerns overshadowing domestic ones. His beloved Regionalist art was condemned for being too parochial, too much of Midwestern chauvinism and a genre which failed to change despite the onset of American Abstract Expressionism which was about to dominate in the post-war years. If remembered at all, it was for one work which has always been judged, as not his finest or most interesting, but one which has now become an iconic work, famous all around the world.

After Wood’s death in 1942, Nan inherited his estate and devoted the rest of her life to maintaining and promoting his legacy. Nan, who had married a real estate investor, Edward Graham, died in 1990, aged 91.

I could have attached many more of Grant Wood’s paintings but I am sure if you like what you have seen in these three blogs about his life you will search out more of his work.

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Most of the information I gleaned for these three blogs on Grant Wood came from the usual sources such as Wikipedia and the following websites:

Cedar Rapids Museum of Art
http://www.crma.org/content/Collection/Grant_Wood.aspx

Sullivan Goss an American Gallery
http://www.sullivangoss.com/Grant_Wood/#Bibliography

Nan Wood’s scrapbook
http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/grantwood/id/880

The Beacher Weekly newspaper

http://www.thebeacher.com/pdf/2014/BeacherSep18.pdf

 

Grant Wood. Part 2 – American Gothic and sister Nan

Grant Wood, Study for Self-Portrait, 1932,

When Grant Wood spent time in Munich overseeing the production of stained glass for the memorial window for the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids he had time to visit the city’s museums and he was inspired by the artistry of the painters from Netherlands, especially Jan van Eyck and the portraiture of the Renaissance artists.

Man with Pink Carnation by Andrea Solari (c.1495)

Portraiture normally has a plain background so as not to detract from the sitter but often in Renaissance portraits a landscape background was used which would give you some knowledge about the sitter.

Woman with Plant by Grant Wood (1929)

No doubt Grant Wood remembered that type of portraiture when he painted Woman with Plant in 1929. In this work we see a Midwestern woman in country clothes, wearing a cameo broach and an apron bordered with rick-rack stitching. In her hands she holds a plant pot containing a snake plant. She is the epitome of the pioneer woman, and this is a Renaissance-style work with its half-length figure in the foreground and a landscape backdrop and it is the inclusion of a windmill and sheaves of corn which marks it as an American Midwestern depiction. This was actually a portrait of his mother !

Arnold comes of Age (Portrait of Arnold Pyne)

In August 1930 at the Iowa State Fair Grant Wood’s painting entitled Arnold comes of Age which was his portrait of twenty-one year old, Arnold Pyne, his assistant on the Memorial Window project.

Des Moines Tribune-Capital, August 20th 1930

The renowned American journalist and correspondent for the Chicago Tribune from 1925 to 1932, covering Europe, William Shriver, once asked Grant Wood whilst in Paris, why, having witnessed the emerging art styles in Europe in the 1920’s, would his artistic style change. Wood answered by likening himself to the famous American novelist, short-story writer, and playwright, whose 1920 novel, Main Street, satirised the strict conservatism of small-town life. :

“…I am going home to paint those damn cows and barns and barnyards and cornfields and little red schoolhouses… and the women in their aprons and the men in their overalls and store suits… Isn’t that what Sinclair Lewis has done in his writing… Damn it, you can do it in painting too!…”

American Gothic by Grant Wood (1930)

A year after the stained glass window was installed at the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids, Grant Wood completed his iconic painting American Gothic, a painting which many consider to be the most famous painting in American art. So how did all come about?

In the spring of 1930, Grant Wood decided to take a weekend off from his painting and drove the 12o miles from his home in Cedar Rapids, to the home of one of his former student in Eldon, Iowa. The road trip passed through gently rolling patchwork of farmlands of central and south Iowa between the Cedar River to the Des Moines River. On a Sunday morning in early April, Wood came upon the now-famous house. It was known by the local residents as the Dibble House as it was built by Eldon resident, Charles Dibble, a Civil War veteran and livery stable owner in 1882 for his family, which included himself, his wife, and his eight children.

The American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa

The house was built in a style known as Carpenter Gothic, or Rural Gothic, and is a North American architectural style-designation for an application of Gothic Revival architectural detailing and picturesque massing applied to wooden buildings erected by house-carpenters. This terminology is used when the design of lofty architecture of European cathedrals is applied to American frame houses. The Eldon house was a small, simple frame structure and was no different than many houses dotted around Wood’s home in Cedar Rapids. However, it had one unusual feature. On the second storey there was a single gable with an inset narrow Gothic window. The house mesmerised Wood and he began to wonder what type of people lived in such a house, so much so, after driving around the block he knocked on the door and introduced himself to the residents who showed him around the interior. After thanking the young couple he went back to his car, grabbed his paints and made a quick oil sketch of the house.

The Sunday Register, December 1st 1930

After he got back home he told his sister Nan about the house and how it had captivated him. The one aspect of the exceptional house which disappointed him was the fact that the residents were not whom he had envisioned for they were a young couple.  He said to Nan:

“… I’ve decided to do a painting of the kind of people I think should live in that house. I thought about it last night. I have a woman in mind, Nan, but I’m afraid to ask her to pose, because, you know, like all the others, she’ll want me to make her look young and beautiful. And I’m not going to paint her beautiful in this picture. So she’ll be disappointed…”

Of course, we now know that the woman in the painting would be his thirty-one year old sister, Nan, but there lay the problem for Grant, for the woman he intended to paint was going to be an “old maid”. However, even knowing the problem he still asked his sister to pose and he showed her his preliminary oil sketch.

American Gothic painting satirised

There was a long pause before Grant answered his sister’s question.  Finally he addressed his sister asking her, if she was willing, to pose for the picture.  He then had to sell the concept to her as he wanted the “daughter” to have a plain and old-fashioned appearance and her facial expression was to be one of sternness and sombreness. He asked Nan to imagine what it would be like to be under the control of her elderly and authoritarian father. Nan agreed and that afternoon went off to the store to buy some appropriate sombre brown and black clothes for the painting, as she later recalled:

“…. We were supposed to be small-town people. We were really not supposed to be farmers, but just small-town folk. We would own maybe a cow to milk, and we would have a little garden to tend for ourselves. But we’d keep all we grew and not sell anything in the market. Grant and I talked and talked about this. The man in the painting – who was supposed to be my father, would do some tinkering around the house, we decided. We tried to determine what the mother and wife would look like, but we just could not agree on anything. So we decided that the man was a widower. Now, when we talked about this, we tried to imagine what expression would be on the face of the man and his daughter. When we finished talking about this, I posed…”

Nan later remembered the posing for the painting:

“…It was really difficult because Grant was always joking. And both of us would break into laughter, and then we would have to start all over again. It was hard to go from being Grant Wood’s sister and joking with him in the studio to being a farmer’s daughter standing in front of a house. When I was posing and I lost my concentration, Grant would always draw me back to the work at hand by begging, ‘Come on, now, Nan. I’m trying to do your face and I really need you to look sour.’ So I looked sour, the best I could. And so he painted me…”

His depiction of a plain, stern-faced Iowa woman has an everlasting, inscrutable quality and some who saw the painting called her the “American Mona Lisa.”

