Dorothea Tanning, her early life and her love of Surrealism. Part 3

Dorothea Tanning, Sedona, Arizona
Dorothea Tanning in Sedona (1943)

Dorothea and Max Ernst divided their time between their Arizona home in Sedona and their apartment in New York.  Often Tanning would return to New York to show her work at the Julien Levy Gallery in Midtown Manhattan.  In April 1944, the Julien Levy Gallery held Dorothea’s first one-person exhibition.

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Fête Champêtre by Dorothea Tanning (1944)

That same year, 1944, Dorothea completed her painting entitled Fête Champêtre depicting a popular form of entertainment in Baroque France during the 18th century, taking the form of a garden party.  In Tanning’s work an unusual desert landscape provides the setting and she has added a marble mantelpiece and an ornate rococo clock.  She has also populated the depiction with a number of unidentifiable figures, some of which are human others are anthropomorphic, adding human characteristics to nonhuman things.  However, we can clearly see a bearded man and a girl who sits beside him, both staring out at something invisible to us.  The whole depiction remains a mystery as to what it is all about.

The Temptation of St Anthony by Dorothea Tanning (1945)

Whilst in New York,in 1945, Dorothea Tanning, completed a work which focused on a biblical scene that has been depicted by many famous artists, such as Dali and Hieronymus Bosch.  The painting is entitled The Temptation of St Anthony, which is now the property of Philadelphia’s La Salle University Art Museum. The painting portrays the supernatural temptation reportedly faced by Saint Anthony the Great during his stay in the Egyptian desert.  Saint Anthony, then aged 35, decided to spend the night alone in an abandoned tomb. A great multitude of demons came and started beating him, wounding him all over. He lay on the ground as if dead and the claws of the demons prevented him from getting up. According to the hermit the suffering caused by this demonic torture was comparable to no other.  Terrified and brought to his knees in fear, the habit that he is wearing wafts upwards as if caught in a gale-force updraft.  The blue, green and pink folds of the habit expose images of feminine shapes that seem to be the cause of his anguish. 

The Temptation of St Anthony by Salvador Dali. His entry to the Bel Ami competition

Dorothea created the work for the Bel Ami International Art Competition, where twelve surrealist and magic realist painters were asked to submit a painting to be used in Albert Lewin’s film The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, based on Guy de Maupassant’s novel Bel Ami. The rules of the competition for a cash prize were that the painting should be 36 × 48 inches and on the subject of the temptation of Saint Anthony. It would be shown as the only colour segment in the otherwise black and white film in which paintings of The Temptation of St. Anthony. Both American and European artists participated, including Ivan Albright, Eugene Berman, Leonora Carrington, Salvador Dalí, Paul Delvaux, Max Ernst, O. Louis Gugliemi, Abraham Rattner, Horace Pippin, Sydney Spencer, Leonor Fini and Dorothea Tanning.  All artists who submitted a painting received $500, while the winner received a prize of $3000. Max Ernst won the competition and his painting was shown in the film. Dali’s entry also became famous in its own right.

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The Temptation of Saint Anthony. The winning entry by Max Ernst

The competition was judged by Marcel Duchamp, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., and Sidney Janis. Max Ernst wining submission was not loved by all as the film critic Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called Ernst’s painting “downright nauseous” and wrote that it “looks like a bad boiled lobster.

Of her work and the meaning behind the depiction Dorothea Tanning wrote:

“…It seems to me that a man like our St. Anthony, with his self-inflicted mortification of the flesh, would be most crushingly tempted by sexual desires and, more particularly, the vision of woman in all her voluptuous aspects.  It is this phase which I have tried to depict in my painting. St. Anthony, alone in the desert, struggles against his visions; half-formed, moving in indolent suggestion, colored with the beautiful colors of sex, his desires take shape even in the folds of his own wind-tossed robes…”

Dorothea Tanning painting the Temptation of St Anthony (1945)

A photographer took a picture of Dorothea whilst she was working on the St Anthony portrait as a promotional photograph for the Bel Ami competition.  It was at a time when she had been ill and had contracted encephalitis and the photographer had to prop her up for the shot as she was so unwell.  She has her back to us but we see her long flowing locks of hair and on the wall is her famous Birthday self-portrait.  In her autobiography, Between Lives, she tells of how the illness caused her and her soon-to-be husband Max to return to the peace of Sedona in 1946 and sub-let their New York apartment to their friend, Marcel Duchamp.  Dorothea and Max married in October 1946.  Although they had regular guests come to their Sedona home, Dorothea always maintained that the period in Sedona, when it was just her and her husband, were the happiest days of her life.

The newlywed couple would separately paint all day and then come together in the evenings to listen to music, read and often play chess which was one of their favourite pastimes.

Max in a Blue Boat, 1947 - Dorothea Tanning
Max in a Blue Boat by Dorothea Tanning (1947)

Their love of chess is depicted in Dorothea’s 1947 work entitled Max in a Blue Boat.  It depicts the couple in the boat in the midst of a desert landscape and they seem to move effortlessly despite the lack of water.

Maternity, 1946 - 1947 - Dorothea Tanning
Maternity by Dorothea Tanning (1947)

In 1947 Dorothea completed the work entitled Maternity, which focused on motherhood and the psychological and physical problems associated with bearing and raising a child.  In the setting of a sand-strewn desert we see a young woman holding a young child in a shielding encirclement.  At the feet of the woman, on the rug, lies her dog which has a child’s solemn face staring out at us.  The features of the dog resembled her own Lhasa Apso dog, named Katchina.  Mother, child and dog make for a strong family unit set against a hostile setting.

The dog was depicted in one of her favourite works entitled Tableau Vivant.  It was then purchased by the National Galleries of Scotland. The painting was the first by Dorothea Tanning that they had acquired and joined up with major artworks by Surrealists Leonora Carrington, Salvador Dalí and René Magritte held at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (SNGMA).  The work was first shown at Tanning’s first exhibition in France in May 1954 at the Galerie Furstenberg, Dorothea Tanning: Peintures 1949-1954.   She had inscribed the title L’Etreinte on the verso, which can be translated as The Embrace.   A few months later the inscription was crossed out and substituted with Tableau Vivant and it was under its new title, Tableau Vivant that it was included in the artist’s first exhibition in Britain, at the Arthur Jeffress Gallery, London in 1955.

Tableau Vivant by Dorothea Tanning (1954)

It was not uncommon for Surrealist artists to include animals in their paintings.  Numerous Surrealist artists took animal embodiments which played the role of their alter-ego in their work: Max Ernst used a bird, Leonora Carrington favoured a horse; and Tanning took Katchina. Whreas other Surrealist depicted various types of the animal, Tanning’s choice was more specific.  It was her own pet, Katchina, whose insertion into Tanning’s work was not of necessity a personification of the artist; sometimes it acted as a witness, other times as a protagonist, the Katchina affected different roles in different works. These works started a change of Tanning’s painting style.  She moved away from the meticulous, controlled, illustrative technique which was the hallmark of her Surrealist work. In its place she began to decide on much looser, softer, more painterly brushwork and her colour switched from bright, intense primaries to ashes and ochres.  It was a move towards her Abstract period.

The painting is a depiction of many feelings.   Power, love, the erotic, the humorous, the dream and the nightmare, Tableau Vivant brings together many key moments in the artist’s life and career. Tanning loved the painting and it was included in almost every major exhibition of her work, notably her solo shows in Brussels in 1967, Paris in 1974, and the Malmö Konsthall and Camden Art Centre in 1993. The work of art remained with her for the remainder of her life until 2012, when she died at the age of 101, almost sixty years after painting it. Towards the end of her life, she specified it as one of a small number of works reserved only for sale to a museum.  Simon Groom, Director of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Galleries of Scotland said of the painting:

“…We’ve been looking for a major painting by Dorothea Tanning for many years. This was one of her favourite works: she kept it for more than sixty years, hanging it above her desk in her apartment in New York. It’s a stunning addition to the Galleries’ world-famous collection of Surrealist art…”

Sarah Philp, Director of Programme and Policy at Art Fund, which helped the National Galleries of Scotland financially with the purchase of the work which cost £205K  said:

“…Tableau Vivant is an astonishing work with a fascinating biography and we are proud to help National Galleries of Scotland purchase this painting for their outstanding Surrealist art collection…”

Interior with Sudden Joy by Dorothea Tanning (1951)

The Tableau Vivant dog appeared in a number of her paintings after 1946, including Interior with Sudden Joy.

Interior with Sudden Joy is a strange painting.  In the depiction we see two girls standing to the right. They strike a provocative pose.  They are both dressed in white garments which harmonise with their pale skin, the buttons are unfastened and expose a camisole top and red bra, which reminds one of the bared chest in Tanning’s self-portrait Birthday. The girls pose with their arms wrapped around each other and both exude an air of nonchalance. They are young women and are only too aware of their sexuality.  The girl furthest to the right pats the head of a large shaggy dog.  The dog, which faces away from us, takes little notice of the two girls and instead stares at the blackboard on the back wall like a pupil ready to learn. On the blackboard there is chalked writing. In her memoir, Tanning says she took writings written in poet Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘secret notebooks’ and put them on the blackboard in this painting.  Rimbaud was admired by the surrealists because of his belief that poetry passed through the body in the manner of a musical instrument, which reaffirmed the surrealist idea of automatism as a creative outlet using the body as a vehicle.

The Boy

On the floor, close to the feet of one of the girls, lies a burning cigarette.  The girl’s hand is held up as though the cigarette had once been held between her fingers. To the left of them is a naked boy embracing a strange amorphous mass which imitates a human figure and wraps itself around him. The whiteness of its fabric-like flesh contrasts with the boy’s dark skin, and abundance of dark curls which form a halo around the boy’s head. The boy looks completely at peace. If the painting’s title Sudden Joy derives from any part of the depiction it is from him. In her memoir, Tanning described the girls as being like Sodom and Gomorrah.  On the floor in the left-hand corner of Tanning’s painting is an open book atop an ornate purple cushion. Its pages are blank, perhaps waiting to be written in. It is an eerie depiction.  We see a figure standing in the doorway in the left-hand top corner of the painting, and the black door stands ajar waiting for someone or something to enter the room.

 Dorothea Tanning died on January 31st 2012, at her Manhattan home at age 101. Her husband Max Ernst had died thirty-six years earlier.

Most of the information in my blogs about Dorothea Tanning come from the excellent 2020 biography of the artist, entitled Dorothea Tanning: Transformations by Victoria Carruthers.

Dorothea Tanning, her early life and her love of Surrealism. Part 2.

New York 1944

Dorothea Tanning (1944)

By the later part of 1942, Dorothea Tanning was well established with the Surrealist Movement within the New York art scene.  At the party hosted by the art dealer, Julien Levy and his wife, Muriel, she had been introduced to many of the Surrealist luminaries who were living in New York, including the German-born painter, Max Ernst.  Following on from his meeting with Dorothea, he visited her at her sprawling, sparse apartment studio to look at her paintings.

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It was not just idle curiosity that had brought Ernst to Tanning’s studio but he had come at the behest of his then wife, the art collector and socialite, Peggy Guggenheim, in order to select one of Dorothea’s paintings for the Exhibition by 31 Women.  This exhibition was organized by Peggy Guggenheim and ran for a month starting on January 5th 1943 in her New York gallery and included works by Frida Kahlo, Louise Nevelson, Leonor Fini, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Leonora Carrington.  Many of the artists were Surrealists, and many were wives of artists with whom Guggenheim was acquainted.  Georgia O’Keeffe declined an invitation to participate in the show, saying that she refused to be categorized as a “woman painter.”

Birthday by Dorothea Tanning (1942)

Birthday by Dorothea Tanning (1942)

The one painting which caught Max Ernst eye was the one Dorothea completed around the time of her thirty-second birthday, simply entitled Birthday, a title actually suggested by Ernst.  It is a self-portrait.  She has depicted herself in the process of metamorphosis.  She stands before us semi-naked.  Her hair is pinned back and she is wearing an Elizabethan-style purple silk and lace shirt, open to the waist, exposing her chest and breasts.  Her direct and open gaze emanates a sense of calm. Her semi-naked stance is probably her way of challenging her oppressive past and demonstrating her desire to rid herself of past parental control when she was a recalcitrant teenager.   She does not fear people looking at her body as this is how she sees herself.

Skirt 2

Her skirt seems to be disintegrating and being replaced by a thick layer of jagged brambles that cascade down to her bare feet. However, look closely at the brambles and you will see that they are made up of writhing naked bodies which are spiralling and intertwined to create a fabric of woodland sprites which adds a touch of menace to the depiction.  On the floor in front of her crouches a winged famulus.  The art historian Whitney Chadwick called it the “winged lemur.” These fantastic animals are associated with the night and the spiritual world and are a combination of hybrid parts, a fusion between realism and fantasy, the commonplace and the supernatural.

Corridor

The other interesting aspect of this work is what we see on the right of the depiction.  Within the confines of her apartment, we see a passageway which leads to a suite of rooms with doorways in line with each other, known as an enfilade.

