Tag Archives: Art

10 1918 People I’m Thankful For

1918 is a depressing year to look back on: war, influenza, rampant racism and sexism. But when something is depressing in retrospect that means we’ve made progress, right? I don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish about 2018—believe me, I’m not. For Thanksgiving, though, I decided to look at some of the people of 1918 who paved the way for the better world—and, for all its problems, it is a better world—we’re living in today.

So thank you, in no particular order, to

1. Jane Addams and the settlement movement

Jane Addams reads to children at Hull House (Jane Addams Memorial Collection, University of Illinois at Chicago)

Jane Addams is one of my 1918 heroes. I had heard of her as the founder of Hull House, the famous Chicago settlement house, which I vaguely imagined as a social services center for the immigrant community. Then I listened to an audiotape of her wonderful memoir Twenty Years at Hull-House and learned that it was so much more—a playhouse and dance hall and crafts museum and lecture theater and book discussion venue and art gallery and sanitation office and whatever else Addams and her fellow settlement workers thought would uplift immigrants from their miserable living conditions. Some of her ideas worked, others didn’t (she discusses the failures with self-deprecating good humor), but she brought astonishing energy and creativity to her mission. Addams received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 and is now known as the “mother of social work.”

The rights of immigrants are under threat today, as they were in 1918, but today, at least, there are hundreds of organizations to protect and assist them.

Thank you, Jane Addams!

2. William Carlos Williams and my new favorite poem

William Carlos Williams with his sons, Paul and William, and his mother, circa 1918 (Beinecke Library, Yale, University)

There was a LOT of bad poetry around in 1918. Or not bad, exactly, just sentimental, bland, and innocuous—sitting in the background like wallpaper. Like this poem. (In the unlikely event you want to read the rest, you can do so here.)

Scribner’s, November 1916

Then the modernists came along and changed everything. They threw aside Victorian notions of beauty and upliftment, as well as meter and rhyme, and wrote about the world they actually saw. The poet I’ve come to know best over the year (after a rocky start) is William Carlos Williams. I recently memorized his relatively little-known but wonderful poem “January Morning,” an account of his early-morning amblings on a winter day. Here’s how it begins:

I have discovered that most of
the beauties of travel are due to
the strange hours we keep to see them:

the domes of the Church of
the Paulist Fathers in Weehawken
against a smoky dawn–the heart stirred–
are beautiful as Saint Peters
approached after years of anticipation.

(And yes, I typed that off the top of my head. You can check for mistakes, and read the rest of the poem, here.)

Thank you, William Carlos Williams!

3. W.E.B. Du Bois, the NAACP, and The Crisis

Portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois on the cover of The Crisis, February 1918

W.E.B. Du Bois is up there with Jane Addams in my 1918 pantheon. He gave up a successful academic career to edit The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine for the African-American community. The Crisis took on discrimination and lynching and other horrors, but it also celebrated the achievements of the community’s “Talented Tenth” (like scholar-athlete Paul Robeson) and printed pictures of cute babies.

Thank you, W.E.B. Du Bois!

4. Harvey Wiley, the FDA, and healthy food

Dr. Wiley in his USDA lab (FDA)

If your turkey dinner isn’t full of dangerous preservatives, you have Harvey Wiley to thank. From his lab at the USDA, Wiley pioneered food safety by testing chemicals on a group of young volunteers known as the “Poison Squad.” While his methods wouldn’t get past the ethics committee today, his efforts on behalf of passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act earned him the nickname “Father of the FDA.”

Thank you, Harvey Wiley!

5. Anna Kelton Wiley and women’s suffrage

Anna Kelton Wiley with her sons

Anna who? you may be asking. Anna Kelton Wiley wasn’t America’s most famous suffragist. That would be Alice Paul. Paul deserves our thanks as well, but I thought of Wiley—Harvey Wiley’s much younger wife—because it’s not just the leaders who matter, it’s all the people in the rank and file who fight locally, day by day, for a better world. Women’s suffrage wasn’t a single victory, won in 1920, but a battle fought and won, state by state, over many years. Now more than ever, this is a lesson we need to remember.