Grant explained to her that he would paint the house in the background and, standing side by side in front of it would be an elderly man and his daughter and that he intended to approach his sixty-three year old dentist, Byron McKeeby, to pose as the man. Grant had exchanged some of his paintings in lieu of payment for dental work with him and he knew McKeeby liked his work, so he was sure he would pose for the painting.

For Nan, Grant could do no wrong, and she was a constant source of encouragement to her brother. She had no misgivings about posing for the American Gothic painting even though she knew ahead of time it would probably be very unflattering. However, she harboured no resentment towards her brother, once saying:

“…Grant made a personality out of me. I would have had a very drab life without it…”

Some say the pair depicted were husband and wife but Grant’s sister Nan maintained it was father and daughter so that she was not to be classified as a woman who would marry a much older man. Grant, himself, never clarified the status of the pair !

Nan Wood Graham and the painting American Gothic

The stern-looking man was posed by Wood’s Cedar Rapids’ dentist Byron McKeeby. We see McKeeby dressed in a black jacket and collarless shirt and clean denim overalls. In his right hand he holds a three-pronged pitch fork, the prongs of which are echoed in the stitching of his overalls and again in the Gothic window of the house. Although the depiction of the couple looks suitably posed Wood painted the two people separately and his sister and the dentist never stood together in front of the house.

Comments about Nan as the model were often derogatory with one viewer writing that her face “would sour milk”. Other women protested that Nan was poking fun at them with her dour expression.

Nan Wood Graham and Dr. Byron McKeeby

American Gothic was displayed in Cedar Rapids after Wood’s death in 1942. Nan, at that time, Mrs Wood Graham, and Dr. Byron McKeeby were united with each other and the painting for the first time, with their “stretched out long” faces as dour as ever !

Bronze medal winners awarded by Art Institute of Chicago

Grant submitted the painting to the jury for the forty-third annual exhibition of American paintings and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1930. The judges dismissed it as a trifling “comic valentine,” but a powerful museum patron urged them to reconsider. The painting was awarded the Norman Wait Harris Bronze Medal, as well as a three-hundred-dollar prize. The painting was bought by the Friends of American Art at the Institute for another three hundred dollars. Newspapers throughout America soon carried articles and reproductions of the painting. Eventually, the picture appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, which caused great consternation with the real Iowa farmers and their wives and they were not amused. To them, the painting looked like a nasty caricature, portraying Midwestern farmers as pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers. However, the painting, which is now housed at the Art Institute of Chicago, is one of the most iconic and recognizable images in American art, and it helped propel Wood to fame and launch the Regionalist movement, of which Wood became the de facto spokesperson.

The sitters for the American Gothic painting (1942)

The highly detailed style of the work and the two unbending figures at the forefront of the depiction were inspired by the Flemish Renaissance art, that Wood would have seen during his European travels between 1920 and 1926. Despite the negative comments that Wood was belittling the Mid-Western folk he actually intended the painting to be an upbeat declaration about rural America and rural American principles. Remember, the year before American Gothic was shown at the Art Institute of Chicago, the country was hit by the great depression and America was facing a major crisis. In the Mid-West there was overproduction in agriculture, as farming techniques improved, and farmers started producing too much food. Coupled with the fact that there was less demand from Europe for food from America because they could grow their own crops. This abundance of crops led to falling prices and thousands of farmers became unemployed after having to sell their farms. Despite this Wood wanted his painting to be a positive statement about rural American values, and for it to become an image of comfort and encouragement at a time of great displacement and disenchantment. For Wood the man and his daughter were symbols of survivors who would battle on through the tough times.

Portrait of Nan (1931)

Grant Woods, as a token of his gratitude, and maybe knowing of the hurtful remarks about his sister’s appearance in the painting, painted a formal portrait of her in 1931. Tripp Evans, a biographer of Grant Wood, wrote:

“…It’s really kind of a love letter from Grant to his sister. He adored Nan. And it’s a painting that he felt very close to as well, one of very few of his mature paintings that he kept for himself…”

In the painting, Portrait of Nan, he depicts her in fashionably marcelled hair style. The Marcelled hair style was a popular hairstyle of the 1920’s and 1930’s that featured unique waves and styling. Marcel Waves are a deep waved hairstyle reminiscent of American actress and bombshell Jean Harlow. Nan is shown wearing a patent-leather belt and a sleeveless polka-dot blouse. She is holding a plum in her left hand whilst the right-hand cups a small chicken. Nan is depicted as a chic-looking and chick-holding modern woman ! Grant Wood bought the little chick at a dime store but it proved to be an unwilling “sitter” for him. His sister Nan recalls the problems her brother had with the chick:

“…Grant kept long hours when he was on a painting spell and would work well into the night. The chick adjusted to his hours and made an awful fuss if it was sent to bed—actually, a crock Grant kept in the closet—before 2 or 3 a.m. It was also fussy about its victuals. It wouldn’t eat toast without butter or potatoes without gravy. One evening, the chick was acting up while company was over, so Grant deposited it in the crock, placed a book on top and forgot all about it. By morning, deprived of air, butter and gravy, the chick was in a dead faint. We threw water on the chick and fanned her for almost an hour before she came to. It was a close shave. She was pretty weak, and Grant didn’t have her do much posing that day…”

So why were the chicken and the plum featured in the portrait. Wanda Corn a leading Grant Wood scholar knew Nan well before she died, at age 91, and in 1990 wrote about the portrait:

“…He [Grant] undoubtedly liked the chicken because as it perched, young and vulnerable, in the cupped hand of his sister, it conveyed her tenderness. And the plum because, as an artistic convention, fruit has always symbolized femininity…”

So according to Wanda Corn, the two images represented, for Wood, all that was beneficial and wholesome about the Midwest. Many believed the chicken and the plum were symbolic but Grant’s sister Nan had a more down to earth reasoning for the inclusion of the chicken and the plum. In 1944 she wrote about the portrait:

“…Grant said the chicken would repeat the colour of my hair and the plum would repeat the background…”

Nan’s role as a model for Grant’s paintings ended with Portrait of Nan, Tripp Evans wrote in his 2010 book, Grant Wood: A Life:

“…After completing the painting, Wood reportedly told his sister, ‘It’s the last portrait I intend to paint, and it’s the last time you will ever pose for me.’”

She was surprised—she’d spent years posing for him—and asked for an explanation.
Wood said, “Your face is too well known…”

..……to be continued

In my final blog about Grant Wood I will look at his later years, showcase more of his paintings and talk about a rumour concerning the artist which would never go away.