The catalogue for the 1944 exhibition held in New York, Abstract and Surrealist Art in America, contained a piece by Dorothea Tanning in which she described her painting, Birthday.  She wrote:

“…One way to write a secret language is to employ familiar signs, obvious and unequivocal to the human eye.  For this reason, I chose a brilliant fidelity to the visual object as my method in painting Birthday.  The result is a portrait of myself, precise and unmistakable to the onlooker.  But what is a portrait?  Is it mystery and revelation, conscious and unconscious, poetry and madness?  Is it a demon, a hero, a child-eater, a ruin, a romantic, a monster, a whore?  Is it a miracle or a poison?  I believe that a portrait, particularly a self-portrait, should be somehow, all of these things and many more, recorded in a secret language clad in the honesty and innocence of paint…”

Fifty-five years later in 1999, the painting was bought by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and in the brochure which accompanied the survey show eighty-nine-year-old Dorothea Tanning once again talked about the work, saying:

“…It was a modest canvas by present-day standards.  But it filled my New York studio, the apartment’s back room, as if it had always been there.  For one thing, it was the room:  I had been struck one day by a fascinating array of doors – all, kitchen, bathroom, studio – crowded together, soliciting my attention with the antic planes, light, shadows, imminent openings and shuttings.  From there it was an easy leap to dram of countless doors.   Moreover, alone and taking stock of myself, I felt a sort of immanence as if my life was revealing itself at last – real birthday…”

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Self-portrait by Leonora Carrington (1938)

Many art critics highlight the similarities between Tanning’s self-portrait which is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the self-portrait done four years earlier, in 1938, by another Surrealist painter, Leonora Carrington, which is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of art in New York.  Both paintings combine fantasy and reality, each artist is depicted in the company of some magical creature.

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The Magic Flower Game by Dorothea Tanning (1941)

Similar to the depiction of the girl transforming in her self-portrait painting, Birthday, we can once again see another transformation in her painting The Magic Flower Game in which a boy is depicted in a state of organic transformation.  The boy in the painting is part human and part fashioned of beautifully coloured flowers which lie flattened against his legs and thighs like a second skin.  They also burst from his back in an assemblage of colour.  Again, his two upper limbs are part human and part nature with one being a branch-like appendage which end in claws.  In his hand he holds a ball of thread that seems to have come from the petals of a sunflower which lies at his feet.  Behind him in the fireplace we see the blue sky on which is the outline of a cat.  A second figure, possibly a mirror image of the boy is seen disappearing into the wall above the mantlepiece.  This part human, part nature is a classic occurrence of juxtaposition which is familiar in Surrealist works of art.

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Arizona Landscape by Dorothea Tanning (1943)

Dorothea Tanning often delved into the motif of hair as being symbolic of transformation in her early 1940’s paintings.  It was almost her iconographic autograph.  One of my favourite works of this type was her 1943 painting entitled Arizona Landscape.

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Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning (1947)

Dorothea’s encounter with Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim’s husband, prior to The 31 Women exhibition, led not only her having one of her works included in the show but led to a romantic entanglement with Guggenheim’s husband.  Max Ernst left his wife and went to live with Tanning and the couple eventually married in a double wedding with photographer Man Ray and Juliet Browner in Beverly Hills, California in October 1946.  This was Ernst’s fourth marriage and Tanning’s second and for both of them it was their last. Guggenheim expressed her sadness in losing Ernst to Tanning and painfully and caustically recalled the important exhibition, famously saying: “I should have had 30 women.”

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Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Dorothea Tanning (1943)

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst first visited Sedona, Arizona together in 1943.  He had first visited Sedona in 1941 with his son, Jimmy, and his third wife, Peggy Guggenheim.  Dorothea and Ernst rented a small studio space and it was in Sedona that Tanning painted her masterpiece, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.  It is another painting in which the motif of hair is depicted and is one of her most famous early works, which she also completed in 1943.  The painting is now part of the Tate Modern’s collection in London.   It depicts what appears to be a hotel corridor along which are numbered doors on the left and a steep stairway on the right, the door at the end is open slightly and offers us a glimpse of light radiating from within. On the floor of the landing, we see the head of a giant sunflower.  Two of its petals lie on the stairs to the right and a third is held in the hand of a life-like doll which lies against one of the doorways. There is a similarity between the tattered clothes worn by the reclining doll and the girl walking along the hallway.  It could be that the ragged state of the clothes worn by both the doll and the girl indicate that a struggle with a malevolent force may have taken place and note how the girl’s long hair streams upwards as if blown up by an extremely forceful gust of wind. Tanning herself commented on the meaning of her painting saying:

“…It’s about confrontation. Everyone believes he/she is his/her drama. While they don’t always have giant sunflowers (most aggressive of flowers) to contend with, there are always stairways, hallways, even very private theatres where the suffocations and the finalities are being played out, the blood red carpet or cruel yellows, the attacker, the delighted victim…”

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Max and Dorothea and their home in Sedona (1947)

Tanning and her husband Max Ernst lived in Sedona on and off from 1943 to 1957.  They had constructed a three-room rough-hewn dwelling which Dorothea named Capricorn. It was a simple home which had no running water, a precious commodity which had to be hauled daily from a well five miles away.   At the time Sedona was a small town with just a few hundred inhabitants.  Dorothea lovingly described their house and living there in her autobiography:

“…Alone it stood, if not crooked at any rate somewhat rakish, stuck on a landscape of such stunning red and gold grandeur that its life could be only a matter of brevity, a beetle of brown boards and tarpaper roof waiting for metamorphosis………Up on its hill, bifurcating the winds and rather friendly with the stars that swayed over our outdoor table like chandeliers…”

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Dorothea and Max with his outdoor sculpture “Capricorn” (1947)

Ernst had his own studio at the rear of the property whilst Dorothea painted in the house.  In the summer of 1947, their home was connected to the mains water supply and to celebrate the arrival of water, Max Ernst, commemorated the moment with a large outdoor sculpture which Dorothea recalled in her autobiography:

“…In the summer of 1947, Max Ernst, exuberant and inspired by the arrival of water piped to our house (up to then we had hauled it from a well five miles away), began playing with cement and scrap iron with assists from box tops, eggshells, car springs, milk cartons and other detritus.  The result:  Capricorn, a monumental sculpture of regal but benign deities that consecrated our ‘garden’ and watched over its inhabitants…”

Capricorn, which refers to the tenth sign of the zodiac, is normally represented by a goat with a fish tail but Max Ernst divided Capricorn’s attributes between two figures, the horned male and the mermaid.  The two main figures can be identified as a king and queen seated on their thrones.  Ernst reportedly called Capricorn a family portrait, although his wife cast doubt on that.  The couple did not have children together, but they did own two dogs, one of which may have inspired the animal in the king’s lap with its long tongue hanging out.

Capric

Capricorn by Max Ernst (cast in 1975)

The statue remained in Sedona but in Washington’s National Gallery of Art there is a large bronze replica of the sculpture.

………………………………to be concluded.

Dorothea Tanning, her early life and her love of Surrealism. Part 1.

Dorothea Tanning
Dorothea Tanning aged 18. (1928)

What does one mean when one says they like art.  What is art?  By definition, art is a diverse range of human activities involving creative imagination to express technical proficiency, beauty, emotional power, or conceptual ideas and it encompasses the three classical branches of visual art are painting, sculpture, and architecture, but the term “art” also embraces theatre, dance, and other performing arts, as well as literature, music, film and other media such as interactive media. So, I need to narrow down what I mean when I say I love art.  I should maybe say I love visual art and yet I am not a fan of conceptual or performance art.   I love the paintings created by numerous artists.  However, that is not quite true as I do not love all painting genres.  I neither find pleasure in looking at works of abstract art such as those by Kurt Schwitters nor the black lines and blocks of colour by Mondrian nor the works of abstract expressionist painters such as those by Robert Delaunay, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning nor the disturbing imagery of Francis Bacon. Having told you what I do not like I suppose I should tell you what I do like but if you have been following my blogs over the years, you will probably already know.

I love the paintings of the Dutch and Flemish Masters.  I like many of the painters of the Victorian era.  I like “busy” multi-figure paintings and love to delve into the depiction to see what is happening in narrative paintings.  I like narrative paintings which have a tale to tell or a moral to enforce.  Surprisingly, having said all that I also have a reluctant love of Surrealism and enjoy trying to figure out what the depiction is all about and what was in the painter’s mind when he or she put brush to canvas.

Dorothea Tanning with her mother, Amanda Tanning
Dorothea Tanning with her mother, Amanda Tanning, 1911

This was a somewhat long-winded introduction to today’s artist, the American Surrealist painter, printmaker, sculptor, writer, and poet, Dorothea Margaret Tanning.  Tanning was born on August 25th 1910.  She was the middle child of Andrew Tanning and Amanda Marie Tanning (née Hansen), who were of Swedish descent.  She had an elder sister Maurine and a younger sister Mary Louise.  Andrew Tanning, born Andreas Peter Georg Thaning, came alone from Skåne in the southernmost county of Sweden and settled in the conservative Midwestern town of Galesburg, Illinois.  In her memoirs Dorothea Tanning recounted that both her parents were very loving, indulgent and imaginative, the latter trait which she believed led to her creativity.  In her 2001 autobiography, Between Lives, Tanning wrote lovingly of her mother:

“…How could a tiny artist grow into a big one without the quilt of maternal love with its pattern of solace for hurts, its curving comfort, cloud-soft, its consolation for having to exist, its sweet smell?  The mother-goddess (the term would have embarrassed her), doctor and protector hovered over us in the full conviction that we were worth the trouble…”

Dorothea Tanning
Dorothea Tanning, aged 5. (1915)

By her own admission Dorothea was a small and delicate child prone to bouts of illness which often confined her to bed.  Like similar stories of young children who became well-known artists, it was this time during bed rest that she developed artistic skills and immersed herself into reading picture books.  Her favourites were the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, and the stories and colourfully mesmerising characters from Greek mythology and the Bible.  It was from the likes of these that Dorothea gained an insight of the outside world, a world free from a cosseting mother.  She would also amuse herself by the simple game of staring at patterns on the wallpaper or furnishings and allow her imagination to form images which were not real.  In a way she was slipping from the real world into an imagined parallel existence.  Maybe it was this which would eventually lead her into the world of Surrealism.

Dorothea Tanning, Galesburg High School Yearbook, Senior Year
Dorothea Tanning, Galesburg High School Yearbook, Senior Year, 1926

In 1926, aged sixteen, Dorothea Tanning graduated from Galesburg Public High School.  The following year she managed to get a part-time job at Galesburg Public Library which gave her access to a world of literature.  She termed it the House of Joy.  One of her earlier jobs was cataloguing the books with a senior assistant who decided on whether the contents were deigned immoral and unfit for minors and were marked with a red cross in the catalogue.  Dorothea said that it was then much easier to find the “best” books.  In her biography she wrote about the time at the library and how it made her consider her future:

“…Over the years, the library became my haven, its treasures slyly challenging the voice of “art” in the tug-of-war for my ambitions, its sirens singing and crying by turns, its weight crushing my famous certitudes forever…”

Some Roses and Their Phantoms, 1952 - Dorothea Tanning
Some Roses and Their Phantoms by Dorothea Tanning (1952) represents a domestic world transformed by mysterious eruptions and inhabited by unnamed creatures. The table top setting, with its crisp white tablecloth and marks of ironed folds, suggests a safe world of bourgeois ritual. A recurrent motif, the white table cloth can also be found in other works of the same period. 

In 1928 she enrolled at Knox College in Galesburg and remained there for two years.  In 1930 she quit the college in order to pursue an artistic career and set off for Chicago under the guise of meeting up with a friend.  She had surreptitiously packed a trunk with her belongings which she left in her bedroom and later, once in Chicago, asked her parents to forward it to her !

Chicago at the time of Dorothea’s arrival, was a city in the grip of Prohibition, jazz-filled nightclubs and violent gang wars.  She lodged with an ex-library colleague.  She revelled in the nightlife of the Windy City and began a relationship with the writer, Homer Shannon.  To earn a living, she took on a number of jobs including waitressing at the Colonial Room.  She operated marionettes in the 1933 Chicago World Fair.  She must have accumulated some money as she loved to travel going to New Orleans in 1934 where she exhibited some of her watercolours. 

December 1936 newspaper cuttings about the Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism exhibition. 

She also made a number of trips to New York searching for work as a commercial artist and during one visit in 1936 visited the Museum of Modern Art to see the Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism exhibition.  The exhibition was rife with controversy and provoked fierce reactions from battling factions among the Dadaists and the Surrealists.  The press release by MOMA identified Surrealism and Dadaism as such:

“…”Surrealism, which developed in Paris around 1924, was the direct descendent of the Dadaist interest in the bizarre, the spontaneous, and the anti-rational. But while the Surrealist program carried on the iconoclasm of Dada it added serious research into subconscious images, dreams, visions, automatic and psychoanalytic drawings. Surrealism, so far as its serious adherents are concerned, is more than a literary or an art movement: it is a philosophy, a way of life, a cause which has involved some of the most brilliant painters and poets of our age…”

In a later interview Dorothea said of the exhibition:

“…For me it was the revelation, and I wasn’t the only one.  I would even say that most American artists – as well as poets – were deeply affected by that explosive event.  So, I became more impatient than ever – I just had to live in Paris…”

Once again in her autobiography Dorothea was certain that what she saw at the exhibition at the MOMA was a turning point in her artistic life.  She wrote:

“…Here, gathered inside an innocent concrete building, are signposts so imperious, so laden, so seductive and yes, so perverse that, like the insidious revelations of the Galesburg Public Library, they would possess me utterly…”

Deirdre
Deirdre by Dorothea Tanning (1940)

Dorothea had now caught the Surrealism bug and knew to explore the genre more she had to go to Paris.  She set sail on SS. Amsterdam for the France in July 1939 with the intention of meeting some of the Surrealist artists living there but her plans were thwarted by the onset of the Second World War.  Artists had hurriedly escaped from Paris and she managed to escape France and makes her way through Holland Belgium Germany and Sweden in August to the home of her paternal relatives. From there, in October, she managed to gain passage back to America on the SS. Gripsholm.  Another artist to take flight from France and journey to America was the leader of the Surrealism Movement, German-born Max Ernst who before his salvation had been interned twice in 1939, once by the French government having been labelled an “undesirable foreigner” and once by the Gestapo but he managed to escape with the help of Peggy Guggenheim, a member of a wealthy American art collecting family, and the journalist Varian Fry. 

Dorothea Tanning, Music Hath Charms. 1940.
Music Hath Charms by Dorothea Tanning (1940)

Once back home in New York, Dorothea Tanning sought employment as a commercial artist and for a time worked on the advertisements for Macy’s department store, producing adverts for perfumery products, clothing and accessories.  She continued with her own art and in 1940 produced a small painting entitled Music Hath Charms.  It was the beginning of her love of Surrealism being translated into her own work.  The painting depicts a young girl, dressed in red, playing the piano formed by the roots of one of two large trees which act as a frame for the scene.  She has long blonde hair which runs down her back.  Look at the background and at first it seems to be just a snow-capped mountain but with closer inspection it is the gigantic wave of a stormy sea in which we see a sinking tall ship.  The terrifying sight of the doomed ship is in stark contrast with the pastoral scene of the middle-ground with the grazing sheep and yet there is more.  Look carefully at the dark brown/olive hills which divide the space between the sheep-grazing field and the wild stormy sea.  It is the prone body of a hybrid beast, part human in the shape of a woman’s body and part animal being the face of a wild cat. Again it, like the sea and the fields, is the juxtaposition of human and animal.  The creature stares at the girl as if mesmerised by the sound of the music.  The depiction implies that the melodious sounds emanating from the piano is causing a metamorphosis in the landscape with the creature materialising from the “softened rocks”.

Portrait of Julien Levy by Jay Leyda (c.1932)

In 1942 after an up-and-down relationship and short marriage to Homer Shannon, the pair split up and Dorothea concentrated on her art and immersed herself in the artistic community and became great friends with Julien Levy, a gallery owner who offered her an exhibition at his gallery once she had built up a sizeable collection.  Levy had opened his new gallery in midtown Manhattan in November 1931 with a photography exhibition that included works by his friend and mentor, Alfred Stieglitz. As selling photographs became more difficult Levy shifted his gallery’s focus to Surrealism and to showing the work of artists like Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Man Ray and Joseph Cornell.

In May 1942 Julien Levy invited Dorothea Tanning to one of his afternoon soirees held in his Chelsea apartment.  Dorothea remembered stepping into Levy’s apartment and at that party, seeing her future road map lying before her:

“…A May afternoon as only May afternoons can be in the city.   And an apartment in Chelsea, all dark woof and those slated shutters peculiar to old New York.  A Recamier sofa, an iron sleigh-bed breathing Paris, a Bellmer doll, the Duchamp window and scattered everywhere, objects, pictures, books and more pictures.  Indeed, coming time, you were overwhelmed with vertigo that it was hard to register Julien’s easy, smiling introductions to – as I remember them – Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Kurt Seligmann, Kay Sage, Bob Motherwell with beauteous wife, Maria, Virgil Thomson, Max Ernst, Consuelo de Saint-Exupery, Peggy Guggenheim, Sylvia Marlowe, Max Ernst……Doesn’t the repetition say it all?  Because quite simply, this was a new door for me to open, and it was Julien Levy who held the key, who did it all, not deliberately – he didn’t believe in plans – who very nonchalantly launched my art and found me a life companion…”

………………………………….to be continued.

Most of the information in my blogs about Dorothea Tanning come from the excellent 2020 biography of the artist, entitled Dorothea Tanning: Transformations by Victoria Carruthers.

Many pictures of Dorothea came from the Dorothea Tanning Organisation website

The Talented Paxtons

 

William McGregor Paxton and his wife, Elizabeth Okie Paxton

William McGregor Paxton

Elizabeth Okie Paxton

 

 

 

 

 

 

       William McGregor Paxton                                               Elizabeth Okie Paxton

My blog today features an artistically talented husband and wife who were born in America in the late nineteenth century.  Let me acquaint you with Mr William “Bill” McGregor Paxton and his wife Mrs Elizabeth “Betty”  Okie Paxton.

     

Portraits by William Mc Gregor Paxton of his father and mother (1902)

William McGregor Paxton was born in Baltimore on June 22nd 1869.  He was the only child of James Paxton and Rose Doherty Paxton, a daughter of Irish immigrants.  The family left Baltimore before William’s teenage years and settled in Newton Corner, a village just west of Boston, where his father set up a baking and catering business.  Whilst at school, William became interested in art and became a very proficient painter, so much so, whilst still at the suburban high school he was accepted into the Cowles Art School in Boston which was one of the largest art schools in the city.  Cowles Art School offered instruction in figure drawing and painting from the flat cast and life, artistic anatomy, perspective, and composition, painting still life, drawing, and painting the head from life, drawing still life, oil and water colours. He studied with the American Impressionist Dennis Miller Bunker, a friend of John Singer Sargent, who was the chief instructor of figure and cast drawing, artistic anatomy, and composition at the school.  Bunker was so impressed by the work produced by Paxton that he persuaded him to travel to Paris to further his artistic tuition.

paxtoninstudio

In the Studio by William McGregor Paxton (1905)

From this Boston art school, William Paxton travelled to Paris in 1889 and studied at the Académie Julian.  Later he transferred to the government run, prestigious all male, art establishment, École des Beaux-Arts and studied under the French Academic painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme in his Paris atelier. William Paxton remained in Paris for four years and did not return to America until 1893.  On his return, William returned to the Cowles School and studied with Joseph DeCamp and became a junior instructor.   Around the same time, Elizabeth Vaughn Okie was also studying art at the Cowles Art School, under Ernest Lee Major and Joseph Rodefer DeCamp. 

Elizabeth Okie Paxton

Elizabeth Okie Paxton

Elizabeth Okie was born into a well-to-do family on March 17th, 1878 in Providence, Rhode Island.  She was the daughter of Dr. Howard Okie who had studied medicine in Germany and Elizabeth Coleridge Vaughn whose family were stockbrokers and bankers.  Elizabeth had a younger sister, Adele. Both Elizabeth and Adele were home-schooled by a governess which gives you an idea as to the financial status of the family.    While Adele loved music, Elizabeth loved her art and her parents enrolled her at Cowles Art School when she was sixteen-years-old.   One of her tutors at Cowles Art School was William Paxton during his brief tenure teaching at the school.  Love blossomed between teacher and pupil despite a nine-year age difference and in 1896, she and William became engaged. 

My Wife, Elizabeth (Wedding Portrait of Elizabeth Okie Paxton) (1899).

On January 3rd, 1899, just a few months before her twenty-first birthday, the couple married.  The long length of the engagement could well have been down to Elizabeth’s well-off parents being concerned with the future financial prospects of their future son-in-law.  After their marriage, William and Elizabeth lived with his parents at 43 Elmwood Street, and later bought a house at 19 Montvale Road in Newton Centre, one of a number of villages within the city of Newton in Middlesex County, Massachusetts.  William Paxton would continue to commute daily into Boston.

Elizabeth Vaughan Okie by William McGregor Paxton (1894)

In the collection of the Boston Athenæum’s is one of the earliest portraits of Elizabeth by her husband which he completed in 1894.  It is thought that it may have been painted specifically for her. It is fortunate that the work still survives as most of Paxton’s early paintings were destroyed in a studio fire in 1904, making this a rare survivor from that period of his professional life.

In 1906, now back in Massachusetts, William joined the faculty of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as an instructor and became friends of Frank Weston Benson, head of the Painting department and the Impressionist painter, Edmund Tarbell.  These three artists and art educators believed passionately in teaching art and conveyed to their students an in-depth understanding of painting methods and composition. All three of them had studied at the Parisian art academies where demanding technical classes were coupled with an intensive study of the most well-known painters of the past. For them it was important to try and convey to their students what it was about the great paintings of the past that made them timeless.  William Paxton summed it up, saying:

“…Other people can look at pictures just for the pleasure they get out of them. We painters, when we are on the job, must always be looking to see how they achieve their effect. Just as an actor, when he goes to the theatre, never loses sight of the scenery, lighting, pulleys, gestures and tricks of inflection, the sum of which stirs the audience, so we painters must always be watching to discover the procedures by which the great masters produced beauty…”

Art of Impressionist Painter William McGregor Paxton

La Russe by William McGregor Paxton (1913)

William Paxton, along with Edmund C. Tarbell and Frank Weston Benson, was one of the founding members of a group of Boston-based painters active in the first three decades of the twentieth century, known as the Boston School.   Their preferred subject matter was of a genteel nature such as portraiture, picturesque landscapes, and young women posing in well-appointed interiors. They were influenced by artists such as John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet, and Jan Vermeer.  The Guild of Boston Artists was established in 1914 by the three artists and was created to be an artist-owned and artist-operated gallery. With the mission of promoting both emerging and established artists living in the region, the Guild developed a reputation for excellence in quality and presentation.

Elizabeth Okie Paxton featured in a number of her husband’s paintings.  One such example was his 1906 work entitled The Red Fan.

The Red Fan by William McGregor Paxton (1906)

The Red Fan (Portrait of Mrs Paxton) by William McGregor Paxton (1906)

Paxton had been brought up in a middle-class background and was well aware of Society’s hierarchical rules.  On getting back to America from his time in France William Paxton completed a number of paintings which featured the domestic opulence of the upper-class. His favoured depictions were those of composed females of the leisure class, often his patron’s wives, often with their domestic servants, with sumptuous backdrops of richly decorated interiors.  He was an important genre and portrait painter in the Beaux Arts style. 

paxtonfigurine

The Figurine by William McGregor Paxton (1921)

The females that featured in his genre and portraiture varied from dowagers and schoolgirls to servants, and his paintings helped identify idealized female roles of upper-class New Englanders at the beginning of the twentieth century.  It was all about female beauty and elegance which was in stark contrast to the work of the Ashcan School painters of New York who featured the gritty, and unglamorous realities of city life, often featuring New York women wandering down busy streets, flirting openly, and willingly catching the eye of passing strangers.  Paxton’s females oozed confidence and a sensual wistfulness but at the same time exuded demureness and respectability in stark contrast to the vulnerable yet gregarious Ashcan School’s women

William McGregor Paxton (1869–1941), Tea Leaves (1909),

Tea Leaves by William McGregor Paxton (1909)

A fine example of this is his 1909 painting entitled Tea Leaves.  We see two well-dressed young women taking tea together. The woman in the blue-trimmed hat looks closely at the leaves at the bottom of her cup, which was a popular way of telling one’s fortune. 

William McGregor Paxton (1869–1941), The String of Pearls (1908

The String of Pearls by William Mc Gregor Paxton (1908)

His 1908 painting String of Pearls was another work which portrayed a sophisticated and cultured female enjoying a period of leisure, studying her pearl necklace.  Paxton often depicted ladies with expensive and beautiful accoutrements in luxurious settings.  For affluent male observers of Paxton’s works, it was if it were not just the furnishings and the jewellery which were items they would like to possess, but it was also the females themselves.

 

paxtonwomanwithbook

Woman with Book by William McGregor Paxton (1910)

Like many of his Boston colleagues, Paxton was influenced by the work of the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Paxton was fascinated not only with Vermeer’s imagery, but also with the system of optics he employed. He studied Vermeer’s works closely and discovered that only one area in his compositions was entirely in focus, while the rest were somewhat blurred. Paxton called it “binocular vision,” crediting Vermeer with recording the slightly different point of view of each individual eye that combine in human sight.  His painting, Woman with Book, we see the sunlight beaming through the window at the left, a woman (who even looks like one of Vermeer’s models) stands and reads a large book, with a painting on the wall behind her. The optical focus of the work appears to be the purse which the woman holds high against her left shoulder. 