Wiley wrote in Good Housekeeping that she and other suffragists decided to picket the White House—a highly controversial move—after less confrontational methods had failed. The demonstrations, she said, were

a silent, daily reminder of the insistence of our claims…We determined not to be put aside like children…Not to have been willing to endure the gloom of prison would have made moral slackers of all. We should have stood self-convicted cowards.

Thank you, Anna Kelton Wiley!

6. Mary Phelps Jacob and comfortable underwear

Mary Phelps Jacob, ca. 1925 (phelpsfamilyhistory.com)

Segueing from women’s suffrage to underwear might seem like going from the sublime to the ridiculous, but it’s all part of the same thing. Disenfranchisement was one way to keep women down; corsets were another. Corsets were still very much around in 1918, but they were on their way out, partly due to wartime metal conservation efforts. And bras were on their way in, thanks to Mary Phelps Jacob, a socialite who, putting on an evening gown one night in 1913, found that the whalebone from her corset was sticking out from the neckline. With the help of her maid, she improvised a garment out of two handkerchiefs and a piece of ribbon. She patented it the next year as the “Backless Brassiere,” and the rest is history.

Brassiere patent drawing, Mary Phelps Jacob, 1914

Thank you, Mary Phelps Jacob!

7. Amy Lowell and LGBT pride

Amy Lowell, ca. 1916

Amy Lowell wrote about love as she experienced it—with her partner, Ada Dwyer Russell, in the Boston home they shared. They weren’t able to live openly as lovers, and Dwyer destroyed their correspondence at Lowell’s request, but their love shines through in Lowell’s poems. Here’s one of my favorites:

North American Review, February 1918

Thank you, Amy Lowell!

8. Katharine Bement Davis and sexual freedom

Katharine Bement Davis, 1915 (Bain News Service)

We think of sexual freedom as the right to sleep with whoever we want, inside or outside marriage. It is that, of course, but it also involves rights that we take so much for granted today that we don’t even think about them. Like the right of a wife who has contracted a sexually transmitted disease from her husband not to be lied to by her doctor. The right of a young woman to know the facts of life rather than being kept in ignorance to uphold an ideal of “purity.” The right of a teenager not to live in fear that masturbation will lead to blindness and insanity. The right of a couple to practice birth control without risking prison.

Poster, War Department Commission on Training Camp Activities, ca. 1918

Katharine Bement Davis, a settlement worker and social reformer, was at the forefront of the fight against sexual ignorance. When the United States entered World War I, venereal disease turned out to be rampant among recruits. Davis wrote in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science that combating this epidemic required efforts—and knowledge—on the part of “both halves of the community which is concerned.” Davis and her team at the Section on Women’s Work of the Sexual Hygiene Division of the Commission on Training Camp Activities educated women on sexual issues with publications, films, and lectures by women physicians.

Okay, Davis’s solution was that no one, male or female, should have sex outside of marriage. And she, like so many progressives, was a eugenicist. Still, breaking down the walls of ignorance was an important step.

Thank you, Katharine Bement Davis!

9. Dorothy Parker and humor that’s actually funny

Dorothy Parker, date unknown

1918 humor was, for the most part, not funny. There were racist and sexist jokes, faux-folksy tales, and labored puns. Here is a joke I picked at random from Judge magazine:

Judge, November 9, 1918

Then Dorothy Parker came along, filling in for P.G. Wodehouse as Vanity Fair’s drama critic, and changed everything. The best way to make a case for Dorothy Parker is to quote her, so here are some excerpts from her theater reviews:

On the musical Going Up, April 1918: It’s one of those exuberant things—the chorus constantly bursts on, singing violently and dashing through maneuvers, and everybody rushes about a great deal, and slaps people on the back, and bets people thousands of stage dollars, and grasps people fervently by the hand, loudly shouting, “It’s a go!”

On the farce Toot-Toot!, May 1918: I didn’t have much of an evening at “Toot-Toot!” I was disappointed, too, because the advertisements all spoke so highly of it. It’s another of those renovated farces—it used to be “Excuse Me,” in the good old days before the war. I wish they hadn’t gone and called it “Toot-Toot!” When anybody asks you what you are going to see tonight and you have to reply “Toot-Toot!” it does sound so irrelevant.

