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

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

Stone City, Iowa by Grant Wood (1930)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toy Town like geometric houses

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

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

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

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

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

Grant Wood in his favoured rural-type bib and braces

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

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

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

Death on the Ridge Road by Grant Wood (1935)

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

Spring Turning by Grant Wood (1936)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grant Wood and his wife Sara Maxon

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

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

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

Boy Milking Cow, by Grant Wood (1932)

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

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

Parson Weems Fable by Grant Wood (1939 )

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

Father and son, with the $1 bill face

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

Grant Wood in his studio in1931

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

Young Corn by Grant Wood (1931)

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

Sultry Night by Grant Wood (1939)

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

Spring in Town by Grant Wood (1942)

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

Spring in the Country by Grant Wood (1941)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beacher Weekly newspaper

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

 

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Grant Wood. Part 2 – American Gothic and sister Nan

Grant Wood, Study for Self-Portrait, 1932,

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

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

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

Woman with Plant by Grant Wood (1929)

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

Arnold comes of Age (Portrait of Arnold Pyne)

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

Des Moines Tribune-Capital, August 20th 1930

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

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

American Gothic by Grant Wood (1930)

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

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

The American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa

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

The Sunday Register, December 1st 1930

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

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

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

American Gothic painting satirised

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

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

Nan later remembered the posing for the painting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nan Wood Graham and the painting American Gothic

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

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

Nan Wood Graham and Dr. Byron McKeeby

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

Bronze medal winners awarded by Art Institute of Chicago

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

The sitters for the American Gothic painting (1942)

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

Portrait of Nan (1931)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

..……to be continued

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


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

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

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

Self portrait by Grant Wood (1932)

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

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

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

Grant Wood boyhood home, Cedar Rapids, Iowa,

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

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

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

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

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

Cafe De Palais by Grant Wood (1926)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spotted Man by Grant Wood (1924)

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

The Little Chapel Chancelade by Grant Wood (1926)

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

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

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

Veterans Memorial Building, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

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

Cedar Rapid’s Veterans Memorial Building on Mays Island

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

Stained glass window in the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Building

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

Grant Wood and Arnold Pyle preparing for the Stained Glass Window

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

The six soldiers

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

Lady of Peace and Victory

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

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

Veteran’s Memorial Building Cedar Rapids during 2008 floods

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

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

Daughters of Revolution by Grant Wood (1932)

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

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

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

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

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

…………………………..….to be continued


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

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

Daniel Ridgway Knight

Daniel Ridgway Knight (c.1908)

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

The Well by Daniel Ridgeway Knight (1880)

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

Daniel Ridgway Knight

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

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

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

Harvest Scene by Daniel Ridgeway Knight (1875)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article from The Decorator and Furnisher March 1886

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

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

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

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

The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet (1857)

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

The Reapers by Jules Breton (c.1860)

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

Les Laveuses by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1875)

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

Hailing the Ferry by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1888)

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

Coffee in the Garden by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1924)

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

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

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

Julia in the Corner of the Garden by Daniel Ridgway Knight

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

The Sheperdess of Rolleboise by Daniel Ridgway Knight (1896)

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

A Garden above the Seine, Rolleboise by Daniel Ridgway Knight

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

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

Cecilia Beaux. Part 7 – The final years

Cynthia Sherwood by Cecilia Beaux (1892)

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

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

Cecilia by Rosina Emmet Sherwood (1892)

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

Ernesta (Child with Nurse) (1894)

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

Reverend Matthew Blackburne Grier by Cecilia Beaux (1892)

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

Self portrait by Cecilia Beaux (1894)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardinal Mercier by Cecilia Beaux (1919)

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

Georges Clemenceau by Cecilia Beaux (1920)

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

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

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

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

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


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

Background with Figures, the autobiography of Cecilia Beaux

Family Portrait by Catherine Drinker Bowen

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

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

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

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

Cecilia Beaux. Part 6 – Visits to England, the Return Home and Family Portraits.

Cecilia Beaux (c.1888)

……………….Cecilia Beaux finally returned to Paris in December 1888 after her summer in Concarneau and her six week European journey and the first thing she had to contend with was to find some new accommodation.  Her one priority was that her new “home” had to be better than the dismal and dire Pension Villeneuve which she and her cousin May Whitlock had had to put up with on their arrival from America in January. They eventually settled for a “room-only” fifth-floor attic apartment in a Latin Quarter maison meuble (furnished house) at 30 rue Vaugirard, situated in the 6th arondissement across the road from the Luxembourg Gardens.  Cecilia was delighted with her new home, writing:

“…There were five flights for us, but easy, broad, spotless, and without taint of late decades. I would like to boast openly that I have lived in an attic in Paris, a tiny chamber in the mansard, with a dormer window opening its croissee eastward and sunward. The window would hold a plant or two, and outside was the leaden ledge that took the rain on stormy days. Leaning out one could look down upon the Senate, grey and dignified, and the Luxembourg Gallery was very near. The iron railing of the garden was across the way…”

However, it was still winter, still cold and the accommodation was still damp so one of her first purchases was a stove, for which she paid four francs.

Portrait of Henry Sandwith Drinker by Cecilia Beaux (1901)
(Cecilia’s nephew)

Cecilia returned to the Académie Julian to study art but this time she attended  the original branch of the academy which was at the Passage des Panoramas, which meant she had to make the two-mile journey crossing the Seine each day. It is interesting to read in her 1930 autobiography, Background with Figures, that she was less than enamoured with the teaching at the academy and although she could have attached herself to an atelier headed up by a well-known artist she was not convinced of the benefit of such a move. She wrote:

“…I might have delivered myself, of course, to an individual master. There were several of high repute who admitted disciples. By an instinct I could not resist, I shrank from the committal, although there would have been contacts resulting from it of high value and interest. I saw no special direction in any exhibited work (I fear to say it), among the living, that I felt like joining…”

Cecil Kent Drinker by Cecilia Beaux (1891) (Four-year-old nephew of Cecilia Beaux)

Cecilia was also unhappy that there were few critiques by the tutors which would have given her some constructive criticism. All the tutors would tell her that she should just “keep on as I was going”. It was not that she was simply negative about the teaching at the Julian for she had definite ideas of how art should be taught and how the tutors should act:

“…What the student above all needs is to have his resources increased by the presence of a master whom he believes in, not perhaps as a prophet or adopted divinity, but one who is in unison with a living world, of various views, all of whose roots are deep, tried, and nourished by the truth, or rather the truths that Nature will reveal to the seeker. He is the present embodiment of performance in art, better called the one sent, representing all. He is serious, quiet, a personality that has striven…”

Cecilia’s room in rue Vaugirard was too small for it to be used as a studio and for her a studio was a primary requisite not just to carry out painting but it was a place for quiet contemplation. With that in mind she managed to secure a nearby small ground-floor working place at 15 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs which was situated at the southern end of the Luxembourg Gardens. Later Cecilia and her cousin and companion, May Whitlock would give up their room at the rue Vaugirard house and move their belongings into the studio.

Newnham Grange in 1890

In May 1889 Cecilia made a solo trip to England. She had been invited by her one-time Philadelphia friend Martha Haskins “Maud” du Puy, now Mrs Maud Darwin, to come up to Cambridge and stay with her, her husband George Darwin, who was the eldest son of the naturalist, Charles Darwin, and their four children. George Darwin was the Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and the family lived at Newnham Grange, which was situated in an idyllic location perched on the banks of the River Cam. Cecilia had to endure a very rough Channel crossing from Dieppe to Newhaven and then a long train journey through London to Cambridge. However, despite the inauspicious start to her English adventure, her short stay at Newnham was all she could have hoped for. Beautiful house to stay in with a comfortable bed, a completely different scenario in comparison to her room in Paris. In her autobiography she remembered her first morning at Newnham Grange:

“…My first waking in the big, chintz-hung guest-room at Newnham Grange is one of the jewel-set markers of memory………… The sun poured in, and through its beams I could see across a meadow and under huge trees. Another window was hung, without, by a rich drapery of lilac wistaria, in full bloom, and when I sprang from my bed and put my head out, there was a cherry tree full of ‘ripe ones,’ just outside, also bird song; and a robin, making the best of the feast, superseded the cuckoo, and children of English voice and speech were in the garden below…”