The New Necklace by William Paxton (1910)

William Paxton began to use this system in his own work, including his narrative painting The New Necklace, where only the gold beads are sharply defined while the rest of the objects in the composition have softer, blurrier edges.  The New Necklace, which he completed in 1910, is one of Paxton’s best-known paintings.  It is an intriguing work and we are made to wonder what is going on.  In the depiction, we see a younger woman, dressed in fashionably coloured clothes, sitting at a narrow bureau writing. She has turned her chair so that she can reach behind and hold out her left hand to receive the new necklace mentioned in the title. The jewellery is being placed into her hand by a slightly older woman, in a drabber dark blue-green dress.  She rests her chin on her left hand.  She purposefully does not make eye contact with the seated woman.  What is going on?  We, the observer, are provoked to use our imagination as to what is taking place in front of us.  There is obviously an air of subservience between the standing and seated woman but how does the handing over of the jewellery come into the story.  What hold does the seated woman have over the other?   I leave it for you to decide.

Nude by William Paxton

Nude by William McGregor Paxton (1915)

This blurring effect can be seen again in Paxton’s 1915 painting simply entitled Nude, which is part of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts collection. In the depiction, we sees a young woman seated on a blue dress that is spread across the seat of a backless divan. She leans to the right as she reaches out for her pink underwear.  We observe the woman partly from the back and partly from the side.  Paxton has slightly blurred all the items in the room and the woman herself with the exception of her right breast and parts of her right arm.  From seeing the props used in this painting in other of his works, we know they are part of the trappings of his studio.

The Beach at Chatham by William Paxton (c.1915)

The Beach at Chatham by William McGregor Paxton (1915)

Paxton completed a number of landscape paintings such as his 1915 work Beach at Chatham.  Chatham is a town in Barnstable County, Massachusetts, located at the southeast tip of Cape Cod.  It is an unusual painting format with a low horizon line and seven-eighths of the work taken with the sky.   The result being the minute figures of those people on the shore.  However, the unusual format gives us, mere mortals, the feeling of how little we matter in the Grand Plan.  When Paxton began painting The Beach at Chatham, he envisioned the same problems that confronted the first Dutch landscape painters, namely, how to perfectly balance the visual expansiveness of a seascape with the presence of the human element. Adopting an extremely low horizon line and filling seven-eighths of the canvas with sky, the beachgoers appear diminutive, allowing the artist to promote the infinite over the everyday, and create a powerful, even awe-inspiring composition.

Nausicaa by William Paxton

Nausicaä by William McGregor Paxton

William McGregor Paxton delved into mythology with his painting Nausicaä.  It is based on Homer’s story of the trials and tribulations of Odysseus on his journey back home after the fall of Troy.  Odysseus has finally escaped on a raft from the clutches of Calypso and her island of Ogygia.  The raft is wrecked in a storm inflicted by Poseidon, and Odysseus has to swim ashore on the island of the Phaeacians.  After swimming along a river estuary he manages to clamber up the banks exhausted and naked and heads into a wood, where he falls asleep.  The next morning, Nausicaä, the daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Phaeacia, and her handmaidens go to the seashore to wash clothes. Awakened by their chatter and play, Odysseus emerges from the forest completely naked, scaring the servants away, and begs Nausicaä for aid.  William Paxton’s depiction is at the point in the story when the naked Odysseus approaches Nausicaä and her handmaidens.

See the source image

Red Apples by Elizabeth Okie Paxton (1920)

Elizabeth Paxton continued with her art studies under her husband’s guidance and became known for her beautiful still life paintings and her timeless works which featured everyday domestic objects, beautifully depicted with a sensitivity to light, colour, and form.  By shifting from interior scenes to still life works, Okie Paxton avoided competing with her husband’s subjects.  Elizabeth Okie Paxton painted still life works, finding a ready market with private collectors. Unfortunately, this meant that very few of her paintings are on show to the public in a museum.

ELIZABETH VAUGHAN OKIE PAXTON (American

Copper Jug with Apples by Elizabeth Okie Paxton

Copper Jug with Apples is a still life of a table covered partly by a white tablecloth upon which a copper-handled jug, three apples and a green cup and saucer.

Continental Breakfast by Elizabeth Okie Paxton (1907)

Another of her still life works is entitled Continental Breakfast which was exhibited at Rowland’s in Boston and described on May 17, 1907, and was described as:

“…she has set forth a dainty little breakfast, daintily arranged on a crisp, clean white tablecloth; there is a silver coffee-pot, a coffee-cup and a saucer of thin white porcelain, with a light green rim, a brown breakfast roll, a dish of fruit containing a half of a grapefruit and a bunch of grapes, and a covered dish of blue and white hawthorn ware. All these things are painted with so much delicacy and loving care, they are so pretty in themselves, and they are so well related together, that it is a pleasure to look at them. It is a long time since we have seen a better piece of still life work…”

Okie Paxton utilized light, texture, and colour like that of other artists of the Boston School. 

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The Breakfast Tray by Elizabeth Okie Paxton (c.1910)

In contrast to this pure still life work she also completed another work which featured a breakfast tray.  The painting is her famous 1910 work entitled The Breakfast Tray.  The painting requests our company into a world of femininity.  What we see before us is a scene of disorder and yet highly sensual, and utterly credible. It has a personality of its own.  Before us is not a depiction of staged harmonious domesticity but one that pricks our curiosity.  It is a provocative, almost erotic narrative work and yet it is almost a still-life work.  What at first glance appears to be a simple depiction 0f morning light streaming through an unseen window.  On the left falling we see the light falling upon the silver service of a breakfast tray which has been placed on a chair next to the unmade bed.  On the tray there is a small samovar, half a grapefruit, a bread roll, and a porcelain mug and jug.

Look at the artists depiction of light and shade.  See how the morning light bounces of the highly polished wooden leg and spindles of the Windsor chair.  It is still early morning and the sun has yet to rise high in the sky and so we see deep shadows under the shoes and along the rails of the chair as well as the space under the bed.  The bedding is rumpled.  A dressing gown has almost slid from the bed.  The lace-trimmed sheets and pillow, still with the marked impression of the sleeper’s head who has now risen and vacated the bedroom and it is all those aspects which prevent it being a still-life and steer it towards a narrative work.  So, what is going on?   The pillows on the bed are intimately close.  On the footboard of the bed there is another item of clothing. What is it?  Maybe another robe or a pair of trousers.  The more we stare and seek out minute details the more we become a voyeur.  A rumpled bed and abandoned shoes allow our mind to race towards the sexual nature of the scene and yet our erotic thoughts are dampened when we realise the breakfast tray is set for just one person.  Who brought the tray to the sleeping person – a servant, a lover?  Where has everybody gone? 

Elizabeth Okie Paxton's Sick a-Bed

Sick-a-bed by Elizabeth Okie Paxton (1916)

A similar setting can be seen in her 1916 painting entitled Sick a-bed. The painting was bought by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  Academy officials said that the work would serve to bolster the museum’s effort to build its contemporary holdings and add to its growing body of art by women.

Is this all just a figment of my imagination and yet I say to you never just flick your gaze over a work of art, study it and imagine what was in the artist’s mind when they put brush to canvas and the painting makes us want to know more about the artist who created it.  What little we know about her is that Elizabeth Okie Paxton enjoyed a harmonious marriage, who would selflessly endorse her husband’s career.  They loved and respected each other.  She was a beautiful woman who also served as her husband’s muse, and often modelled for many of his paintings.  Although she painted The Breakfast Tray which some considered a risqué work, she enjoyed painting less controversial still life works. She and her husband were not blessed with children and consequently her life was devoted to both her and her husband’s art. She continued to manage her husband’s business affairs after his death with correspondence regarding his art estate until 1970, apparently paying even more attention to his posthumous career than her own active one. Of course, this leads to the obvious question – could she have been better known as a painter had she not married William? On the other hand, if she had not married William Paxton would she have missed meeting influential people and teachings that subsequently propelled her own development?   It is just the age-old question “what if?”

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The House Maid by William McGregor Paxton(1910)

Over the decades that followed, both William and Elizabeth became successful artists, William best known as an accomplished portrait painter who painted two US presidents, Grover Cleveland and Calvin Coolidge and Elizabeth gained fame as a painter of still-lifes and interiors.  William Paxton was made a full member of the National Academy of Design in 1928.  He was working on his last painting, a view of his living room at 19 Montvale Road, with his wife posing for him, when he was stricken with a heart attack and died in 1941, at the age of 72.  After her husband’s death Elizabeth once again gave up her own art to focus on promoting her husband’s art and legacy.

Elizabeth Okie Paxton died on April 2, 1972 in Boston, aged 94.

 

John Koch. Part 3.

                                                                        Interlude by John Koch (1963)

Dora featured in many of her husband’s paintings.  One such is his 1963 work entitled Interlude.  In a way it is a narrative painting recounted a day of painting for the artist.  Here we glimpse artist John Koch in his apartment studio with an African American model, said to be one of is favourites.  She dominates the foreground of the painting.  The contrast between the colour of her dark ebony skin, the white bed sheets, and the vibrant red robe of the third person in the painting make for a great contrast.  The shape of her graceful back echoes the lines of the nearby Queen Anne style chair.  The African American model, Rosetta Howard, dominates the foreground as Koch depicts her dark velvety back against the white bed sheet and the vibrant red robe of the third person in the painting, John Koch’s wife, Dora, who offers the model a cup of tea. The three figures neither engage with the viewer, nor do they engage in eye contact with each other.  The artist fixates on his partially completed canvas.  The artist’s wife in the red gown avoids looking at the naked body of the model, who in turn concentrates her gaze on the cup and saucer.  So, like other paintings by Koch, the figures and furniture have been set by the artist.  What are we to make of the depiction?  Is it just a simple portrayal of an artist and the model taking a break from their work or is it something more?  Could it be John Koch wanting to highlight a contentious role reversal – a white woman in 1963 serving a black woman !

                                                        The Breakfast Tray by John Kotch (1970)

Dora Koch appeared in the same red dress in her husband’s 1970 painting entitled The Breakfast Tray.  For John and Dora, breakfast on a tray was a daily ritual.  In this work we see the tray laden with their finest china.  The setting for the painting is the hallway of their Setauket, Long Island house.  John holds the tray in front of himself and it appears to be an offering to his elegantly robed wife who is mounting the stairs.

Photography by Dwight Primiano
                                                              Studio – End of the Day by John Koch

Rosetta Howard appeared in a number of John Koch’s paintings including His work, Studio – End of the Day in which artist and model finally take a rest from painting and posing.

Artwork Title: The Lesson - Artist Name: John Koch
                                                                            The Lesson by John Koch (1970)

Another painting to feature his wife was John Koch’s 1970 work entitled The Lesson in which we see Dora giving one of her piano lessons.

John Koch (1909-1978) Summer Night 78 x 44in (198.1 x 111.8cm) (Painted in 1965.)
                                                      Summer Night by John Koch (1965)

John Koch was known for his sophisticated and stylish depictions of trendy life in and around New York City. His 1965 painting, Summer Night, is a perfect example of the genre.  It was painted on a monumental scale (198 x 112 cms) and highlights Koch’s dextrous skill for assembling figures so as to highlight the interactions and intrigue between his subjects. The scene in this painting is set in the evening on a front porch of a wealthy home with people relaxing after drinks and a meal.  The scene exudes a laid-back and tranquil elegance of a family gathering on a warm evening.  Note how Koch has carefully arranged the props which translate into fastidiously arranged still life elements of the work.  The painting was first exhibited at the Kraushaar Galleries. His time working with the gallery brought him great commercial success for the remainder of his career.  The painting was last sold in 2020 at Bonhams, New York Auction for US$ 162,575

                                                                   The Sculptor by John Koch (1964)

There were a number of paintings by Koch that depicted both artist and sitter and one of my favourites is his painting entitled The Sculptor.  It is a quasi-self portrait with John Koch as the sculptor, surrounded by the tools of his craft, including a caliper, which he is holding – in fact, one should remember that John Koch was not only a painter but a sculptor.  The model in this work was Ernest Ulmer, one of Dora’s former student who was also the subject of Interior of Studio. Ulmer is painted in full view from the back, his muscular body extended in a classic pose.  The sculpture painted in the background was one that he had made. It is a scene from Greek mythology, with Hercules and Prometheus, a mythological individual who stole fire from the gods to bring it to humans. Koch has added a touch of humour to the depiction with the visual pun between that tale from Greek mythology and the depiction in the painting of the model handing a light to the sculptor for his cigarette.  In the painting we see Koch leaning forward with the cigarette in his mouth, and the flame from the lighter held by the model is cleverly reflected in his glasses, as if extending the spark to the man himself.

The Plasterers1957x633
                                                                       The Plasterers by John Koch (1957)

In 1967 John Koch completed one of his most important paintings.  It was entitled The Plasterers.   The two men have come to Koch’s apartment to make good repairs to the walls.  In the background there is a bank of windows, some of which are open.   Look through the windows and you can see that Koch has managed to depict a panoramic skyline, probably a view of the Hudson River from his apartment window at the El Dorado building at 300 Central Park West of the Hudson River.  In the left foreground there is once again depicted Koch’s sculpture, Prometheus, which we saw in his painting, The Sculptor.   Through the windows streams the daylight which dances on the highly polished floor and furniture. 