Apart from Wikipedia much of the information about the artist and his paintings came from:

Cedar Rapids Museum of Art
http://www.crma.org/content/Collection/Grant_Wood.aspx
Sullivan Goss an American Gallery
http://www.sullivangoss.com/Grant_Wood/#Bibliography
Nan Wood’s scrapbook
http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/grantwood/id/880
Eldon House
http://lde421.blogspot.com/2011/12/american-mona-lisa-profile-of-nan-wood.html

Grant Wood. Part 1. The early years of the American Regionalist painter

Self portrait by Grant Wood (1932)

During their lifetime most artists paint hundreds of works of art but often, as far as the public are concerned, may just be famous for one of their works. Examples of this are Edvard Munch, who is best known for his 1893 painting The Scream. Johannes Vermeer is best known for his 1665 work Girl with the Pearl Earring and Leonardo da Vinci is best known for his 1503 painting, Mona Lisa. The artist I am looking at today, Grant Wood, will always be remembered for the painting he completed in 1930 entitled American Gothic. Grant Wood is classified as an American Regionalist painter, which is an American term. Regionalism being the work of a number of rural artists, mostly from the Midwest, who came to prominence in the 1930s. The artists tagged with the label of Regionalism often had differing styles but what they shared was an unpretentious anti-modernist style, all of who wanted to simply depict everyday life and their rural conservatism was totally anathema to the left-wing Social Realist painters of that time. American Regionalism, sometimes referred to as American Scene painting, was a naturalist style of painting where typical American life and Mid-West landscapes were lovingly depicted. It was an art based on indigenous imagery from local surroundings.

The young Grant Wood during the time he lived on the family farm

Grant Wood was born on February 13th 1891. He was the second child born to Hattie DeVolson Weaver and her husband Francis Maryville Wood. He had an elder brother Francis Marion Wood and a younger sister and brother, Nanny (Nan) Rebecca Wood and John Clifford Wood. Grant was born on the family farm near the rural township of Anamosa, Iowa.

Grant Wood boyhood home, Cedar Rapids, Iowa,

Family life was seriously disrupted on March 13th 1901 when Grant’s father unexpectedly died at the age of forty-six, and Grant’s mother Hattie was left to bring up her four children between the ages ranging from eighteen months to ten years of age. She decided to leave the farm and go and live at her family’s home in Cedar Rapids. Life for the Grant family had suddenly changed from the rural idyll of Anamosa to the urban life of Cedar Rapids.

Grant Wood attended the local grammar school and it is said that one of his teachers, Emma Gratten, encouraged the boy’s interest in art. In 1905, aged fourteen, he entered a drawing of oak leaves into a drawing competition which was sponsored by Crayola and he won third prize. As a youth growing up in this small but expanding Midwestern city, his teachers and the community admired Wood’s talent for drawing. He even taught himself to make jewellery, copperware, ornamental light fixtures, and furniture. Once he began attending Washington High School his love of art continued and when he was fifteen, he began a lifelong friendship with a fellow pupil, Marvin Cone, who also had a love of art and the two of them designed sets for the school’s theatre department and provided illustrations for the school magazine. Grant and Marvin also helped with the installation of exhibitions at the Cedar Rapids Art Association, which had just been opened in the town’s Carnegie Library in 1905. In 1910 Grant graduated and immediately enrolled on a summer course at the Minneapolis School of Design and Handicraft, taught by nationally known architect and designer Ernest Batchelder. It was here that he learnt how to work with metal and jewellery as well as building furniture, a skill that would later serve him well.

In 1913 Grant Wood moved to Chicago and spent much of his time working as a designer at Kalo Silversmiths Shop, which was the important arts and crafts silversmith and leading maker of Arts and Crafts movement silver in Chicago. Besides this day job Grant attended evening classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and took correspondence and summer school courses in the decorative arts. He remained in Chicago for three years but in 1916 he had to return home to Cedar Rapids when he heard the news that his mother had fallen ill and was having financial problems. Grant took a job as a grammar school teacher to support his mother and his sister, Nan. From 1917-1918 Wood served in the U.S. Army, where he was tasked to paint and design camouflage for the military vehicles.

Portrait of John B. Turner by Grant Wood (1929) A patron of Grant Wood

In 1919 he began as an art teacher for the Cedar Rapids Community Schools and at Jackson and McKinley Junior Highs. He also attended the life drawing class taught by Charles Atherton Cumming at the University of Iowa. His high school teaching did not disrupt his painting and, slowly but surely, his painting techniques improved and soon Wood became famous for his paintings in his local neighbourhood. In 1919, Killian, the local department store in Cedar Rapids, held an exhibition of Wood’s painting as well as work by his schoolfriend Marvin Cone. Out of this came many commissions for portraits of the local dignitaries as well as store window displays for the Armstrong department store and he was commissioned to paint murals for the Eppley Hotels in Cedar Rapids, Sioux City, Waterloo, and Council Bluffs.

Cafe De Palais by Grant Wood (1926)

Like most aspiring American artists at the time, Grant Wood wanted to travel to Europe and visit the famous museums and study the many styles of painting, including Impressionism and post-Impressionism which he found fascinating and can be seen in his paintings of the 1920’s.   He also said that he had to go to France to appreciate Iowa! To travel to Europe cost money and Wood could not alone afford it but thanks to his long-time patrons, John B. Turner and his son David Turner who owned the city’s mortuary business they had underwritten the trips for Wood to study art in Europe in 1920 and 1923-1924, and in return he gave them a number of his paintings.

Greenish Bus in Street of Paris by Grant Wood (1926)

Grant made his first trip to Europe in the summer of 1920 when he and his friend from school, Marvin Cone, visited Paris. Grant returned to Paris for a longer stay in 1923 and did not return home until the following year.

The Bay of Naples’s View by Grant Wood (1925)

This longer stay allowed him time to study at the Académie Julian and journey to the Italian seaside town of Sorrento. His time in the French capital and surrounding countryside proved influential, resulting in a stunning series of impressionistic views of picturesque cityscapes and landscapes, Paris streets and gardens, and the French countryside.

The structure has been the home of John R. Turner and Son funeral homes since 1924. Iowa artist Grant Wood was paid to help decorate the mortuary at that time

In between his European trips Wood was still working in Cedar Rapids. David Turner of the Turner Mortuary business had bought the large elegant Douglas Mansion with the intention of converting it into a funeral home, they commissioned Wood to redesign the mansion’s interior for its new function. Wood carried out the major refurbishment of the house including doing some interior decorating and furnishing. Grant Wood also designed the iron gates at the front entrance.  Once the make-over had been completed it was opened to the public in 1924 and the Cedar Rapids newspaper, The Gazette, wrote about Grant Wood’s hard work which he had put into the refurbishment:

“… [Grant Wood] was responsible for the decorating and furnishing of the interior, and the landscaping of the grounds. He not only personally supervised the work, but also did much of it himself…”

Grant Wood’s studio was above the six-car garrage

At the rear of the house there was a brick barn which had been converted into a modern garage, which could house six cars. At the suggestion of the Turners, Wood began to build a studio and residence above the garage.