Thank you, Dorothy Parker!

10. Erté and gorgeous magazine covers

Roman Petrovich Tyrtov (Erté), date unknown

Okay, this doesn’t fit into my theme, because 1918 was the golden age of magazine covers and I get depressed whenever I pass by a 2018 magazine rack. But the beautiful cover art of the era is worth celebrating anyway. There were many wonderful artists, but the master was Erté, who turned twenty-six on November 23, 1918.

Thank you (and happy birthday), Erté!

The common thread on this list, I see, is freedom. Freedom for women, immigrants, people of color, and the LGBT community, but also less obvious but still important types of freedom: to wear clothes you can move around in, to know the facts of life, to eat healthy food, and to write about and laugh about the world as it really is.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! And thanks to all of you out there who, in large ways and small, are working to make the world of a hundred years from now better than the one we live in today.

The best and worst of April 1918: Magazines, stories, faint praise, and neologisms

A third of the way through!

After four months in 1918, I’ve become both more optimistic and more pessimistic about our present world. More optimistic because so many problems that seemed intractable back then, like the acceptability in mainstream circles of overt racism, sexism, and antisemitism, are gone now. More pessimistic because of all the new problems, like global warming, that people back then couldn’t have conceived of.

Okay, enough philosophizing. On to the best and worst of 1918.

Best magazine: The Dial

The Dial is one of the most reliably interesting reads of 1918. It started out in 1840 as an outlet for the Transcendentalists (Louisa May Alcott’s father came up with the name) and was now a Chicago-based political and literary journal. H.L. Mencken wasn’t a fan—he ridiculed the “insane labeling and pigeon-holing that passes for criticism among the gifted Harvard boys of the Dial and the Nation”—but staff writer Randolph Bourne gave as good as he got, saying that Mencken and Theodore Dreiser “beat at a strong man of puritanism which, for the younger generation, has not even the vitality to be interesting.”*

The Dial did have a tendency to review seemingly every book that showed up on its doorstep, like Colorado, the Queen Jewel of the Rockies. But when a single (April 11) issue includes John Dewey on education, historian Charles Beard (who had recently resigned in protest from Columbia) on universities and democracy, Conrad Aiken on poetry,** and Bourne on immigrant fiction, I can forgive a lot.

Best short story: “The Swimming Pool” by Evelyn Campbell, Smart Set

I haven’t read many magazine short stories this month. In fact, I’ve read just one: this one. And I wouldn’t call it a great story. So this might strike you as a shoddy bit of best-and-worst selecting. But something about this story by Evelyn Campbell, a 22-year-old screenwriter and Ziegfeld Follies girl, got to me.

A woman, swimming in a pool as darkness falls, strikes up a conversation with a man. They’re both natural swimmers, creatures of the water, and during their brief conversation they fall a little in love.

Suddenly it was dusk. Not in the enclosure made brilliant by white bulbs, but up above in the oblong of dark blue sky where newly awakened stars began to show timid faces to their bolder rivals. They were in the deep water which lay densely beneath them. Again they turned upon their backs and floated.

As the woman leaves the country club with her horrible rich husband and their children, she passes the man, who’s wearing an ill-cut suit. Her daughter says, Oh, look, the new janitor. A typical Smart Set snappy ending. In most stories, though, the twist at the end is the point—the rest is just setup. Here, the spell that the water casts on the swimmers is the point, and the ending is just the resolution.

Some of Campbell’s descriptions work better than others—I can’t picture what “in the middle of the pool a big golden square turned the water to bright emerald” looks like—but she’s trying something other writers just weren’t doing in 1918. That is, Imagist poets were, but not magazine short story writers.

Best magazine cover: The Crisis

Even by 1918’s high standards, this was an exceptional month for magazine covers. I’ve posted pictures of several of them already (here and here and here). The standout, though, is the cover of the April issue of The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. It features a copy of a painting called “Lead Kindly Light,” made for the magazine by 34-year-old William Edouard Scott (and now owned by the Huntington Museum of Art in West Virginia).