See the source image
                                             Gustave Caillebotte’s 1875 painting The Floor Scrapers

For some reason, it is this shiny wooden floor which always reminds me of Gustave Caillebotte’s 1875 painting The Floor Scrapers which depicts three workers scraping a wooden floor in a bourgeois apartment.   On May 9, 2009 at the Brunk Auctions in Asheville, North Carolina, the painting, along with six preparatory sketches for the painting, sold for $210,000.  The painting was shown at two major Koch exhibitions. The first in 1973 at the New York Cultural Centre. The second was in 2001-2002 at the New York Historical Society.   The New York Historical Society’s 2001 exhibition catalogue described the painting as:

“…a tour de force of (the artist’s) ability to bring the outside into an interior through reflection of light playing off surfaces…”

See the source image
                                                  The Window Washers by John Koch (1975)

Another painting featuring two workers in the setting of John and Dora’s apartment is the 1975 work entitled The Window Washers.

Artwork by John Koch, THE ACCIDENT NO. 2, Made of oil on canvas
                                                     The Accident No.2 by John Koch (1968)

Another unusual work by Koch was his 1968 painting entitled The Accident. No.2.  It is a narrative work.  In the depiction we are looking into the small artist’s studio, which could also act as the artist’s bedroom.  The props set up by John Koch are a small single-bed with ruffled sheets, a discarded red silk robe, a pair of bedroom slippers which have been casually abandoned, a hand-mirror propped on the rim of a waste.  The window is partially covered by a curtain pulled back and of course the artist’s workstation with his easel, canvas, and palette. The artist and his naked model have rushed to the window to view what is happening outside.  By the title of the painting the artist is telling us that they are looking out at an accident which has happened in the street below.  The model is pointing down to something in the road below which he is straining to see.  It is an unusual scenario as most depictions of artist and model focus on the single-minded concentration of the artist as he studies his absolutely motionless model.  Here the commotion outside has broken the spell of their sensual assignation.

                                                                                Night by John Koch (1964)

In his 1964 painting, Night, John Koch has presented us with the contrast of warmth and coolness.  The coolness of the bodies now divested of clothes and yet the oppressive heat and humidity of a New York summer night when one tries desperately to be able to sleep.  John liked the setting of his painting describing it:

“…a picture of a young couple before they go to bed at night, which I think is as splendid an idea for a picture as any could be…”

The woman has fallen asleep whilst the man bides his time by reading a newspaper.  Besides him the light from a lamp on the bedside table glows through his newspaper.  The bottom of the bed and the white sheets have been illuminated by the soft blue glow of a television which is on a stand at the end of their bed.

Artwork Title: The Bath - Artist Name: John Koch
                                                                            The Bath by John Koch (1973)

John Koch whose oeuvre contained a large number of nude depictions of couples or a single male or a single female.  He was adamant that the depictions were not envisioned to be erotic, even when they depicted couples in bed. If you look over the depictions featuring a male and a female in bed they are not in the middle of lovemaking but simply relaxing, even though it may be in a post-coital state.  The pair who could be lovers or married couples show neither indication of sexual stimulation, lustful craving nor agitated signs of conflict.  There is a kind of neutrality with regards the couple’s personal thoughts.  Koch’s agenda seemed to be one that was to offer viewers a normal heterosexual relationship – one of idyllic well-being, a sense of happiness unsullied by lust or anguish. In his 1973 painting, The Bath, we see a man drying himself on the edge of a tub. He takes time to glance back at the woman who remains in the water. In contrast to his rough and hirsute muscular and bronzed body hers is smooth, pale, and supple.

                                                    Back Scratcher by John Koch 

John Koch became an elected member of the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1970. Five years later, he suffered a stroke and abandoned painting for the first time since his youth. John Koch died on April 18th 1978 from complications of another stroke.  He was 78.  His wife Dora died on September 9th 1987 aged 83.  John Koch’s art was dismissed by the more progressive art scene as just a society painter and was little known outside his circle of wealthy, connected patrons. However, he managed to capture scenes of a New York society that is mostly gone now and therefore many of his paintings were a historical record of a world which was more formal and refined.  His often stage-managed art is classed as being of a realism genre and yet the depictions of opulence were tinged by an element of fantasy.  Maybe it is a fantasy we all hold dear.

John Koch. Part 2.

                                                             The Monument by John Koch (1950)

John Koch’s reputation was further enhanced in 1950, when his painting The Monument was exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s national competitive exhibition American Painting Today.

                                                       The iconic El Dorado Apartments, Manhattan

In 1953 John and Dora spent five months in Paris and on their return to New York they moved into a fourteen-room apartment on the tenth floor at the El Dorado at 300 Central Park West, one of the twin-towered pre-war apartment buildings that presents such an iconic and distinctive vista on the Central Park West skyline. It was whilst living here that John and Dora became one of the uptown bohemian set which also included an ever-expanding number of Upper West Side artists, writers, and musicians.  A short time later, the couple purchased the adjacent apartment on their floor to be used as Dora’s music studio, where she continued her practice as a private tutor.

                                              Forbes family portrait by John Koch (1956)

Portraiture had always been a financially rewarding genre for artists and so it was for John Koch.  His forte was group portraits and in 1956 he completed a group portrait for Malcolm Forbes, an American entrepreneur most prominently known as the publisher of Forbes magazine.  It is a very informal depiction of the family.  Malcolm Forbes relaxes at home shortly after the birth of a new daughter, Moira.  We see Malcolm and his wife, who cradles the baby, along with their four sons, Steve (Malcolm Jnr)., Robert, Christopher, and Timothy. It is interesting to note Koch’s methodology in how he paints group portraits.  He would make studies of each individual, then to join these studies as a group against the backdrop of a chosen interior. He stated:

“…In all the pictures, the models never pose together.  What is more important than whether there is or is not someone posing for you is the relationship between them…”

John Koch carefully arranged where each person would stand or sit in the portraits just as he would when arranging the objects in the still life and interiors he painted. He was ultra-meticulous when considering where people and objects were placed.  It was if he was an interior designer.  This painstaking thoroughness was also a reflection of his own lifestyle in the way he dressed, the way he carefully chose his circle of cultured friends and acquaintances, and what fine art and antiques he would bring into his tastefully appointed apartment which he shared with his wife, Dora.  Leslie Cheek Jnr., Director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, between 1948 and 1968, wrote about John Koch’s interior depictions:

“…His pictures of his particular slice of our world today are vigorous and appealing. One enjoys with him his love of fine furniture, elegant mirrors, rich fabrics, and fresh flowers-all glowing with the individual reflections which light, his particular forte, gives to each…”

Artwork Title: The Cocktail Party - Artist Name: John Koch
                                                            The Cocktail Party by John Koch (1956)

For some, Koch’s depiction of afternoon soirées are too good to be true, but does it matter?  Maybe Koch had decided to pictorially represent how life should be rather than how it was.   Probably his best-known painting is his 1956 work entitled The Cocktail Party.  It never happened but it was a depiction of what Koch imagined what a great soirée would have been and the guests he would have invited.  Koch described his social circle as:

“…people of our own making, our own way of looking at things…”

The attendees at this party were all acquaintances of the John and Dora Koch in the mid-1950s and as I explained before, Koch’s modus operandi was to paint each individual separately and then fit them into the painting which was set in his living room at the El Dorado where John and Dora were the consummate hosts.

Artwork Title: The Cocktail Party - Artist Name: John Koch

The characters in the work are Leo Lerman (author and editor), in the foreground in profile (with dark beard) conversing with pianist Ania Dorfmann. The other guests, left to right, are artist Roger Baker, artist and critic Maurice Grosser, the Dr. Leonard Smileys, the painter John Koch, standing at the bar, busy mixing drinks, Mrs. Edgar Feder, an unidentified woman, composer Virgil Thomson (composer), music critic Noel Straus, Dora Koch seen standing and bending forward to attend to the seated music critic Noel Strauss. , an unknown seated woman, artist Felicia Meyer Marsh, artist Aaron Shikler, art dealer Roy Davis, butler Leroy Lowry, artist Raphael Soyer, and biographer Frances Winwar.  The painting was John’s idea of the perfect guest list for his perfect party.  He liked the painting so much that it remained in his possession for the rest of his life.

                                                                 Three Musicians by John Koch (1958)

It is fascinating to view some of Koch’s paintings which feature interiors once you realise he has stage managed the depiction.  It is as if in Koch’s life as in his art, his and Dora’s apartment simply acted as the stage for a play-in-progress.  The props in the form of furniture and wall hangings were, like the figures, merely theatrical props, and John, with the help of Dora, was the director and often the lead actor.  In his 1958 painting entitled Three Musicians there are three “actors”. There is the artist’s wife, Dora, as well as Leo Lerman, an American writer and editor who worked for Condé Nast Publications for more than 50 years, who is shown seated closest to the cello. The model for the third figure in the white shirt is probably Paul Rotella, who, like Dora Koch, was a pianist and music teacher.

                                                 Family Group by John Koch

I also like his “stage-managed” family portrait simply entitled Family Group.  Such a happy family gathering of husband, wife and two sons.  So contented in a sumptuously furnished room.  Everything is placed just so to give the observer a view of a perfect lifestyle.  For John and Dora Koch, paintings like this were just a chance to construct a perfect lifestyle, a world of their own conception.

                                                                              At Home by John Koch (1953)

John and Dora’s lifestyle was one of afternoon cocktails, musical recitals in their large living room and eagerly expected painting unveilings but they still had to be financially sound and this was achieved by Dora’s musical tutorials and John’s commissioned portraits.  Let us not think for one moment that the Koch’s elegant lifestyle was achieved without hard work by the couple.  It was their dedication to the arts, painting for John, music for Dora that gave them the greatest pleasure.  We should also remember that the couple came from completely different upbringings.  John was the son of liberal Midwesterners.  His mother was of Irish descent who had a non-religious epiphany and left the church after her son’s baptism while his father, albeit a charismatic man was a business failure and later a political failure when he failed in all his attempts to become governor of Michigan on the Socialist ticket. On the other hand, Dora Zaslavsky was a Jewish immigrant, born in the Ukraine, whose father’s early occupation was that of a poverty-stricken peddler.

                                                                       My Studio by John Koch (1952)

The closeness of the couple and the way they worked hand in hand can be seen in John Koch’s 1952 painting My Studio.   A nude model looks out at us as she reclines on a chaise longue.  John is perched upon a stool in front of his easel.  A trolly holds his palette whilst on the shelves underneath it is all the oils and paraphernalia needed by the artist.  Dora, holding a book of sheet music, stares out at the river scene.  All is serene.  It is a truly untroubled and harmonious life. 

John Koch (1909-1978) Siesta 30 1/8 x 25 1/4in (76.5 x 64.1cm) (Painted in 1962.)
                                                                  Siesta by John Koch (1962)

John Koch’s art was not just depictions of wealthy people living in opulent settings.  Many of his works featured nudes, sometimes nude women, sometimes nude men and sometimes both.  These like his group portraits were beautifully finished works of art.  In 1962 he completed a work entitled Siesta which focused on human sexuality and the intricacies and complications of the male-female relationship.  We see two figures, one, a nude female with her back to us, sitting in a chair at a desk brushing her hair.  She is glancing in the mirror at her lover who lies asleep on the bed.  We can just make out her flushed face, flushed from her early lovemaking.  The other figure, her lover, is partly wrapped in a blue sheet, which is raked by the afternoon sunlight which has penetrated the bedroom.  The large bed is centre stage of the painting.   The depiction exudes an air of intimacy.  It is not a condemnation of sexual activity but an at-ease acknowledgement of a tender relationship and the pleasurable sensuality of sex.   Koch has composed his two figures in an idyllic state, contentedly relaxing in warm light that spills through the windows. 

Time Magazine, January 24, 1964, vol. 83, no. 4, front cover illustration featuring Siesta painting by John Koch

The work of art, through its domestic bedroom scene depicts the complexities of the male-female relationship. John Koch’s painting was chosen for the cover of Time Magazine in 1964 for a special issue entitled SEX in the U.S.: Mores & Morality, accompanied by an article Morals: The Second Sexual Revolution which ended with the following paragraph:

“…The difference between the ’20s and ’60s comes down, in part, to a difference between people. The rebels of the ’20s had Victorian parents who laid down a Victorian law; it was something concrete and fairly well-defined to rise up against. The rebels of the ’60s have parents with only the tattered remnants of a code, expressed for many of them in Ernest Hemingway’s one-sentence manifesto: “What is moral?…”

The painting went to auction at Bonhams American Art Sale on July 29th, 1962 and although had an estimate of between $40,000 and $60,000 it eventually sold for $596,075 !   Jennifer Jacobsen, Bonhams’ Director of American Art, commented:

 “…We are thrilled with the success of our most recent sale of American Art. We saw competitive bidding across all of the genres offered in the category, demonstrating collectors’ demand for quality works and the strength of the current market. We are honoured to have achieved such a strong price for John Koch’s elegant, beautifully painted work Siesta, which is now his second highest price at auction and a near miss of his world auction record…”

……………………………..to be concluded.

John Koch. Part 1.

                                                               John Koch

The artist I am looking at today is the twentieth century American painter John Koch.  I will also look at the life he had with his extremely musically talented wife Dora.  Both their successes came from hard work and their mutual support of each other.  For them, it was hard work that achieved you a grand lifestyle which the couple enjoyed during their married life.  He is best known for his portraits, nudes, and paintings of genteel urban interiors, often set in his own light-filled Manhattan apartment.

See the source image
                                                  Portrait of the Artist’s Father by John Koch (1951)

John Koch was the son of Marian Joan and Edward John Koch and was born in his grandmother’s house in Toledo, Ohio on August 18th, 1909.   He spent most of his childhood and teenage years in the university town of Ann Arbor, a city in the U.S. state of Michigan, where his father was in the furniture business but unfortunately, failed to make a success of it.  John Koch described his father as a man of great charm, a great reader, but a poor businessman.  His father also unsuccessfully ran for governor of Michigan on the Socialist ticket.

In his early teens John Koch developed a love of art and, later in life, he revealed in an interview:

“…The possibility of being other than a painter never seriously occurred to me. Ever since I could hold a pencil, the desire I had to reproduce amounted to passion…”

In 1923, at the age of 14, John, for a short period, took some lessons in drawing in charcoal and that was essentially the only formal art training he received. During high school, he did however spend two summer vacations at the artists’ colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and around 1928, shortly after graduation he sailed to Paris, not to enroll at an artistic establishment, but to simply paint by himself and savour the life of an artist in the European capital of art.   His self-tuition focused on going to the Louvre and copying the work of the Masters.  According to John, the Louvre was his master.  John became so skilled at copying the famous works that he once produced an imitation of a painting by Gustave Courbet that was subsequently mistaken for a genuine work.  In 1929, Koch exhibited his work at the Salon des Tuileries and the Salon de Printemps and received an honourable mention, which was to be the first of his many awards.

Artwork Title: Father and Son - Artist Name: John Koch
                                                         Father and Son by John Koch (1955)

In his early twenties, John Koch joined the Internationale Union des Intellectuals, where he mixed with such luminaries as André Gide, the French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, André Malraux, the French novelist, art theorist, who later became Minister of Cultural Affairs, and Jean Cocteau, the poet, playwright, novelist, designer, filmmaker, visual artist, and critic.  This group would assemble in the homes of its members and presented Koch with his first exposure to the lives of artists and intellectuals.  It also gave him the opportunity to sit in on discussions about Surrealism and, swayed by what he heard and seen, even painted a few Surrealist works himself but was unhappy with his attempts and gave up on that genre.

                                                                      The Plasterers by John Koch

John spent over four years in Paris and during that time he developed a formidable technique, evident in his beautiful rendering of light playing on surfaces.  A good example of this can be seen in his later painting, The Plasterers which he completed in 1967.  It was described in the New York Historical Society’s 2001 exhibition catalogue as:

“… a tour de force of (the artist’s) ability to bring the outside into an interior through reflection of light playing off surfaces…

The Plasterers stands among John Koch’s most important paintings.

                                                             Dora Zaslavsky Schwarz (1925)

Before John had set sail for Paris in 1928, it is thought he had met the newly married, Dora Schwartz, and was impressed by both her beauty and her talent as a pianist.  The two quickly became friends, but their mutual affinity was put on hold when John sailed for Paris, intent on pursuing his life as a painter in the world’s art capital.  Dora Schwartz (née Zaslawskaya) was a Jewish immigrant, born on July 18th 1904 in the Ukraine city of Kremenchuk in the oblast of Poltava.  Her father Max had immigrated to the United States the previous year and she then travelled by ship to a new life in America with her mother Celia and her older siblings Joseph and Fay, along with a young cousin. Another of her brothers, Israel, was born six years later.  Dora’s father’s early occupation was as a peddler and family legends has it that Dora’s musical talent was discovered thanks to a large toy piano with real black and white keys that her father brought home for her.  This was the start of her musical career !   Eventually after a lot of training, she became a gifted pianist, which led to a career as a piano teacher and she would go on to coach some of the outstanding concert pianists of the day.  Later she became head of the piano department at the Manhattan School of Music and developed its chamber music section.  On September 12th 1927, Dora Zaslawskaya, aged 23, married New Yorker Herbert S. Schwartz   Herbert was also a talented musician and his family had hoped that one day, he would become a concert pianist, a similar aspiration was had by Dora’s mother for her daughter.  Herbert Schwartz, however, chose to pursue a college education rather than continue studying music and when he and Dora married, he was beginning his third undergraduate year at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, with the hope of eventually becoming a physician. He was accepted into medical school but dropped out after one semester.  Following his rejection of medical studies, he enrolled at Columbia University the following fall to study philosophy and graduated in 1933.  By this time, the marriage between Dora Zaslavsky and Herbert Schwartz was almost over and they decided to end the relationship in an amicable divorce.  However, in the state of New York the only grounds for divorce was adultery and so in 1934 they arranged for, and staged a fraudulent act of adultery, at which the said defendant, Herbert T. Schwartz, was not even present !  The divorce decree was granted on August 10th, 1935.  There were repercussions with regards this fake adultery set up which are complicated and too long for me to go into the details but you can read about the Ohio Court of Appeal case in 1960, Schwartz v Schwartz 

                                                                       Ocean Liner SS. Minnetonka

Meanwhile, John Koch left Paris in 1934 and returned to America, settling in Manhattan, initially staying at a friend’s apartment on Washington Square.  He already knew Dora Schwartz.  He could well have met her and her husband in Paris.  They had sailed to Europe on the SS. Minnetonka on September 26th 1932.  When he settled in Manhattan in 1934 and heard about her impending divorce, he was determined to make her his wife.  John went to live in an apartment block in Manhattan at 56th & Madison, in a room next door to the apartment Dora was sharing with her sister Fay.  A year later, the couple sealed their love by marrying on December 23rd, 1935 and moved into their first “together home”, an apartment at 865 First Avenue, between 48th and 49th Streets, in Midtown Manhattan. It catered for both their needs with the bedroom served as John’s studio and the living room with piano was Dora’s studio.  The newlyweds hosted parties driven by sharp business acumen: as John served cheap port to his wife’s students and their parents, Dora worked the room, procuring portrait commissions for her husband.

Artwork Title: The Bridge - Artist Name: John Koch
                                                                               The Bridge by John Koch (1950)

In 1935 John Koch exhibited works at his first New York exhibition which was held at the Valentine Dudensing Gallery.  His work was well received and Emily Genauer, the art critic of the New York World-Telegram described John as:

“…the man to watch……a young man with a great gift…”

In 1939 John held a sell-out one man show of his works at the Kraushaar Gallery, a long-established gallery run by the niece of the founder, Antoinette M. Kraushaar.  John Koch had a special relationship with the gallery and its owners and during the next thirty-five years the Gallery held a further dozen one-man exhibitions of his work.

                                                         East River by John Koch (1939)

It was in the thirties that John’s painting East River was acquired by the Brooklyn Museum of Art and it was one the first museum acquisitions of his work.

Cover for 1941 Annual Exhibition of Paintings by American Artists Under 40 catalogue
Cover for 1941 Annual Exhibition of Paintings by American Artists Under Forty catalogue

In 1941, starting on November 12th and carrying on until December 30th, the Whitney Museum of Art held its Forty under Forty Exhibition.   It was the museum’s Annual Exhibition and that year it was an Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, chosen by members of the Museum staff from the work of artists forty years of age, or younger.  John Knox submitted two paintings, Marble Quarry and Portrait of Mary.  That same year he also exhibited at the 51st Annual Exhibition of the Art Institute of Chicago.

By the 1940s, John Koch’s success and recognition continued to grow. From 1942-45 he joined the United Service Organizations in the art sketching and portrait division in veterans’ hospitals and from 1944-46, Koch took up the post as tutor and taught figure painting at the Art Students League in New York. However, with regards financial success he became one of the featured artists of classical portraits at Portraits Inc. Portraits, Inc., was founded in 1942 by Lois Shaw, an art and antiques dealer and socialite. In the early 1940’s, Mrs. Shaw partnered with the USO to give weekly studio parties in her Park Avenue gallery that often centred on portraiture. She contacted a number of portrait artists and asked them to contribute their services by doing life drawings of the military men and women in uniform who attended the parties. This allowed Koch to earn a substantial income.  The joint income of John and Dora was such that they managed to buy a summer residence at Setauket on Long Island.

……………………………………to be continued

Lilla Cabot Perry. Part 2.

                                                 Portrait of Alice Frye Leach by Lilla Cabot Perry (c.1880)

It was in 1889 that Lilla Cabot Perry first encountered Claude Monet’s work at the prestigious Galerie Georges Petit in Paris which staged a Monet/Rodin collaboration exhibition (Claude Monet-Auguste Rodin, centenaire de l’exposition de 1889), that opened on June 21st.  It was also in that summer of 1889 that Lilla and her husband first met the great French painter.  According to an article written by Lilla, which appeared in the March 1927 edition of the American Magazine of Art, a young American sculptor who was living in Paris mentioned to her and her husband that he had a letter of introduction to meet Monet but he was very nervous and shy with going on his own to the great man’s house so asked the couple if they would accompany him on his visit.  Lilla and Thomas Perry were delighted to accept the invitation as they had greatly appreciated what they had seen at the Claude Monet-Auguste Rodin exhibition.

In the article Lilla recounts her first impressions of Monet.  She wrote:

“… The man himself with his rugged honesty, his disarming frankness, his warm and sensitive nature, was fully as impressive as his pictures and from this first visit dates a friendship which led us to spend ten summers at Giverny.  For some seasons, indeed, we had the house and garden next to his and he would sometimes stroll in and smoke his afternoon-luncheon cigarette in our garden before beginning on his afternoon work…”

The Impressionism style that Lilla encountered with the art of Monet was an epiphany moment for her. She immediately took to this style even though it was still rejected and scorned by the art world around her.  The way the Impressionists managed the colour and light was a great inspiration to her and during those summer days at Giverny she also worked with many American artists, who had found their way to the small French town to sample the joys of plein air painting in the rural surroundings, such as Theodore Robinson, John Breck, and Theodore Earl Butler.

                                               La Petite Angèle, II, by Lilla Cabot Perry (1889)

One of her painting during her time in Giverny was her 1889 work entitled La petite Angèle II.  It is impressionistic in style with its free form brushstrokes that capture the impression of light and colour.   Claude Monet, inspired Perry to work en plein air, and use impressionistic brushstrokes, soft colours, and poppy red. If you look through the window depicted in this work you should note the early stages of what would become Lilla’s love affair with the way the Impressionists treated landscape depictions.

Angela by Lilla Cabot Perry, 1891, High Museum of Art.jpg
                                                                  Angela by Lilla Cabot Perry, (1891)

A similar work by Lilla was entitled Angela.  It was a portrait of one of her favourite models in Giverny. The clearly defined figure posed in a freely brushed and light-filled setting typifies academic American Impressionism of the time.

A Little Girl in a Lane in Giverny - Lilla Cabot Perry Painting
                                            A Little Girl in a Lane in Giverny by Lilla Cabot Perry

In late 1889 Lilla Cabot Perry and her husband left Giverny and embarked on a tour of Belgium and the Netherlands.  In 1891 she returned to Boston with her family bringing home a painting by Monet and a number of landscapes works by John Breck.  Once back in Boston she began to spread the word of Impressionism especially the works of Monet.  However, like many art critics in France, Impressionism was not favoured by either the American critics or the buying public and Lilla had to begin with a hard-sell of his works.  She would exhibit his works at her home and give talks about him and the world of Impressionism to the Boston Art Students’ Association. 

                      Portrait of Baroness R by Lilla Cabot Perry, (1895)

Whether Bostonians accepted the merit of Monet’s work or not, the one thing for sure was that they appreciated the paintings of Lilla Cabot Perry, especially her portraiture.  Several of her paintings were exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago and were greeted with great acclaim.   In 1897 she exhibited work at the St Botolphs Club in Boston and the art critic of the Boston Evening Transcript wrote:

“…Mrs Perry is one of the most genuine, no-nonsense, natural painters that we known of………………Such work must be taken seriously…”

The Letter, 1893 - Lilla Cabot Perry
                                           The Letter (Alice Perry) by Lilla Cabot Perry (1893)

Lilla Perry’s artistic success in 1889 had made it possible for her to be one of the select few young artists to be admitted to Alfred Stevens’ class in Paris.  The works of Lilla Perry were often influenced by the time she spent with Stevens. A good example of this is her 1893 painting entitled The Letter [Alice Perry] and the way she has depicted the chair, especially the careful attention she has paid to  the colouration of the wood, and the way she has depicted her youngest daughter’s clothes in such detail.  It is a loving portrait of a nine-year-old daughter by her mother.

Black-and-white interior photograph of a light-skinned adult woman in profile with dark hair in a bun and a light-color dress. She stands in front of an easel and holds a palatte and brushes in her left hand. She rests her right hand on a painting of a light-skinned young girl.
                                                                       Lilla Cabot Perry at work (c.1890)
Lilla Cabot Perry, 1896 - Haystacks, Giverny.jpg
Haystacks, Giverny by Lilla Cabot Perry (1896)

In 1894, sheonce again exhibited her impressionism paintings at the St. Botolph Club in Boston together with other Impressionism artists, including Edmund Tarbell, Phillip Hale, Theodore Wendel, and the British-born painter Dawson-Watson. Three years later, and in the same gallery, Lilla held a solo exhibition.  On show were her Impressionist-style portraits and landscapes. 

Giverny Landscape, in Monet’s Garden by Lilla Cabot Perry (1897)

This proved to be a major turning point for Lilla Perry as it showed that her work was gaining the recognition of the American art world and that Impressionism was finally being acknowledged as a legitimate artistic expression. Lilla Perry was a devoted Impressionist painter and she loved the work of the Impressionists, especially the works of her friend Claude Monet.  Now back in America she took every opportunity to endorse French Impressionism and urged her friends to invest in their work.  She also gave many lectures and wrote essays for journals and magazines supporting this French art movement.

In a Japanese Garden by Lilla Cabot Perry (1901)

Between 1868 and 1872, Lilla’s husband, Thomas Perry, was a tutor in German at Harvard and from 1877 to 1881, he was an English instructor in English as well as being a lecturer in English literature from 1881 to 1882. Thomas Perry was offered a new challenge in 1897 when he was presented with the opportunity to take up a teaching position in Japan as an English professor at the Keio Gijuku University in Tokyo.  Lilla and her husband along with their three children left America and travelled to Japan.  Not only was this and exciting time for her husband it was also a stimulating time for Lilla and offered her new opportunities to paint.

In 1898, he became professor of English literature in the Keio University, in Tokyo, Japan.  The Perry family lived in Japan for three years and Lilla immersed herself in its artistic community.  Lilla Perry met Okakura Kakuzō, one of the Imperial Art School co-founders and became an honorary member of the Nippon Bijutsu-In Art Association, an artistic organization in Japan dedicated to a Japanese style painting known as Nihonga.

Portrait of a Young Girl with an Orange by Lilla Cabot Perry (1898-1901)

Such an involvement in the Japanese art and Asian art in general helped Lilla develop her unique style which fused western and eastern artistic traditions.

Child in Kimono by Lilla Cabot Perry (1898)

The result of this coming together of east and west can be seen in her Impressionist portraits.  

Lilla Cabot Perry, Mount Fuji with Gravestones, Harvard.jpg
Lilla Cabot Perry, Mount Fuji with Gravestones, 1898-1901

It was not just her portraiture that Lilla focused on during her three-year stay in Japan, she also completed a number of landscape works.  By far her most favoured subjects were ones depicting Mount Fuji.  Of about eighty paintings she completed whilst in Japan, thirty-five depicted the iconic mountain.

Open Air Concert by Lilla Cabot Perry (1890)

Lilla and her family left Japan for America in 1901 and settled back into their house in Boston.  Her three daughters were now all in their twenties and their mother had completed a number of paintings feature all of them or as individuals. In an early painting entitled Open Air Concert, which she completed in 1890, she depicts her three daughters in a garden setting with her eldest, Margaret, with her back to us, posed playing the violin.

The Trio, Tokyo, Japan by Lilla Cabot Perry (1901)

Almost ten years later Lilla’s three musically-talented daughters featured in her 1901 painting entitled The Trio, Tokyo, Japan (Alice, Edith and Margaret Perry).  In 1903 Lilla and Thomas Perry bought a farm in Hancock, New Hampshire.  She said she immediately fell in love with the area as it reminded her of Normandy, an area she knew well from her days at Giverny. 

Portrait of Mrs Joseph Clark Grew (Alice Perry) by Lilla Cabot Perry (1905)

Alice Perry, Lilla’s youngest daughter featured in her mother’s portrait entitled Portrait of Mrs. Joseph Clark Grew [Alice Perry].  Joseph Grew married Alice Perry on October 7th, 1905 and became her husband’s life partner and helper as promotions in the diplomatic service took them around the world.   The couple went on to have two daughters, Lilla Cabot in 1907 and Elizabeth Alice in 1912.  Lilla’s portrait of her daughter won her a bronze medal at the prestigious International Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St. Louis.

Portrait of William Dean Howells by Lilla Cabot Perry (1912)

In the first decade of the twentieth century Lilla Cabot Perry divided her time between Boston and France but her health had started to deteriorate possibly due to all the travel she was doing but also because of financial problems.  Her inheritance had dwindled and she was the main source of the family income through the sale of her paintings.   The financial difficulties the family were experiencing meant that she had to spend a lot of her time completing portraiture commissions to make up for the money that her family was losing in investments.  She once declared that she had had to complete thirteen portraits in thirteen weeks, four sitters a day at two hours each.   It also rankled with her that she had to concentrate on portraiture as her Impressionistic landscapes were viewed as too experimental by her conservative patrons.  An example of her portraiture work around this time was her 1912 Portrait of William Dean Howells, the prolific American novelist, playwright and literary critic.

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Portrait of Edith Perry Ballantine and Edward Ballantine by Lilla Cabot Perry

In 1923 Lilla was struck down with diphtheria and at the same time she was struggling to support her middle daughter, Edith, who had suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to a private mental health institution in Wellesley, Massachusetts.  Lilla spent two years convalescing in Charleston, South Carolina.

Lilla Perry, like many other nineteenth century painters, was unhappy with the new avant-garde trends in Modern art such as Fauvism led by Henri Matisse and André Derain and so in 1914 she, along with Edmund Tarbell, William Paxton and Frank Benson, helped form the ultra-conservative Guild of Boston Artists in order to oppose the art world’s avant-garde trends.  In 1920 Perry received a commemoration for giving six years of loyal service to the Guild.

A Snowy Monday by Lilla Cabot Perry

During her time convalescing she discovered a new inventiveness for her landscape works, what she termed as “snowscapes.” These beautiful winter landscapes laden with snow became a craving 0f Lilla’s and she would go to extreme lengths to capture winter scenes en plein air, even bundling herself up in blankets and hot water bottles in order to capture the beauty of a 4 a.m. sunrise. One of her most famous “snowscapes” was her 1926 work entitled A Snowy Monday.

Lilla Perry by Frederick A Bosley (1931)

Her summer home in Hancock soon became her main residence and she and her husband Thomas settled into village life in the picturesque New Hampshire foothills.   Thomas Perry died of pneumonia on May 7th 1928, aged 83.  Lilla Cabot Perry continued to paint prolifically until her death on February 28th, 1933.   Lilla and Thomas Perrys’ ashes are buried at Pine Ridge Cemetery in Hancock.

Lilla Cabot Perry. Part 1.

Lilla Cabot Perry, self portrait
                                               Self portrait by Lilla Cabot Perry (1913)

The artist I am looking at today, born Lilla Cabot, comes from a long line of powerful and wealthy descendants.  The Cabot family was part of the Boston Brahmin, also known as the “first families of Boston.  It all goes back to John Cabot, who was born on the Isle of Jersey on April 7th 1680.  At the age of twenty he set sail for America and settled in Salem, Massachusetts in 1700.  John was not part of the first community to have arrived in the New World but by the end of the eighteenth century, the Cabots were the pre-eminent family of New England.  By 1800 John and his son Joseph Cabot were extremely wealthy, largely because of their privateering during the American Revolution, smuggling, and trading in slaves and opium.  Shipping during the eighteenth century was the lifeblood of most of Boston’s first families.  In the nineteenth century, the Cabot enterprises multiplied and took in oil and gas production, railroads, and chemicals.  The Cabots maintained their wealth and social status into the twentieth century, in the main, by educating most of their sons at Harvard and carefully arranging their marriages and the marriages of their daughters.

Lilla Cabot was born in Boston, Massachusetts on January 13th, 1848.  She was the eldest of eight children of Doctor Samuel Cabot III and her mother, Hannah Lowell Jackson.  She had six brothers and one sister.  Her family was one of the most important in Boston society, and the family were on friendly terms with such literary luminaries as Louisa May Alcott, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

                                         Child in Window by Lilla Cabot Perry (1891)

Lilla had a good and fulfilling childhood and was given the freedom to think for herself by her parents.  She was an avid reader and liked taking part in outdoor sports.  During her school years she studied literature, language, poetry, and music but during her early teenage years there she had no great interest in painting and drawing except that occasionally she would take part in sketching sessions with her friends.  As a child and teenager she never received any formal art training, This would not happen until she was thirty-six years of age !

The Cabots played an active role in Boston society and through that young Lila came into contact with many people who would congregate at the Cabot residence.  On April 12th, 1861, when Lila was just thirteen years old, the American Civil War began.  Her parents, coming from the North, were passionate abolitionists and they took a hands-on role in the war effort by offering care to wounded soldiers and helping to safeguard runaway slaves.  Lilla Cabot was seventeen when the Civil War finally ended and it was around this time that her father moved his family out of the city and relocated them to farmstead in Canton, Massachusetts, a small rural town about 15 miles southwest of downtown Boston.  It was probably here that Lilla Cabot became interested in landscapes and rural life.

Portrait of Thomas Sergeant Perry by Lilla Cabot Perry, (1889)

Thomas Sergeant Perry was an American editor, academic, literary critic, literary translator, and literary historian. From his early childhood days, he was a close friend and associate of Henry James who would become one of Americas greatest novelists.   Perry was a member of the faculty at Harvard University and after graduating in 1866, went to study in Germany.  He returned to America and in 1872 worked for the literary magazine, North American Review. He was the grandnephew of U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry and a Harvard professor who was once described as ‘the best-read man in Boston’.  He and Lilla Cabot became friends and the relationship turned into love and on April 9th, 1874, twenty-six-year-old Lilla Cabot married twenty-nine-year-old Thomas Sergeant Perry.   The couple went on to have three daughters, Margaret born in 1876, Edith in 1880, and Alice in 1884.

Lilla Cabot Perry, Portrait of an Infant, Margaret Perry.JPG
                               Portrait of an Infant, Margaret Perry, by Lilla Cabot Perry (c.1877)

The answer to why Lilla became interested in art is thought to be due to the encouragement to take up painting by her husband’s brother in-law John LaFarge, an artist famous for his stained-glass windows, and the husband of Thomas Sergeant Perry’s sister Margaret.  One of Lilla’s first works was that of her infant daughter Margaret.

Lilla Cabot Perry, The Beginner, 1885, University of Arizona Art Museum.jpg
                  The Beginner (Margaret with a Violin) by Lilla Cabot Perry (1885)

In the same year that Lilla’s youngest daughter was born she enrolled on her first artistic course.  She began with private lessons in 1885, with the portrait painter Alfred Quentin Collins and one of the first works she completed under the tutelage of Collins was the 1885 work entitled The Beginner which depicts her ten-year-old daughter Margaret playing the violin.

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     Portrait of Alexander Stewart Wetherill by Alfred Quentin Collins

Looking at this portrait of her daughter playing the violin, it can be seen the input Collins must have had on Lilla as seen in Collins’ Portrait of Alexander Stewart Wetherill.  The depiction has the same dark background and the sitter has the same serious facial expression.   

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                                     Robert Vonnoh, Self portrait

In 1885, Lilla’s father died and left her an inheritance and this financial backing gave her the chance to enrol at art institutions which would afford her the chance to study art more earnestly. In January 1886, she began to study with Robert Vonnoh, an American Impressionist painter known for his portraits and landscapes.  At the time, Vonnoh taught at both the Cowles Art School in Boston and at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  Lilla was inspired with Vonnoh’s more unorthodox work which was very different to that of Alfred Collins and it was to be the beginning of her artistic journey and lifelong commitment to Impressionism.  Another tutor she worked under at Cowles School was Dennis Miller Bunker, a leading American Impressionist, who was the Cowles School chief instructor of figure and cast drawing, artistic anatomy, and composition.

                                          The Red Hat,” or “Edith,” by Lilla Cabot Perry

In 1887 Lilla Cabot Perry received a commission to paint the portraits of the three daughters of Aaron Lufkin Dennison, one of the founders of the Waltham Watch Company.  It was a valuable assignment and covered the cost of first-class sea voyage to Europe in June 1887 for her and her husband.  Upon arriving in France, Perry enrolled in the Académie Colarossi where she worked with Gustave Courtois and Joseph Blanc. She also studied with Felix Borchardt, a German painter. In addition to receiving formal academic training, Perry spent much of her time studying the old masters at the Louvre in Paris.  She also travelled to Madrid and spent time copying works at the Museo del Prado. Her 1888 painting The Red Hat, is testament to her previous formal training she had received back in America as well as the time she spent in Europe studying the works of the old Masters, especially the work of Sandro Botticelli.

                                                   Fritz von Udhe in his studio

In 1888 Perry travelled to Munich where she studied with the German painter Fritz von Uhde, who mainly worked with genre painting and religious motifs .  Over the years, his colour palette became stronger and more colourful, similar to those of his impressionist artist colleagues.  His painting style could be described as being between Realism and Impressionism, and he was once known as “Germany’s outstanding impressionist” Fritz von Udhe became one of the first painters to introduce plein-air painting in Germany.

                                                                     Tony  Robert-Fleury in his studio

Lilla Cabot Perry left Germany in the Autumn of 1888 and returned to Paris where she enrolled in art classes at Académie Julian under the tutelage of Tony Robert-Fleury, a French painter, known primarily for historical scenes.

                       Le Grand Salon, Musée Jacquemart-André, by Walter Gay (1913)

One of Lilla’s fellow artist friends was Walter Gay, the Massachusetts born painter who was residing in Paris.  Many young American artists who arrived in Paris in the late 19th-century became Gay’s pupils so much so that the New York Times labelled him the “Dean of American Artists in Paris”.  At the start of his career he would often depict realist scenes of French peasantry but later in life he began to depict stylish interiors with exquisite furnishings.  It was Walter Gay, in 1889, who persuaded Lilla to put forward two of her paintings for inclusion at an exhibition held by the Société des Artistes Indépendants

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                                    The Red Tunic(Portrait of Edith Perry) by Lilla Cabot Perry (1889)

The paintings were portraits of her husband, Thomas Sergeant Perry, (seen earlier on) and one of her middle child, nine year old daughter, Edith, also known as The Red Tunic.  They were accepted into the exhibition and that success marked the start of Lilla Cabot Perry’s artistic career. 

                                                            Elegant Figures in a Salon by Alfred Stevens

The success of her paintings also enhanced her reputation as an artist, so much so that she was admitted as a student at one of Belgium artist’s Alfred Stevens’ class in Paris.  Stevens like Walter Gay depicted opulent French interiors but in his case he added genteel ladies to his depictions.

In the summer of 1889 Lilla and her husband met Claude Monet…………………

……………………………….to be continued.

Maxfield Parrish. Part 4.

                                                           Daybreak, by Maxfield Parrish (1922)

Maxfield Parrish referred to Daybreak as his Magnus Opus.  It is a blend of the sentimentality of the works by the Pre-Raphaelites but also retains the Old Master technique of adhering to the rules of proportion.  It is a gateway to an Arcadian fantasy where we are welcomed into a dazzling landscape bathed in dawn’s rising sun which is testament to Parrish’s ability to master light and colour.

Maxfield took a complex approach to how the composition should be worked out.  He used photography, paper cut-outs of the figures that he planned to include in the painting, props and models constructed in his workshop so that he could decide on the ultimate layout.  He would first complete the landscape and then use a stencil of the silhouette to impose the figure on top.  Once the composition had been decided by doing it in this way, he was able to concentrate on what colours he would use.  The beauty of this painting comes from Parrish’s painstaking and laborious process of painting with glazes, a process used by many of the Old Masters to achieve wonderful luminosity and strength of colour.  Look at the penetrating blue of the sky which radiates out from behind the foliage.  This cobalt blue became known as Parrish Blue.  He often used clever methods of reproducing grand components in his studio, for mountainous landscapes such as the one in Daybreak he used broken quartz rocks placed on a mirror. He created the effect of natural light and shadows through artificial methods, shining lamps on models and props.  The scenery for the painting bears a resemblance to a theatre set with its prescribed layout.

                                                                              Kitty Owen Spence

Lying on the floor in the left foreground is a young woman who was “part-modelled” by eighteen-year-old Kitty Owen Spence.  Kitty came from a world of social privilege, wealth, and opportunity being the granddaughter of William Jennings Bryan, a three-time US Presidential candidate.  According to the provenance of the painting, Kitty Owen Spence was said to have actually owned the work from around the 1940’s until 1974.  However, it turned out that William Jennings Bryan, her grandfather, had bought it for a fairly high amount, but because he had political ambitions and did not want it known that he had spent a large sum of money on a painting and this could be the reason that the provenance of the work was attributed to his granddaughter.

                                                                        Jean Parrish

Maxfield Parrish’s daughter, Jean, who was eleven at the time, posed as the standing figure who is bent over the prone figure.

                                                         Preparatory drawing of Daybreak

However, what is more intriguing is the figure that does not appear in the final work and this we know, if we look at his preliminary sketch of how he wanted the composition to be.  Maxfield had initially intended to have a third figure seated near the base of the column in the right foreground. It is also believed that this figure was intended to be posed by Susan Lewin, Maxfield’s housekeeper, his favourite model and lover.  Alma Gilbert, art dealer, curator, author, and broker specializing in Maxfield Parrish, speculates in her 2001 book Maxfield Parrish: The Masterworks that because his long-time model and probable mistress Susan Lewin posed for that third figure, Parrish’s daughter asked him to remove her.  In the end, however, Parrish used Lewin’s body as the model for the reclining figure and gave it the face of Kitty Owen.

Just two other interesting things about the painting I must recount.  As you know, I like a good story behind a painting and so did the House of Art who had commissioned the work.  They asked Maxfield to write a paragraph to accompany the work, but he declined, stating:

“…Alas, you have asked the very one thing that is entirely beyond me, to write a little story of Daybreak, or, in fact, of any other picture. I could do almost anything in the world for you but that. I know full well that public want a story, always want to know more about a picture than the picture tells them but to my mind if a picture does not tell its own story, it’s better to have the story without the picture. I couldn’t tell a single thing about Daybreak because there isn’t a single thing to tell; the picture tells all there is, there is nothing more…”

And so, it is up to viewers of the painting to create their own personal meaning of Daybreak.

Much has been written about the painting and I have tried to condense the information I have gleaned from various books and websites but I decided not to attempt to explain the compositional rules followed by Maxfield Parrish when he planned the work.  It has all to do with Jay Hambridge’s rules of dynamic symmetry and I will leave you great artists to read about that yourself.  It is far too complex for me!

                                                Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley

And finally, does the scene of the naked figure bending over the young woman who lies prone on the floor remind you of a similar, more recent scene ???  Caste your mind back to 1992 and the Michael Jackson music video for his song, You are not alone, in which he appears in an affectionate semi-nude scene lying on the ground with his then-wife, Lisa Marie Presley, bent over, looking down at him.  The painting has surprisingly always been in private ownership. On May 25th, 2006, Daybreak was purchased by a private collector, Mel Gibson’s then-wife, Robyn, at auction at Christie’s for US $7.6 million. This set a record price for a Parrish painting. Five years later, on May 21st, 2010, it was sold again for US$5.2 million.

In September 1918 Maxfield Parrish left Philadelphia and moved to an apartment at 75 East 81st Street, New York where he would be close to his two older sons who were attending the Teacher’s College.  Parrish asked Sue Lewin to accompany him and the two lived together there for almost a year.  By now it must have been obvious to him that people and the media were becoming interested in his relationship with his wife Lydia and his model, Sue Lewin.  Rumours were rife but Parrish would not comment on their enquiries about his relationship with Sue.  Maxfield Parrish was aware how scandal could devastate his life and career as he had witnessed the furore first-hand when his mother had left his father to join a Californian commune.  Sue was in full agreement with Maxfield about not commenting on their relationship and in a reply to a salacious question, she said:

“…I’ll have you know that Mr Parrish has never seen my bare knee…”

                  Edison Mazda 1921 calendar

This denial could well be taken with a “pinch of salt” as she had posed nude for his illustrations for the Mazda Lamp calendar of 1921.  After Parrish and Lewin had passed away, construction workers at the estate found a secret compartment where Parrish had hidden the nude photographs he had taken of Lewin.

By 1921, Parrish’s wife Lydia had had enough of the ménage à trois and confided with her friend and neighbour Mabel Churchill.  Mabel and her husband spoke to Maxfield and told him that his marriage to Lydia would not survive whilst Sue was living with him in the studio.  To help solve the problem Lydia went off to Europe with the Churchills and Sue moved from the studio at The Oaks and into Winston and Mabel Churchill’s vacated home.  On October 26th, 1923, in a cruel twist of fate the Churchill’s home, Harlakenden, burned to the ground and Sue had to return to living in the studio of The Oaks.  She would remain there for the next forty years!   The villagers from the tiny farm town were scandalized by this living arrangement and even sent a delegation out to the estate to confront Parrish, but Parrish and Lewin both contended that their relationship was purely platonic.

                          The Knave of Hearts by Louise Saunders

Lydia Parrish returned from her European journey to find the living arrangements of Sue Lewin had not changed.  She must have been both angry and sad but probably weighed up the pros and cons of divorcing her husband and reluctantly decided to remain living at The Oaks whilst Maxfield and Sue lived in the studio complex.  Sue Lewin continued to model for Parrish and appeared in many of the children’s book illustrations.  One such book was the Knave of Hearts written by Louise Saunders in which Sue posed for the characters of Lady Violetta, Ursula, and the Knave.

                                              The Enchanted Prince by Maxfield Parrish (1934)

The last time Sue modelled for one of Parrish’s paintings was in 1934 when she was forty-five-years-old, although the final model was Kathleen Philbrick Read.  It was entitled The Enchanted Prince and it depicts a beautiful young woman contemplating the frog which is perched in front of her.  When Maxfield completed the work, he decided not to sell it and instead, gave it to Sue.  In Alma Gilbert’s book, The Make-believe World of Maxfield Parrish and Sue Lewin, she wrote that this gift could be to let her know that she was the youthful maiden who had dissipated his loneliness and returned him to rule over some enchanted kingdom.

                                                  Dreaming by Maxfield Parrish (1928)

From around 1930 Parrish’s paintings were landscape works.  One reason could have been that his favoured model Sue Lewin was now into her forties and could no longer pose as a lithe young female. In his 1928 painting, Dreaming, he completed for Reinthal Newman’s House of Art in 1928, we see a young girl sitting underneath a tree beside a lake in a tranquil autumn setting. 

                                  Dreaming/October by Maxfield Parrish (1932)

In his 1932 version of the work, entitled Dreaming/October, which was Maxfield’s last work he had created for General Electric Mazda company, he removed the figure and turned the work into a pure landscape painting.

Like all good novels, the reader cannot wait to read the last chapter to see what happens in the end.  So, let me tell you how it all ended for the three main protagonists of these blogs, Maxfield, his wife Lydia and his favoured model, Sue Lewin.  Maxfield Parrish continued with his close relationship with Sue despite being married to Lydia.  His children had all married and moved away from the family home, The Oaks.

Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands by Lydia Parrish (1942)

Lydia who had often spent an annual vacation on St. Simmons Island, the largest of the Golden Isles along south Georgia’s Atlantic coast, which she had first visited in 1912.  She eventually bought herself a cottage and some land on the island and became interested in old plantation songs and eventually in 1942 had a book published, Slave Songs of the Georgia Sea Islands.  Lydia died alone of cancer on Saint Simmons Island on March 29th 1953, aged eighty-one.  Lydia was buried on the island at the Oglethorpe Memorial Gardens.  At the time of her death, she had been married to Maxfield for fifty-eight years.

                                                     Susan Lewin (c.1970’s)

Maxfield was now a widower and had the opportunity to move his close and intimate relationship with Sue Lewin to a marriage status but that did not happen.  Whether Sue held out the hope that he would propose we cannot be sure but she stayed with him for a further seven years until in 1960 when she was 71 and Maxfield was 90, she left him and married Earl Colby who had been her childhood sweetheart and had once courted her whilst she lived and worked at The Oaks.  The question of why Maxfield never proposed marriage to Sue is not known.  Maybe he believed it was just too late in his life or maybe he remembered the problems with his marriage to Lydia and also the failed marriage of his father and of course he had always denied that he and Sue had had an intimate relationship.  Shortly after Sue married Earl Colby, Maxfield Parrish made a new will which started by stating that firstly, all his debts were to be paid off and then secondly:

“…I give and bequeath to SUSAN LEWIN COLBY the sum of Three Thousand Dollars ($3000) and direct that any inheritance, estate, death, succession or other tax imposed by the Federal Government or any State Government on this bequest be paid out of my residuary estate…”

For a rich man, giving the sum of three thousand dollars to somebody he had known for fifty-five years may be looked upon as a trifling amount.  Why was it such a small amount?  Had an earlier will bequeathed her more?  Was it an act of revenge for her marrying Colby?  It was if the amount was a suitable sum for one of his servants which would, of course, substantiate his declaration that there had never been a close relationship between him and Sue.  Or was the fact that Sue was mentioned in the will a declaration by Parrish and acknowledgement of his relationship with her.  We will just never know.  Earl Colby died in 1968. Colby had children from a previous marriage who inherited his house. Sue then moved into her Aunt’s home. Her aunt then left the dwelling to Sue in her will and this was where she lived for the rest of her life.   Sue Lewin Colby passed away on January 27th 1978 and was interred that Spring alongside her late husband in the Plainfield cemetery.

                                             Getting Away From It All by Maxfield Parrish

Maxfield Parrish continued with his painting until 1961 when, he was ninety-one-years-old.  His arthritis prevented him from painting any more.  His last work was a small landscape painting entitled Getting Away From It All and can be viewed as Parrish’s ultimate expression of his love of nature.  It is a beautiful depiction, showing one small, snow-covered cottage which appears dwarfed by the towering mountains surrounding it, yet the window of the home persistently glows with warmth from within. It is a more exceptional work in that Parrish chose to paint the subject solely for himself and remained with him, in his studio, for the remainder of his life and maybe the title of the painting recognises that, with this work complete, he was giving up his career as an artist.

Maxfield Parrish spent his last years in a wheelchair and was looked after in his house by a live-in nurse.  On March 30th 1966, he died, aged 95.  He was buried at Plainfield Cemetery, Sullivan County, New Hampshire.  Three years later, his eldest son, John Dilwyn Parrish, who died on January 4th 1969, was buried besides him.