Grant Wood stands in his studio at No. 5 Turner Alley in Cedar Rapids.

Not having to pay rent for the studio and apartment meant that he could eventually give up teaching his job at McKinley High School.

The Spotted Man by Grant Wood (1924)

What is considered to be his most accomplished work during his time in Paris is his 1924 painting entitled, The Spotted Man, which he painted in the Académie Julian studio. The technique used by Wood in this painting is a kind of Seurat-like pointillism. During his stay in Paris he had probably seen the famous pointillism works by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.

The Little Chapel Chancelade by Grant Wood (1926)

According to his sister Nan, Grant, whilst studying at the Académie Julian, was invited by a fellow student to visit his home in Spain and from that trip he painted The Little Chapel Chancelade. However, the setting remains unknown. Before he went back to Cedar Rapids the Carmine Gallery agreed to exhibit some of his work and so he returned to the French capital in 1926 for the Gallerie Carmine exhibition but he came away very disappointed and slightly disheartened as it was only a moderate success.

Interior view of Grant Wood’s Turner Alley studio, courtesy of Figge Art Museum, Grant Wood archives, photo by John W. Barry

In between his European trips Wood was still working in Cedar Rapids and in 1924 Wood was doing some interior decorating for David Turner of Turner Mortuary and Turner offered Grant the use of the carriage house behind the mortuary as a studio for his artwork. This now renowned studio situated at No. 5 Turner Alley became home to Wood and his mother for eleven years as well as being Grant’s studio during the most creative period of his career.

Veterans Memorial Building, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

The Veteran’s Memorial Building in Grant’s home town of Cedar Rapids is located on May’s Island in the middle of the Cedar River, between the First and Second Avenue Bridges. A petition to construct a memorial building was filed with the City Clerk on March 4, 1925. To make the building financially viable, a new city hall was incorporated into the plans.

Cedar Rapid’s Veterans Memorial Building on Mays Island

The positioning of the building on an island made Cedar Rapids, one of only two cities, after Paris, France, which had their governments located on an island. The main portion of the building contains four stories, with an eight-story section in the front. A cenotaph tops the eight-story section. The auditorium contains seven banners from veterans’ organizations, and seven American flags were suspended from the ceiling. A Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located above the cenotaph. The architects and the Cedar Rapid’s planners decided to incorporate a large stained glass memorial window.

Stained glass window in the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building

In 1927 Grant accepted a nine-thousand dollar commission to design and build the stained glass window for the Veterans Memorial building. Despite not having experience with the medium of stained glass and certainly never having accepted such a large commission before, the finished window is looked upon as one of Grant Wood’s greatest achievements.

Grant Wood and Arnold Pyle preparing for the Stained Glass Window

Wood along with his assistant Arnold Pyle spent months prior to the fabrication of the window. The two would spend hours perched aloft on wooden scaffolding in an old recreation room at the Quaker Oats company, where Wood assembled a full-scale mock drawing. This elaborate study enabled Wood to finalise his design and at the same time it afforded him the opportunity to correct difficulties with the perspective. The Emil Frei art glass company of St. Louis, Missouri was awarded the bid to make the glass for the window. However, it was discovered that due to the intricate detail wanted for the piece, the glass pieces had to be manufactured at a factory in Munich, Germany. Wood went to Munich to supervise the final stages of the production of the delicate pieces of glass. While there he was deeply influenced by the realism of the sharply detailed paintings of various German and Flemish masters of the 15th and 16th century and when he returned to the United States he was determined to integrate their approach into his own work.

The six soldiers

The memorial window is a lasting tribute to Veterans of the six American wars from the Revolutionary War to World War I. It stands 23 feet and 6 inches high and 20 feet wide and is made up of about 10,000 pieces of stained glass fitted together with lead, forming a stunning work of art. Solemnly standing at the base of the window are six life sized figures of private soldiers wearing the uniform of Private, representing the wars (from left to right): Revolutionary War, The War of 1812, The Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War and the First World War.

Lady of Peace and Victory

Three stood on either side of a sixteen-foot-high central figure which is said to represent the “Lady of Peace and Victory”. Draped over her head is a blue mourning veil, her floating body surrounded by clouds. In her right hand, she holds the palm branch of peace; in her left, the laurel wreath of victory. In an article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette from 1928 written by reporter Naomi Doebel, she tells of a conversation she had with Grant’s sister Nan:

“…Mrs. Nan Wood Graham, sister of the artist, modelled for the heroic central figure, a woman standing sixteen feet tall and wearing a Grecian robe. The figure, with toes pointed down, floats in the clouds giving the spiritual effect found in many of the Renaissance paintings. Draped over the woman’s head is a mourning veil of blue. In her right hand she holds the palm branch of peace, and in her left the laurel wreath of victory…”

Veteran’s Memorial Building Cedar Rapids during 2008 floods

In 2008 the siting of the Memorial Building on an island proved to be somewhat of a disaster as the Cedar River flooded Mays Island and caused a large amount of damage to the building.

Everybody loved the finished window ? – well, not quite all !!! For the Daughters of American Revolution accused Wood of being unpatriotic because he sourced a German firm to manufacture materials for a U.S. veterans memorial so soon after World War I.   The furore resulted in the window not being dedicated publicly until its restoration was completed in 2010 following the flooding of 2008.

Daughters of Revolution by Grant Wood (1932)

Grant Wood was not one to apologize for sourcing the stained glass for the memorial window from Germany, and he called the females of the Daughters of American Revolution, “those Tory gals,” and in 1932 painted a satirical work entitled Daughters of the American Revolution. To Wood this group was both ridiculous and contradictory to the extreme. On a website American Studies at the University of Virginia, they discuss the satirical aspect of the painting:

…Wood approaches his subjects through many layers of satire. Perhaps most jarring is the juxtaposition of the title and the ladies pictured. That these self-satisfied, teacup-raising, and meticulously coifed septuagenarians might have a thing to do with revolution is nothing short of absurd. Wood has painted the three ladies in a soft-focus haze that at first seems to render them more gentle and sympathetic. Two elements undermine this softness. Perhaps the most noticeable element in the painting is the claw-like hand breaking clearly through the haze and raising the teacup in a wordless and seemingly inappropriate salute to the Revolutionary War…”

Wanda Corn in her 1983 book, Grant Wood, The Regionalist Vision. wrote about the painting:

“…The hand holding the teacup tells us more about the Daughters. It is ringless, which suggests the woman is a spinster, and it is thin and bony, looking very much like the chickens’ feet in some of Wood’s other paintings. Further, the softness of the focus deepens the ladies’ eyes until they are beady and animal-like. They peer out of the painting, waiting only to be recognized for their inherited glory; they are not unlike purebred animals. Wood has further amused himself by placing the ladies in front of Emmanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. Although the famed work was considered an American treasure and treated as something of a documentary painting, the truth was that Leutze had painted it in Germany, using the Rhine as a model for the Delaware, and, it was suggested, German soldiers for the models…”

In my next blog I will look at the new style of painting by Grant Wood known as American Regionalism and feature his iconic work of art, American Gothic.