Here’s how the magazine’s editorial, probably written by Du Bois, interprets the painting.

It is just an old lantern, filled with grimy oil. It cannot lead anywhere, yet its light leads. Its golden light streams through the night.

Whose is the light?

It is not the lantern’s. It simply seems to be the lantern’s radiance. It is the Light of the World and it leads not toward the millennium in the North, but out of the insult and prostitution and ignorance and lies and lynchings of the South—up toward a chance, a new chance,—nothing more. But thank God for that…

Lead, Kindly Light.

Worst magazine cover: Ladies’ Home Journal

This is a repeat, but nothing was going to beat this Ladies’ Home Journal cover, titled (by me) “Oh, how sweet! My boyfriend killed someone!”

Best poem: “Is It Worth While,” Violet Hunt, Poetry

Violet Hunt, ca. 1900

Reading Poetry magazine, you can see how living in 1918 was like living in two worlds. In the April 1918 issue, there’s page after page of purple mountains, and it could be 1868, and suddenly there’s Violet Hunt mourning her relationship with Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford), and it could be 1968.

You can read the rest of the poem here.

Faintest praise in a book review: T.S. Eliot, The Egoist

archive.org

This was a surprisingly competitive category. At first, this unsigned review in the April 11 Dial, of Lorinda Munson Bryant’s American Pictures and their Painters, looked like a shoo-in:

One sincerely wishes that Mrs. Bryant in her enthusiasm for nature, both inanimate and human, had focused her numerous descriptions of the subject matter of the paintings. That the painter has chosen to paint a wintry landscape…is surely no excuse for a genteel panegyric on winter, or that the artist has selected a human being…is no excuse for a general eulogy of mankind. In the family circle a little girl, it is true, may be a “darling,” but in a painting that may be the least interesting of her attributes….If the subject is a woman, and a thin one at that, the author thinks the artist would have been wiser to select a plumper and rosier model…Aside from these minor defects the book is a handy and valuable compendium.

From “Hearts of Controversy,” by Alice Meynell, second edition, 1918

But then I came across this review of Alice Meynell’s Hearts of Controversy by Apteryx, AKA T.S. Eliot, in the April issue of The Egoist, and we had a winner.

In its peculiar anti-style, Mrs. Meynell’s book, like all her books, is extremely well written, and she can incidentally pick out good bits from authors. If we can accept this attitude, we shall enjoy the book very much. And people who have a taste for that antiquated genre, that parlour-game, the Polite Essay—which consists in taking a tiny point and cutting figure eights around it, without ever uttering one’s meaning in plain words—will find in Mrs. Meynell’s last essay (“Charmain”) an almost perfect example of a forgotten craft which indeed had its attractions.

*                                              *                                              *

But we must learn to take literature seriously.

(Asterixes Apteryx’s.)

Best neologism: Surréaliste

Study for a portrait of Guillaume Appolinaire, Jean Metzinger, 1911

“SURRÉALISTE is the denomination M. Guillaume Apollinaire—there is no doubt his astounding name continues to have good reason for keeping well in evidence—has attached to his play, Les Mamelles de Tirésias,” the Paris correspondent for The Egoist tells us. I knew that the surrealist movement was just getting underway in 1918, but it seemed strange to think of the word itself being a novelty. So I crunched some big data—that is, did a Google Books N-Gram***—and it’s true, surreal and its variants were pretty much non-existent at that point. So what did people say when things were, you know, surreal?