She also had a taste of university and English countryside life with an invite to dinner at the Vice Chancellor’s Lodge, Sunday morning service at King’s Chapel and even a visit to Charles Darwin’s eighty-one-year-old widow, Emma, who was Cecilia’s friend’s mother-in-law. She even was invited to the hallowed Master of Trinity College Cambridge’s garden party, remembering the event well:

“…An English garden-party differs from all others especially in the domain of the University. The Master of Trinity, who is the King of Cambridge, has a garden which occupies one bank of the river for a long distance. Acacias in full bloom hang over the wall during May week, tall dark yews associating as background. The Master himself, large, brown-bearded, and urbane, looked his part to perfection, and I was proud to have a share of his gracious attention…”

Lady Geoge Darwin by Cecilia Beaux (1889)

Such was the frequency of invitations to lunches and dinners that Cecilia hardly had time to think about sketching and painting but she did complete one work, a pastel portrait of her host Maud. Maud’s husband George was made Knight Commander of the Bath in 1905, and so the title of this portrait is now known as Lady George Darwin.

Cecilia and May Whitlock cancelled their plans to return to America and instead went to Cambridge in June, where they were to have stayed as guests of George and Maud Darwin, not in the main house but in The Mill, a small residence at the end of the garden of Newnham Grange. However Cecilia decided as it may not have been big enough for two ladies Cecilia and Maud took lodgings, at Ashton House, a small brick dwelling in a shady street, only a stone’s throw from Newnham and used The Mill as her artistic studio.

After that second visit to Cambridge,  Cecilia left the comfort of Newnham Grange and returned to Paris only to find that her cousin had vacated their fifth-floor attic room and moved all their possessions and clothes into Cecilia’s small one-room studio with skylight. This was now to be their living quarters, their bedroom, as well as Cecilia’s studio. It was a terrible shock to the system for Cecilia who had just sampled the height of comfort in Cambridge. To make things worse for her and May, as summer approached, the once cool room had become a “hot-house” as the intense sunlight streamed through the skylight. Reading a passage in her biography, one can be in no doubt as to how Cecilia regarded her new “home”:

“…The circumstances of my return to Paris should be mentioned only by way of warning and contrast, and I shall always regret that I returned to the adored place, by way of my own blunder and a very squalid experiment. When I entered the shaky door of the studio, I found it filled with a helter-skelter collection of our belongings. There had been no preparatory cleaning or arranging. A bed had been put in. The toilet arrangements were simple, but for use required a complicated process. A tin basin, which I had used for washing brushes, was uncertainly disposed on the corner of the bookshelf, the soap saucer scarcely holding beside it. A chair-back was all there was for towels, and, if one wished to sit down, books and dresses had to be put somewhere else. It had become scorching hot. I insisted in rigging up some sort of Screen under the skylight for decency’s sake. Squalor, wretchedness, into which no gleam of fun entered; I sympathized with royalty and was ‘not amused.’…”

SS Anchoria

Cecilia and May’s time in Paris and England had come to an end in August 1889 and the pair boarded the steamship Anchoria at the Scottish port of Greenock Harbour on the River Clyde. On the twenty-second of August, the pair set sail ploughing their way through rough seas and a blanket fog. The intrepid pair finally arrived back in Philadelphia at the beginning of September 1889 after almost nineteen months away from home. Once home, her family bombarded Cecilia with questions about her European adventure and her plans for the future. Cecilia was unequivocal about her future life. It would be dedicated to her art and from the sale of her paintings she would shore up the family finances. She was also equally definite that her future life and plans would not be hampered by relationships with possible suitors. The family accepted her views and her plans for the future and set about trying to help her.

A photograph of Cecilia and Emma in the Chestnut Street studio (1890)

Her uncle, William Biddle, found a new studio for her at 1710 Chestnut Street, and then helped her arrange it so that she could set herself up as a professional artist. She and her cousin Emma shared the studio.  At the same time her family relieved her of all household duties. The sense of family loss was two-sided, for not only did her sister and aunts miss Cecilia, but she also missed her family despite the good times she experienced in Europe. Maybe it was the happiness of being back, once again, in the family fold that enticed her to complete many portraits of her sister’s family and other relatives. She also received many portraiture commissions from the Philadelphia “elite”. In the five years after her return home she completed over forty portraits.

Sita and Sarita by Cecilia Beaux (1894)

Probably her most famous family portrait was completed in 1894 and was entitled Sita and Sarita (Jeune Fille au Chat). It is a depiction of her cousin, Charles W. Leavitt’s wife Sarah (Allibone) Leavitt and the mysterious title of the painting comes from Beaux’s use of Spanish diminutives, Sarita for Sarah and Sita, meaning “little one,” for the cat. Sarah is dressed in white, with a small black cat perched precariously on her shoulder. The eyes of both the woman and the cat are green and almost lined up horizontally in the depiction. The combination of the whiteness of her dress and the palid complexion of her face are in direct contrast to the black furry animal standing on her shoulder. Both human and animal stare out enigmatically. Cecilia Beaux donated this painting to the Musée de Luxembourg and it is presently housed in the Musée d’Orsay. Twenty-seven years later she painted another version of the painting which is now housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, part of the Corcoran Collection.

Dorothea and Francesca by Cecilia Beaux (1898)

Another of her well-known portraits, Dorothea and Francesca, was that of the two eldest daughters of Helena de Kay and Richard Watson Gilder. Richard Watson Gilder was a poet and editor of the periodicals Scribner’s Monthly and The Century Magazine, and his wife Helena, who was artistically trained at The Cooper Union in Manhattan, was a portrait, still-life, and flower painter, and also a writer. The Gilders, who were very good friends of Cecilia, were leading lights of an artistic literary and music circle in New York and they played a central role in the founding of the Society of American Artists in 1877. Cecilia recalled in her biography the setting for the painting which took place in the Gilder’s Four Brooks Farm in Tyringham, Massachussets:

“…The big and little sisters, Dorothea and Francesca, used to execute a dance of the simplest and all too circumscribed design, invented by themselves, and adorned by their unconscious beauty alone. This was the subject. I built a platform with my own hands, as the girls could not move easily on the bare earth. When it rained hard, in September, the orchard let its surplus water run down the hill and under the barn-sill, so that, as my corner was rather low, I put on rubber boots and splashed in and out of my puddle, four inches deep. October was difficult, for it grew bitterly cold. But valiant posing went on, though the scenic effect of the group was changed by wraps. Summer, indeed, was over, when on a dark autumnal night, in the freezing barn, the picture was packed by the light of one or two candles and a lantern…”

Charles Wellford Leavitt by Cecilia Beaux (1911)

Cecilia Beaux’s cousin, Charles Wellford Leavitt, featured in another of her works. She completed the painting, Charles Welford Leavitt, the Artist’s Cousin in 1911. The sitter, who was forty at the time of the sitting, was a successful engineer and pioneer in the field of city planning. To acknowledge his profession Cecilia has added some of the tools of his trade on a table next to him. She has portrayed him with his arms crossed in front of him and his demeanour oozes a sense of importance and confidence.

In my final blog about the life of Cecilia Beaux I will look at her later years and the many portraits she did of the rich and famous.

…………………………………to be concluded.


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

Background with Figures, the autobiography of Cecilia Beaux

Family Portrait by Catherine Drinker Bowen

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

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

Photograph from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts archive

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

Cecilia Beaux. Part 5 – Concarneau, the summer of 1888.

The Lady Artist by Charles “Shorty” Lasar

……………………..Cecilia Beaux and her cousin May Whitlock had arrived in Paris in the last week of January 1888. The weather had been typical January weather – wet, cold, and thoroughly miserable, rarely catching a glimpse of the sun. Add to this their insalubrious and uncomfortable pension and the way they had to dress in warm but shabby winter clothes, it is possible that Cecilia’s dream of the French capital may have been wavering. However, she had her course at Académie Julian and numerous art galleries to visit which, for her, made life worth living. She revelled in her visits to the Salon not only viewing the paintings but also “people-watching” the visitors circulating the galleries. In her autobiography she recalls such a time with great excitement:

“…The Salon drew crowds of all kinds. To Vernissage [a preview of an art exhibition] flocked the elite of Paris, the aristocracy of Society, of the Stage, of Music, and Literature, as well as of the Plastic Arts: in other words, the French Crowd, always intelligent, always amused, always disputive. How new to me to see a group of forceful, middle-aged, or old men, masters in some field without doubt, stooping over a small picture, arguing with heated insistence, denouncing, eulogizing! Never had I seen assembled so many men of ‘parts’ — real men, I would have said — so absorbed, so oblivious, greeting each other warmly, and with absolutely no general curiosity; pausing a moment, with great deference, before some quiet lady, or obvious beauty, but really there through profound interest in contemporary art. I longed to get closer — not to meet them, but to hear their talk, their dispute about the supreme Subject…”

And later describes how she witnessed one special visitor to the Salon:

“…Into the gallery one day, as our obscure party moved about,- there entered a Personage; a charming figure, with a following of worshippers. The lady was dressed in black lace, strangely fashioned. Though she was small, her step and carriage, slow and gracious as she moved and spoke, were queenly. She was a dazzling blonde, somewhat restored and not beautiful, as one saw her nearer. The striking point in her costume — and there was but one — was that the upper part of her corsage, or yoke, was made entirely of fresh violets, bringing their perfume with them. Every one, artists and their friends, ceased their examination of the pictures, and openly gazed, murmuring their pride and joy in their idol, Sarah Bernhardt…”

Head of a French Peasant Woman by Cecilia Beaux (1888)

All artists at one time or another make a choice about what medium they prefer to use but also what is to be their artistic style. Cecilia Beaux was no different. She had arrived in Paris at the beginning of 1881, the same year as the sixth Impressionist exhibitions. However, she was not seduced by Impressionism, writing:

“…The enthusiasm I felt for Monet’s iridescent pigments, his divided rays to reach the light of Nature by means of color only, left me with no desire to follow. Landscape, genre, I could pore over with no desire to take a white umbrella into the sun…”

For Cecilia, her Gods of art were the likes of Titian, Rembrandt, and Veronese, but she admitted there was even one thing that could seduce her away from art:

“…If there was anything that could have drawn me off my feet entirely, and divorced me from painting, it was to be found in the lower galleries of the Louvre, on some of the upper landings and among the isolated examples of Greek and Italian Renaissance sculptures. Mystery again. Sculpture for me was surrounded by the never really comprehended glamour of its creative act, as well as the absolute power of its beauty, on emotion…”

Country Woman, Concarneau, France by Cecilia Beaux (1888)

April was a welcome month for Cecilia as winter had almost been forgotten and the all the beauty of Springtime in Paris had arrived. With the improvement in the weather came the improvement in her disposition. She remembered the joy that this change in the weather brought to her spirit:

“…One morning in early April, we met, and saw, the first of Spring in Paris. All of youth, hope, and joy seemed to be in those shafts of sunshine, pouring through virgin leaf and violet shadow, and in the voices that called this and that from cleverly manipulated push-carts, heaped with flowers, vegetables, fruit, whose fresh moisture the sun touched with rainbow hues. Every French heart bounded with the hour’s happiness, and I knew that my heart was French, too…”

For Cecilia Beaux the summer of 1881 began with a new adventure. The academy had closed for the summer break and she and her fellow students were free to go off and paint. She and her American companions decided that the de rigeur destination for aspiring artists, especially Americans, was the artist colonies of Britany and specifically the coastal town of Concarneau.  Cecilia’s intrepid group set of on a late June afternoon by train bound for Concarneau.

South façade of the present day Château de Vitré

Because of the distance the party needed to break their journey and have an overnight stop-off at the town of Vitré famous for its twelfth century stone chateau built by the baron Robert I of Vitré, which the party visited before completing the second part of their journey. The party stayed at the little Hôtel de France. Cecilia Beaux had only sampled one French town, Paris, since her arrival in France and was amazed by the beauty of Vitré. She wrote:

“…It had been raining, I remember, and everything had all the color that moisture and a breaking sky, full of light, not sunshine, gives. When we looked up or down the steep little winding streets of mossy, grey, toppling houses, there was always a burning spot of red, a geranium in an upper window, or a white-coiffed woman, in a deep blue or green skirt, knitting in a doorway, coppers shining inside, or an old woman in sabots clattering down toward us over the rough stone pavement, or a tiny cherub in grown-up garments supping its bowl of pot au feu on a doorstep, and three children’s heads in a narrow window under the eaves, looking down at us…”

Seaside Inlet, Concarneau, France by Cecilia Beaux (1888)

The party continued their onward journey to Concarneau and arrived the next evening. They took a cab to the upmarket hotel, Les Voyageurs where they had dinner with friends before setting off to find and secure some more modest accommodation. They eventually settled on a small propriété owned by Papa and Maman Valdinaire, who were local florists. Cecilia loved the property, describing it in her autobiography:

“…a house and garden with an eight- or nine-foot wall entirely enclosing the estate, which was about an acre, and was in a garden full of flowers only. The walls were covered with carefully trained Bruit, pears and apricots, and a number of small trees, perhaps for blossom only, cast flickering light and shade over the flower-beds…”

Head of a Woman by Cecilia Beaux (1888)

However, there were some drawbacks to their stay with the Valdinaires. The owners lived on the ground floor of the property and to gain access to the road or the garden they had to go through their accommodation which was also home to their chickens and their precious goat, which had freedom of the house but fortunately for them, couldn’t climb the stairs!! Also, according to Cecilia, the lady of the house “lacked character”. Cecilia described their accommodation:

“…The house was one room deep, and we were offered the two rooms on the second floor; also an attic for our kitchen. This had a large dormer window with lovely view toward the sea and a hosier for cooking on the hearth, really perfect in our eyes — but the fact that only one of the bedrooms was for the moment habitable was temporarily discouraging. They were at the top of the bare stairway, on — I called it — the second floor. There were windows on both sides, the sunny ones looking on the garden and within easy sight of the pigeons, and the garden, which was, with all its varied charms, to be our painting ground and studio…”

The Wave by T Alexander Harrison (1885)

One of the main reasons for Cecilia choosing Concarneau that summer was that two other important painters from Pennsylvania had studios in the area. They were Thomas Alexander Harrison and Charles “Shorty” Lasar. Harrison was mainly a marine painter and one of his most famous works was one he completed in 1885, entitled The Wave, which depicts waves rolling in on the beach. His mastery of light and colour in this painting is spectacular.

In Arcadia by T Alexander Harrison (c.1886)

One of his “non-marine” works, In Arcadia, was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1885 and it received “an honourable mention” and it was to be the first of many awards Harrison received for his artistic works. The painting is now housed in the Musée d’Orsay.

Cecilia completed a portrait of T Alexander Harrison in 1888, whilst she was at Concarneau. Harrison was pleased with the completed work and commented about Cecilia’s painterly stating:

“…she had the “right stuff” to become a serious painter, the stuff that digs and thinks and will not be satisfied and is never weary of the effort of painting nor counts the cost…”

Tobias Returning to His Family by Cecilia Beaux (1888)

Whilst at Concarneau Cecilia Beaux complete several grisaille paintings. Grisaille paintings are those done entirely in shades of grey or another neutral greyish colour. The set of grisailles she completed all depicted biblical themes  and they were a distinct, if not fleeting, departure from her beloved portraiture. One such work was entitled Tobias Returning to His Family and is based on an Old Testament story about the blind man Tobit and his son, Tobias’ return home with his dog and how he cured his father’s blindness. In the Old Testament Book of Tobias 11:9 it describes the coming of Tobias preceded by the delighted dog:

“…and coming as if he had brought the news, shewed his joy by his fawning and wagging his tail…”

In the depiction we see Tobias’ dog bounding through the central doorway ahead of his master, “announcing” the son’s arrival.

Landscape with Farm Building Concarneau by Cecilia Beaux (1888)

Whilst in Concarneau that summer, Cecilia Beaux also unusually strayed away from her usual portraiture to complete a couple of landscape works. One such work was entitled Landscape with a Farm Building.

Twilight Confidences, by Cecilia Beaux (1888}

However, by far the most memorable works produced by Cecilia whilst in Concarneau was her 1888 painting entitled Twilight Confidences and the number of studies which led to the finished work, all of which are held at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia and the completed work was exhibited at their 1890 Annual Exhibition. This finished work is looked upon as her first foray into plein air painting. It is a juxtaposition of the two figures and the seascape and all are lit by the light of the setting sun. Cecilia recalled the sketches and painting:

“…I attempted two life-size heads, at dusk, on the beach; two girls of the merely robust type in conference or gossip — the tones of coiffe and col mingling with the pale blue, rose, and celadon of the evening sky…”

The coiffe is the decorative headdress and col is the decorative collar associated with Brittany.

In his 1983 book, Americans in Brittany and Normandy 1860-1910, David Sellin quotes Cecilia Beaux’s thoughts about the preparatory stage of this work:

“…if I succeed with my two heads it will be the opening of a new era for me, that of working from pochades [sketches] for large simple outdoor effects. I can see that the strongest part of what gift I have is my memory of impressions…”

Above is one of the many preparatory sketches held by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art is a small (14 x 15cms) oil on cardboard grisaille sketch.

Good Samaritan by Cecilia Beaux (1888)

Their summer sojourn in Concarneau eventually ended and Cecilia and her friends, with the help of their landlady, Madame Valdinaire, decided to host a going-away party for their friends. On the menu was to be chicken which delighted Cecilia until she was told by her hostess that she must choisi le poulet. She remembered the incident well, writing:

“…It was a dark night in October. The chickens had retired early, and it was my lot to follow Madame V. and her lantern to the sleeping-quarters of her brood. Of course they had heard us coming, and when the door was opened and the lantern shone upon a row of dusky, perching bundles of feathers, a dilated, circular eye scintillated with terror in each sideways-turned head. A few sleepy, guttural croakings came from the back row, but those in front were silent and fixed. Madame Valdinaire, with cruel liberality, asked me if I preferred the brown or the speckled, or both, and seized one at random by its yellow legs, holding it upside down for me to palper [feel] its shrinking body, the one eye always turned up and fixed in the struggling bunch of squawks. Here I turned and fled, bidding Madame V. choisir herself, and stumbled into the house and up to our room, where my cousin sat placidly writing a letter…”

Cecilia Beaux and her companions left Concarneau in October 1888 and set off on what was to be a six-week trip around Europe by train. They went through Switzerland and crossed the Alps via the St Gothard Pass on their way to Venice, where they stayed for six days. From there they journeyed to Florence, stopping in the Tuscan city for six days. Sadly for Cecilia most of those days she was laid low with an illness. They then went across to France and called at Avignon and Nimes, the home town of Cecilia’s late father who had died in 1874. The journey ended back in Paris in December 1888 and Cecilia was proud of how frugal she had been during this six-week adventure saying:

“…It may be of passing interest to present-day tourists to know that in our six weeks’ journey we were only by way of second- and third-class, by train; and pension, never hotel; we spent just $107 apiece and had no sense of being penurious…”

……………………………….to be continued


Most of the information for the blogs featuring Cecilia Beaux came from two books:
Background with Figures, the autobiography of Cecilia Beaux
Family Portrait by Catherine Drinker Bowen
and the e-book:
Out of the Background: Cecilia Beaux and the Art of Portraiture by Tara Leigh Tappert.
Extracts from letters to and from Cecilia Beaux came from The Beaux Papers held at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art
Information also came from the blog, American Girls Art Club In Paris. . . and Beyond, featuring Cecilia Beaux was also very informative and is a great blog, well worth visiting on a regular basis.:
https://americangirlsartclubinparis.com/tag/catherine-ann-drinker/