…………………………..….to be continued


I found the information for the two blogs about Grant Wood from the usual sources such as Wikipedia but also gleaned a vast amount of facts from three websites:

Cedar Rapids Museum of Art
http://www.crma.org/content/Collection/Grant_Wood.aspx
Sullivan Goss an American Gallery
http://www.sullivangoss.com/Grant_Wood/#Bibliography
Nan Wood’s scrapbook
http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/ref/collection/grantwood/id/880

Daniel Ridgway Knight

Daniel Ridgway Knight (c.1908)

In my last blog I looked at the life and works of the Social Realist painter Walter Langley and his depictions of the hard life endured by the Cornish fishermen and their loved ones. Today I am looking at an American artist whose paintings could not be more different. Daniel Ridgway Knight chose to depict pretty young women enjoying life. The depiction of these ladies in beautiful countryside setting, lit up by dazzling sunlight  was, although very popular, so different to the work of artists of the Realism genre. So why would people want to buy paintings depicting scenes which in reality were just something we would like life to be? Maybe that is the answer to the question. Maybe whilst enduring real life with all its hardships we hanker after the perfect life even if it is just an imaginary idyll. If you had to choose a painting to hang on the wall of your lounge would it be one which depicts poverty or one which depicts sunny meadows awash with flowers and beautiful women?

The Well by Daniel Ridgeway Knight (1880)

Daniel Ridgway Knight was born into a strict Quaker home, on March 15th, 1839, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a town thirteen miles north of Maryland and the Mason-Dixon line. He attended local schools and his family intended that he would either work in a local hardware store or in his uncle’s ship building company, but for Daniel his love of art was his overriding passion and in 1858, at the age of nineteen, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA). Fellow students at that time included Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, and William Sartain. Knight also became one of the earliest members of the Philadelphia Sketch Club which was founded by six students of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in November 1860 and is still in existence today.

Daniel Ridgway Knight

One of the PAFA students who became a friend of Daniel Knight was Lucien Grapon, a Frenchman, and he would often talk to Daniel about his homeland and how Daniel would love to live in France, with its great social life, fine ladies, and its even finer wines. Daniel must have been seduced by the thoughts of life in France as in 1861 he set sail for France, a journey many of his fellow PAFA students would later take. Cassatt and Eakins went to France in 1866.

Maria on the Terrace with a Bundle of Grass by Daniel Ridgway Knight

On arrival in Paris, Daniel Knight enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and attended classes run by Alexander Cabanel as well studying in the atelier run by the Swiss artist, Marc Gabriel Charles Gleyre. During his time in Paris Knight made a number of friends with fellow artists such as Renoir and Sisley. He also took trips to the artist colony at Barbizon where he was influenced by the works of the plein air painters. His stay in France lasted just two years but was curtailed when he received grave news from home about  the state of the American Civil War which had started the year he left for France.   Even more worrying for Knight was that by 1863 the war had spread north with the soldiers of the Confederate army, led by General Robert E Lee invading his home state of Pennsylvania. In a patriotic gesture, twenty-four-year-old Knight returned to Philadelphia and on August 17th, 1864, enlisted in the Union Army as a Private in Company K, 5th Cavalry Regiment Pennsylvania. When not engaged in battle Knight took the opportunity to make sketches of the battle scenes as well as portraits focusing on the facial expressions of his fellow soldiers. Knight later presented many of his sketches at meetings of the Philadelphia Sketch Club.

Harvest Scene by Daniel Ridgeway Knight (1875)

At the end of the Civil War, Daniel was discharged from the Union army and he returned to Paris to complete his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. On completion, he went back home to Philadelphia and opened a workshop where he worked on his portrait commissions and also held classes for aspiring painters.

The Burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1867)

In 1867 Daniel Knight completed an historical painting, The Burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, which depicted an infamous incident in the Civil War. On July 30, 1864, Brigadier General John McCausland and 2,800 Confederate cavalrymen entered Chambersburg and demanded $100,000 in gold or $500,000 in greenbacks. The residents of Chambersburg failed to raise the ransom, and McCausland ordered his men to burn the town. Flames destroyed more than 500 structures leaving more than 2,000 homeless. Chambersburg was the only Northern town the Confederates destroyed. The attack inspired a national aid campaign and spurred the Union Army to a more aggressive approach that finally won the war.

Un Deuil (Bereavement) by Daniel Ridgway Knight,(1882)

It was at his Philadelphia studio that he first met Rebecca Morris Webster, the daughter of Colonel Thomas Webster Jnr, who was one of his students. On September 20th, 1871 the couple married in St Luke’s Church Philadelphia. For the next twelve months Daniel took on many portrait commissions and with the money he earned from them, he had enough for two boat tickets for himself and his wife and they returned to France where they would remain for the rest of their lives.

Ridgway Knight painting in front of the front facade of his house in Poissy, [1883]

Daniel and Rebecca first went to live in Saint Germain Des Prés, on Paris’ Left Bank and then later in 1872, they settled in Poissy, where Walter had bought a vast 17th century house. The property had belonged before him to the Arbien-Caulaincourt family. The house, which until the early 1920’s, was located at what is now, 24 avenue Meissonier and was sometimes referred to as the Abbey Castle.

Daniel Ridgway Knight in his studio (c.1889).

To ensure that he was able to capture the true colours of the daylight which may have been lost in studio painting he built a glass-enclosed studio, separate from the house, so he could paint comfortably “indoors” while still capturing the true colours fully in its natural surroundings. This would allow him to position his models there notwithstanding the weather conditions outside even during the coldest winter’s day, and still make the best use of the natural light. Such protection from inclement weather in a controlled environment made for a perfect studio. His models would be dressed in peasant costumes and sometimes he would actually use local girls to sit for him.

The Poissy enclosure of the abbey, years 1870-1880. From left to right, Meissonier’s house, Ridgway Knight’s house (center) and Notre-Dame collegiate church.
Photo Agnès Guignard

The French Classicist painter, Ernest Meissonier, had occupied the neighbouring property since 1846 and it still exists. Meissonier completed most of his paintings in his studio there as well as conducting art classes for his students. In the photograph above, dated around 1880, we see three buildings. On the left is Meissonier’s house, Daniel Ridgway Knight’s house can be seen in the centre and to the right is the Notre-Dame collegiate church, which was once the l’abbaye aux dames.  It was a truly magnificent building which Knight spent years and much money on restoring and refurbishing it.

Article from The Decorator and Furnisher March 1886

The interior of his house was commented on, and a sketch made of the elaborate main staircase in the March 1886 edition of the New York published magazine The Decorator and Furnisher:

“… In our illustration will be seen a rough sketch of a fine old staircase in the house of the excellent painter Mr. Daniel Ridgway Knight, of Philadelphia, Mr. Knight has settled at Poissy (Seine-et- Oise), near his master Meissonier. His house is a part of the old Abbey of Poissy, a splendid dwelling, with lofty rooms, which Mr. Knight has filled with choice furniture and objects of art. The staircase, broad enough for four people to walk up it abreast, has an elegant wrought-iron balustrade, and Mr. Knight has completed the decoration with a fine old German wrought-iron lantern, the potence of which is peculiarly graceful and delicate in design. The walls of the staircase and entrance-hall are hung with red cloth, over which several fine pieces of tapestry are stretched, with, on the landings, a profusion of flowers and plants. -In the sketch the balustrade and the lamp alone appear; the accessories are barely indicated…”

The Knight family on the steps of their house in Poissy, [1883].

His neighbour was the painter Ernest Meissonier who had bought his large mansion which was sometimes known as the Grande Maison. The Grande Maison included two large studios, the atelier d’hiver, or winter workshop, situated on the top floor of the house, and at ground level, a glass-roofed annexe, the atelier d’été or summer workshop. Meissonier, not only became a good friend of Daniel Ridgway Knight but acted as his artistic mentor. Daniel Knight and his wife Rebecca went on to have three children, all boys. Louis Aston Knight was born in August 1873. His godfather and godmother were the son-in-law and daughter-in-law of Meissonier, Gustave Méquillet and Jeanne Gros. Louis became a very talented and successful landscape painter.  Charly Meissonier Knight, was Rebecca and Daniel’s second child, born in 1877, and Meissonier himself was his godfather.  He later became a well-known architect and made a speciality of restoration of houses in Paris and country chateaux. The youngest child, Raymond Knight, was born in 1878 but died at the age of thirty-six in 1914.

The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet (1857)

By 1874, Knight had to decide what he wanted to paint. In the early days he was happy with his historical paintings and on his return to Philadelphia after the Civil War he had made money with his portrait commissions but now he wanted to do something altogether different. That year he again visited Barbizon and saw the works of Jean-Francois Millet with his depiction of French peasantry and he believed he should follow this theme for his paintings. The one thing he didn’t like about Millet’s depictions was that Millet’s works were of the Realism genre and the artist had focused on the hardships suffered by the peasants.

The Reapers by Jules Breton (c.1860)

Knight decided that his depictions of the peasantry would focus on the joys of the countryside and the happiness of the peasants whether they were at work or enjoying their leisure time. He was influenced by the works of the French artist, Jules Breton and, although he too is classed as a Realist painter, his depictions, which are also heavily influenced by the French countryside and the peasants working the land, are, in the main, a celebration of the beauty and idyllic vision of rural existence, as can be seen in the painting above, The Reapers which he completed around 1860.

Les Laveuses by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1875)

Meissonier was a great believer in Knight’s talent as an artist and one day set him a challenge to produce a large painting from a sketch he had made. The result was Les Laveuses (Washerwomen) which resulted in Knight’s first big success at the Salon in 1875.

Hailing the Ferry by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1888)

In 1888 Daniel Ridgway Knight painted several large paintings for major exhibitions, and Hailing the Ferry, was regarded as one of his masterpieces. When it was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1888, it was awarded the third-class gold medal. He was also awarded a Gold Medal at the Munich Exhibition that same year for this work. It can now be seen at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The depiction is of two peasant girls calling for the ferryman on the other side of the river. The beauty of this work is how Knight captured all the elements of the subdued light and colour, together with the way he added the finely detailed figures which highlighted his constant focus on detail.

Coffee in the Garden by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1924)

Daniel Knight’s genre scenes were very popular with buyers on both sides of the Atlantic and they enhanced his reputation as a great painter. One of his popular works was entitled Coffee in the Garden. The setting is the outside of a rural house/café. The pink and grey colour of the rough plaster of the building contrasts with the various colourful flowers in the window boxes and plant pots which brighten the building’s façade. In the background our gaze is carried along the River Seine.  We can see the calm waters of the river meandering quietly on its journey along the wide valley towards the sea. In this work we see a group of three women sitting around a wooden table on cane-bottom chairs and a wooden stool. A young boy approaches them carrying a large pot of coffee. The ladies await patiently holding their empty porcelain cups in readiness. To the left we see a carved wooden table bearing a tureen of soup, a ladle, and a pile of empty shallow bowls. Next to the tureen are two empty bottles and a broken loaf.

Portrait de femme (Mme Knight ) by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1892)

In the mid-1890’s, Daniel Ridgway Knight signed a contract with the well-known and much respected art dealers, Knoedler, who had many galleries in New York and Paris. The company would act as sole agents to sell all his paintings. This was an added boost to his income stream and shortly after the contracts were signed Knight decide to buy another large house.

Julia in the Corner of the Garden by Daniel Ridgway Knight

It was around 1896 that Daniel Knight and his family left their home in Poissy to live in their new home at Rolleboise, some forty kilometres down river from Poissy. The Knight family’s new residence had breathtaking views of the River Seine as it was positioned atop an elevated headland overlooking the river. His home had a beautiful garden and terrace that overlooked the Seine and it was that view that often appeared in his painting. It was a stunning vista which overlooked the cascading rooftops below, and, all the way along the River Seine which flowed between miles and miles of fields, meadows, and lines of trees. Besides carrying on with his own paintings, Knight held classes at his house for aspiring artists and this led to the foundation of the Rolleboise School.

The Sheperdess of Rolleboise by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1896)

One of his first paintings after he moved to his new home was his 1896 work, The Shepherdess of Rolleboise. In the painting, which combined a grey and silver palette, we see a French shepherdess. Her youth and loveliness are seen against a pastoral background on the bank of the River Seine. As she gazes out at the water her charges feed themselves on the grassy bank. The work was exhibited at the 1896 Salon and was well received. It was Knight’s take on peasant life that appealed to the many American buyers who would rather witness the beauty and romanticism of peasant life rather than the harsher realities of their lives depicted by the Realism painters of the time. Knight’s work was closer to the Naturalism genre which was practiced by the great French painter, Jules Bastien-Lepage.

A Garden above the Seine, Rolleboise by Daniel Ridgway Knight

In 1889 Knight was awarded a Silver Medal at the Paris Exposition and was knighted in the Legion of Honour, and later in 1914, becoming an officer. In 1896 he received the Grand Medal of Honour at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Daniel Ridgway Knight died in Paris on March 9th, 1924, a week before his eighty-fifth birthday. Ridgway Knight’s paintings continued to be popular in the twentieth century, particularly in America and still, even now, realise high prices at auction.

Cecilia Beaux. Part 7 – The final years

Cynthia Sherwood by Cecilia Beaux (1892)

Upon returning to the United States, Beaux became one of the most sought-after portraitists in Philadelphia and New York. One of the first paintings by Cecilia Beaux, which was acclaimed by the critics for its gentle innocence, was a portrait she did for her friend and fellow artist, Rosina Emmet Sherwood in 1892. It was a portrait of her friend’s daughter Cynthia Sherwood. Rosina Emmet Sherwood was a book illustrator and one of the foremost female painter of that time and was a close friend of Cecilia’s. The two women had met through their connection with the arts, and in 1892 they wanted to celebrate their friendship by swapping portraits. Cecilia gave Rosina a portrait depicting her second child and eldest daughter, three-year-old Cynthia. The painting is made up of a tonal mixture of lilacs, crimson, and whites. In the work we see Cynthia sitting on a red sofa. She has a white ribbon in her hair and is wearing a white pinafore over a blue-grey dress and her arms rest in her lap. Rosina was delighted with her daughter’s portrait which was exhibited at the 1895 Society of American Artists’ annual exhibition. In a letter to Cecilia, Rosina wrote about how her daughter’s portrait was well received by fellow artists and critics alike:

“…My dear — you and Cynthia were the lions of the Exhibition yesterday. Really, much as I admired the picture, I was startled at its brilliancy and force…. It never looked so like Cynthia before. The artists all moved about it…. Mr. Chase said he would give anything to own it and Robert Reid, after extravagantly praising the big picture [Sita and Sarita] said he liked Cynthia’s portrait much the best. Kenyon Cox said that for the sort of portrait painting you chose to do, you do it better than any man he knew except John Singer Sargent. So there Madame!…”

Cecilia by Rosina Emmet Sherwood (1892)

In return Rosina painted a portrait of her close friend. Cecilia was so enamoured with the portrait that she kept it all her life and, on her death, it passed down to her great-niece.

Ernesta (Child with Nurse) (1894)

Two years later, in 1894, Cecilia completed another portrait of a young girl, her two-year-old niece, Ernesta Drinker, entitled Ernesta (Child with Nurse). In the painting, we see the young girl holding the hand 0f her nurse, Mattie. The portrait of Cecilia’s young niece reveals the well-to-do world of the advantaged child. It is a sentimental portrait focusing on the first tentative steps of the young girl and if we look closely at the tightly clasped hands of adult and child, we see how Cecilia has depicted the partnership between the dependent child and the caring protective adult. We view the painting at the child’s eye-level. The figure of the nurse is cropped at the waist, and so we just see the arm and skirt of the nurse which makes us aware of the size of the diminutive child. From where we stand viewing the portrait, we soon realise that it is all about the world of the child. The portrait of young Ernesta was shown at the Society of American Artists in their spring exhibition in 1894. In 1896 the painting was awarded a third-place bronze medal at the Carnegie Art Institute’s first International exhibition.

Reverend Matthew Blackburne Grier by Cecilia Beaux (1892)

Cecilia Beaux’s child portraiture was very popular and in much demand, but this was just one “string to her bow”. During the year in which she completed the portrait of Cynthia Sherwood she completed a portrait of an eminent man, The Reverend Matthew Blackburne Grier, who lived just two doors away from Cecilia’s family home. The subject of the painting is the retired Presbyterian clergyman and former editor of The Presbyterian who had come to live in West Philadelphia. Cecilia had approached him and asked if he would sit for her. In the portrait, we see him sitting in the tricornered Chippendale chair which was a much-used accoutrement of her studio. Within a year of its completion the painting became a prize-winning portrait, winning her the Philadelphia Art Club’s Gold Medal in 1893.

Self portrait by Cecilia Beaux (1894)

In May 1894, Cecilia Beaux was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design. Admission to this academy was conditional on her agreement to the Academy’s Constitutional rule that she must submit a portrait of herself for the Academy’s permanent collection. For Cecilia it was a moment in time that she must decide how she wanted to portray herself. She was now thirty-nine years old and had the self-confidence to believe that she was both good-looking and cultured and she decided that those characteristics needed to be depicted in the finished portrait. The completed Self Portrait also shows off her beauty. Her lavender, beige and white striped silk dress accentuated her elegance appearance. This is not a depiction which in any way exudes her sexuality. It is all about her professionalism and serious dedication to her art. Nobody could question her beauty but for Cecilia, she wanted to be remembered not for her physical attributes but for her exceptional artistic talent.

In 1895 Cecilia was appointed the “Instructor of the Head Class of the Schools,” at the Pennsylvania Academy with a salary of $1,200 a year. This appointment given to a female was the talk of the local newspapers. One newspaper commented:

“…Never before, either in this country or abroad, has a woman been chosen as a member of the faculty in a famous art school. It is a legitimate source of pride to Philadelphia that one of its most cherished institutions has made this innovation…”

Beaux taught at the Academy for two decades in either a “Head Course” or a “Portrait Class”. Her classes were mixed, and she was constantly pressing her female students telling them that they had to work twice as hard as their male students if they wanted to achieve success.

At the height of her long career, Beaux painted the cream of the American elite. She received commissions to paint portraits of the “great and the good” including college presidents, businessmen, socialites, eminent medical men and women, and political notables.

Mrs. Thomas A. Scott (Anna Riddle) by Cecilia Beaux (1897)

In 1897 she accepted a commission to paint a portrait of the former Anna Riddle, who was the wife of Thomas Alexander Riddle, an American businessman, railroad executive, and industrialist. He was the fourth president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  In this sumptuous portrait we see the fifty-eight-year-old lady adorned in a shimmering ivory-satin gown and white-lace cap. Her left hand holds on to a parasol which rests against her knee. Her right hand, suitably bejewelled as was becoming for such a wealthy lady, rests on a marble side table. On top of the table we can see a silver tea tray, a blue bowl of red geraniums, and a brown porcelain Chinese export teacup all of which help to portray the status and wealth of the sitter and her family. In the background we can just make out a faint sketching of a round table and chair.

Mrs. Clement B. Newbold by Cecilia Beaux (1896)

Cecilia Beaux had received the commission to paint the portrait of Mrs Thomas Alexander Scott on the strength of her previous year’s bridal portrait of her daughter, Mary Dickinson Scott (Mrs. Clement B. Newbold), at the time of her wedding to Clement Buckley Newbold the wealthy banker and financier in 1896.

Portrait of Dr. John Shaw Billings by Cecilia Beaux (1895) in the National Library of Medicine

In the autumn of 1895 Cecilia was commissioned to paint a portrait of Dr. John Shaw Billings, a renowned surgeon and librarian, who had made significant contributions to the American medical profession. He sat for Cecilia at her Chestnut Street studio. It was his testimonial year and at a dinner honouring him he was presented with a silver box containing a check for $10,000, “in grateful recognition of his services to medical scholars”. The sum of money had been raised by 259 physicians of the United States and Great Britain. Money was also set aside for the commissioning of his portrait by Cecilia Beaux and it was later presented Beaux’s work to the Army Medical Museum and Library in Washington, D.C.

By 1900 the Cecilia Beaux’s work was in great demand and clients came from all over the east coast to sit for her and she decided she needed to base herself in New York. Richard and Helena Gilder were very close friends of Cecilia’s whom she had met through her former tutor Catherine Drinker and her husband Thomas Janvier. Richard Watson Gilder was a poet and editor of the periodicals Scribner’s Monthly and The Century Magazine, and the Gilders were leading lights of an artistic literary and music circle in New York and it was through Cecilia’s friendship with them that she had received many portrait commissions from the rich and famous. The Gilders lived in New York and during her protracted stays in the city she would stay with them. Eventually she got herself a studio on the corner of South Washington Square and Broadway, which was close to the Gilder’s house on East 8th Street.

Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt and Daughter Ethel by Cecilia Beaux (1902)

Cecilia’s portraiture was so popular that she could be very circumspect on which commissions she chose to accept. She was once quoted as saying that it doesn’t pay to paint everybody, and by adhering to that rule she ensured that she became one of the most famous late nineteenth century American portrait artists whose clientele was mainly drawn from the upper class. One of her most famous sitters was, Edith Roosevelt, the second wife of the United States president, Theodore Roosevelt who sat for Cecilia 1n 1902.
Cecilia recalled the sittings for the portrait:

“… A number of visits to Washington were needed for the work, and the portrait was painted in the White House. It was to have been of Mrs. Roosevelt only, but her daughter Ethel consented to literally ‘jump in,’ greatly enlivening, I hope, her mother’s hours of attention to posing. This attention was constant and sympathetic, but not static, and did not need to be. They generously devoted the Red Room to me for a studio……………..… I chose — and upholstered — a covering for the broad seat on which Mrs. Roosevelt and Ethel could dispose themselves easily; the warmth of the Red Room got somehow into the picture, and fortunately we proceeded without many changes. I understood from the first that it was not to be an official portrait, and I think every one was satisfied that, as it was created among intimate circumstances, its spirit might be the same…”

Cecilia Beaux and Thornton Oakley at Green Alley (1907)
Thornton Oakley was an American artist and illustrator

With all the pressure of work, Cecilia decided that she needed a sanctuary away from her hectic city life. In her biography, she wrote:

“…I began to dream of a change, of’ a pied-a-terre even then — of a shift of the year’s divisions — for work, and rest. Why not, I thought, have the summer for my working time, and take my rest in a short winter period? I had never looked on painting as toil, but I had sometimes felt that the city winter contained too much of everything, and that the summer, if considered as a holiday, was boring in being desœuvre [at a loose end]. Why not have long, unhurried bouts of painting, when off hours would be spent in delicious air — morning and evenings of thrilling loveliness — a long, long summer…”

Green Alley
Cecilia Beaux’s home at Eastern Point, Gloucester, Mass.
Photograph, ca., 1920, by T. E. Morr.

Cecilia decided to rent a place in East Gloucester on Cape Ann in Essex County, Massachusetts. She, along with her Aunt Eliza, Uncle Will, and other relatives first visited the idyllic New England fishing village in July 1887, staying at the Fairview Inn and returned there on a regular basis. In 1903, she decided not to stay at the inn but instead rented a cottage on Eastern Point for the summer. She used to refer to it as the Rock of Calif and whilst she spent the summers there her companion on her first Parisian trip, her cousin, May Whitlock, acted as her housekeeper, and would do so for almost forty years. Whilst at the cottage Cecilia looked for some land where she could build her own house. She finally found the perfect spot, a thickly wooded space on the harbour side of the road, part-way between the lighthouse and the town of Gloucester. She then commissioned the building of a house and studio on the plot of land and was finally able to move into her new house on August 7th, 1906. She named her house Green Alley.

Cardinal Mercier by Cecilia Beaux (1919)

In 1910, her beloved Uncle Willie died. She was devastated by the loss, as William Biddle was the foremost male in her early life after her father left the family home after the death of his wife. William Biddle was just fifty-five years of age when he died.

Georges Clemenceau by Cecilia Beaux (1920)

With the backing of the Smithsonian Institution in 1919, the National Art Committee devised, and were overseers of a project by which American artists would paint the portraits of prominent World War I leaders from America and the allied nations. The National Art Committee selected Cecilia as one of eight painters commissioned to execute portraits of the war heroes. The committee set aside $25,000 for each artist to paint three portraits. Cecilia’s task was to paint the portraits of Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, the Belgian Cardinal who was renowned for his staunch resistance to the German occupation of his country during the Great War. She was also to paint a portrait of Admiral Lord David Beatty, who led the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron during the First World War and Georges Benjamin Clemenceau, who was a French politician, physician, and journalist and who was Prime Minister of France during the First World War.

Admiral Sir David Beatty (also known as Lord Beatty) by Cecilia Beaux (1920)

Cecilia Beaux continued with her regular visits to Europe accompanied by various companions. One such trip in the summer of 1924, with a young Boston artist, Aimée Lamb, ended disastrously when Cecilia, who was sixty-nine-years-old at the time, whilst out walking in Paris along the rue St. Honoré, caught her heel on the pavement, fell and broke her hip. The accident  occurred on June 30th and after ten weeks in a clinic she still was not allowed to return home until November. The terrible accident was a devastating blow to Cecilia, as it crippled her for the rest of her life and necessitated her to wear a heavy steel brace and walk with a crutch. It badly affected how she was able to paint and her output dwindled.

Cecilia Beaux received numerous awards and accolades for her work which was exhibited many times in many countries. She died of coronary thrombosis at her beloved home, Green Alley, on September 17th, 1942. She was aged eighty-seven. Following her cremation in Boston, her ashes were buried in the West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala-Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

This is my seventh and final blog looking at the life of this amazing artist. So much is missing from what I have written. So many of her paintings have not been shown and yet maybe it will tempt you to read her autobiography (Background with Figures) or read the many excellent essays written about Cecilia Beaux by Tara Leigh Tappert.


Most of the information for the blogs featuring Cecilia Beaux came from two books:

Background with Figures, the autobiography of Cecilia Beaux

Family Portrait by Catherine Drinker Bowen

and the e-book:
Out of the Background: Cecilia Beaux and the Art of Portraiture by Tara Leigh Tappert.

Extracts from letters to and from Cecilia Beaux came from The Beaux Papers held at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art

Information also came from the blog, American Girls Art Club In Paris. . . and Beyond, featuring Cecilia Beaux was also very informative and is a great blog, well worth visiting on a regular basis.:
https://americangirlsartclubinparis.com/

Photographs came from an article I found entitled The Only Miss Beaux, Photographs of Cecilia Beaux and her Circle by Cheryl Leibold of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.