Best humor: 

In The Bookman, there’s a report about the mystery surrounding the identity of the author of The Book of Artemas, a bestselling British spoof relating current events in biblical style. Was it G.K. Chesterton? J.M. Barrie? Hilaire Belloc? George Bernard Shaw? (It would turn out to be someone no one ever heard of named Arthur Telford Mason.) Here’s an excerpt:

5. Whilst Wudro, the son of Wyl, was tending his flock of young men in the pasture that is knowledge, and after he had taught them how they should go and what things they should know,
6. Behold, the men of Amer came unto him, saying, We have chosen thee for to rule over us; and we have
brought thee an high hat for to wear as the badge of thine office; and the size of the hat, it is six and seven-eights.
7. And because he knew not what he was letting himself
in for, he gave way to their importuning, and did put on the high hat, the size whereof was six and seven-eights.
8. And it came to pass that when the men of En fought against the men of Hu, they did send messengers unto the land of Amer for to buy them munitions for the war. And they took
with them gold in great quantity wherewith to satisfy the merchants that did sell unto them. Therefor did the land of Amer prosper exceedingly.

Worst joke:

Judge, April 27, 1918

On to May!

*Kind of harsh, since Bourne was only six years younger than Mencken.

**He agrees with me about Christopher Morley’s goopiness.

***Which is really fun—you should try if you’re off Facebook and looking for new ways to waste time.

The best and worst of March 1918: Magazines, essays, cover art, and humor

When I was in the Foreign Service, living in Cambodia or Honduras or wherever, people used to ask, “But don’t you miss home?” I never knew what to say. The honest answer was, “I miss some things, sometimes, but it’s way more interesting here. Don’t you get bored living in the same place all the time?” That seemed kind of rude, though.

A quarter of the way through, that’s how I feel about my life in 1918. I’ll see, for example, that Meg Wolitzer, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Rebecca Harrington all have books coming out, and for a second I’ll wish that I could read them, but then I’ll pick up Mrs. Spring Fragrance or the latest issue of The Dial, and the feeling goes away. I can read those books next year. In the meantime, it’s way more interesting here.

Now for the best and worst of March 1918:

Best Magazine: The Little Review

Ulysses, as I wrote earlier this month, made its first appearance in the Little Review in March 1918. The issue also includes Ezra Pound writing on Marianne Moore, fiction by Wyndham Lewis, and an essay by Ford Madox Hueffer (a.k.a. Ford) that contains the sentence “The Englishman’s mind is of course made up entirely of quotations.” But the rest of the issue could have been blank (which wouldn’t have been unprecedented—the first thirteen pages of the September 1916 issue were blank, an expression of editor Margaret Anderson’s frustration over the lack of quality submissions) and it still would have been the best magazine of the month, if not the year.

Worst Magazine: The Art World

The Art World, as I noted last week, had nothing good to say about impressionism or anything that came after. To put that into perspective, the first major exhibition of impressionist art was in 1874. So an art magazine taking this stance in 1918 is like Rolling Stone saying in 2018 that this rock-and-roll music is just a lot of noise.

Statue of Lincoln, George Grey Barnard, Lytle Park, Cincinnati (1917)

In its March 1918 issue, the last before it merged into another magazine, The Art World criticized George Grey Barnard’s statue of Lincoln in Cincinnati, saying that Barnard

does not show the majestic Lincoln at the bar of history being judged and admired, but a slave Lincoln at the block, being sold and pitied…let us hope that Mr. Barnard will now deign to accept the advice we gave him in June 1917 and make a new Lincoln—virile, heroic, and majestic.

The magazine approvingly quotes portraitist Cecilia Beaux saying of the 1913 Armory Show in New York, the first large exhibition of modern art in the United States, that

“It was like a sudden windstorm that raises no little dust, noise, and confusion for the moment; when the wind dies down you discover that much that was of no real value has blown away, leaving a clearer, wholesome atmosphere.”

The Art World branches out to the written word in this issue, calling a modernist poem “speech worthy of a yapping maniac.”

Best humorous essay: “Making the Nursery Safe for Democracy,” by Harold Kellock, The Bookman

 

Essays about family life in 1918 are generally steeped in sarcasm (if they’re by men) or sentimentality (if they’re by women). It’s hard to find a family that seems real. Then I came across Harold Kellock’s essay about his four-year-old son being bombarded with royalist propaganda through his nursery reading. Every night, Kellock is forced to read his son a story about some heroic king. “In a world wherein we are pouring out our blood and treasure that democracy may live safely,” he complains, “our children scarcely out of the cradle are being made into staunch little monarchists.” He takes a stab at democratizing the stories, but it doesn’t work, and he resigns himself to nursery royalism.

“Then,” I read, “the king took Gretel to his palace and celebrated the marriage in great state. And she told the king all her story, and he sent for the fairy and punished her.” Think of having the power of punishment over fairies! The King und Gott! But my son swallows it complacently. He does not question the divine right of kings.

Faery Tales from Hans Christian Andersen, Maxwell Armfield, 1910

Kellock reassures himself that, when the time comes, he can turn his child into a democrat by showing him photographs “of some vacuous king, discreetly bearded to hide his recessional features,” or “a typical princess, whose hat and features alike seem so unfortunately chosen, opening a Red Cross bazaar.”

But not for a while, he says.

Worst humorous essay: “I Must Have Been A Little Too Rough,” by George B. Jenkins, Jr., Smart Set

I hope this is the worst thing I read all year. There must be an anti-gender violence message hidden somewhere, but…well, read it for yourself.

I must have been a little too rough.

“Women,” her father had told me, “are tired of the courteous treatment of the average man. They are bored by the vapid compliments, the silly lies, the stupid chatter of pale youths with gardenias in their lapels. If you want to be a success with women, be rude! Be violent! Overpower them, assert your physical superiority! If necessary, beat them!” He became quite excited. “Pound them! Assault them! Half-murder them!”

I listened to him respectfully, though I did not care for him at all. Yet I believed him, for he is notoriously successful in his affaires.

I decided to test his theories. Striding into the next room, I grasped his daughter about the waist.

“I love you!” I roared, squeezing her until her face was purple.

“You belong to me!” I shouted, dragging her around the room by her hair, and overturning several chairs in our progress.

“Damn you!” I shrieked, striking her on the shoulder, where the blow left a blue welt, “I will fight the world for you.”

She began to whimper.

“Shut up!” I ordered, in my rudest manner, and slung her across the room.

But I must have been a little too rough, for she fell out the window.

Best magazine cover: The Liberator

The first issue of The Liberator was published in March 1918. Its predecessor, The Masses, had closed down in 1917 after being declared treasonous by the government for its anti-war stance. The debut issue included reporting from Russia by John Reed, whose Ten Days that Shook the World was published the next year (and who died in Russia in 1920 at the age of 32). I’ll write more about The Liberator later. For now, here’s its inaugural cover, by Hungarian-American artist Hugo Gellert.

Worst magazine cover: Collier’s

I’m imagining the meeting where this cover was conceived.

Art director: How about…the President?
Editor: What would he be doing?
Art director: Nothing, just a picture of his face, in black and white. With a caption that says [stretches his hand into the air dramatically], “The President.”
Editor: I like it!

Best humor:


As I’ve noted before, there are no good jokes in 1918 magazines. But I liked this Cornelia Barns Liberator cartoon, featuring the world’s most coldhearted mother seeing her son off to war.

Worst humor:

First dog: How is brother collie over there? Is he in your set?
Second: Oh, yes; we visit the same garbage pails.

(Life magazine, March 28, 1918)

And, in honor of Women’s History Month, the most inspiring women:

I came across so many! Novelists Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Mary Roberts Rinehart; artist Elizabeth Gardner; dancer Irene Castle; Little Review editor Margaret Anderson; suffragist Anna Kelton Wiley; prosecutor Annette Abbott Adams; rebellious housewife Julia Clark Hallam; and the anonymous woman who wrote about how divorce saved her sanity.

But every month is Women’s History month at My Year in 1918, and there are lots more inspiring women to come. (Sneak preview: a pioneering British sexologist and a witty Chinese-American writer.) On to April!

Elizabeth Gardner: A boundary-breaking, cross-dressing painter with a surprising afterlife

In the March 1918 issue of the The Art World, there’s an article called “Some Painters Who Happen to Be Women.” I read it, and it’s true! They all just happened to be women. None of them did it on purpose, just to be annoying.

According to the article’s author, Lida Rose* McCabe, who happened to be a woman herself,

woman as an art producer has ceased to be curio, enigma or trifle. Upon intrinsic merit her achievement now stands or falls. In all that makes for exhibition, Jury award, Academician, museum purchase or public commission, hers is today the modern sexlessness—attributed to angels in painting and sculpture.

Elizabeth Jane Gardner, ca. 1860

The oldest of these modern sexless artists—“her years fourscore!” McCabe marvels—is Elizabeth Jane Gardner. The Art World is a pretty fusty magazine, so I assumed that she was a boring society painter. Well, I was wrong. In 1864, at the age of 23, Gardner left for Paris to study art, but, McCabe tells us,

no school, no master would receive her. The few French or foreign women then known to the Salon or Latin quarter, like the few who had preceded them down the ages, were the wives, sisters, or daughters of artists.

Gardner found an ingenious way to get around this problem. Her hair had been cut short because of a fever before she left for France, so, she tells McCabe,

“I applied to the police to wear boy’s clothes. It was readily granted, and in that guise I entered the Gobelin’s school. My masculine attire which I always changed on heading home, never caused me the slightest annoyance. The students were most courteous, and in the streets I was never inconvenienced.”

Closed Shutters, Elizabeth Gardner

Success came quickly. Two of Gardner’s paintings were selected for the Salon in 1866, and in 1872 she was awarded its gold medal, the first woman to receive that honor.** In the early 1900s, the Musée de Luxembourg bought her painting Closed Shutters for its American wing. In the otherwise admiring profile, McCabe sneers at this painting, saying that

with due deference to its quality, there are few of our museums, private collections or current exhibitions without a picture by a native home-trained woman painter to equal if not surpass Closed Shutters.***

McCabe tells us that Gardner married her teacher, noted artist William Bouguereau. What she doesn’t tell is that Gardner, who was maybe not as sexless as McCabe makes out, carried on a long liaison with Bouguereau after the death of his first wife in 1877. His mother bitterly opposed their marriage, and this was apparently too great an obstacle for this pair of otherwise free spirits to overcome. (Could money have been involved?) His mother finally died in 1896, at the age of ninety-one, and they married shortly afterwards.

Self-portrait, William Bouguereau, 1879

Gardner was heavily influenced by Bouguereau, to the extent that she was quoted as saying, “I know I am censured for not more boldly asserting my individuality, but I would rather be known as the best imitator of Bouguereau than be nobody!”

David the Shepherd, Elizabeth Gardner, ca. 1895

Many of Gardner’s paintings are conventional nineteenth-century tableaux: Greek myths, biblical scenes, and the like. Others, though, raise eyebrows today.

Take, for instance, The Confidence (ca. 1880). The painting, now owned by the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Georgia, shows two young women sharing a secret. To a modern eye, it looks sexualized—the intimate position of the heads, the bare feet close together. In a 2013 article about the loan of the painting to (of all places) Bob Jones University, however, a museum staff member said that this wasn’t the case.  “It’s very affectionate, but it’s also very 19th-century sisterly affectionate.”

The Confidence, Elizabeth Gardner, ca. 1880

The Confidence had a second life in—I bet you didn’t see this coming!—an R.E.M. video. As the Athens-based band sings its 1991 song “Low,” the girls in the painting come to life and the action continues. And, take my word for it, it’s anything but sisterly. (Or check it out yourself on R.E.M.’s website.)

I’m not sure what Elizabeth Gardner would have thought, but Lida Rose McCabe must be turning over in her grave.

*So now I can’t get the song from The Music Man out of my head.

**The Art World sees art as a resume-building process. Still—impressive!

***The Art World’s taste in art was so reactionary that even impressionism was a bridge too far. Its take on Monet’s Rouen Cathedral: “Nothing more than a ‘color stunt.’”

Wednesday Miscellany

An ad in The Egoist, the British literary journal where T.S. Eliot was assistant editor. I love how proudly they quote the criticism. Dissatisfying! Very unequal! Missing the effort by too much cleverness!

 

Judge was a humor magazine that managed almost never to be funny–more on that later–but they had some great illustrators. My favorites from the January 3, 1918, issue: