Posts Tagged ‘ William Dean Howells ’

“Do not try to paint the grandiose thing …”

William Merritt Chase: Gilded Age Rebel, Aesthete, Dandy, Conservative.
Retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

1. Ready for the Ride. Oil on canvas. 1877. Museum of Fine Art, Boston. (All illustrations in this post are of works in exhibit and can be enlarged by clicking.)

On March 1898 a New York Times writer mused about the nature of artistic cycles.1 The immediate subject was the opening of the Society of American Artists’ annual exhibition in the Fine Arts Building on West 57th Street in New York City. But he also looked back to the beginning of the Society, twenty years earlier, when a “small band” of art students returning from Europe, called the “Munich men” (because they studied in that city rather than Paris) upended the American art world (such as it then was) with their new sensibilities by revolting against the “antiquated rules” of the National Academy of Design. The Society was created to escape the doctrinaire hold on on big time arts shows and its use of its power to squeeze out any new comers. The inaugural show of the Society was designed to provide an alternate venue. The “Munich men” took over that show, and provided quality works that pointed the way to an American art more attuned to the times. The group was headed by William Merritt Chase and his associates, James Carroll Beckwith, John Henry Twachtman and J. Alden Weir, principally:

“These bold and brave young artists scarcely realized themselves at the time what their revolt and their new move meant to the cause of American art, nor how it wrote the doom of the well-termed Hudson River school of painting in this country, and the beginning of a new use of broader methods and more liberal ideas, which within a few years affected the old Academy itself.”

The Times writer proceeded to compare their debut to the then present when those very New Men had become the Academy. And in a world that moved much faster than they thought, most, including (and especially) Chase, would be left behind. But we’ll get to that later. For now let’s look at the beginning of the career of William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), a career on full display in the marvelous retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: William Merritt Chase, an exhibition running until January 16, 2017. The exhibition is a travelling show co-sponsored in addition to the MFA by the Phillips Collection of Washington, D.C., Fondazione Musei Civici Venezia and the Terra Foundation for American Art of Chicago. The exhibition opened at The Phillips Collection (June 4–September 11) before traveling to the MFA (October 9, 2016–January 16, 2017), and next year it will travel to the International Gallery of Modern Art, in Venice, Italy (February 10–May 28, 2017). The MFA show (which I will call it for ease, and because I saw it there) exhibits nearly 80 paintings, and gives justice to every aspect of Chase’s career. Indeed, nearly every one of the paintings one could hope to view is on display.2 The exhibition contains quite a few surprises, and it is a powerful proof that Chase deserves wider recognition. (This is the first major show in nearly thirty years.3) The surprises begin with his student years.

Student Works

2. Boy Smoking (The Aprrentice). Oil on canvas. 1875. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.

2. Boy Smoking (The Apprentice). Oil on canvas. 1875. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.

Chase made his first stir in the American art world even before he returned from studies in Munich. The entrance to the MFA gallery devoted to his student day confronts the viewer with Ready for the Ride (#1), a painting which Chase sold to New York art dealer Samuel P. Avery. Avery was well plugged into American collectors and routinely visited Europe to scout out likely works for them. He had been in Munich in 1875, and knew Karl von Piloty, a genre and historical painter who dominated the Munich art scene at the time. It was probably through Piloty, who was then teaching Chase in a master class, that Avery heard of Chase and purchased the work in 1877. (He would resell it to the Union League Club in New York City.) In 1878 Ready for the Ride was one of three works of Chase loaned to the Society of American Artists (SAA) exhibition (together with Boy Smoking (The Apprentice) (#2) and The Wounded Poacher). On the basis of this show, an art critic writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle singled Chase out as “one of the most promising of younger American artists” and used Ready for the Ride as proof:

“Ready for the Ride” is a very strongly treated picture, the coloring and drawing being remarkable. He seems to have aimed at a Rembrandt effect in this work, and the old Dutch school is plainly visible in both the figure and the dark, shadowy background. … [it] is the certainly the finest work he has yet sent home.”4

It is indeed true that the Dutch masters’ dark background makes Chase’s subject appear nearly three dimensional. The collar and “Puritan-like” hat also suggest his Dutch models. But what strikes the viewer today is how starkly “modern” the pose and attitude of the woman is. She is seen from nearly her back, and she turns to look at the artist/viewer. Her manner of putting on her glove shows complete assurance as does her confident gaze. The size of the work (53½ x 33½”) makes it more imposing and emphasizes the “equality” of the modern woman. It is a work that also underscores the elegance of the modern upper middle class at the beginning of the Gilded Age in America, a theme that Chase would perfect for his commissioned (and other) portraits. It would make him a well-to-do artist.

3. Unexpected Intrusion (The Turkish Page). Oil on canvas. 1876. Cincinnati Art Museum.

3. Unexpected Intrusion (The Turkish Page). Oil on canvas. 1876. Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Boy Smoking (The Apprentice) (#2) shows a path that Chase could have pursued, but ultimately did not. Together with Impudence (The Leader) (1875, now at the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts), the canvas consists of a sympathetic portrayal of a young working class teenager, not very much different from Chase himself not even a decade before, when he clerked for his father at a shoe store in Indianapolis. Much like the woman in Ready for the Ride, the Boy Smoking shows a person of (perhaps misplaced) confidence, and no attempt is made to patronize him, even though it is clear that he comes from an entirely different world than the one Chase now aspired to. Of particular interest are the soiled hands of the boy, one holding a cigar, the other a clay jug. They are the hands destined for a lifetime of work, unlike the gloved hands of the woman in Ready for the Ride. But unlike the peasants in the paintings of the contemporary Barbizon school, Chase’s young worker is neither bowed over nor humble. Perhaps this is a particularly American view. But Chase was more concerned about new art for America than making any kind of political or sociological statements.

Chase never pursued portraits of commoners beyond his student days. It seems he only painted the likes of Boy Smoking because he was working with models together with fellow American student Frank Duveneck, with whom he shared a studio in Munich and who would become a noted American figure painter in his own right. The two often split the cost of a young model and his costumes and painted the same figure. The most famous of their joint sessions produced Chase’s Unexpected Intrusion (The Turkish Page) (#3). With that painting Chase showed not only that he fully learned the lessons in technique that the Munich Royal Academy stressed but also that he was moving beyond its preferred dark palette. It captures a surprising moment when the (stuffed?) cockatoo lands on a bowl of grapes which spill onto the carpet covering the legs of the boy. The picture combines a variety of surfaces from the fabrics of the carpet and background screen, the feathers of the bird’s wings and crest, the skin of the boy (both torso and feet bottoms) and the metal neck chain on the boy and the chain binding the parrot’s feet to the metal ringed perch. Various shades of red dominate the scene from the darker red of his cap and slippers, to the lighter carpet to the pink tinge of the bird. These reds are offset by the dark bluish green of the background curtain. But what makes the picture memorable is how it seems to capture a fleeting moment, not only by the outspread wings of the cockatoo but also by the posture of the boy.

chase-keying-up

4. “Keying Up”—The Court Jester. Oil on canvas. 1875. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

 

The student picture, however, that brought Chase his first fame in America was earlier than either Ready for the Ride or Unexpected Intrusion, and like the latter traded in the exotic and even more than Unexpected Intrusion is drenched in red. The painting display a humorous sensibility that would rarely be seen after Chase’s student days. The diminutive jester pours himself a glass of spirits while his look-alike puppet watches. Both sport the telltale alcoholic red on their long noses and prominent cheeks. Both are similarly dressed, and Chase pays especial attention to the caps with their bells. The curved mustaches on both add to their humorous appearance. Like all Chase portraits, and indeed almost all Chase works, the painting elaborately renders surfaces from the polished wood of the gargoyle-like head carvings on the dark wooden cabinet behind him to the different fabrics of his costume and slippers, to the glass bottle he holds.

“Keying Up” was entered in the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and won a gold medal. In many ways it was that show that marked the turning point in American art. The celebration of the second century of the country emphasized urbanization, mechanization and technological and social change. The art show featured works from American students from Paris and Munich, and the styles of both fundamentally subverted the underlying assumptions of prevailing American art. That art was mostly expressed by the Hudson River School. (For a sample of this style, see this post on Albert Bierstadt.) The paintings were largely of outdoor scenes, usually of breathtaking scope and often of monumental landscape features (mountains, waterfalls, lakes). The works were not so subtly “patriotic,” depicting a view of America involving a destiny conjoined with the land, rural and wild. (Sometimes the works were more or less explicitly political, as in the works lending support to the Union cause.) This vision of destiny had moral undertones, and so the art dedicated to it was awe-inspiring, reverential and, frankly, static as a result. And most characteristic of all, people had very little place in these works. When they were portrayed, they appeared small, in the distance and overwhelmed by the landscape. American students educated in either Paris or Munich could not help but reject all the underlying assumptions of the Hudson River artists. This was particularly true of those who were influenced by the anti-academic movements in Paris. (Chase saw these influences indirectly through the Leibl-Kreis.) As for the American art-consuming public, located east of the Mississippi and north of the old confederacy and becoming predominantly urban and wealthier than ever before, the rural and awe-inspiring nature no longer held their attention. Money was being made in cities and in industry, and the intellectuals who thrived during the Gilded Age would emphasize individualism, secular optimism and the possibilities of change. Chase and his fellow “rebels” had the attitude and technique to replace the prevailing style whose rules had become calcified into the rules of the academy. The critics were quick to extol Chase, and the popular press echoed the encomiums.5

New York Studio Artist

10. Tenth Street Studio. Oil on canvas. ca. 1880-81 and ca. 1910. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

5. Tenth Street Studio. Oil on canvas. ca. 1880-81 and ca. 1910. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

When Chase burst upon the New York scene in 1878 (he was 29 at the time), he had fixed ideas of how he was to make an impact—his flamboyant art was to be part of a flamboyant life. For six years Chase had immersed himself in pure aesthetic devotion, and, cut off from America, he had become something unknown on these shores: a practicing aesthete, and an evangelical one at that. Nothing could be further from his his upbringing in a Midwestern family desperately trying to claw its way into an economically secure and respectable status. None of this would have come about but for Chase’s time abroad.

Chase ended up studying in Munich by a series of contingencies. His father wanted him to remain in Indianapolis to help him in his barely profitable shoe store.6 But to mollify a disinterested young “Will,” his father paid for lessons from a local portrait and still life painter. Chase, however, was so restless that he ran away and joined the navy. It didn’t take long for him to regret the decision, and he had his father travel to Annapolis to secure his release from service. Chase returned to Indianapolis, where he clerked and again studied, this time being given a studio to work in. Soon, however, Chase was able to persuade his father, with the help of another local artist who counseled him, that he had serious prospects as an artist if he could study in New York. In 1869 20 year-old Chase travelled to New York and enrolled in the National Academy of Design (where J. Alden Weir and Albert Pinkham Ryder would be his classmates). The following year his father’s business closed, and Chase’s funds ran out. So he returned to his family, who had then moved to St. Louis. It was there that he developed sufficiently as an artist that a group of local businessmen struck a deal to underwrite two years of study in Europe in exchange for a painting by Chase for each one and services as an agent to procure likely European art for them. This offer changed his life. He was acutely aware of how significant training in the world’s best painting centers would be to his career, and his response to the offer was “My God! I’d rather go to Europe than go to heaven!”

When Chase arrived in Europe he selected Munich rather than Paris for study, not only because he knew Americans who studied there, but also (possibly because of the Midwestern work ethic instilled in him) to avoid the distractions that Paris would offer. Germany was in the first flush of its race to European cultural legitimacy following its overwhelming defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war. In Munich Chase would room with, first, Walter Shirlaw and later with Duveneck. When the funds from his St. Louis deal ran out, Piloty commissioned him to paint his children and assisted him in selling certain canvases. With the funds he received he travelled to Venice with Duveneck and Thwachtman. It was during this time that Chase developed the habit of living beyond his means. As his funds ran out, he continued buying art and various objects that he intended to fill a studio with. He became a compulsive aesthete, convincing himself that “beauty” was the most important objective. Fortunately his friends financed his basic needs until until he was able to return to New York. He had accepted (tamping down his strong ambivalence) a teaching position in New York at the Art Students League, a decision that allowed him to set up a first class studio.

6. The Inner Studio, Tenth Street. Oil on canvas. 1882. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California.

6. The Inner Studio, Tenth Street. Oil on canvas. 1882. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California.

Back in New York Chase believed his most important task was to secure a prestigious studio. He was able to rent a small studio (15′ x 20′) in the famous Tenth Street Studio, the first commercial building designed to house artists, located between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, which housed studios of America’s most prominent artists. Chase, however, had his eyes on the large two-story studio, originally designed as an exhibition space, but recently occupied by Albert Bierstadt. To the annoyance of the more established artists, who believed their greater fame and longer residence entitled them to priority, Chase obtained the studio and symbolically replaced arguably the most famous Hudson River School painter in America.

The large studio would become the place where Chase worked, a subject of numerous paintings and the center of his self-promotional energies. During his student days Chase concentrated on works in which he could paint a model costumed elaborately and surrounded by visually interesting objects. Chase therefore filled his studio with objets d’art, bric-à-brac and other decorations. The studio itself became the background in many works. Tenth Street Studio (#5), begun in the early 1880s and completed some three decades later, not only shows how he used the studio in his paintings but also symbolically reveals his view of art itself. The painting has two visitors inspecting a painting in the middle of a long wall of the studio filled with paintings and other objects including a large stuffed swan. Two others are seated on the left looking at sketches on a table. But none of the four figures are completed, and their faces are obscure. In fact, it is only the paintings and other artistic objects that are clearly rendered in detail. Although schooled in European realism, Chase makes the point that it is art that is “real.” Indeed, in all his early studio paintings Chase drives home the idea that art is valuable in itself, and that he himself is a prophet of that belief.

The Inner Studio (#6) shows another art devotee, this one perhaps more serious than the visitors in the later Tenth Street Studio (#5). Like a temple with its inner sanctum, Chase’s studio has an Inner Studio, and here the model, back to us, closely studies a framed painting, while a matted picture lays on the floor to her left. There is a gold bowl to her right. The things surrounding her represent the tools of this priestcraft, things prepare the soul to enter the mysteries of the world of artistic beauty.

7. Tenth Street Studio. Oil on canvas. 1880. St. Louis Art Museum.

7. Tenth Street Studio. Oil on canvas. 1880. St. Louis Art Museum. St. Louis, Missouri.

The 1880 Tenth Street Studio (#7) makes a somewhat different point. Beauty and luxury and elegance are, for Chase, intimately related. This is true for the artist as well as the art patron. Chase could not fail to understand the interrelations of these qualities is what attracted the wealthy patrons that were his market. The studio itself was something of a gallery in which he could display his works to the select public (e.g., #5). The more attractive and engaging the space, the more of a luxurious atmosphere it surrounded the visitor with, the more likely it was that the visitor would wish to purchase a painting or commission a portrait. But it was probably was not entirely a marketing ploy; “art atmosphere” meant something to him. Yet his beliefs mereged with a kind branding that came natural to Chase, who was not hesitant to make decisions that might enhance his fame and marketability. He joined all the important artistic associations in New York and founded others in order to associate himself with energetic and like-minded artists. He became a friend of most of the important intermediaries in the art world, first the publishers of art journals and books and later the curators of the major galleries and museums. The studio provided space for social and cultural events he sponsored. He held open houses on Saturdays. And he frequently had his students to his studio for a variety of lessons, not the least of which was to inculcate them with his view of the place of art in society and how to approach it. The studio accommodated every part of Chase’s life, and Chase’s life was consumed by the quest for elegance, style and beauty. He became almost a caricature of the new artists, who could only exist in this new, urban and increasingly prosperous America. And while he courted the New York elite, he did so to draw them into his own world, a world where everything was involved with art, a world entirely like the old, rural, pre-industrial America.

8. May I Come In?. Pastel on canvas. 1886, Collection of W. & E. Clark.

8. May I Come In?. Pastel on canvas. 1886, Collection of W. & E. Clark.

For Chase the studio was where art was made.That statement seems unremarkable now, but in the late 1870s it marked a new kind of artist and also drastically different subjects for art. Aside from portraits (mostly uninspired likenesses designed as mere memorial keepsakes), American art American art was about Nature, often wild and untamed, but sometimes in harmony with frontier and rural folk who have barely tamed it. American artists worshipped at the altar of Nature; painters were Nature’s celebrants and painting its ritual. To properly capture the essence of Nature, artists painted outdoors. And therefore the outdoors were the painter’s studio; indoors, where paintings were finished, were simply workshops. Inspiration was obtained by personally experiencing the beauty of the natural world, and the artists’ job was to communicate that awe and wonder through representational (if overly romantic) pictures.

Unlike the artists who occupied the field of American art before those of Chase’s generation returned from Europe, Chase believed that art itself is what the painter owed his allegiance to. The previous generation worshipped Nature and believed art celebrated it: painters were Nature’s celebrants and painting its ritual. And therefore the outdoors were the painter’s studio; indoors, where paintings were finished, were simply workshops. Inspiration was obtained by personally experiencing the beauty of the natural world, and the artists’ job was to communicate that awe and wonder through realistic (if romantic) pictures.

Chase, above all his generation in America, promoted the new European view that Art existed for its own sake, not to represent a higher ideal. Nature was not the exclusive, or even primary object of Art, and artists did not have to commune with it for experience. In fact, in the early 1880s he told his fellow aesthetes at the Tile Club that even if one painted landscapes it should be done in the studio:

“The proper way to paint a landscape is in the studio, far from the thing itself. You must simply look at a scene you are going to paint, observe the detail, saturate yourself with it. Then you have the spirit within you and can paint it later under ideal conditions, taking plenty of time to work it up to perfection.”7

Indeed for Chase, the studio was the center of art-making. It not only provided the props for works and a convenient place for models to pose or patrons to be painted, it also, and more importantly, generated the inspiration for his work. And for that reason it had to be filled with beautiful objects. In a 1906 lecture at the New York School of Art Chase ascribed to their studios the inspiration that the Old Masters displayed: “the secret of the success of the old masters … was their environments—and it was this influence that helped to produce their great works. It is really that in art that counts and it was this kind of art atmosphere that was of importance.”8 This belief drove Chase’s need to acquire “beautiful things,” and that in turn drove him to live beyond his means, a habit he never really conquered even once he had a large family to support. His first biographer Katherine Roof (at 254) said, “No man ever lived more completely in the atmosphere and the idea of art than Chase did.”

9. In the Studio. Oil on canvas. ca. 1881 or 1882. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

9. In the Studio. Oil on canvas. ca. 1881 or 1882. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

That Chase justified his need for an “art atmosphere” by reference to the Old Masters was not simply rationalization. His view of beauty was deeply rooted in the tradition of Western Art that went back to the Baroque. His two points of reference throughout his career were the Northern European (particularly Dutch) art of the seventeenth century and the collection of the Prado, especially Velázquez. Chase saw his own art as part of that tradition and often harkened back to the originators in his composition, treatment of light, posing of models and so forth. Although he could not articulate it clearly, Chase’s view of “beauty,” what it constituted, what objects possessed it, how to show it, was not a mere solipsism, but rather a view supported by deep study of the past. And often in his works he made allusion to that past. The early work In the Studio (#9), for example, is another picture of a richly clad devotee of beauty studying art while surrounded by objects selected and arranged by Chase. In nearly the very center of the painting is a framed etching of “Malle Babbe” by the Dutch master (or student of) Frans Hals, one of Chase’s favorites. The reference has interest beyond the mere statement that Chase’s art is part of that traditon, for the painting by Hals is of a subject not conventionally beautiful. Its inclusion states that the beauty in art is in the technique and execution, not the subject.

By surrounding himself with his version of beauty Chase made his studio nationally famous. It became the emblem of eccentric artistic genius and regularly appeared (and sometimes was satirized) in fiction, such as Esther by Henry Adams, The Coast of Bohemia by William Dean Howells, The Third Violet by Stephen Crane, The Other Fellow and Tile Club Stories by F. Hopkinson Smith, and even after his death in The “Genius” by Theodore Dreiser. And it frequently was discussed in the art journals. It was said to be a place that aspiring artists and artists of all sorts from outside of New York City made a pilgrimage. All of this gave Chase an added layer of celebrity, and in trying to enhance it, his religion of aestheticism led him into foppery, dandyism and, frankly, embarrassing and offensive behavior. Not only did he fill his office with pottery, elaborate furniture, Japanese umbrellas, old books, fabrics, fans, tapestries, brass pots, glazed glass objects, costumes and the like, he kept a cockatoo, 10 macaws and a Russian wolfhound and another dog. He forced his African-American servant Daniel to dress in exotic outfits when serving guests, and he often would strut through Manhattan with ridiculous affectation:

“He walked down Fifth Avenue dressed as an elegant Parisian art student with his Russian wolfhound and Daniel in tow wearing his Nubian costume. Chase wore a narrow, flat-brimmed French silk hat and a soft tie, both highly unconventional, as well as several rings from his growing collection. Chase ‘the cosmopolitan’ appeared sophisticated and cultured to the rich and the well-born.” (Bryant, at 68.)9

In the end, however, the affectations did not pay for the show, or perhaps Chase’s excesses were too much for the revenue of his patrons. While he maintained the studio through 1895, when he auctioned its contents (including many of his own paintings) in January 1896 he received only a fraction of their purchase price (Bryant, at 173). Although he would maintain more modest studios thereafter for portrait commissions, he had transitioned from nineteenth century hipster to establishment academician by that point. Before then Chase would make his mark on American art in a couple of other ways.

Portrait Artist Extraordinaire

10. An Idle Moment (also At Her Ease or Study of a Young Girl.). Oil on canvas. ca. 1884. National Academy of Design, New York City.

10. An Idle Moment (also At Her Ease or Study of a Young Girl). Oil on canvas. ca. 1884. National Academy of Design, New York City.

Chase’s principal claim to early fame and his most reliable source of income from his art came by way of his portrait paintings. Not long after he returned to New York City from Munich, he was regularly given official commissions for prestige portrait projects.10 By and large Chase’s portraits of men intended to promote their official or institutional capacity (including formal family roles like pater familias) and seem stiffly formal or out-of-date today. Many of Chase’s paintings of women, by contrast, reveal personality while also conveying a sense of style and elegance. Chase’s interest in figure painting, of course, went back to his original interest in art in Indiana, and his studies in Munich concentrated on figures (as well as still lifes). Even during his first stay in New York in 1869-70, while studying at the National Academy of Design, Chase was accomplished enough to obtain commissions for portraits. But over his career his portraits of girls and women seemed to have gained strength mainly by his interest in composition and the poses of the subject in addition to his mastery of the textures of clothing and accessories.

From his student days (e.g., ##1–2) Chase had a flair for discovering poses that illustrated an attitude. That talent only improved when he began his annual trips to Europe to meet with contemporary artists and study unfamiliar old masters beginning in 1881. That particular summer proved highly influential to Chase’s career, for he met arguably Europe’s three most prominent painters of women of high society and began a close study of the golden age artist who would inform his portrait technique. During two weeks in Paris in the early summer fellow Art Students League teacher James Carroll Beckwith introduced him to his teacher Carolus-Duran and arranged a lunch with American expatriate John Singer Sargent. Returning to Paris in September he met Belgian impressionist Alfred Stevens at his studio. That meeting had a substantial effect on Chase. Stevens had seen Chase’s The Smoker (his portrait of Duvaneck, an etching of which preceded the first Van Rensselaer article [linked below]), which had received honorable mention at the Paris Salon that year. Stevens advised Chase to lighten his palette from the dark values preferred by the Munich school. He also urged Chase to strike off on his own and not attempt to recapture the forms and techniques of the old masters. Chase seems to have almost immediately followed the former advice (as can be seen by comparing #9 with #7 among the “studio” piictures). But Chase had more difficulty with the second recommendation, especially because he had spent the time between his two trips to Paris that year in Madrid and he fell under the influence of Velázquez. He would spend five weeks again in Madrid with his friend Robert Blum (producing drawings for Scribner’s) the following year, and Velázquez remained under the Spaniard’s thrall for the rest of career as a portrait painter. (In 1894 he named his fifth daughter Helen Velasquez.)

11. Portrait of Mrs. C (Alice Gerson Chase). Oil on canvas. ca. 1890-95. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

11. Portrait of Mrs. C (Alice Gerson Chase). Oil on canvas. ca. 1890-95. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Chase’s reliance on old masters, particularly in his portraits, probably served a number of purposes. In the first place, Chase undoubtedly saw it as an homage, and perhaps also a way to influence American art to incorporate and become part of the broad European art tradition. Quite frequently he would borrow poses from the masters. Chase’s intriguing picture of his wife, Portrait of Mrs. C. (#11), is an example, for it is clearly based on Van Dyck’s portrait of the one-armed Flemish artist The Painter Martin Ryckaert (ca. 1631, Prado, Madrid). Not only is the composition nearly identical in both (with the seated figure occupying nearly the entire frame), but their postures in the chair are also strikingly similar. Moreover, Chase costumed his wife in a way to recall the earlier picture, with a heavy coat amd fur lining. They both even sport unusual and colorful caps. But the uncanny treatment is how Chase had her throw the left arm of the coat over her side to mimic the empty sleeve of the one-armed artist. And finally the subjects in both portraits stare directly forward. What makes both portraits fascinating is how the ambiguous expression of both requires the viewer to ponder what the subject is thinking and to decide to what extent he will participate in that contemplation.

12. Lydia Field Emmet. Oil on cavas. ca. 1892. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

12. Lydia Field Emmet. Oil on canvas. ca. 1892. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

Chase turned to Van Dyck again for the pose of his student, who acted as model in Lydia Field Emmet (#12). Left arm akimbo, she looks over her shoulder from a reverse, three-quarter view just as does the younger brother in Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart (ca. 1638, National Gallery, London). The subdued palette of the composition probably was under the influence of Whistler, who Chase grew to greatly admire. In fact, the scheme as well as the overall composition is similar to Whistler’s Arrangement in Black & Brown: The Fur Jacket (ca. 1876, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts). It is the dress’s trimmings and the long ribbon that flows down her back onto the floor that makes Chase’s work distinct from that of Whistler, who was not aiming to achieve the effect of “eloquence” which was Chase’s main goal.

On another occasion Chase subverted one of Whistler’s experiments in An Idle Moment (#10). The work Chase played off of was Whistler’s most famous compositional  experiment, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: The Artist’s Mother (1871, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Chase starts with the basic compositional framework of Whistler, a nonsymmetrical view of a woman in a chair facing perpendicular to the viewer. He then subverts most of the other elements. In the first place Chase’s sitter is very young, whereas Whistler’s is old. Whistler’s mother sits very formally and rigidly, whereas Chase’s lounges to relax. Whistler’s mother wears an old-fashioned cap, but Chase’s model’s hair pours out in a very modern manner. It is the color scheme, however, where the greatest divergence is noticed. Whistler employs his customary and restricted palette, emphasizing darker values. Chase, by contrast, employs flamboyant reds to envelop the velvety black dress the model is wearing. The combination turns Whistler’s staid formal “arrangement” into a lively expression of youthful luxury.

13, James Abbott MacNeill Whistler. Oil on canvas. 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

13. James Abbott MacNeill Whistler. Oil on canvas. 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Whistler would remain a fascination for Chase for the rest of his life. In his last two decades Chase gave talks on Whistler, much to the latter’s annoyance. He wrote (in “The Two Whistler’s” linked below) that his fascination took hold while at the Prado: “Every Velasquez seemed to suggest Whistler … .” So he resolved to meet him, but it took several failed attempts before he gathered the nerve to introduce himself to the notoriously caustic and unpredictable egoist. To his surprise upon meeting him in the summer of 1885, Whistler was charming and solicitous of Chase’s regard. Eventually, however, Whistler became smothering and grew increasingly annoying, and Chase sought to escape his grip. So avoid losing Chase Whistler proposed that they each paint the other. Whistler painted Chase in his plodding meticulous fashion, causing Chase to stand well into the evening for many days. That painting has since disappeared. Chase’s painting of Whistler, however, is at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (but now in the Chase exhibition at the MFA).

Chase portrayed the “public” Whistler, who he characterized as “the fop, the cynic, the brilliant, flippant, vain, and careless idler …” (and this was written by a painter who had his “man” dress as a “Nubian” on Fifth Avenue). Emphasizing his proportionately too large walking stick, Chase painted him as he described him: “a dainty, sprightly little man, immaculate in spotless linen and perfect-fitting broadcloth. He wore yellow gloves and carried his wand lightly in his hand. He seemed inordinately proud of his small feet and slender waist; his slight imperial and black mustache were carefully waxed; his monocle was indispensable.” As for his personality: “He took no one and nothing seriously; he was sublimely egotistical, and seemed to delight in parading his conceit. He was trivial, careless, brilliantly and smilingly careless.” Chase even painted the small shock of white hair which Whistler carefully ironed and curled at a mirror before presenting himself to the public. Of course, Chase had a dramatically different view of the artist Whistler, who he admired and defended the rest of his life.  But the painting was of the public Whister. And Whistler saw only maliciousness in the portrait. He complained to The World (October 15, 1886): “How dared he, Chase, do this wicked thing?—and I who was charming and made him beautiful on canvas—the Masher of the Avenues.” The two never reconciled.

14. Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler. Oil on canvas. 1883. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

14. Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler. Oil on canvas. 1883. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

15. Portrait of Mrs. C. (Lady with a White Shawl). Oil on canvas. 1893. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Constraints of space (and your patience) prevent comments on the many highlights of the gallery containing the Chase portraits. I will even skip over the one that Chase himself regarded as his best portrait: Portrait of Lady C. (Lady with a White Shawl) (#15). Instead I will treat an earlier portrait, one that deserves especial note, because it marked such a turning point in Chase’s career, and it too had a connection with Whistler. The painting is Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler (#14). The work is one of his first major portraits, and one that Chase evidently designed for exhibition, for it was not commissioned nor even painted in his own studio. Dora Wheeler was Chase’s first private student in New York and a pioneer as a woman in fine art. Her mother founded Associated Artists, a firm of women who produced high quality needlework and decorative textiles for the same strata of patrons that Chase was looking to see oils. Dora’s mother realized the limitations a woman artist of the time labored under without instruction, so she sent her for instruction to Chase (who taught her along with Lydia Emmet (#12)), then to the Art Students League and finally for two years to the Académie Julian in Paris.

Chase was unusually progressive in supporting women in fine arts. He not only taught them the same way he taught men (including with nude models), but he also bought their paintings. He considered Wheeler talented enough that he made a concerted effort to support her. The portrait, painted in her own studio, is of an artist, not a mere prop in a studio full of fineries. He gives her the seriousness of a professional rather than an idealized figure, a fact that the American reviewer for Magazine of Art highly objected to: “The first necessity of a portrait from the point of view of art is, of course, not that it should be resemblance, but that it should be agreeable, and agreeable this portrait certainly is not.” But of course “agreeableness” is in the eye of the beholder, and Chase was ahead of his time in in his view of the proper role of women, at least in art. Unlike Chase’s earlier studio paintings (e.g., ##6, 7, 9), Wheeler is not a mere decoration; she is fully the center of attention and dominates the scenery. Nor is she painted as a figure of “elegance.” Her face is serious, but she makes no effort to display her hands or even slippered feet in a graceful manner:

“Miss Wheeler may be the most forceful, dispassionate study of personality Chase would ever produce; her closest affinities are with the penetrating psychology of Thomas Eakins’ female portraits of the late 1880s rather than with the fluffy inconsequence of debutantes at the 10th Street Studio. Intelligent eyes, frank in confrontation beneath vast, careless brows; a long, distinctive nose; an angular chin, wispy curls low on the forehead, refusing the discipline of elegant coiffure—these are not the attributes of conventional beauty. Even the placement of the feet and hands bespeaks a woman whose demand for recognition is premised upon individual qualities.” (Marlin, at 47.)

16. I Think I am Ready Now (The Mirror, The Pink Dress). Oil on canvas. ca. 1883. Private collection.

The rest of the composition surrounds and supports her with the kind of eloquence that Chase (and Wheeler) believed comported with Gilded Age aesthetics. Her English revival chair and the taboret to her right allow Chase to show his ability to represent carved and polished wood. Meanwhile the vase provides the reflective surface that Chase liked to depict. The color scheme of the work uses hues of the three primary colors, with the vase and her dress dominated by blue, the carpet red and the background drapery and daffodils yellow. (Oddly, Chase once admitted that he had difficulty with flowers, and in fact he rarely painted them.) It is with that background hanging that Chase lets loose his bravura brush strokes, producing swirling yellow background around the flowers and throughout. The curtain sports an oriental effect with its waterfowl, dragonflies, butterflies and the cat within a swirl of yellow. The butterfly and the cat, perhaps performing the function of a colophon, may be tributes to Whistler.

Chase entered the Wheeler painting in the Internationale Kunstaustellung in Munich, and despite the reaction of the American reviewer was awarded a gold medal by the jury. After that the work was hung in the Paris Salon, the same one that saw Whistler’s Arrangement/Portrait of his mother. William Milliken has opined that the Wheeler portrait is the principal basis for Chase’s European fame.

It was in his portraits, especially in the commissioned ones, that Chase continued to freely indulge his belief that art was, in essence, simply technique, something he already showed in his studio genre works. The portraits, however, were less populated with objects on which Chase could lavish his brushwork. Nevertheless, Chase always dressed his subjects in finely worked fabrics and furs often with other accessories. Chase could then concentrate on rendering lace, ribbons, stitching and texture with intricate care. Despite criticisms he received that his attention to surface at the expense of story or theme or concept made his art superficial, he maintained as late as an interview in 1899 that technique is the eloquence of art and that “[w]hatever success I may have attained comes from my love of art for art’s sake only” (Brant, at 126 & 128). So, to the extent that the Wheeler portrait represented a turning point, the turn came not so much in portraits (which, after all, depended on client patronage) but in his new field, impressionism-influenced outdoor paintings.

Outdoors: From Europe to New York Parks

 Chase had almost no formal training in landscapes. While studying in Munich, however, Duveneck discovered a picturesque retreat in the Bavarian Alps in a town named Polling about 25 miles to the south. In 1875 he, Shirlaw and Chase rented an abandoned monastery there, where they could paint pictures of country life. The students hired peasants to pose, and they had access to sheep and cattle for their work. Chase’s few paintings there were heavily influenced by Corot (whose work he was familiar with from his annual visits to Paris and the French art periodicals he acquired in Munich) and the atmospheric effects of Currier (the American landscape painter who was a fellow student at the time). Like all of Chase’s work at the time, the paintings were technically accomplished, but unlike his figure paintings, showed little originality.

17. Venice. Oil on canvas. 1877. Oklahoma city Art Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

17. Venice. Oil on canvas. 1877. Oklahoma City Art Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

In 1877  Chase spent nearly a year with Duveneck and Twachtman in Venice. But he doesn’t seem to have taken advantage of the light, water, buildings and subtropical effects of the city and environs to an optimum extent. Many of the works, such as Venice (#17), seem to have been painted from inside his apartment. This may have been owing to the serious illness (perhaps malaria) he contracted while there. Nevertheless, Chase began exploring outdoor subjects and effects. Venice is a careful treatment of the effect of sunlight on mineral and stone surfaces. The composition places the flower pots on the balcony at the center of our attention, and they, together with the brightness of the reflection, almost make us miss the woman leaning out of the window in the upper left corner.

Chase’s small outdoor painting In Venice (#18) is somewhat remarkable given that the composition prefigured later work by Sargent and Renoir in Venice. The painting, though relatively small (8 x 13″), allowed Chase to capture differing effects of sunlight on the two sides of buildings as well as on the water before them. The restricted and muted color palette is broken with an exclamation point of red on the hat of the gondola rider in the center. All of this is done with the same easy brushstroke that he employed in Venice and that was commonplace in his figure paintings. It was thus a step forward from his work in Polling.

18. In Venice. Oil on canvas. ca. 1877. Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, Rhode Island.

18. In Venice. Oil on canvas. ca. 1877. Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, Rhode Island.

After Chase returned to New York City in 1878, he not only neglected landscapes, he also actively promoted the idea that the artist’s proper role was in the studio, as we saw. This was all part of his effort to replace the Hudson River School with his view of Art for Art’s Sake vision of American art. But his views on outdoor painting began to change when he started his annual summer trips to Europe to inform himself of new developments. In the sumer of 1882, during his stay in Madrid he began outdoor painting again, perhaps attracted to the very bright Madrid sun. (No example of this work is in the MFA exhibition.) It was in 1883 that Chase began the transformation that turned him into a master landscape painter of the new school.

19. A Bit of Holland MNeadows (A Bit of Green in Holland). Pastel on paper. 1883. Parrish Art Museum.

19. A Bit of Holland Meadows (A Bit of Green in Holland). Pastel on paper. 1883. Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York.

Chase’s work in Holland in 1883 was connected the  proposed exhibition of the Society of Painters in Pastel, an organization he founded in 1882 with Blum and Beckwith. The medium had become “legitimized” by such European artists as Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas and Whistler. Chase undoubtedly familiarized himself with their works before working with the medium in Holland. One such painting is included in the MFA exhibit, A Bit of Holland Meadows (#18). The color is remarkably bold for a Chase landscape at the time. It is as much a turning point for Chase as was the Wheeler portrait (#14) completed the same year. As with the portrait, in the pastel landscape Chase began conceiving of composition as something more than a way for him to display treatment of unusual and different surfaces. Indeed much of A Bit of Holland Meadows is occupied with relatively undifferentiated surface. This too may be traced to Chase’s principal influence in the Wheeler portrait—Whistler. Pisano (1993, at 6) notes the similarity between Chase’s Holland pastel and Whistler’s 1866 seascape Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean (Frick Collection, New York), particularly the “sparseness of detail the asymmetrical composition, and the flat decorative patterning … .” The paintings even have similar leaf designs on the right; Whistler’s comes from the bottom, presumably from a bush on the land above the shore where the viewer is standing, while Chase’s comes from the top from a tree. In Whistler’s work of the time the leafy branch acted as something of a colophon derived from Japanese prints. Both works also involve a high horizon line and vast expanses of green, although Whistler’s is much paler than Chase’s. The brushwork in Chase’s midground (where no individual clumps of grass can be seen) is very much like a watercolor, and it may have been influenced by the Hague School watercolorists, which Chase must have seen at the time. Another Whistler that may ave informed Chase’s approach, one closer in time to Chase’s composition and also in pastel, is San Biagio: Flesh Colour and Grey (1880, Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester, Virginia), painted in Venice, which could have been of especial interest to Chase. I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to discover the similarities and differences.

20. At the Shore. OIL on canvas. ca. 1884. Private collection.

20. At the Shore. Oil on canvas. ca. 1884. Private collection.

By the following summer Chase’s approach to landscapes was undergoing a remarkable change. While more attention was paid to composition, at the same time, Chase was simplifying the other elements. A good starting point is At the Shore (#20), painted sometime between 1882 and 1884. The work is very bright for Chase in this period, and this perhaps is the lingering effect of his Madrid experience. The brushwork has become as assured, bordering on bravura (especially with the ocean foam, sand, flags and canvas tops), as his studio work. His rapid sketching of persons gives the impression of a casual glance, and while the work contains quite a few people, the composition does not look crowded, largely owing to how the shore divides the composition in two and the structures recede into the background (along a line perpendicular to the shoreline). What is striking about the work, however, is the large area devoted to a sky with striking blue mixed with clouds. The horizon (on which we see steam ships adding to the mix of the sky) curves upward much like the curve of the canvas atop the boat in the foreground. The composition is cleverly designed but not as simplified as it would soon become.

21. Coast of Holland. Oil on canvas. 1884. Frye Art Museum, Seattle, Washington.

When Chase painted in Holland in the summer of 1884, he produced two major works which pointed toward his future direction, both are in the exhibition. One, Sunlight and Shadow (Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska), experiments with dappled sunlight and compositionally resembles the later family genre painting Open Air Breakfast (ca. 1886, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio). Both those exhibited works are fairly famous, so I will leave it to the links if you wish further comment.11

The painting that most clearly shows Chase’s future direction is Coast of Holland (#21). Like A Bit of Holland MeadowsCoast of Holland has a large expanse of “empty” space in the fore- and midground as well as a high horizon. A line of posts supporting a wire fence leads the eye in a curved fashion from the left edge towards the matter of interest in the background (in this case a sea churned by the strong winds, evidenced by the three flags along the water’s edge). Two heavily clad figures can be seen on the left, but what they are doing is not clear. In fact, their presence is somewhat superfluous. The general plan of composition as well as the green and brown color scheme of the land will be seen in the landscapes Chase would paint at Shinnecock about seven years later.

22. End of the Season. Pastel on board. ca. 1884 or 1885. Mt. Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts.

22. End of the Season. Pastel on board. ca. 1884 or 1885. Mt. Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts.

After his return to New York Chase tried a seaside picture, and once again by using pastel he created an astonishing composition, perhaps the most clever work he ever created, considered solely from that point of view, End of the Season (#22). Once again a sandy green-brown land occupies much of the bottom of the small picture (13¾ x 17¾”). The sea then makes a very high horizon. In this case, however, the expanse of sandy grass and scrub vegetation is not empty; rather, the field is filled with empty tables with their chairs turned on them. The line of tables and chairs (which form an interesting cross-hatch pattern) curve around to the place where the last vacationing visitor is looking–towards men grappling with a sailboat. The end of summer is indicated not only by the upended chairs but also by the coat worn by the visitor. A calm sense of wistfulness is conveyed by the painting at the same time that it is pleasantly (if conventionally) colorful.

It is curious that so many of Chase’s experiments, like End of the Season, took place in pastel. Perhaps the nature of the medium restricted his easy brushwork and required more concentration. Perhaps because it did not allow him to dwell on intricate surface detail, he devoted his attention to other elements. Or perhaps because the lighter palette it brought suggested to him different subjects and artistic models. The latter has some support when we look at his cityscapes with their impressionistic influence and lighter colors.

23. A City Park. Oil on canbas. ca. 1887. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

23. A City Park. Oil on canvas. ca. 1887. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

From the late eighties to the early nineties Chase embarked on a genre that was new to America: outdoor scenes of city parks. American landscapes before this time were of course mainly of rural and wild settings. Urban metropolises were just arising in America, and the public park movement was only in its infancy. Frederick Law Olmsted had only designed Prospect Park in Brooklyn in 1865, Chase began painting urban park scenes around the time of his marriage in 1886, when he stopped his summer European travels to care for his young family. Many of the scenes involved his wife and first child, Alice (“Cosy”) Dieudonnée. There was thus practical reasons for him to turn his attention to landscapes near his new home. But there was an artistic incentive as well: In April 1886 a large exhibition of French Impressionism was mounted in New York City.

The French Impressionism show at the American Art Association, which opened on April 10, 1886, was a startling event for the staid and conservative art world of New York. Some American painters had engaged for some time in an informal version of Impressionism, without the strict attention to the underlying principles of the French movement. The American Art Association exhibition, however, was the real thing, with 300 items, including numerous paintings by Monet, Degas, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro and Seurat. Those reviewers most closely connected with the conservatives of the National Academy of Design roundly condemned the foreign painters. The New York Times chose supercilious condemnation:

“The 300 oil and pastel pictures ‘by the Impressionists of Paris’ belong to the category of art for art’s sake, which rouses in the public more mirth than a desire to possess it. Coming suddenly upon the crude colors and disdain of drawing, which are traits positive and negative in the works of Renoir and Pissarro, one is likely to catch the breath with surprise. Is this art? Surely a third-rate Scotch artist far behind Faed or Cameron would be ashamed of No. 178, ‘Fisherman’s Children,’ but his style would resemble that. Helpless American painters of the old Hudson River school might blush, if they could not model human figures better than Seurat in No. 170, ‘Bathing.’ Weak imitators of Holman Hunt would be truer in color than Flameng in his clouds, No. 285, ‘Wrecks at Bordeaux.’ The first feeling about such works as these is, what extraordinary impertinence on the part of the artists! It is like turning the wrong side of the stage flies to the audience; it is offering to the public work which has been prepared up to a certain point only. No wonder that people are indignant.  No wonder that artists who are not in sympathy with the undaunted band of Impressionists affirm, sometimes not without a round expletive, that they can turn out several such canvases every day in the week!”12

24. Thompkins Park, Brooklyn. Oil on canvas. 1887. Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle simply heaped ridicule and contempt on the art: “As a mark for ridicule the impressionist display has been a conspicuous success. Few have regarded it as other than a display of monstrosities and crankisms, and one artist writes to me that he went home from the show and proceeded to have a nightmare as soon as he had fallen asleep.”13 The more forward looking artists of Chase’s circle, however, greatly admired the works. Many of them already referred to some of their work as impressionistic, but they had not seen, until the New York show, the full extent to which the underlying principles of French impressionism could be taken. American impressionists would never fully employ the advances of the French artists in the exhibition. Chase, for example, did not believe in the “scientific” approach to light that some impressionists showed. Chase felt that such an analytical violated the principle of artistic inspiration, relying instead on a set of rules. Moreover, the approach of most French impressionists to brushwork was entirely inconsistent with the broad strokes that Chase had worked more than a decade to make effortless. Nevertheless, although Chase’s reaction to the show does not seem to have been recorded, it is clear that he rejected the blanket condemnations of the conservative press. In 1883 when Chase and Beckwith organized the Barholdi “Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition” (to raise funds for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty), Chase was instrumental in bringing Manet and Degas painting to the event.

25. Park Bench. Oil on canvas. ca. 1890. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.

25. Park Bench. Oil on canvas. ca. 1890. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

To whatever extent the Impressionism show influenced Chase, it is clear that his park paintings represented a new and separate departure for him. Just in terms of the elements of the works, a novel and fairly consistent combination had taken hold. Chase framed views of small sections of well-maintained public spaces. Lawns and ornamental plants cover most of the space with buildings, if shown at all, off in the distance.  Figures inhabit the scenes but are almost never the focus of attention. These people are well-t0-do, expensively dressed Brooklynites or New Yorkers at leisure, often with their children. The compositions frequently emphasize lines that not only lead toward a vanishing point but also divide the picture into geometrically designed segments that are dominated by a particular color. The lines direct the eye to quickly survey the scene, which adds to the effect of a fleeting impression which the brushwork aims for.

Chase began this series of paintings in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, near his then home. After several years working there, in the spring of 1890 he was barred from painting in the Park by order of the Brooklyn Parks superintendent, much to the outrage of the local press.14 Chase unsuccessfully attempted to obtain a license that summer, so he chose to paint in New York’s Central Park thereafter. Some of his paintings in the Manhattan show recognizable man-made monuments or other enhancements. Four of these paintings were featured in an article in Harper’s Weekly in 1891.15 Some focus on common features in recognizable locations, such as Park Bench (#25). This last painting emphasizes the inert bench which dominates both the young woman sitting on it and the two sparrows she is watching.

Chase did not follow the French impressionists either in their experiments with light or with their experiments with colors. Moreover, Chase did not veer at all from realistic representation of figures and things. And Chase’s impressionism-influenced park paintings did not treat any of the grittier city scenes, but instead painted the city from a distance in its semi-natural parks. Nevertheless, the paintings were still attacked by conservative critics. The reviewer for the Art Amateur of an exhibition at the American Art Galleries praised Chase’s portraits but had little regard for the parkscapes, concluding that they showed ‘no traceable intention … but that of reproducing the scene as in a looking-glass, with the least possible expenditure of work.” He conceded that revealed a “discipline of eye and hand” but in the end found them to “have no depth of meaning, and their beauty is of the every-day sort … .”16

The MFA exhibition only has a small sample of the city park paintings, and in any event they tend to have a sameness to them. While they represent a step in the direction of European advances, the subject matter, visual frame, color palette and treatment and intended effect tended to fall into a pattern. Chase would defend this fact on the ground that technique, and not subject matter, is the point of art. Right at the beginning of the period he spent making city park paintings, however, he painted a genre work titled Washing Day: A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn (#26). Although in some ways similar to the park paintings, particularly with the clotheslines acting in the same way that lines of paths and park sections do to direct the viewers eye and create sections of the work, the painting shows a scene rarely attempted by Chase—a person at work. It is the sheets, though, that give Chae the opportunity to make light reflection into a pattern, not only on the lines but on the ground between them. Behind this work are trees that themselves provide a pattern of light  (which appears to be coming from the left of the picture). A decade and a half later John Singer Sargent would employ the same concept in a watercolor, using instead of the colored linen, pure white sheets, which produce more of a patterned effect with reflected white and shadow, in front of small leafless trees. (To see a comparison of these two works, scroll to the bottom of the post Sargent’s Watercolors.) The painting is the kind of original concept approach that Chase abandoned once he hit upon the open air paintings in city parks.

Wash Day: A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn by William Merritt Chase. (Oil on panel. Private collection.) Not in the Brooklyn Exhibition. (Click to enlarge.)

26. Washing Day: A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn. Oil on panel. ca. 1886. Lilly Endowment, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Shinnecock and the Summer Art School

27. My Baby Cosy. Pastel on board. 1888. Private collection.

Chase was plagued his whole life with a taste for compulsive acquisitions that exceeded his ordinary income. His need for money only increased when he married Alice Gershon in 1886 and the large family that resulted, beginning with the birth of Cosy in 1887. Chase tried to reduce his expenses by ending his summer trips to Europe after his summer with Whistler in 1885. But from time to time he also attempted to obtain large sums by selling his works (and often his collections of others’ works) at auctions. Invariably, these sales, some of which were quite large, proved bitterly disappointing to Chase and a subject of astonishment to his friends and even the art press. Chase was forced to rely more and more on income from teaching. In 1885 he again took a position at the Art Students League. In 1887 he held an auction of 98 works after his first major solo exhibition in New York, and realized less than $90 per work. In 1889, two months before the SAA show that caused the Times reviewer to muse on Chase becoming unfashionably establishment, his second daughter, Koto Robertine, was born, and in June 1890 his son, William Merritt Chase, Jr. was born. The growing family probably convinced him of the wisdom of supplementing his income with a more-or-less permanent summer school proposed by Mrs. William S. Hoyt, in the eastern end of Long Island to be called the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art.

28. The Japanese Doll. Oil on canvas. ca. 1890. Walter & Lucille Rubin collection.

The school was located in a relatively unimproved area that a few fashionable New Yorkers had begun to develop for summer retreats. Janet Hoyt, a real estate professional and investor in her own right, managed the project to create the school and design an art village that would not only attract students of plein air painting but also become the catalyst for attracting others to purchase real estate in the area. She was assisted by two Southampton friends, Annie de Camp Perrot Hegeman Porter and Samuel L. Parrish, and together they obtained support from Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Mrs. August Belmont and various Astors and Whitneys. Chase presided over the school for 12 summers, and it became the largest and best known of the plein air summer schools. It was a breeding ground for artists who would set up schools elsewhere as well a basis for Chase’s national fame as an art instructor which would later allow him to create his own full time school in New York (the Chase School of Art in 1896) and generated offers for permanent employment (such as at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where Chase began teaching in 1896) and short term courses (such as at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1894 and 1897). But for our purposes the significance of the move is how it changed his approach to outdoor landscape painting.

29. Shinnecock Studio Interior. Pastel on paper mounted on canvas. 1892. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

29. Shinnecock Studio Interior. Pastel on paper mounted on canvas. 1892. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

At the end of the 1880s Chase was beginning to look for subjects beyond his portraits, studio views and parkscapes. Chase had a brief flirtation with Japonisme in the late 1880s. One of the interesting insights the MFA show provides is through collecting the little known Japanese-influenced works with the better known portraits. The Japonisme works of Chase were created during a four year period from 1888 to 1892. None of it shows a deep sympathy for Japanese art or printmaking. Instead Japanese elements are presented as merely exotic decoration. The paintings involve models wearing kimonos and sometimes with other Japanese accessories. In one still life (#28) Chase paints a collection of crafts before a Japanese hanging. Chase even presented his wife and children, dressed in Japanese outfits (#27) or amusing themselves with Japanese crafts and prints (#29).

30. Flying Clouds. Oil on canvas. 1892. Private collection.

The departure Chase made in this period in landscapes took place in the summers at Shinnecock. Chase was required to teach plein air painting (or at least evaluate it), so he threw himself into it. And as a result he pioneered a new type of American landscape. The land here in the Hamptons probably had a particular calling to Chase because it was quite like the sand and scrub vegetation that he encountered and painted in Holland. The similarity is brought home by an odd comment by a reviewer. In March 1884, at the first Pastel Society showing in New York, Chase exhibited a work painted in Holland, presumably much like Coast of Holland (#21). The reviewer for Art Amateur, who was filled with disdain for Chase’s studio genre works, commented appreciatively on a landscape from Holland,, “the best, one from Scheveringen, showing a beach and dune the very counterpart of East Hampton, where, so far as we know, no one ever found a subject of a landscape, … . [P]robably there are twenty Americans ready to buy a bit of Scheveningen for one that will look twice at a corner of East Hampton.”17 The anonymous critic noted the similarity of the vistas that Chase would paint a decade later to those he painted in Holland. And to perhaps acknowledge that similarity himself, Chase painted an early landscape there, Flying Clouds (#30), as a tribute to the Dutch master Jacob van Ruisdael, whose pioneering Baroque landscape, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields (ca 1670, Kunsthaus Zürich), resembles the later work not only in the kind of sandy soil and grasses, the distant building, the low horizon with vast expanses of sky, but also, and mainly, in the billowy clouds that fill the sky.

31. Untitled (Shinnecock Landscape). Oil on canvas. ca. 1895. Private collection.

31. Untitled (Shinnecock Landscape). Oil on canvas. ca. 1895. Private collection.

As in the untitled canvas called Shinnecock Landscape (#31), Chase captures the characteristic view of Eastern Long Island, the ecosystem of which is based on the sandy soil which can support only the intermittent clumps of grass and scrub bush. Without trees and owing to vast expanses of flat land, a large vista of bright summer sky can be seen and it is usually filled with large clouds backed by pale blue. In many of the Shinnecock landscapes, clouds seem to be the subject of the paintings. The combination of the blue, brown and green produces a harmony redolent of summer and all it connotes. Unlike the parkscapes, there are no artificial straight lines which always signify human interference with nature. The absence of such lines also means that there is no artifice of composition to direct the eye. The art is solely in the framing of the scene; the artist does not otherwise seem to intrude. In a lecture right before he established his Shinnecock school, he told of a means to avoid the difficulty of deciding how to “cut off” a scene:

“[T]ake a little card, a visiting card if you like, and cut an oblong square hole in it … look through it occasionally. push it about until you see something you like. … In this way you will find pleasing conceptions and original compositions, things that have not been done, and not too perfectly balanced to be delightful.”

Even before the Shinnecock paintings, Chase had thus abandoned his early tenet that artists should only make a sketch of an out-of-doors scene and paint the scene later in the studio. In fact in the same lecture in Buffalo in 1890, Chase urged beginners never to “meddle” with a work in the studio, otherwise its naturalness would be disturbed and it would take on the look of “conventional picture-making.” (Pisano 1993, at 11.)

32. Seaside Flowers. Oil on canvas. ca. 1897. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

32. Seaside Flowers. Oil on canvas. ca. 1897. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

Many of the Shinnecock paintings included his favorite subjects, his wife and children. Portrayed as members of the Southampton leisure class, they are depicted gathering berries or flowers, enjoying family time or relaxing on the beach. As is usual with paintings of his family, they are adorned in expensive outfits with colorful accessories to provide color accents to the muted color palette of the landscape. In Seaside Flowers (#32) Mrs. Chase is tending to her son and four daughters, who are out collecting wildflowers. Each of the three daughters in the foreground is wearing an individually adorned hat and colorful ribbon. In the background can be seen the Chase family summer home.

33. At the Seaside. Oil on canvas. ca. 1892. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

33. At the Seaside. Oil on canvas. ca. 1892. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

The Shinnecock landscapes represented the closest approach Chase ever made to French Impressionism. His color scheme and figure modeling looked vaguely like early Impressionism. But he only was interested in light as it reflected from surfaces or occasionally caused shadows. He never experimented with representation of figures or objects, instead he continued to draw with the same approach to realism that he developed in art school. For these reasons in his day Chase was not recognized as one of the core group of American Impressionists.  Art Amateur, for example, never mentioned Chase in any of its articles of the 1890s on American Impressionists, and his works were not acquired by collectors of American Impressionist paintings (Pisano 1993, at 14 & 18 n.62).

Nevertheless, the unusual views that Eastern Long Island offered (unusual in terms of American landscapes, that is) allowed for a somewhat forward looking approach to art and with the absence of recognizable figures like trees, land formations and buildings, suggested non-representational art, especially when the pictures lacked figures and clouds dominated the canvas.

34. The Lone Fisherman. Oil on mahogany panel. ca. 1895. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

34. The Lone Fisherman. Oil on mahogany panel. ca. 1895. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

Despite his role in upending a style in American art, Chase did not believe in change as an end in itself. He saw art as part of a tradition going back to the Baroque masters—a tradition to be built upon and acknowledged. Innovation, as Chase saw it, was to follow a path suggested by past masters. The innovation was to extend, not to overturn, the tradition.

The one experiment he continued to pursue even late in his career was the treatment of space on the canvas. The open vistas of Long Island allowed for such experiments. In The Lone Fisherman (#34) Chase uses the foreshortening of a canal embankment and the row of rocks behind it to create a sense of depth to the picture. Those features take up most of the canvas and dwarf the figure, Chase’s father, sitting far down the line fishing in the canal. Chase uses the space devoted to the rock to show the reflection of light on the surface. The landscape portion of the picture occupies a small line on the horizon below a sky that has a yellow coloring near the earth and becomes bluish only at the top of the picture. Unlike Flying Clouds (#30) and Untitled (#31), the sky occupies only a small portion of the picture. All three of those paintings are related to the kind of treatment of space that Chase was doing in his late studio and family genre paintings, which is the last part of the MFA show.

Before considering those works, there remains only to briefly note Chase’s final landscapes after he closed the Shinnecock school in 1902. By that time Chase had almost completely transformed from vital force in the vanguard to grand old man. In 1888 he was elected to the National Academy of Design, the conservative force that the Munich Men rebelled against. In 1895 he declined to run for President of the Society of American Artists (the organization designed to counter the Academy), a position he held for a decade. In 1898 he gave up administrative control of the Chase School (it would become the New York School of Art). Chase would spend much of the rest of his life arranging for showings at various important expositions and shows.18 He also cultivated relations with major museum curators (his work was shown at the opening of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh in 1895, for example19). Many would purchase his works for reasonable prices, while other would host exhibitions at which sales could be made.20 Chase was also exhibited in large one man shows at the galleries.21 But he remained plagued by compulsive large expenses which he tried to finance with auctions of large amounts of his art. They all turned out badly. (In 1896 he sold off all the items from his 10th Street Studio as well as 66 of his own work. Flying Clouds was knocked down at $310. All 1800 lots produced slightly more than #21,000. Bryant, at 171.)

35. The Olive Grove. Oil on composition board. ca 1911. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago.

35. The Olive Grove. Oil on composition board. ca 1911. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

After closing Shinnecock, Chase spent little time in outdoor painting. He organizied summer tours of Europe with students to finance trips to Holland (1903), England (1904), Spain (1905) and Florence (1908 and 1909). These trips, however, did not allow for systematic painting like he was able to do in Long Island where he had a house, permanent studio and his family. Yet he occasionally produced striking works, like The Olive Grove (#35). The problem Chase faced was that the cutting edge of art had moved well beyond him. By the time the Armory Show for Post-Impressionists was organized in New York in 1913 his work looked several decades out of date. None of his works were accepted at that show. The decision was devastating to him. And though he visited the show several times, he simply could not understand non-representational art, particularly cubism. He would spend his last several years polemicizing against it.

Chase’s Sanctuary: His Studio and His Family

As a teacher of artists, Chase was hardly doctrinaire and always urged his students to achieve their own artistic vision. But two bridges he could not cross. He could not bring himself to paint subjects he considered lacking in beauty. And he could not comprehend for what reason an artist could distort visual reality.

36. Two of My Children (At Play). Oil on canvas. ca. 1895. Private collection.

The first of these bedrock beliefs probably stemmed from the effects of his hard-scrabble upbringing in Indiana. Chase saw art as the way out of a grubby existence. Rockwell Kent remembered Chase once telling his studenta: “Look at me. Beginning as a shoe clerk trying on ladies’ shoes, I have come to be the guest of kings.” (Kent, at 76-77.) Chase probably did not even realize how much his aesthetic pose was a class attributem and he was anything but analytical in his aesthetic philosophy. When the Ashcan School attained ascendency at the New York Art School under Robert Henri, eventually forcing Chase to resign his teaching position 1907, Chase expressed his disdain dripping with class-based contempt: “A certain group of painters in New York paint the gruesome. They go to the wretched part of the city and paint the worst people.” (Bryant, at 211.) Deciding what was “beautiful” and what was base and mean was a visceral choice for Chase.

Chase’s second objection to modernism (or perhaps more fairly, to certain aspects of modernism that aroused him on an instinctual level) followed directly from the first: Why would one distort reality when what one saw to paint was beautiful? In 1899 he told a reporter for an Indianapolis newspaper that his approach to painting was through his own understanding of Nature: “Art transcends Nature. One must paint what is behind the eye of the artist.”22 Chase did not mean that an artist could refashion what is naturally true, but that an artist must conceive of what he sees in the most truthful and beautiful way and then to paint that conception. What Chase “saw” behind he eye was how what he saw with his eye should fit on a canvas. In the outdoors he could look for the right combination of elements to produce a picture behind his eye.  In the studio he could arrange objects, models and props to produce a picture. And his family played the central role in a great many of these compositions, his wife first and foremost.

37. Meditation. Pastel on canvas. ca. 1886. Private collection (W. & E. Clark.)

37. Meditation. Pastel on canvas. ca. 1886. Private collection (W. & E. Clark).

Chase met his future wife Alice Gerson shortly the year after he arrived in New York from his studies, in the summer of 1879. She was the daughter of widower Julius Gerson, who held something of a salon for artists and writers and even supported some artists. Chase was brought into this circle by Frederick S. Church, to whom he was introduced by Shirlaw. Alice was 13 at the time but Gerson encouraged her and her two older sisters to appreciate the artists and intellectuals he brought to his home, and Alice soon developed a crush on the flamboyant Chase. Chase frequented the family’s gatherings, sketching and painting the girls and guests. His affection developed into passion for Alice and he married her in 1886. She would prove to be his most reliable subject and muse.

The year of his marriage also saw Chase bask in a burst of popular and critical acclaim with his triumphant one man show in Boston’s Art Club which displayed 130 of his paintings and crammed the gallery with the bric-à-brac from his 10th Street Studio. A “sensation,” said Art Amateur, where the town

“went in full force, and repeated its visit with enthusiasm, and it is unanimously voted that nothing has been here at all like it since [William Morris] Hunt’s day. Such fertility, variety, dash, gayety, excitement! Such frank singleness of delight in in cleverness, in painting as painting; such naïve confession that the fun of doing it is the main thing; such happy unconsciousness that art has any other ulterior objects, any moral mission or historical function!”23

38. Mother and Child (First Portrait). Oil on canvas. ca. 1888. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas.

38. Mother and Child (First Portrait). Oil on canvas. ca. 1888. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas.

When Chase painted Alice he merged this same joie de l’art with joie de vie, and that can be seen in every one of the paintings he did of her for the rest of his life. He treats her not as a model but as a person whose thoughts, feelings and interior life is worth exploring. Meditation (#37), for example, sees the young Alice as wise beyond her years and suggests that she is lost in thought by enveloping her in soft blues and velvety greys which also frame her pale face, accented by dark brows and hair. It is a work that is difficult to look away from. (And doesn’t that make a masterpiece?)

With the arrival of Alice Dieudonnée (“Cosy”) in 1887 his children also became subjects of the art that most overtly showed his feelings of tenderness and devotion. The Chases would have five daughters and three sons although William Merritt Chase, Jr., died shortly after his first birthday. Chase dressed his children up in costumes and expensive clothes, presented them with costly toys and books, gave them the run of his studio and then painted them in this world that celebrated beautiful things. In Two of My Children (#36) Chase showed Cosy and Koto Robertine (his second daughter, born in 1889) captured in a “spontaneous” way just as Valázquez might have composed a picture of Philip IV’s household. Cosy looks back at us as she is tying the ribbon belt on her younger sister. The light brings the figures out of the dark background and emphasizes the beautiful salmon colored dress of Cosy and the lighter dress of the younger child, who we see only from behind. Both the Dutch masters and Velázquez made figures immanent by this trick of light to make the figures more “real” even though the light source, like Hollywood lighting, was unrealistic.

39. Hall at Shinnecock. Pastel on canvas. 1892. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

39. Hall at Shinnecock. Pastel on canvas. 1892. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

From the evidence of Chase’s portrayals of them, his family happily participated in his world of art for art’s sake. Not only do they delight in each other’s company, but they do so principally by enjoying the objects that delighted Chase and which were part of his work, as they themselves were.  Chase introduced his most playful “tricks” in these family portraits and thereby showed that he enjoyed these works the most. In Hall at Shinnecock, for example, Cosy not only views Chase as he paints the picture, but we can see Chase ourselves in the reflection in the glass of the cabinet on the other end of the hall.

40. An Artist's Wife (A Study). Oil on canvas. 1892. Private collection (Fayez Sarofim).

40. An Artist’s Wife (A Study). Oil on canvas. 1892. Private collection (Fayez Sarofim).

An Artist’s Wife (#40) is a portrait of Alice looking away toward the artist who interrupted her from viewing Chase’s The Fairy Tale, a Shinnecock work (not in the MFA show) in which Alice and Cosy sit amidst the rolling landscape of Long Island both in their summer finery. The Alice who is contemplating this picture is dressed in clothes reminiscent of the days of the Dutch masters. And this is for good reason, because the painting itself is an homage to the portrait of Issac Massa by Chase’s favorite old master Frans Hals (1626, Art Gallery of Ontario). Both the study and The Fairy Tale were highly praised by John Gilmore Speed in an article in Harper’s [linked below]. Speed saw the works in Chase’s summer studio. It occurs to me that Chase must have viewed his own life as a Northern European Baroque painter, perhaps like Rubens, who also used his wife and child as subjects and who lived the life of an aristocrat as he painted for them.

The playfulness of the picture within a picture (and subject within a picture of the subject) is similar to the punning title (and meta-comment) of the painting Reflection (ca. 1893, private collection). In that work we see Alice’s face only in the mirror (her back is to us), but we can see that she is cogitating on something, reflecting. The mirror itself is fit in a section of the wall behind a current (drawn open), just like the window next to it. The window curtain, however, is drawn shut, for all of the interest is takes place within the room and within the mind of Alice. The reviewer of the Society of American Artists show of 1894, where this picture was exhibited, acknowledged that some would object to the literary nature of the composition but dismissed it because the “picture is a good one, nevertheless … .”24

Chase’s paintings of his children also displayed playfulness but less literary and more visual, much like Velázquez did in the day of the masters and John Singer Sargent in contemporary times. Chase’s Hide and Seek (#41) is a large canvas that presents a large empty space in the middle. Much like Sargent’s Daughters of Edward D. Boit (1882, which you can see upstairs in the MFA). (Sargent’s canvas is, however, much larger than Chase’s.) Chase places children at the opposite ends of a largely empty plane. In Chase’s painting, which the title tells us is about a game, the empty space ads to the excitement one feels for the girl at the bottom who is about to escape detection as the other girl departs the room. The light that seeps in from the exit the second girl is about to use illuminates the room, where we see only a curtain, a large green chair and the bottom of a painting above it. The care with which the hair and gown of the girl at he bottom are rendered make her the one we are rooting for. Of course the painting is actually a study in space, but Chase, like the old masters and Sargent, is never one to force-feed am aesthetic lesson down the viewer’s throat. That was never how he viewed the role of the artist; it is also why he never understood the post-Impressionists.

41. Hide and Seek. Oil on canvas. 1888. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

41. Hide and Seek. Oil on canvas. 1888. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Even if we didn’t have the letters when Chase was away and pined for his family, we would know that it was his family that meant the most to him in his latter years, solely through these genre paintings. That affection is palpable in these works which occupy the final gallery of the MFA show. These works are a fitting close to the show because they represent the central thing in his life, if our reaction to them is any proof. If I were to suggest why anyone should care about Chase, I’d suggest going straight to the end of the exhibition to view these pieces. Chase’s approach to art may have outlasted the public’s taste for it, but these pictures say something more than Chase’s place in art history. They transcend it. And that is what makes a master.

Chase the teacher (a role in which he contributed at least as much to American art) produced many quotable aphorisms, most of which seem hardly able to guide a beginning artist, or even a beginning art appreciator. His biographer Katharine Metcalf Roof collected many of them. Some seem hardly to apply to his own work. For instance, “Learn to paint so well that you can conceal your own dexterity,” seems on the basis of this exhibition to be something he never attempted. But perhaps his best known quote is “Do not try to paint the grandiose thing. Paint the commonplace so that it will be distinguished” (Roof, at 319). His family paintings belie this quote, for there was nothing commonplace in his love of his own family.

In the end this exhibition gives a comprehensive look at this important nineteenth century American artist. The enormous revolution of Modernism, which began at the end of Chase’s life, cause us now to give him insufficient credit in the great scheme of things at the beginning of the twentieth century. But for a brief peiood, at an essential time, Chase turned American art outward and tried to connect it with the trends and flow of Western culture as it was boiling up in Europe. That he accomplished that goal also caused his own contributions to be overwhelmed by the flood that followed. But this retrospect proves that he is still worth a serious look, even if he did not create a school or issue a manifesto and even though he viewed change as a conservative would: good only if it added to what was valuable, not if it tore it down.

 

Notes

1“American Artists’ Annual Exhibition,” New York Times, Saturyday Review of Books and Arts, March 19, 1898, p. BR191 (clip online via newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

2I was (slightly) disappointed to see that neither of the two 1892 genre paintings, Afternoon by the Sea [Gravesend Bay] and The Fairy Tale (both in the same private collection, I believe), were present. The student work The Moorish Warrior, ca. 1878, which remained in a European collection until the twentieth century and now is owned by the Brooklyn Museum, also would have been nice to see. One or two of the better female portraits are not included, but all in all these are mere quibbles, given the large number of sources these works were borrowed from. [Return to text.]

3The National Gallery of Art and the Terra Foundation for American Art co-sponsored an exhibition entitled “William Merritt Chase: Summers at Shinnecock, 1891-1902” in 1987-1988. Before that a national retrospective of his entire career toured from the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983-84. It was three decades before then that the last previous major exhibition was mounted. [Return to text.]

4“The Society of American Artists,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 11, 1978, p. 2 (clip online via newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

5Chase had not resided in New York for a year when Harper’s New Monthly Magazine included him among the most important new influences on American art, moving it away from landscapes to the portrayal of the human figure. The piece included an etching of his Boy Smoking (#2) (see S.G.W. Benjamin [cited below].) Not long after the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s own arts magazine, American Art Review, published a review of the young Chase together with detailed etchings, spread over two issues in early 1881 (see Van Rensselaer, below). That review was noted in newspapers around the nation. E.g., Detroit Free Press, February 8, 1881, p. 3 (clip online via newspapers.com); New York Times, February 16, 1881, p. 3 (clip online via newspapers.com); Chicago Tribune, February 26, 1881, p. 9 (clip online via newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

6Much later in life Chase claimed that he was a successful ladies’ shoes salesman. He said the trick was to always recommend a size smaller than the woman was then wearing. [Return to text.]

7Baury, Louis, “Story of the Tile Club,” Bookman, Vol. 35 (June 1912) 381-96, at 391 (online via Google Books). [Return to text.]

8“Talk on the Old Masters by Mr. Chase, New York School of Art, November 17th, 1906,” typescript from Archives of American Art, quoted in Cikovsky [cited below], at 7. [Return to text.]

9Bryant’s biography, which makes no attempt to connect Chase to his social setting, gives no reason to think that New Yorkers viewed Chase as “sophisticated” rather than simply odd or worse. Cikovsky (at 2) is more likely correct in concluding that his European styled beard, his fastidious and often outrageous dress and his exotic pets “startled still provincial New York of the late seventies, when they first made their appearance.” Later he was satirized as a pretentious fop. In Coast of Bohemia Howells has his art student Charmian model herself on Chase in designing her studio: “I must have a suit of Japanese armor for that corner, over there; and then two or three of those queer-looking, old, long, faded trunks, you know, with eastern stuffs gaping out of them, to set along the wall. I should be ashamed to have anybody see it now; but you have an eye, you can supply every thing with a glance. I’m going to have a bed made up in the alcove, over there, and sleep here, sometimes: just that broad lounge, you know, with some rugs on it—I’ve got the cushions, you see, already—and mice running over you, for the crumbs you’ve left when you’ve got hungry sitting up late.” (Chapter XVII.) [Return to text.]

10For example, the State Department commissioned Chase for the official portrait of Secretary of State William M. Evarts, “Notes on Art and Artists,” New York Times, March 19, 1882, p. 5 (clip online via newspapers.com), and Harvard College commissioned him to paint ex-President Rutherford B. Hayes. [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star, March 26, 1881, p. 1 (clip online via newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

11For a contemporary review of Sunlight and Shadow, see “Water Colors and Etchings,” New York Times, January 30, 1886, p. 5 (clip online via newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

12“Paintings for Amateurs,” New York Times, April 10, 1886, p. 5 (clip online via newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

13Untitled paragraph, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 18, 1866, p. 4 (clip online via nespapers.com). [Return to text.]

14The decision was made by Superintendant Aneurin Jones, and it was unknown even to the Parks President when asked about it. Jones had recently been dismissed as superintendent of parks in New York City and soon became a target of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle for his imperiousness. The paper reported on the barring of Chase in “The New Autocrat of the Park,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 18, 1890, p. 4 (clip online via newspapers.com). Both The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and The New York Times reported on the bureaucratic intircacies that prevented Chase from paining in Brooklyn’s parks throughout the summer. [Return to text.]

15See Charles de Kay”Mr. Chase and Central Park,” Harper’s Weekly, Vol. 35, no. 1793 (May 2, 1891),, pp. 324-25, 327-28 (online via Hathi Trust). The four paintings, photographed in black and white on pp. 234-34 are: A By-Path, (ca. 1890, Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection), The Nursery (1890, private collection), The Lake for Miniature Yachts (ca. 1888 or 1890, Peter G. Terian collection) and A Bit of the Terrace (1890, private collection). The second and third of these paintings are exhibited at the MFA show. [Return to text.]

16“Minor Exhibitions,” Art Amateur, Vol. 22, no. 6 (May 1890), pp. 113-14, at 114 (online via JSTOR, open access). [Return to text.]

17“The Pastel Exhibition,” Art Amateur, Vol. 10, no. 6 (March 1884), pp. 123-24, at 124 (online via JSTOR; open access). [Return to text.]

18In 1893 Chase exhibited five works at Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition. World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893: Official Catalogue. Part X. Department K. Fine Arts (Chicago : W.B. Conkey, 1893), p. 15 (online via Hathi Trust). In 1894 he received first prize in the Cleveland Art Association show. (American Art Annual (Macmillan Co., 1903), Vol. 4, Part II, p. 15 [“AAA”].) The Pennsylvania Association of Fine Arts awarded him Temple gold medal at its 1895 exhibition, and the same year the Society of American Artists awarded him its Shaw prize.. (AAA.) In 1900 two paintings were shown at the Paris Salon. Roland Strong, “American Art. Pictures Shown at the Paris Salon,” New York Times, Saturday Review of Books and Art, June 2, 1900, p. BR364 (clip online via newspers.com). The same year he silver medalled in the Paris Exposition. (Gallatti 1995, p. 101.)  In 1901he received the gold medal at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and in 1902 he gold medalled at the Charleston Exposition. (AAA.) In 1904 he received a gold medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis as well as the Corcoran Prize of the Society of Washington Artists. In 1910 he received the grand prize of the International Fine Arts Exposition in Buenos Aires. And the National Academy of design awarded him its Proctor Portrait Prize in 1912. (Bryant, at 225.) In 1915 a gallery was devoted to his work at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. (Gallatti 1995, at 135.)  [Return to text.]

19“Great Collection of Paintings,” New York Times, November 5, 1895, p. 5 (clip online via newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

20At the end of 1897 the Art Institute of Chicago displayed 71 paintings, mostly portraits and scenes from Shinnecock at a time when Chase giving a life class at the school. [Return to text.]

21In 1903 M. Knoedler’s in New York had a one man showing of his works. In 1905 he had a solo exhibition at McClees Gallery in Philadelphia. The Herron Institute of Indianapolis organized a travelling exhibit in 1909. In 1910 the National Arts Club held a retrospective in 1910.  [Return to text.]

22Benjamin Northrop, “Great Artist’s Struggle: How Chase Painted His First Successful Pictures,” Iandianapolis News, January 14, 1899, p. 9 (clip online via newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

23Greta, “Art in Boston,” Art Amateur, Vol. 16, no. 2 (January 1887), p. 28 (onlline via JSTOR; open access). [Return to text.]

24“The Exhibition of the Society of American Artists,” Art Amateur, Vol. 30, no. 5 (April 1894), p. 127. [Return to text.]

Sources

Benjamin, S.G.W., “The Present Tendencies in American Art,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (March 1879), pp. 481-96 (online; subscription required).

Bolger, Doreen, In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Rizzoli, 1986).

Bryant, Keith L.,William Merritt Chase: A Genteel Bohemian (Columbia, Missouri, University of Missouri Press, c1991).

Chase, William Merritt, “The Two Whistlers: Recollections of a Summer with the Great Etcher,” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. 80 (June 1910), pp. 219-26 (online via Hathi Trust).

Cikovsky, Jr., Nicolai, “William Merritt Chase’s Tenth Street Studio,” Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 16, no. 2 (1976), pp. 2-14.

Cox, Kenyon, “William M. Chase, Painter,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (March 1889), pp. 549-57 (online; subscription required).

Francis, Henry S., “Portraits by Whistler and Chase,” Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Vol. 52, no. 1 (Jan., 1965), pp. 19-23.

Frey, Elizabeth Vose, “The Renaissance of Pastel Societies,” International Association of Pastel Societies (n.p., n.d.) (PDF, open access).

Gallati, Barbara Dayer, William Merritt Chase (New York: Henry N. Abrams Inc., 1995).

Gallati, Barbara Dayer, William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890 (Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum of Art in association with H. Abrams, c1999).

Gerdts, William H., American Impressionism (New York: Abbeville Press, c1984).

Hiesinger, Ulrich W., Impressionism in America: The Ten American Painters (Munich: Prestel, c1991).

Kent, Rockwell, It’s Me, Oh Lord: The Autobiography of Rockwell Kent (New York: Dodd, Mead, [1955]).

Larkin, Oliver W., Art and Life in America (Rev. ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1964).

McSpadden, J. Walker, Famous Painters of America (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1916) (online at Archive.org).

Marling, Karal Ann, “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: Miss Dora Wheeler,” Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Vol. 65, no. 2 (February 1978), pp. 47-57.

Merrill, Linda (ed.), After Whistler: The Artist and his Influence on American Painting (Atlanta: High Museum of Art; Yale University Press, c2003).

Pisano, Ronald G., William Merritt Chase (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1979).

Pisano, Ronald G., Summer Afternoons: The Landscape Paintings of William Merritt Chase (Boston: Bulfinch Press, Little, Brown, c1993).

Pisano, Ronald G., The Complete Catalogue of Known and Documented Work by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) (New Haven: Yale University Press, c2006).

Roof, Katharine Metcalf, The Life and Art of William Merritt Chase (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917) (online via Archive.org).

Schaffner, Cyntia V.A. and Lori Zabar, “The Founding and Design of William Merritt Chase’s Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art and the Art Village,”  Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 44, no. 4 (December 2010), pp. 303-350.`

Speed, John Gilmer, “An Artist’s Summer Vacation,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (June 1893), pp. 3-14 (online; subscription required).

Van Rensselaer, M.G., “William Merritt Chase” [First Article], American Art Review, Vol. 2., no. 3 (January 1881), pp. 91-98 (PDF; open access via JSTOR).

Van Rensselaer, M.G., “William Merritt Chase” [Second and Concluding Part], American Art Review, Vol. 2., no. 4 (February 1881), pp. 135-42 (PDF; open access via JSTOR).

Whistler, James Abbott MacNeill, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies ed. by Sheridan Ford (New York: Frederik Stokes & Brother, 1890) (online via Archive.org.).

Advertisements

The Atlantic Launches a Bohemian’s Career: Whitman’s Sea-Mysteries in “Bardic Symbols”

[For the July 4 holiday: A slightly modified re-post from the early days.]

Whitman at 37 in July 1854. Steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer of a daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison (original lost). From the frontispiece to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Wikipedia.) Click to enlarge.

At the beginning of 1860 Walt Whitman was a poet of some renown. Two editions of Leaves of Grass had been published; the first (Brooklyn: 1855) contained 12 poems; the second (Brooklyn: 1856) 32. His hope of receiving a critical stamp of approval from the foremost American intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was more than gratified when Emerson responded (Concord, July 21, 1855) to his unsolicited letter enclosing the first edition of the book: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Emerson’s praise did not stop there; he went on: “I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire.” And to make this response the more remarkable, Emerson said he had a “wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respects.”

Such a review from such a source is not something that every novice poet receives. Whitman did not hide his candle under a bushel. He had the letter printed in the October 10, 1855 issue of the New York Tribune which had previously faulted the collection. The paper prefaced the letter by saying: “We some time since had occasion to call the attention of our readers to this original and striking collection of poems, by Mr. Whitman of Brooklyn. In so doing we could not avoid noticing certain faults which seemed to us to be prominent in the work. The following opinion, from a distinguished source, views the matter from a more positive and less critical stand-point.” Not satisfied in using the letter to settle a score with the Tribune Whitman had the letter printed as an appendix to the second edition of the collection. (Over the years Whitman has taken some heat for his brazen promotional use of the letter. The letter itself, however, looks like it was designed for such use; in any event it didn’t seem to have offended Emerson.) Emerson in fact visited Whitman in Manhattan that year. The next year another representative from Concord would visit him, this time venturing into Brooklyn. Bronson Alcott, turgid writer and iconoclastic educator, began a lifelong friendship with Whitman with his October 1856 visit. (His daughter Louisa May had published her first work, a collection of fantasies, 7 years earlier. In 1860 she would have a story published, “Love and Self-Love,” in the Atlantic Magazine one month before Whitman’s poem appeared. Like Whitman she would spend some of the war in hospitals.) Bronson a month later brought to Brooklyn to see Whitman another representative from the seat of American high culture, Henry David Thoreau. Whitman would also during these years become acquainted with the artistic talents that Manhattan produced.

But even in those days, when people actually read new poetry, poet was not an occupation. In fact, Whitman was still scurrying about trying to make ends meet. It did not help that he stayed around Brooklyn and Manhattan, then as now more interested in commercial than intellectual matters. Although he had tried teaching on a couple of occasions, he was either not good at it or not interested in it. He also seemed to lack the discipline or inspiration to write fiction or extended prose. (He had written a temperance novel in 1842, Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate.  He later called it “damned rot”—an opinion you can quickly confirm here.) His poetry by the standards of the day (and even now) was sui generis. And so he was required to take menial labor jobs in the printing business. In 1857 he became an editor of a Brooklyn paper but by 1859 lost that job.  According to William Dean Howells Whitman also pursued the dollar in a way many current struggling Manhattan artists do—he drove hack.

Debauchery at the Vault at Pabst in an early 1860s depiction by the New York Illustrated News. There must have been protests because shortly thereafter the Illustrated News printed a “corrected” illustration with sober gentlement at a table discussion literature. (Lehigh University Digital Library.) Click to enlarge.

During this time Whitman became an habitué of Pfaff’s beer hall. Pfaff’s was one of those places that fly under the radar of notice of polite society (and usually history) but provide a meeting place for nonconformists of all stripes. Pfaff’s brought together a remarkable assortment of serious modern literary novices, sexual nonconformists, actors, future critics and biographers and the like. The cellar provided a meeting place for serious literary discussions, sexual hook-ups, hedonism, and alcohol-fueled carousing. It  became the epicenter of Bohemian culture, whose members made the recently deceased New Yorker Edgar Allan Poe, a notorious alcoholic and occasional blackout drunk, their patron saint. Among the remarkable array of patrons were future literary lion William Dean Howells (who went once and endured the Bohemianism in order to make the contacts that would jump start his career), the future great American landscape painter and water colorist Winslow Homer (who would soon begin his career with war illustrations), political cartoonist Thomas Nast, future poet, novelist and Atlantic contributor Elizabeth Barstow Stoddard as well as her husband, critic and poet Richard Henry Stoddard (who later denied he had ever set foot in the place), future Atlantic editor Thomas Aldrich, “Hashesh Eater” Fitz Hugh Ludlow, and popular essayist and poet for Vanity Fair, Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly George Arnold.  The future French premier Georges Clemenceau, writing for a French paper in New York City at the time, claimed to have had a reserved table at Pfaff’s.  (Clemenceau was a patron after Whitman had gone off to observe the war.) Sexually liberated women frequented Pfaff’s. Ada Clare, who famously bore a child out of wedlock to pianist and once popular composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, became known as the “Queen of Bohemia.” Pfaff’s was also the center of the “man-man” love group known as the Fred Gay Association.  At the time Whitman appeared to have had an affair with group memember Frederick Vaughan, a fellow hack driver, who greatly supported Whitman through the publication of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, who was probably the inspiration for Whitman’s Calamus poems, which celebrated the “manly love of comrades,” and who later deserted Whitman, got married and had 4 children, and rarely had contact with Whitman again.

Whitman’s great champion Henry Clapp, Jr. (Lehigh Digital Library.)

The literary organ of Bohemia was the New York Saturday Press, a lively literary weekly with poems, fiction, criticism and other comment, edited by Henry Clapp Jr., who after tasting the wine of Parisian leftist thought and café high culture, returned to New York to found an avant-garde coterie who would contribute to an honest intellectual production.  The newspaper noted that it proudly (and perhaps uniquely) refused payment for favorable reviews.  It provided a regular forum for Ada Clare’s views on women and other things.  It tirelessly promoted Leaves of Grass.  William Dean Howells would much later—at a time when he no longer flirted with Bohemianism (in an article entitled “First Impressions of Literary New York” for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1895, p63)—describe the New York Saturday Press as the literary production which

“really embodied the new literary life of the city. It was clever, and full of the wit that tries its teeth upon everything. It attacked all literary shams but its own, and it made itself felt and feared. The young writers throughout the country were ambitious to be seen in it, and they gave their best to it; they gave literally, for the Saturday Press never paid in anything but hopes of paying, vaguer even than promises. It is not too much to say that it was very nearly as well for one to be accepted by the Press as to be accepted by the Atlantic, and for the time there was no other literary comparison. To be in it was to be in the company of Fitz James O’Brien, Fitzhugh Ludlow, Mr. Aldrich, Mr. Stedman, and whoever else was liveliest in prose or loveliest in verse at that day in New York. It was a power, and although it is true that, as Henry Giles said of it, ‘Man cannot live by snapping turtle alone,’ the Press was very good snapping-turtle.”

One of the key characteristics of the group who ran and clustered about the place was their virulent hatred of the literary capital of America (“First Impressions,” p64):

“I had found there a bitterness against Boston as great as the bitterness against respectability, and as Boston was then rapidly becoming my second country, I could not join in the scorn thought of her and said of her by the Bohemians. I fancied a conspiracy among them to shock the literary pilgrim, and to minify the precious emotions he had experienced in visiting other shrines; but I found no harm in that, for I knew just how much to be shocked, and I thought I knew better how to value certain things of the soul than they. Yet when their chief asked me how I got on with Hawthorne, and I began to say that he was very shy and I was rather shy, and the king of Bohemia took his pipe out to break in upon me with “Oh, a couple of shysters!” and the rest laughed, I was abashed all they could have wished, and was not restored to myself till one of them said that the thought of Boston made him as ugly as sin: then I began to hope again that men who took themselves so seriously as that need not be taken very seriously by me.”

(An extensive history of New York’s Bohemia, including digitalized images of The New York Saturday Press can be found at the very valuable site The Vault at Pfaff’s, maintained by Lehigh University.)

Having been ogled at by the Boston literati and accepted by the New York Bohemians must have been bracing for Whitman.  Since 1856 he had produced nearly 100 more poems for Leaves of Grass (for which he was searching for another publisher).  Howells reflected that it was the embrace of Bohemia that saved Whitman (“First Impressions,” p65):

“who, when the Saturday Press took it up, had as hopeless a case with the critics on either side of the ocean as any man could have.  It was not till long afterward that his English admirers began to discover him, and to make his countrymen some noisy reproaches for ignoring him; they were wholly in the dark concerning him when the Saturday Press, which first stood his friend and the young men whom the Press gathered about it, made him their cult.  No doubt he was more valued because he was so offensive in some ways than he would have been if he had been in no way offensive, but it remains a fact that they celebrated him quite as much as was good for them.” (To see an illustration of Howells meeting Whitman at Pfaff’s, see “First Impressions” at p67.)

Nevertheless, 1860 found Whitman still retailing poems and, more remarkable given the precipice facing the country, writing poems about the oneness of America. On Christman eve 1859, the New York Saturday Press published his “A Child’s Reminiscence.” Clapp offered it as a Christmas gift to his readers. True to his publishing honesty, Clapp published on the following January 7 a review from the Cincinnati Commercial.  It began:

“The author of Leaves of Grass has perpetrated another ‘poem.’ The N. Y. Saturday Press, in whose columns, we regret to say, it appears, calls it ‘a curious warble.’ Curious, it may be; but warble it is not, in any sense of that mellifluous word. It is a shade less heavy and vulgar than the Leaves of Grass, whose unmitigated badness seemed to cap the climax of poetic nuisances. But the present performance has all the emptiness, without half the grossness, of the author’s former efforts.”

The anonymous author used the occasion to unleash a broadside against Whitman:

“Perhaps our readers are blissfully ignorant of the history and achievements of Mr. Walt Whitman. Be it known, then, that he is a native and resident of Brooklyn, Long Island, born and bred in an obscurity from which it were well that he never had emerged. A person of coarse nature, and strong, rude passions, he has passed his life in cultivating, not the amenities, but the rudeness of character; and instead of tempering his native ferocity with the delicate influences of art and refined literature, he has studied to exaggerate his deformities, and to thrust into his composition all the brute force he could muster from a capacity not naturally sterile in the elements of strength. He has undertaken to be an artist, without learning the first principle of art, and has presumed to put forth ‘poems,’ without possessing a spark of the poetic faculty. He affects swagger and independence, and blurts out his vulgar impertinence under a full assurance of ‘originality.'”

January 7 found Whitman trying to hawk his “A Chant of National Feuillage” to Harpers Magazine.  The magazine rejected it. The 16th found him trying to sell “Thoughts” to the New York Saturday Courier. On January 20 Whitman found out that James Russell Lowell of the Atlantic Magazine accepted “Bardic Symbols” for publication. Ultra Bostonian Lowell was squeemish about two lines (after line 3 in stanza XVIII) which he proposed cutting:

(See from my dead lips the ooze exuding at last!
See the prismatic colors glistening and rolling!)

Whitman said that the lines intended “an effect in the piece which I clearly feel, but cannot as clearly define.”  He nevertheless agreed to their omission. (They were put back in when he published it in the third edition of Leaves of Grass, where the poem was included as untitled “Leaves of Grass” number 1, at pp195-99. The lines are in Stanza 16 at p199.)

Personal note to Whitman from William W. Thayer on back of letter (August 17, 1860) discussing the possible purchase of Clapp’s New-York Saturday Press. (The Walt Whitman Archive.) Click to enlarge.

And then, in February, Whitman got the best news of all.  A new publishing firm in Boston wrote offering to publish the new edition of Leaves of Grass. The firm of two young men, William Wilde Thayer and Charles W. Eldridge offered to either “buy the stereotype plates of Leaves of Grass, or pay you for the use of them” in addition to the regular royalties (which would be 10%).  More importantly perhaps the publishers gratified his feelings as well as promised to promote the book vigorously:

“Now we want to be known as the publishers of Walt. Whitman’s books, and put our name as such under his, on title pages.—If you will allow it we can and will put your books into good form, and style attractive to the eye; we can and will sell a large number of copies; we have great facilities by and through numberless Agents in selling. We can dispose of more books than most publishing houses (we do not “puff” here but speak truth).”

The deal was good enough to have soon have Whitman in Boston to supervise production and there meet again Emerson and others of the transcendental persuasion. Fred Vaughan wrote to Whitman there offering to introduce him to stage driver friends of his: “If you want to form the acquaintance of any Boston Stage men, get on one of those stages running to Charlestown Bridge, or Chelsea Ferry, & enquire for Charley Hollis or Ed Morgan, mention my name, and introduce yourself as my friend.”

As for “Bardic Symbols,” it met with the same hostile newspaper critics as rejected the earlier Leaves of Grass editions. Henry Clapp wrote him that “[t]he papers all over the land have noticed your poem in the Atlantic and have generally pitched into it strong; which I take to be good for you and your new publishers, who if they move rapidly and concentrate their forces will make a Napoleonic thing of it.”

William Dean Howells in 1855. Click to enlarge.

But Howells, writing for the Daily Ohio State Journal (where his father first had his poems published when Howells was 15 and where Howells had been working for two years), gave a judicious review. The work, after all, was among the least daring of Whitman’s poems and would not even be controversial once the third edition of the collection was published with its Calamus poems. It had none of the self-promoting bravura that shocked conventional readers of the first collection. In fact, Whitman whistfully contemplates his own insignificance against the sea.

“I, too, am but a trail of drift and debris,—
I, too, leave little wrecks upon you, you fished-shaped island!”

(This is certainly less falsely modest than T.S. Eliot in the “What the Thunder Said” section of The Waste Land.) It has a sustained symbol throughout, unlike many of his poems and the symbol has many levels of meaning.  In Stanzas XIII and XIV he calls the sea “Father” and requests a kiss. It is a startling apostrophe and perhaps suggestive of his homoerotic longings.  These Stanzas are followed up with:

“Sea-raff! Torn leaves!
Oh, I sing, some day, what you have certainly said to me!”

In the 1860 Leaves of Grass version of the poem the verses are revised:

“Sea-raff! Crook-tongued waves!
O, I will yet sing, some day, what you have said to me.”

Is it too much to see another influence on Eliot?  Recall the ending of the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

“I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

(I will not belabor the comparison by pointing out the story from the Inferno in the Epigraph of Prufrock.)

In any event, Howells writes:

“No one, even after the fourth or fifth reading, can pretend to say what the ‘Bardic Symbols’ symbolize. The poet walks by the sea, and addressing the drift, the foam, the billows and the wind, attempts to force from them, by his frantic outcry, the … true solution of the mystery of Existence, always most heavily and darkly felt in the august ocean presence. All is confusion, waste and sound. It is in vain that you attempt to gather the poet’s full meaning from what he says or what he hints. You can only take refuge in occasional passages like this, in which he wildly laments the feebleness and inefficiency of that art which above all others seeks to make the soul visible and audible:

O, baffled, lost,
Bent to the very earth, here preceding what follows,
Terrified with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now, that amid all the blab, whose echoes recoil
upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or
what I am,
But that before all my insolent poems the real one still stands untouched, untold, altogether unreached,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory
signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I
have written or shall write,
Striking me with insults till I fall helpless upon the sand.”

Howells compares this section with Tennyson’s poem “Break, break, break”:

“Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me!

An aspiration of mute words without relevancy, without absolute signification, and full of ‘divine despair.’

Howells was at the beginning of his career as well and would have no way of knowing that Whitman was to have much more in common with what would follow long after than what had just gone before.

Bardic Symbols

from Atlantic Monthly (April 1860)

by Walt Whitman

I.

ELEMENTAL drifts!
Oh, I wish I could impress others as you and the waves have just been impressing me!

II.

As I ebbed with an ebb of the ocean of life,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walked where the sea-ripples wash you, Paumanok,
Where they rustle up, hoarse and sibilant,
Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways,
I, musing, late in the autumn day, gazing off southward,
Alone, held by the eternal self of me that threatens to get the better of me and stifle me,
Was seized by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot,
In the ruin, the sediment, that stands for all the water and all the land of the globe.

III.

Fascinated, my eyes, reverting from the south, dropped, to follow those slender windrows,
Chaff, straw, splinters of wood, weeds, and the sea-gluten,
Scum, scales from shining rocks, leaves of salt-lettuce, left by the tide.

IV.

Miles walking, the sound of breaking waves the other side of me,
Paumanok, there and then as I thought the old thought of likenesses,
These you presented to me, you fish-shaped island,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walked with that eternal self of me, seeking types.

V.

As I wend the shores I know not,
As I listen to the dirge, the voices of men and women wrecked,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,
At once I find, the least thing that belongs to me, or that I see or touch, I know not;
I, too, but signify a little washed-up drift,—a few sands and dead leaves to gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the leaves and drift.

VI.

Oh, baffled, lost,
Bent to the very earth, here preceding what follows,
Terrified with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now, that, amid all the blab whose echoes recoil upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my insolent poems the real me still stands untouched, untold, altogether unreached,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written or shall write,
Striking me with insults, till I fall helpless upon the sand!

VII.

Oh, I think I have not understood anything,—not a single object,—and that no man ever can!

VIII.

I think Nature here, in sight of the sea, is taking advantage of me to oppress me,
Because I was assuming so much,
And because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.

IX.

You oceans both! You tangible land! Nature!
Be not too stern with me,—I submit,—I close with you,—
These little shreds shall, indeed, stand for all.

X.

You friable shore, with trails of debris!
You fish-shaped island! I take what is underfoot:
What is yours is mine, my father!

XI.

I, too, Paumanok,
I, too, have bubbled up, floated the measureless float, and been washed on your shores.

XII.

I, too, am but a trail of drift and debris,—
I, too, leave little wrecks upon you, you fished-shaped island!

XIII.

I throw myself upon your breast, my father!
I cling to you so that you cannot unloose me,—
I hold you so firm, till you answer me something.

XIV.

Kiss me, my father!
Touch me with your lips, as I touch those I love!
Breathe to me, while I hold you close, the secret of the wondrous murmuring I envy!
For I fear I shall become crazed, if I cannot emulate it, and utter myself as well as it.

XV.

Sea-raff! Torn leaves!
Oh, I sing, some day, what you have certainly said to me!

XVI.

Ebb, ocean of life! (the flow will return,)—
Cease not your moaning, you fierce old mother!
Endlessly cry for your castaways! Yet fear not, deny not me,—
Rustle not up so hoarse and angry against my feet, as I touch you,or gather from you.

XVII.

I mean tenderly by you,—
I gather for myself, and for this phantom, looking down where we lead, and following me and mine.

XVIII.

Me and mine!
We, loose windrows, little corpses,
Froth, snowy white, and bubbles,
Tufts of straw, sands, fragments,
Buoyed hither from many moods, one contradicting another,
From the storm, the long calm, the darkness, the swell,
Musing, pondering, a breath, a briny tear, a dab of liquid or soil,
Up just as much out of fathomless workings fermented and thrown,
A limp blossom or two, torn, just as much over waves floating, drifted at random,
Just as much for us that sobbing dirge of Nature,
Just as much, whence we come, that blare of the cloud-trumpets,—
We, capricious, brought hither, we know not whence, spread out before you,—you, up there, walking or sitting,
Whoever you are, we, too, lie in drifts at your feet.

Periodic Poetry: Millay (Part I)

The Spectra of Mr. Ficke

“Poet’s poet” is an epitaph usually conferred with kindness, as an excuse for a friend. It means the poet was soon forgotten after a brief spell of minor celebrity. Even his remaining peers’ can’t explain why things did not turn out differently. It’s Fame’s consolation prize. Arthur Davison Ficke was a poet’s poet.

That he is unknown today was not the conscious fault of his father, Charles A. Ficke, an ambitious and relentless self-made man who willed that Arthur go to Harvard and then return to Davenport to be a lawyer. That was to be the foundation for an intellectual figure of consequence. It was not prudent to rely on poetry alone to maintain one’s status in society. And status was something that took Charles so much effort to achieve.

Charles A. Ficke was born in Germany (actually the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin) in 1850. Two years later the family had settled in Scott County on a farm they bought near Long Grove, Iowa. Although his father was a well-to-do merchant, the family left to avoid the reactionary backlash to the unsuccessful democratic revolutions of 1848. Eastern Iowa was a haven for German refugees at the time; in fact, the location was recommended by another emigree to whom Charles’s father had loaned the money for his settlement. The Ficke farm nearly failed in those early years, as a result of the combination of lack of know-how, poor livestock purchases, crop failure and overly generous lending to neighbors, who, when their own crops failed, were unable to repay the elder Ficke. The Fickes were not ones to surrender, so through relentless determination they willed the farm to produce. Sacrifices, however, had to be made. Charles did not attend secondary school; instead, at the age of 12 he became an apprentice clerk at the general store of his sister and her husband in Cedar County. After three years, Charles enrolled in a commercial college then took jobs as an insurance clerk, then bank clerk, all the while trying to read law. When the cashier job he was waiting for was given to another, he decided to attend law school. He knew a lawyer who studied at Albany Law School, so he headed to upstate New York for his legal education. He visited Germany and other parts of Europe before he returned to Davenport to open a law office.

The Ficke home in Davenport, acquired by Charles in 1893. This 4 floor house capped by a belvedere contained 38 rooms. It is now a frat house. (Photo by David Sebben ©2009; used with permission.)

Back in Iowa, he became active in Republican Party politics, especially among the Germans of eastern Iowa. (German Forty-Eighters were by disposition anti-slavery and therefore naturally Republican.) As the Civil War receded from memory, the German immigants’ attachment to the Party of Lincoln frayed over the issue of prohibition. Since its early settlement, Iowa had anti-liquor sentiments. By 1882 an amendment to the state constitution prohibiting all alcohol, passed by the Republican legislature, won approval in a state-wide vote against strong opposition in German areas including Scott County. Charles switched parties and to his surprise was elected county attorney as a Democrat in 1886. In 1890 he was elected to the first of two terms as Mayor of Davenport.

Charles was a man on the move professionally as well. In addition to his law office he opened a farm mortgage company which made secured loans for improvements during a period of a great land rush in Iowa. The business flourished and expanded to surrounding states. He used the knowledge he gained to invest in large real estate holdings. By 1882 his prospects were such that he was able to marry a daughter of the lawyer for the very bank he once clerked in. Frances Davison would team up with Charles to become pillars of the community. She would searve as trustee of the Davenport library for over 30 years. In 1892 Frances was an original member of the Tuesday Club, an exclusive club for “intellectual improvement” for younger women. In 1896 Charles joined the new Contemporary Club—a by-invitation-only group (who called themselves “the Immortals”) who in rotation researched and delivered an address on a current issue, followed by opportunity for debate. Charles and Frances would have one son and two daughters. They invested in Arthur their hopes for a cultured, erudite and refined member of the Davenport elite.

Arthur was given the kind of upbringing that is usually enjoyed only by old monied families. Raised Unitarian like his mother’s family, he acquired refined manners, enjoyed international travel and acquired a taste for literature and art. (As he became wealthy, Charles himself began buying more and more objects of fine art, much of which now resides in Davenport’s Figge Art Museum.) Arthur was encouraged to write—his high school newspaper published poems, essays and short stories by him. He was thus exactly the kind of student Harvard was looking for. Son of a wealthy, midwestern pillar of the community, with a practical orientation and yet with a literary bent, Arthur Ficke became another of President Eliot’s means to refurbish Harvard from a school that taught gentleman the classics to one that took sons of wealthy pillars of the community in order to transformed them into wealthy pillars of the community themselves.

At Harvard Ficke took classes with William James, Kuno Franke and George Santayana. More importantly became friends with Witter (“Hal”) Bynner, an upperclassman who was involved in all literary activities on campus. Ficke and Bynner would remain friends for life. Of the two of them, Bynner was more ambitious for Literature. He tracked the new voices, sought out up-and-comers and ingratiated himself with the established. It was Bynner who arranged for Pound’s publication in the United States, and he championed and published A.E. Housman in McClure’s, also the first time in America. Bynner befriended D.H. Lawrence (he became a minor, and unsympathetic, character in The Plumed Serpent), Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Wallace Stevens, Carl Van Vechten, Henry James, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Kenneth Rexroth — in short everyone.

Ficke was less adventurous in literature and more conventional in lifestyle. Nevertheless, he immersed himself in campus literary pursuits and spent free time writing poetry. He wrote for and became president of the literary magazine Advocate. He was so respected (or at least well known) for his poetry that he was elected class poet, a class day office just below class orator. Before he was graduated, he had poems in The Smart Set (“The Meadow,” September 1904; “The Siren,” November 1904) and Scribner’s Magazine (“The Shadow of Beauty,” December 1904; “The Hill of Stars,” April 1905). The July 1905 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine, published just after graduation, had his “Raleigh’s Song.”

Arthur Davison Ficke could not be contained by Davenport.

After graduation Ficke took a 10-month trip around the world with his parents. (Bynner was required to immediately go into journalism.) In Bombay he met Maurice Browne, an English schoolteacher and aspiring poet, who would found Samurai Press when he returned to Surrey. Browne also became Ficke’s life-long friend when he moved to Chicago in 1910. There Browne founded the experimental theater, The Chicago Little Theater.

When Ficke returned to Davenport he continued writing poetry. His “Song in a Garden” appeared in the June 1906 issue of Harper’s Monthly Magazine and “Brahma” in the October issue. Poems inspired by his trip also appeared in Scribner’s Magazine and Smart Set. These and others he sent off to Maurice Browne who published Ficke’s first book, From the Isles: A Series of Songs Out of Greece (Norwich: Samurai Press: 1907). “Brahma” and others were collected the same year in The Happy Princess and Other Poems (Boston: Small, Maynard & Co: 1907). The New York Times said that The Happy Princess was one of the few “volumes of distinction” from that summer. The reviewer even called Ficke’s title poem a “beautiful phantasy” inspired by the “modern” (!) William Morris.

Meanwhile, he enrolled in law school in Davenport. He taught English for a while at the University of Iowa. (He lectured on the history of Arthurian Legends.) In October 1907 he married Evelyn B. Blunt in Springfield, Massachusetts, a wedding described by locals as a “brilliant Episcopalian nuptial event.” He eventually joined his father’s law firm and was on track to becoming a local pillar. But it was all stultifying. Fortunately his practice required him to take frequent trips to Chicago where he found Floyd Davis (who had lived briefly in Davenport as a socialist journalist until he left in 1907) and soon became part of Chicago literary circles which included Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser. His trips became escapes from what he called in his diary “that loathsome atmosphere of small-town business and domestic infelicity.”

Ficke was handsome, dapper and sophisticated. He had the William Powell manner two decades before William Powell had it. (His 1913 verse drama Mr. Faust begins with three men in a library with a fireplace, “a large handsome room panelled in dark oak and lined with rows of books in open book-shelves.” The men are in evening dress. “All three are smoking, and tall highball glasses stand within their reach.” For men like Ficke, the Gilded Age hadn’t ended.) He enjoyed the Bohemian intemperance of the Chicago literati, although he himself was not particularly decadent. Impoverished journalists and artists would in turn be grateful for his expensive tastes and ability to pay for them. His friend, journalist and poet Eunice Tietjens reminisced that “when he came we had lunches and dinners at the choicest restaurants, ordered with a nicety of understanding of the graces of the table and of fine wines.” Writers liked him for his impeccable manners and literary outlook. Theodore Dreiser remarked on his “seemingly changeless poetic response to life, — lovely through sombre or gay moods or emotions that appear to me to bubble or sweep upwards to expression — as water rises over grass and moss in a dell or over the hard rocks and hot sands of a desert . . .”

Cover of the first issue of Monroe’s Poetry

Ficke began to be published in the literary journals in addition to the popular magazines. When Harriet Monroe published the first issue of Poetry in October 1912 it was Ficke’s “Poetry” that was the very first poem. (Ezra Pound came later in the issue.) His verse also appeared in the first issue of Margaret Anderson’s Little Review, and in the first volume of Midland and, later, the Saturday Review of Literature. Ficke’s poetic tribute to Rupert Brooke shared the June 1915 issue of Poetry with (and preceded) T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. In 1913 Edwin Björkman began his series “Modern Drama” with Ficke’s blank verse drama Mr. Faust (New York: Mitchell Kennelley: 1913), even though it was only Ficke’s second play. (The New York Times advised Ficke to drop the blank verse and develop the characters; nevertheless it concluded that the work was “masterful” and represented “significant thought.”)

A century later his poetry at the time seems oddly tame, with traditional forms and conventional subjects, as a section from his paean to “Poetry” in the first issue of Poetry shows. It also shows that Ficke had a Romantic view of the art — a view that would shortly be assaulted by the Modernists. (The “it” in the following stanza refers to “poetry.”):

It is a refuge from the stormy days,
Breathing the peace of a remoter world
Where beauty, like the musing dusk of even,
Enfolds the spirit in its silver haze;
While far away, with glittering banners furled,
The west lights fade, and stars come out in heaven.

But 1912 was not 1915, when the Chicago Renaissance finally spread to poetry with Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (the following year would appear Sandburg’s Chicago Poems) and when an even greater upheaval was beginning in England with Pound and Eliot. Even in 1915, however, Ficke’s kind of traditionalism was still preferable to knowledgeable, established critics. William Dean Howells in the September 1915 issue of Harper’s, for example, demeaned what he called the “shredded prose” of Amy Lowell’s free verse in Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co: c1914). By contrast, Howells praised the following sonnet by Ficke for being “delicately and truthfully studied”:

Sonnet LIII
from Sonnets from a Portrait-Painter (New York: Mitchell Kennerley: 1915)
by Arthur Davison Ficke

There are strange shadows fostered of the moon,
More numerous than the clear-cut shade of day. . . .
Go forth, when all the leaves whisper of June,
Into the dusk of swooping bats at play,—
Or go into that late November dusk
When hills take on the noble lines of death,
And on the air the faint astringent musk
Of rotting leaves pours vaguely troubling breath.
Then shall you see shadows whereof the sun
Knows nothing,—aye, a thousand shadows there
Shall leap and flicker and stir and stay and run,
Like petrels of the changing foul or fair,—
Like ghosts of twilight, of the moon, of him
Whose homeland lies past each horizon’s rim.

Ficke himself was not a reactionary. He defended both T.S. Eliot and Vachel Lindsay after bad reviews and later endorsed the Imagists Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound. Through Monroe and Bynner he kept abreast of the new schools, and he never disparaged experimental or avant-garde poets. But Bynner, quite on his own in this, developed an intense dislike for Amy Lowell and the Imagists in general and especially their theorizing. In the latter regard they were no worse than the adherents or practitioners of Vorticism, Surrealism or Dadaism. But Bynner (as he tells it) was baited by a friend, who told him that it was at least something to found a school. Bynner said it was nothing and set out to prove it. So in 1916 Bynner contacted Ficke to entice him to help devise a “school” of poetry called Spectrism. Bynner tempted him with their mutual dislike of Wallace Stevens, who graduated Harvard a year before Bynner. Fiske agreed. (Originally the book that resulted from the collaboration had a pointed reference to Stevens, but it was deleted in the final version.) They fabricated its two practitioners, Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish (Bynner and Ficke, respectively) and their respective poetic styles. They spent 10 days in February 1916 writing all the poems which comprised Spectra: A Book of Poetic Experiments (New York: Mitchell Kennerley: 1916).

Before the book came out in the fall, Bynner set out dropping hints about the school in lectures and conversations with poets and critics. He even sent the draft of an article (which contained a reference to the Spectrists) to Amy Lowell. She disapproved of his views on modern poetry, she wrote him, but had never heard of the Spectrists. Ficke wrote a piece, under the name Anne Knish, which Forum published that summer with sample poems. William Marion Reedy’s Mirror reprinted the article. (This despite that Reedy had not long before had a discussion with Bynner in which he agreed with Bynner about absurdity of modern schools.) The New Republic (only two years old) was panting for the publication and requested Bynner himself to review the book. Bynner had engineered the biggest rollout possible for a new school of poetry.

In the book, Morgan addressed the dedication:

TO REMY DE GOURMONT

Poet, a wreath!—
No matter how we had combined our flowers,
You would have worn them — being ours. . . .
On you, on them, the showers—
O roots beneath!
Emanuel Morgan.

Anne Knish prefaced the poems with an overview of Spectric theory:

An explanation of the term “Spectric” will indicate something of the nature of the technique which it describes. “Spectric” has, in this connection, three separate but closely related meanings. In the first place, it speaks, to the mind, of that process of diffraction by which are disarticulated the several colored and other rays of which light is composed. It indicates our feeling that the theme of a poem is to be regarded as a prism, upon which the colorless white light of infinite existence falls and is broken up into glowing, beautiful, and intelligible hues. In its second sense, the term Spectric relates to the reflex vibrations of physical sight, and suggests the luminous appearance which is seen after exposure of the eye to intense light, and, by analogy, the after-colors of the poet’s initial vision. In its third sense, Spectric connotes the overtones, adumbrations, or spectres which for the poet haunt all objects both of the seen and the unseen world,—those shadowy projections, sometimes grotesque, which, hovering around the real, give to the real its full ideal significance and its poetic worth. These spectres are the manifold spell and true essence of objects,—like the magic that would inevitably encircle a mirror from the hand of Helen of Troy.

William Carlos Williams said that he admired the poems as a whole quite sincerely. Edgar Lee Masters wrote Emanuel Morgan: “You have an idea in the sense that places do have an essence, everything has a noumena back of its appearance and it is this that poetry should discover. … Spectrism if you must name it is at the core of things.” The January 1917 issue of Others: A Magazine of the New Verse was handed over to the Spectrists. Harriet Moore accepted poems by Morgan, but the hoax was exposed before she had to print them. Otherwise, Poetry would have endorsed Morgan. (It perhaps proves a point of the Spectrists if Moore thought the poems good when she thought them seriously written but rejected them when other circumstances were known. The worth of modern poetry must depend on who wrote it and what the intentions were, not simply the poem itself.)

A year after the book came out, Lloyd R. Morris published The Young Idea: An Anthology of Opinion Concerning the Spirit and Aims of Contemporary American Literature (New York: Duffield & Co: 1917). It contained edited letters from poets describing their view of the state of poetry of the day. The book contained the views of Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Fiske (they were in the group called “Empiricits”) as well as Emanuel Morgan and Anne Knish (they were in the group called “Romanticists”)—the section on Knish followed directly after the section on Amy Lowell. The reasonable Ficke placed the new schools in historical perspective:

In [the field of poetry] there has been of late so striking an awakening of interest that important new work may be expected. The manifest eccentricities and absurdities of the “new schools” are certainly no worse than the banalities and sentimentalities of the old ones; in fact, the vigorous shock which some of these aberrations have administered to the moribund body of poetry is distinctly galvanizing. Goethe’s words, used to describe the ultra-romantic excesses of French literature in his own day, apply accurately to our present situation: “The extremes and excrescences will gradually disappear; but at last this great advantage will remain— besides a freer form, richer and more diversified subjects will have been attained, and no object of the broadest world and the most manifold life will be any longer excluded as unpoetical.” We are today experiencing, in poetry almost as markedly as in painting, one of those periodic outbursts of unbridled life by which alone can an art be kept from hardening into a fossil.

The Eastern European Jew Anne Knish wrote dismissively of the other American schools:

Your new movement in poetry seems to me too closely derived from a French movement that is already ancient history to Continental Europe. Young people without genius slip into this stale current and have much fun; but many of their tragic poems are of humorous effect, I think, and when they would be funny I sometimes weep. It is like a piece of cheese left over at breakfast. So little is basically grounded on a theory of æsthetic that is of new import; and these young people fear the classic æsthetic as they would poison. They need not; though we seek new drinks to become drunken with, the doctrine of Aristoteles [sic] remains the staff of life, the bread.

We who are of the Spectric School of poets have tried, contradicting no ancient truth, to give fresh interpretation to classic gospels. If our æsthetic dogma be sound, the other poets will before long become aware. But these are in American poetry days only of beginning; and I think these people know nothing of European literary history who speak so much of “new, new, new!”

It was just outrageous enough not to be doubted. Neither her name (Slav-Yiddish for “bun,” it referred to the fried pastry-wrapped meat snacks that had been introduced into New York only a decade before) nor her supposed background (she claimed to have published in Russian) nor her flamboyant provocations proved that anything was amiss. Her poetry was overstrung, but Knish often probed her barely excavated Freudian desires, mixing them with memories.

ANNE KNISH
Opus 750
[From Spectra (1916)]

SOUNDS, pure sounds—
Nothing—
Vibrancies of the air—
And yet—

This summer night
There are crickets shrilling
Beyond the deep bassoon of frogs.
They cease for a moment
As the rattling clangor
Of the trolley
Bumps by.
I hear footsteps
Hollow on the pavement
Now deserted
And blank of sound.
They die.
The crickets now are sleeping;
Even the leaves
Grow still.

And slowly
Out of the blankness, out of the silence,
Emerges on soundless wings
The long sweet-sloping
Rise and fall of far viol notes,—
The mad Nirvana,
The faint and spectral
Dream-music
Of my heart’s desire.

The Spectric hoax lasted almost two years until The Dial (April 25, 1918) outed Ficke: “the interruption of the war . . . gave ‘Miss Knish’ a commission as Captain Arthur Davison Ficke.” With Ficke in France, Bynner told the whole story to New York Times Magazine. They drew different conclusions:

“And the worst of it is … is that I can’t get rid of Emanuel Morgan! I find now that I write like him without the slightest effort — I don’t know where he leaves off and I begin. He’s a boomerang! Why, Ficke and I never attracted half the attention with our serious, bona fide work that we did with this piece of fooling. Just as he was leaving for France Ficke said to me — and there was a distinct note of grief in his voice:

“‘Do you know, some of my best work is in “Spectra!”’”

Perhaps it’s true, who’s to say? Here is one of Anne Knish’s poems from Others, January 1917, that helps that case.

ANNE KNISH
Opus 380
[from Others (January 1917)]

I had the moon for a reason.
Was it not enough?
You were unreasonable
You wanted love.
But oh the moon was my reason!
Sigh like a dove
And you shall never do better.
I had the moon.

Mr. Earle and his Affinities

Ficke’s connection to this week’s poem, however, began before the War and before the Spectrism hoax; in fact, during the year that Poetry first began publishing.

In 1911, Ferdinand Earle (at other times known as Ferdinand Pinney Earle, like his father), advertised that he was putting up $1,000 for the best three poems to be published in his anthology Lyric Year (which would also published the 100 best poems submitted). The anthology was to be published by Mitchell Kennerley, the New York publisher who brought out the collections of many of the new poets. In some announcements there was confusion whether he was to be the editor.

Earle was an odd character who fascinated the press endlessly.* Earle’s father, a brigadier general in the New York National Guard (having entered the silk stocking Seventh Regiment in 1862), was a hotelier like his own father and three brothers. The General was grandson of Connecticut Judge Benjamin Pinney, a man so blue-blooded that he claimed title to land in Ellington from an Indian deed to an ancesstor in the 1670s. General Earle at one time operated four of the toniest New York hotels, including the New Nederland (built by William Waldorf Astor) and bought (and died in) the Jumel Mansion, Washington’s headquarters during the Battle of New York and later the home of Aaron Burr. (Madame Eliza Jumel, who’s career spanned prostitution to polite society was supposedly General Earle’s ancesstor.) Needless to say the general and his wife were prominent socialites. The press dutifully recorded what balls they were invited to; the squabbles and reconcilations of the members of the Seventh Regiment Veterans’ Club; his political participation (he was elected one of the vice-presidents of the national Democratic convention sponsored by the  delegates of the Business Men’s Democratic Association in 1891); his business disputes with Astor; and so forth.

Ferdinand was not inclined toward the hotel business so his parents sent him to Paris to study painting. He studied under Whistler and Bouguereau (so he claimed). He wrote verse on the Left Bank and took classes in poetry at Oxford. Back in the U.S. he published his Sonnets, first privately in an edition of 25, then Kennerley picked it up (New York: Mitchell Kennerley: 1910). He told the New York Times: “I have endeavored to introduce a new sonnet-form, which seems to Mr. George Sylvester Viereck to be needed in English. The simile and metaphor are treated as leitmotifs in several of the sonnets.” The chief feature of this “new” form of sonnet, neither Shakespearean nor Petrarchan, was the re-arrangement of the rhymes, so it had two sets of three rhymed lines. Here is one of them (He told his friends that he was attempting to live down his past, which this poem, thought The Times, might be a reference):

And Man is Flesh and Mind and Spirit 
by Ferdinand Earle.

I dread to look upon my many selves,
The different natures dwelling in my soul:
The ugly reptile reeking in his hole,
The chained tiger chafing at control.
And oh, the madcap band of cruel elves
Mocking the lonely poet as he delves
Amongst life’s volumes, seeking on the shelves
Of memory his heart’s tear-written scroll.

A golden glory trembles on the air,
The gleam of spirit-wings is over me,
And to my ear a wondrous melody
Whispers its benediction. May I dare
To love my Seraph Self until I share
His god-like power, his deep serenity.

Ferdinand P. Earle in Hollywood after he lost his “full brown beard,” his expression “which … he believes to come from the artistic temperment” and his affinities.

Another of his self-reformation sonnets was entitled “Be Thou Ever Wistful” (“… if passionate desires / Wake like a wind and amorous thunders wed, / Then be thou ever wistful, for above / Thy midnight madness frown the starry fires / Of fate: lest love’s own lightnings strike ye dead.”)

His book also had a sonnet of a dream Judas had on the night of the crucifixion, and one on God’s feelings at the Last Judgment. The Times found a “peculiar interest” in light of his past in his “tribute” to Woman (“Yet Woeman winks / At Woeman, looking wondrous wise, and thinks / A blushing truth, and answers: I made man.”) The Independent (June 22, 1911) said of the book: “While we cannot say they are ‘alas! too few,’ some of them have the merit, not to be despised, of attempting a new arrangement of the octet. … Many of the sonnets are descriptive, and they are more fanciful than imaginative, and show a fair mastery of the art of versification, without any very high sense of the ‘high honor’ of the sonnet.”

The past that Earle claimed he was putting behind him — his “ugly reptilian” nature (as The Times surmised) — was his spoiled, self-centered indifference to others (particularly wives), a character trait that got him noticed. William Marion Reedy, a mainstream publisher, normally a champion of poets (although often ascerbic and conventional), considered that this trait rendered him a “vain and eccentric ass.” Reedy missed “unctuous.”

Earle’s first wife was from his Paris student days. Earle told The Times that about a year after marrying her and building a house in Monroe, New York, they began, as he put it, “to notice, that — how shall I say it? — that we were not tuned together. … It is not that we are incompatible; that is not quite the word. We were like two musical notes that do not go together. … We saw that we were not made for each other — not affinitive at all.” Separation was complicated by the birth of a son, which Earle said he was quite fond of. Eventually, however, he did what he felt had to be done and on June 10, 1907, he left for France to visit his sick brother. While there, he “fell in” with a woman, who he had known before from the Socialist circle this rich heir to a fortune travelled in, and they became attached. He told The Times “We came to know that our marriage had been foreordained before our birth, and would continue forever.” Since his wife’s father was in France, he took the opportunity of visiting him, without the knowledge of his wife who stayed behind, laid the situation out and they agreed to consult a French lawyer and arrange a divorce. “When I returned I told her of the step I had taken, and after a while she was persuaded that it was for the best.” A Times reporter visited Monroe September 4, 1907, the day that Earle’s wife was to sail with their 2-year old son, Harold Erwin Earle, to France to procure the divorce. The previous night she had returned from the city where she made the arrangements. On her return

“a goodly representation of Monroe’s 1,000 villagers was at the station watching for her return.

“‘Ah, there comes the pore [sic] thing back,’ they whispered sympathetically. ‘Maybe he’s changed his mind an’ taken her back. Maybe it’ll be all right yet.'”

But it wasn’t. At home was the new woman, Earle’s “affinity” (he would regret using what would become a term of ridicule that followed him everywhere). She was a German woman of about 30. “Her hair is a bit curly. She is below the medium height, and inclined to stoutness. She wears spectacles.” She refused to give her name. Earle pointed out he was not divorced yet, as an excuse for her anonimity. “You see, I care a little something for the conventions.” The experience was grist for his aethetics, for he was working on a poem of seven connected sonnets “explaining my views on marriage. I believe that we are married before we are born through heaven directed affinities and that marriage continues after our death. Believing this, I came to see that my wife was not my affinity.” At the beginning of the twentieth century the sonnet was made to service all manner of indignities.

Earle’s plan went almost as expected, except for two things. First, he failed to account for how much others might also “care a little something for the conventions.” When he left his house to take his wife to the city for her steamer to France, he was hooted by his neighbors. It didn’t help that in the papers of the afternoon before, he was quoted as calling the town folk hypocrites and Monroe more immoral than its neighbors. “‘He’s got a fine right to talk about us,’ the villagers said. ‘What is he? And that other woman had better look out.'” On his return that evening, he planned to be picked up at an out of the way station, but 500 villagers were waiting for him in the driving rain for half an hour. He first tried to avoid the reporters while the crowd was shouting for rope and tar and feathers, but ever the insufferable egoist he agreed to pose for a photo. The rain prevented the powder from flashing, so he posed again and again until he saw the fury on the face of the crowd, jumped into his carriage and wildly struck the horses with his whip. The whip slashed the face of one of the crowd, which further inflamed it. The mob chased the carriage, which knocked down five people. They stopped the horse, untied the swing and knocked the buggy over.  When Earle got up a semicircle surrounded him. Eventually five of them attacked him, while he punched and cracked the whip, but they disarmed him. The original victim returned the favor, slashing Earle’s face with the whip. A small scuffle later, and Earle was on his feet announcing that he would explain his position to the crowd. And the crowd told him to go ahead! The two police officers who had tried to stop the riot thought it better if he left, and they forced him into the carriage and had it slowly depart. The crowd broke up into small groups who lingered talking and laughing.

Earle’s mother told the press that her son was a fool to talk so much and that was the main cause of the problem. Nevertheless, Earle kept talking. He once said that the press coverage was greatly helping the sale of his art. But his narcissism conjured his belief that if only others just understood his motives they would certainly condone his conduct, and he said this over and over to the press. But his talking only kept the issue alive and crowds every day waited at the train station and at his home to greet him with eggs and rotten fruit. He took it calmly, however, staying away, hoping that it would blow over, hoping that his explanations would be heard. It hurt his case that when Mrs. Earle arrived in Boulogne a New York Times correspondent cabled her revelation that Earle had occasionally beaten her when he was irritable. In all the uproar, the only paper that came to Earle’s defense was the Warheit, a Yiddish socialist paper published in New York. The Warheit compared Earle’s plight to that of Maxim Gorky, who came to New York with a woman not his wife and was denied hotel accomodation:

“The unfortunate American artist is also a radical, but a radical of the land of Columbus. And his heart and his head have brought him to the realization that it is neither proper nor wise to live with a woman when one is in love with another. But he is also an American. He believes that marriages are made in Heaven and contracted on earth. He believes that even when one loves some one else he is still unable to love this other woman until the seal of the law is added to that of his own seal; in brief, Earle believes in legal marriage and legal divorce, and he has decided not to unite with his affinity until he is permitted to do so by the law.”

Earle continued to receive abuse and harassment in Monroe so he left for Europe. His plan seemed to come to fruition when the French divorce became effective and he was able to marry Julia Kuttner (the affinity) in Italy. Two weeks later they returned to an unsuspecting Monroe in the morning of April 9, 1908. The town soon rallied and the local fife and drum corps readied itself to harass the Earles with an unpleasant serenade. They began their march from town at 7, but when they arrived Earle threw open the doors and invited them in. He introduced them to his new wife, gave them refreshments and even paid for their music. This generosity and good will completely disarmed the town folk. And except for curiosity seekers (which problem was solved by the acquisition of five great danes as guard dogs), Earle’s plan seemed to have succeeded.

Then came the second hitch. It turned out that Ms. Kuttner was not in fact his Affinity. The first hint of this came on August 25, shortly after the birth of his second son (August 5), when he was arrested for assaulting his new wife. The nurse hired for his wife provided the affidavit for the arrest warrant. When the sheriff and two deputies arrived, Mrs. Earle’s eyes were badly bruised. At the arraignment he “seemed to be posing as a martyr,” and refused both counsel and bail. When taken to jail, however, he joked. Told that reporters were outside, he said: “Tell them I’m not in,” and laughed uproariously. The town folk again became riled, especially after hearing that Earle had sicked one of the great danes on his sister-in-law. When Earle was bailed by his brother on August 27, he left behind a written statement claiming “he is confident that as soon as he sees his wife all apparent misunderstanding with her will be dissipated.” The District Attorney reacted: “he will not get off by patching things up with his wife. The October Grand Jury will get a fair chance at this ‘affinity’ business if I can serve the nurse who makes the charges with a subpoena.”

But to everyone’s surprise, by October he was again living with his wife and the grand jury failed to indict him. The matter by then had become so notorious that even G.K. Chesterton was using it in his London column to show how wrong-headed America in general could be and a rich Socialist poet in particular.

The stress must have been great on Earle. He spent some undisclosed time in a western sanitarium. On his return the sheriff served him with a summons in an annulment proceeding. Julia Kuttner Earle alleged that Earle was a lunatic when they married and remained one and that he was not divorced at the time of their marriage.  He wondered the halls of the mansion in a melancholic frame of mind, and his friends said that his philosophy led him not to contest the proceeding, although he would contest a demand for a large sum of money.

In April he disappeared. The neighbors thought he went to France. His first wife’s father said he would not let Earle see her, if he came. When he did arrive in Paris, he was allowed to see his son. His friends there said he refused to talk of his first wife. He returned to America in May but refused to talk to reporters. He was more reflective now. Some had said that the trouble with the affinity began when his first wife sent a portrait of his first son.

Whatever the cause, Earle was not one to remain secluded for long. So while his Socialist second wife nursed their son away from him, he inserted himself into the latest Anarchism crisis. Emma Goldman had been touring the country, largely to raise funds to support her new Mother Earth. But now that her tour had returned East, the police—ignorant and unprincipled, who viewed their role as that of tool of the reactionary order of things—conceived it their duty to muzzle her. In New Haven, she was allowed to enter the lecture hall she rented, but the public was barred by the police. In New York she lectured on the radical potential of modern drama. A comically uneducated policeman, Central Office Detective Rafsky, tried to halt the lecture when she mentioned Ibsen, who he believed was an anarchist. When she refused, he brought a platoon to clear out the hall. Now she proposed to give the same lecture in East Orange, New Jersey, where the city council had already announced they would prevent her.† When she was forced to speak at a nearby barn, it was Ferdinand Earle’s name, even before Alexander Berkman’s, that was first among her “distinguished adherents” and those accompanying her. Was it Earle’s presence that dissuaded the police from halting the lecture?

From here on the scandals surrounding Earle took on a more routine nature. In August he sailed to Europe in the company of Miss Gertrude Buell Dunn. Dunn, according to the Elkhart Daily Truth, was a “an aspiring literary genius, an ardent socialist and settlement worker and a relative of Jacob P. Dunn, head of the public library commission of Indiana.” Earle’s neighbors did not expect him to return. “Earle announced that should his second wife secure a divorce he would not wed again as he and Miss Dunn are merely ‘soul-mates’ and that Plato, rather than Cupid, is their god.” But it didn’t even last until the beginning of Fall. Miss Dunn returned incognito (but discovered nevertheless) and pleaded “Please do not talk anymore about that affair.” Earle returned two weeks later, not having seen his wife or first son, but promising better relations with his neighbors, even a clam bake. By February he was  back in Paris in a studio working with a view to a spring salon. The Times was unable to state whether he brought his “feminine companion.”

In July he returned to America with his mother. The annulment proceeding was still in the courts. He again headed for Paris. His friend, Alexander Harvey, an associate editor of Current Literature, disclosed that Earle confided in him that his real reason for returning to Paris was to win back his first wife. Harvey boasted that he persuaded Earle to recant his “affinity” doctrine: “But he may not be able to reform. I think if his first wife comes back to him he will stick; if she doesn’t he’ll presently be scouring the country again for another soul sister.” But he failed again, and this time (October) he returned ill.

On December 30, 1910, the annulment was ordered. (It seems that the first Mrs. Earle had waited until two months after the second marriage to have the interim order for divorce made final.) So Earle could begin 1911 afresh. And he did. In January came out his new-form Sonnets. He avoided scandals altogether. That he married once again was mentioned only incidentally in an article explaining why he commenced an eviction action against tenants in the Monroe house while he was abroad. The new bride, Helena Theodora “Dora” Sidford (The Times got it wrong, calling her “Dorothea Elbert Steward”), “an English girl,” was labelled an “affinity,” showing the joke had not grown old. She was the daughter of an architect at Wokingham, Berkshire. They married on June 16, 1911 in Oxford, and they would now live at the mansion on Affinity Hill. For nearly two years Earle would stay out of the papers except for his project The Lyric Year. But that didn’t mean he was not betraying his third wife.

In 1911 Peter Herman, a wealthy German-American printer located in Rutherford, New Jersey, decided to purchase a second home in Monroe, where his family had taken a summer vacation before. Herman had two daughters and a son. It was his oldest child, Charlotte, who attracted all the attention. Beautiful, independent, and sophisticated, she  was an adept pianist who had studied at the Leipzig Conservatory for three years. Her mother wanted her to become a professional singer. Two years before in Rutherford she captured the attention of a young doctor and aspiring poet, William Carlos Williams. He became seriously fixated on her, forming a chamber group so he could play violin with her, reading his writing to her, taking her on canoe trips. She found him self-centered. Charlotte preferred his brother, a recent MIT graduate with a fellowship to Rome. When she made the choice Williams was devastated. “It was,” he would write of himself four decades later in the thinly veiled fiction of The Build-Up, “a deeper wound than he should ever thereafter in his life be able to sound. It was bottomless.” After secluding himself for three days, he went to the Herman house and secretly became engaged to Charlotte’s sister Florence. His brother would spend his two years in Rome under his Prix de Rome. William shortly also began a year abroad, studying in Germany and then traveling the continent.

For summer vacations Peter Herman bought the house next to Earle’s mansion on Affinity Hill.  Williams visited them the summer of 1911 and learned that Charlotte had broken off her engagement with his brother, who was still studying in Rome. Earle himself was still in Europe that summer, so Williams didn’t get to meet him until the follwing summer.

In the summer of 1912 The Lyric Year project was in full swing. Williams came to Monroe in July again. He immediately spotted Earle’s attention towards Charlotte. Among other things, Earle offered to paint a portrait of Paul, the 12 year old brother of Charlotte and Florence, which allowed him daily access to the Hermans. Williams resented the actions of the married Earle, but Earle also was editor of The Lyric Year, and Earle was a practiced seducer. On July 19 Williams wrote his brother:

“At Monroe as you are aware lives Ferdinand Earle of history: ‘Affinity Earle.’ He is I found—for he made it possible for us to all meet him by first writing then calling—a most accomplished and a very young man.

“To pass over his delightfully conceived and finished home and his simple, charming, girlish English wife—The Third—he is now more poet-critic-publisher than painter.

“Quite in secret, for the art world is very small, he is also one of the editors of a book soon to be published—The ‘Lyric Year’ which will contain 100 of the best short poems—one each from 100 different authors all of which having been either published in some magazine or at least brought forth for the first time this year. There is $10,000 to be divided in prizes among the 100 successful poets.‡

“I had heard of the contest and forgotten it, but, Mrs. Herman having put him wise beforehand, he asked me to send something in a hurry as the time was almost up and he was having a terrible time to find 100 poems by 100 different authors that were worth printing!

“The genius is rare, Bo, very rare.

“At any rate Earl [sic] is pleased with some of my work and may—with the consult of other judges—give me a place. I have not as yet heard.”

In the event, no poem of Williams was selected. Earle blamed the other judges. But Earle was constantly promising things he couldn’t deliver, and sometimes things he didn’t want to deliver. Williams put up a brave face but was bitterly disappointed. Earle had once again defanged a potentially troubling situation with his blandishments. He was now moving in on Charlotte.

William Carlos Williams and Florence Herman married in the Presbyterian Church in Rutherford on December 12, 1912. Charlotte’s escort was Ferdinand Pinney Earle. Mrs. Earle did not attend.

Charlotte was beginning to have minor success with her music. In January 1913 she was illustrating musical lectures at Teacher College. Her program illustrated Grieg. In October she was performing the same program for public school children. This was apparently enough for her. She persuaded her father to send her to study at a German conservatory. Earle was again in Paris; his third wife, with two children now, had commenced a divorce action in New York, alleging misconduct by Earle “with women whose names are unknown.” Earle wired his lawyer: “Accept service and appear for me in suit brought by Dora.” His Paris plan was more pressing.

When Charlotte arrived in Hamburg, Earle was there to meet her, and he took her to Paris (where she would join him in his most spectacular outrage). The reunion was news that couldn’t be hidden from the press. According to Williams in The Build-Up, her father was shocked. He had looked into Earle’s background long before and found him to be a blackguard, Ein Schwein. He let his wife know, and they were supposed to be on guard. When Charlotte left to board the steamer, she assured her father that she was not going to see Earle. But now he couldn’t keep it out of the papers. So he told all who would listen that she wasn’t his daughter, she was adopted and now she was cut off. The next account was far worse.

In late November 1913 the news was that Earle had kidnapped his eight-year-old son by his first wife, Harold Erwin Earle, from the school he was attending in Paris, and Earle was returning to New York with Charlotte Herman. It turned out they weren’t on the vessel named and couldn’t be found in others. It wasn’t until January 1914 that they were discovered in Norway with the child. It was revealed that Charlotte, passing herself off as a Canadian Mrs. Evans was the one who actually snatched Harold from the school on November 5. She had been lodging there under the pretext of learning French. When she took the child she claimed she was taking him to his mother.  They were arrested in Norway on December 30—the French detectives followed Earle’s luggage.

The hypnotic Mr. Earle

From the jail in Christiania Earle began his latest verbal campaign: he said he would submit to arbitration. “I am still hoping that she will be disposed to co-operate in a an amicable arrangement …” Earle’s cheek was still breathtaking.

Despite his anger Peter Herman vowed to the press that he would send the best representation possible for his “foster daughter.” “I am sure that Chrlotte is under Earle’s hypnotic influence,” he said. On January 9, 1913 her mother sailed for Norway to be with her. On February 27, the jailer in Romorantin, France, allowed a reporter for The New York Times to interview Earle. Earle claimed that his wife had agreed to give him access to his son when they first divorced. But something happened, and she obtained a decree giving her sole guardianship in a proceeding unknown to Earle. Her father told him he would never see his son alone until he was 21. So Earle decided to act, since his son was at a boarding school among strangers. He planned to take him to America so he could be “with people who loved him, especially his father.” Earle claimed he was completely penniless now. And his life had been devastated by the “affinity” coverage; he claimed that the term was made up by a reporter.

“It seems we all suffered sufficiently for the ‘affinity’ publicity. Miss Kuttner had dead cats thrown at her in the back yard. She broke off with me immediately her child was born. My footsteps were dogged everywhere. A magazine editor told me to meet him at his club instead of his office, as my presence brought his magazine into disrepute. In fact, I have been charged with every moral crime in the calendar, but I believe I am still capable of conduct worthy of a father. That is why I stole my son.”

His remembrance of the ending of his second marriage differed substantially from the facts, but because he could always convincingly put himself in the right, he always believed he could persuade others. And he now believed that he could persuade his first wife of his version: “I am confident that if I could see her now for an hour I would be able to fix things up.”

They had spent nearly 10 weeks in various jails by the time the trial began on March 6. In France the conditions were less than penal. Earle spent his time reading, writing poetry and playing the violin. He was therefore in top form at the trial. Hundreds of spectators arrived owing to French press coverage of Earle’s past. The judge added rows of chairs behind the bench to accommodate the overflow. Earle was attired in a morning coat and tan spats and sported a white carnation in his buttonhole. He seemed to enjoy the attention. Charlotte wore black and kept her eyes on the floor. Both the first wife and Earle’s current wife testified about beatings by him. The reporter said that Earle maintained a “calm and indifferent air” throughout. The first wife’s brother testified: “Earle’s a liar. For three years he never asked about the child, and only came to see him when he had no love affair. He is a consummate comedian, but no gentleman.” The trial adjourned for the evening when the prosecutor’s voice gave out while reading form a mound of documents, among which, was a note Earle wrote after the annulment of his second marriage: “The eyes of my soul are now opened. Harold shall be my heir.”

The next day the prosecutor read from documents, letters from and about Earle, but it was no use. The judge allowed Earle to explain away everything (sometimes with the most absurd explanations) and even chatted with him. The crowd was clearly on Earle’s side. Earle’s defense came down to character references by friends and the observation by his lawyer: “Earle is childish. America is a childish nation; it is so young.” The defendants were found guilty. Earle was sentenced to two months in jail and a $5 fine; Charlotte 1 month and a $3 fine, but the court gave them credit for time served. They were therefore free to go. A judgment of $1,400 was entered against Earle on the wife’s civil action, but Earle had no property in France. The crowds inside and out of the courthouse cheered when Earle walked free.

Ferdinand Earle in his studio in 1921 surrounded by the mattes for his film of the Rubaiyat.

Within a month Earle’s mother sold the house in Monroe (it was hers) in exchange for commercial property in lower Manhattan. Aside from the divorce proceedings from his third wife (with the usual allegations that Earle committed perjury), Earle dropped out of the limelight. He married Charlotte Herman. They moved west, and he became involved in the young film industry. He produced a film based on the FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, and planned to make one based on the Nibelungen cycle and Goethe’s Faust. Earle claimed an innovative approach to double exposing film, but others claimed infingement and his work was held up for years. He gave up producing (he lost the infringement claim) and took on jobs in the art department of films, most notably (although without credit) in Ben Hur. His marriage to Charlotte lasted about a decade. Their first child died young of polio. The second son, Eyvind, would become an artist and graphic designer, eventually for Disney. On their divorce, Earle took the son. After his father’s death many years later Eyvind wrote of the beatings he received from his father and hearing his mother’s cries when Earle beat her. But this is beyond where we need to go for the moment.

The Lyric Year

Years later Floyd Dell would remember 1912 as “extraordinary year, in America as well as in Europe.”

“It was the year of the election of Wilson, a symptom of immense political discontent. It was a year of intense woman-suffragist activity. In the arts it marked a new era. Color was everywhere—even in neckties. The Lyric Year, published in New York, contained Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ‘Renascence.’ In Chicago, Harriet Monroe founded Poetry. Vachel Lindsay suddenly came into his own with ‘General William Booth Enters Into Heaven,’ and commenced to give back to his land in magnificent chanted poetry its own barbaric music. ‘Hindle Wakes’ startled New York, as it was later to startle Chicago. The Irish Players came to America. It was then that plans were made for the Post-Impressionist Show, which revolutionized American ideas of art. In Chicago, Maurice Browne started the Little Theatre. One could go on with the evidence of a New Spirit come suddenly to birth in America.”

Millay in Camden in 1912. (Library of Congress)

In Camden, Maine, Edna St. Vincent Millay could hardly have experienced any of the New Spirit. Yes, Maine voted for Wilson. (But then Taft had lost every state except Utah and Vermont.) Millay, however, was not particularly interested in world affairs then and was never really interested in partisan politics. Although she was 20 on February 22 that year, she had rarely been outside of Knox County on the southern coast of Maine. She grew up without a father (her father having been driven out by her mother Cora when she was eight), and largely without any adult care (her mother spent long periods of time away from home as a practical nurse). Almost her whole life consisted of caring for and supervising her two sisters and correspondence with her mother. Her social life, aside from Sunday School, was mostly confined to diaries addressed to fictitious characters. (Other children noticed they were too poor to entertain like other families.) Notwithstanding the economic straits, however, Millay was never bowed by her poverty or at least she was not humiliated by it. Her mother early instilled in her the belief that she was exceptional. She introducted Vincent (the name she preferred to Edna) to poetry and shared it with her as Vincent grew up. Like T.S. Eliot’s mother, Cora had poetic aspirations. Unlike Charlotte Stearns Eliot, however, Cora was far from devout.

Cora not only read the romantics to Vincent (who memorized Whittier’s Snowbound from her mother’s repeated night-time readings), she indulged Vincent, despite scarce money, with a subscription to the children’s magazine of verse and stories, St. Nicholas. Millay immediately began submitting her writing to the St. Nicholas League. Her prose was selected for Honor Roll No. I in the November 1905 issue, which meant the “work would have been used had space permitted.” Her poem “The Land of Romance” received the Gold Badge in the March 1907 issue. The page on which her poem appeared gave a helpful lesson to future contestants on the subject of marketability: “Very sad, very tragic, very romantic and very abstruse work cannot often be used, no matter how good it may be from the literary point of view, and while the League editor certainly does not advocate the sacrifice of artistic impulse to market suitability, he does advocate as a part of every literary education the study of the market’s needs whereby one may learn to offer this or that particular manuscript to just the periodical most likely to give it welcome.” Millay had already internalized the rules that would win her contests, the Pulitzer Prize, a large reading public who would buy her books of verse and sold out halls for her readings around the country. “The Land of Romance” was reprinted that year in the April issue of Current Literature (pp 457-58). The editor, Edward J. Wheeler, President of the Poetry Society of America (or whatever associate editor was responsible for that section), called the poem “phenomenal,” noting its author was only 14. Millay would continue to be published in St. Nicholas until she was not longer eligible at 18. The last poem she submitted, “Friends,” earned the cash prize, $5, a reward so signal that the local paper, The New Bedford Evening Standard, devoted two-thirds of a column describing the poem and the award. The magazine itself highlighted how clever the poem was. Millay submitted the poem years later as an assignment in a writing course at Barnard. Professor William Tenney Brewster wrote “Browningesque” on it and gave her a B. He probably would never learn that she had used her $5 prize money to buy a copy of Browning.

Millay’s childhood play consisted of piano lessons and practice, with occasional recitals, poetry, stories and playacting. They proved far more enduring than ordinary childhood vocations and would become her lifework. Even at the time, she took them seriously. Despite her depravations, her father’s departure (and failure to visit or send support), her mother’s absence, and especially the grinding poverty, the only thing that really sent Vincent into a tearful rage was the vote to deprive her of her rightful title of high school class poet (rigged by the boys, who resented that she failed to hide her intelligence, like girls were supposed to).

By 1912 she was nearly three years out of school, but she had no job or direction; she continued taking care of the house and her sisters, and there wasn’t a thought of college. 1911 had been taxing enough. Cora was away almost all the time nursing three dying patients. There was little money, and Vincent had to fend off the creditors. Cora would send money with specific directions of who should be paid, and her letters bluntly reminded Vincent of the sacrifices she endured to provide even the smallest indulgences to her children. Vincent never blamed her mother for neglect or privation and always put up a good front in her letters to her. But privately it was too much, and she told of her fears and anguish to her secret lover, a fictional one, to whom she wrote in a journal.

The pages go on and on. The moods she portrays go from gay to melancholic. She offers herself up to him in sweeping, overly dramatic poses. Other times she writes of her own sense of worthlessness. Is any of it her real feelings? Was she trying out voices? Was it all childish fantasy? It’s impossible to say. But her willingness to allow others, through her writing, to act as voyeurs into her soul would become the central element of her later popularity. And perhaps occasionally, as with her later public writing, there are literal truths, but it’s impossible to tell what they are. Some of her cries, however, seem too heart-felt to be feigned, like her entry on August 3, 1911:

“It is hard work being brave when you’re lonesome. I’ve tried to be brave and I’ve done pretty well, but I’ve had to cry just a little tonight. . . . God would not have made a heart like mine and not have made its mate. It would be too cruel. O, I know you are not very far away.”

But Camden had no Prince Charmings. It had only toil; not just for her, everyone there did mindless, repetitious, dispiriting drugery.

“Tired men and tired horses, everybody tired, and no one with a minute to call his own. No time to lift you eyes to the hills. Go in and get to work. Get into the house and scrub the dirty clothes till you rub the skin off your fingers. Sweep the floor and sweep it again tomorrow and the day after that . . . every day of your life—if not that floor, why then—some other floor.” (October 10, 1911.)

She was destined, at best, to be a character in a Theodore Dreiser story.

But all of this changed in a rather odd way. On February 29, 1912, a week after her twentieth birthday, Vincent received a long distance call from a woman in Kingman, Maine, announcing that her father was dying. She was so stunned that all she could do was promise a telegram. She immediately called her mother. They agreed; she should set off the next day. Kingman was only 140 miles away, but trains were not frequent, and it took her most of the next day and the following, taking boat, then two trains. She was met at the train station by the doctor’s daughter, 24 year old Ella Somerville who took her to her father’s boarding house. When she arrived, a nurse prepared her for the worst. But she was numb (she wrote in her diary), bravely sat next to a man who looked nothing like she remembered and broke the ice with small talk. He had difficulty opening his eyes but was happy to see her. That afternoon the doctor told Vincent her father had only a few days left. She stayed at the Somerville’s and wrote her mother and sisters that night a postcard saying she “found Papa very low.” She would not write them again for three weeks.

The reason was not the decline of her father; he in fact began recovering. Instead, she was spending all her time with Ella. The first night, at Ella’s suggestion, Ella stayed in Vincent’s bed. “After that we slept together every night—at least we spent the nights together.” Apart from visiting her father for the hour or so it was permitted, Vincent spent almost all her time with Ella. It was unlike her dreary life at Camden; they canoed, attended parties, went to dances and saw a vaudeville medicine show. Vincent read her a long poem she had been writing about her physical and spiritual confinement; about how Infinity was binding her in; about how all remorse was hers (“All sin was of my sinning, all / Atoning mine, and mine the gall / Of all regret.”). She called it “the down underground poem.” Ella preferred her reading Burns because she trilled the rs. Her family wrote letter after letter to find out what she was doing. (Her mother possibly feared that she was being thrown over in favor of her charming but unreliable ex-husband.) When Vincent finally responded, it was clear life in Kingman far surpassed anything she could otherwise hope for in Camden. Her mother despaired of being able to lure her back.

On March 21 Cora wrote again to ask Vincent to return, this time with bait: “I am going to try to catch you now with something that may interest and encourage you.” In The Magazine Maker she had read of a poetry contest. “One thousand dollars has been set aside to be distributed in three prizes to authors of the best three poems submitted before June 1, 1912. . . . Nov 1st of this year Mr. [Mitchell] Kennerley will put out the volume under the title ‘The Lyric Year.’ . . . This seems to be a great chance for you. . . . Come home and make a good try so you can have chances to run up to school and use the typewriter.” Vincent was home by March 31. The day before a disconsolate Ella would write that her departure caused Ella to become “temporarily deranged”: “One thing is certain, old girl; when you make a place for yourself in someone’s heart, no one else can fill it.” It was Vincent’s first conquest.

Although she would ultimately send several poems under separate cover to Kennerley (all signed E. St. Vincent Millay; to avoid sexist bias?), she labored hardest on her “down underground poem.” But having seen a world that was not Camden, she experienced relief from Infinity pressing down on her. She had seen life that was meant to be enjoyed and more she reveled in, for the first time, the feeling of being adored. On top of the experiences in Kingman, while she was away, Cora had arranged that the family would move out of the tenement in the working district into a white, two-story, free-standing house with indoor bathrooms. It was all miraculous, beyond any but a poetic explanation:

“I know not how such things can be;
I only know there came to me
A fragrance such as never clings
To aught save happy living things . . . “

Just as with her father, it was a reprieve from the grave:

“Ah! Up then from the ground sprang I
And hailed the earth with such a cry
As is not heard save from a man
Who has been dead, and lives again.”

So she came to call the poem “Renaissance,” which she finished by May 27 and sent to Kennerley. The poem did not change the course of Western letters. It did not attempt to justify the ways of God to man. It did not sing of arms and the man. But it accomplished something that art usually cannot. It altered the destiny of someone who by the laws of American capitalism and social systems ought never to have escaped poverty or left Maine. And in the process it introduced Edna St. Vincent Millay to both Mr. Earle and Mr. Ficke. We’ll see how she fared in those encounters in the second part.

______________________

Notes:

* The strange career of Ferdinand Earle was gathered from the following: Samuel Orcutt & Ambrose Beardsley, The History of the Old Town of Derby, Connecticut, 1642-1880 (Springfield, Mass: Springfield Printing Co: 1880); Henry Reed Stiles, The History and Genealogies of Ancient Windsor, Connecticut: … 1635-1891. Volume II: Geneologies and Biographies (Hartford, Conn: Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co: 1892); Ruth Wing (ed.), Blue Book of the Screen [for 1923] (Hollywood, Cal: Blue Book of the Screen, Inc: c1924); New York Times, August 1, 1890; December 17, 1890; January 25, 1891; October 28, 1891March 20, 1894; [obit. of Gen. Earle,] January 3, 1903; [first divorce,] September 4, 1907; [Earle mobbed,] September 5, 1907; [terms of settlement,] September 6, 1907; September 7, 1907; [Mrs. Earle arrives in France,] September 14, 1907; September 15, 1907; [practical joke on Earle,] October 3, 1907January 28, 1908March 14, 1908; April 9, 1908; [Earle’s return to Monroe,] April 10, 1908June 13, 1908; [Earle arrested,] August 26, 1908August 27, 1908; [Earle in jail,] August 27, 1908; August 28, 1908; August 29, 1908; September 16, 1908; [G.K. Chesterton’s observations,] September 20, 1908; October 19, 1908; [summons on Earle,] March 27, 1909; March 28, 1909; April 10, 1909; April 12, 1909; April 17, 1909; May 5, 1909; [Earle with Goldman,] June 9, 1909; September 17, 1909; September 18, 1909; February 20, 1910; June 1, 1910July 18, 1910; September 8, 1910;  October 26, 1910; December 31, 1910;  [Review of Sonnets,] January 8, 1911; [third wife,] November 25, 1911; January 26. 1913; October 12, 1913; [Divorce action by Dora,] November 9, 1913; November 25, 1913; November 25, 1913 (2);  November 26, 1913; November 30, 1913; [arrest of Earle and Charlotte Herman,] January 3, 1914; January 4, 1914; January 5, 1913; January 5, 1913 (2); January 6, 1913; January 6, 1913 (2); January 8, 1913; January 9, 1913; January 13, 1913; January 14, 1913; January 18, 1913; February 11, 1913; February 19, 1913; February 23, 1913; February 24, 1913; February 25, 1913; February 28, 1913; March 4, 1913; [abduction trial,] March 7, 1913; March 8, 1913; March 9, 1913; April 9, 1913; April 9, 1913 (2); [trial in divorce action by third wife,] November 29, 1914; January 15, 1915; June 3, 1915; [letter by Earle,] May 19, 1916; [Earle produces Rubaiyat,] May 9, 1920;  [Rubaiyat in “harmonious colors,”] July 18, 1920; [Earle to film Nibelungen,] August 22, 1920; February 12, 1922; May 21, 1922.

† The events at the lectures of Emma Goldman are reported on in The New York Times, May 15, 1909May 24, 1909; May 25, 1909; May 30, 1909 (profile); May 30, 1909 (letter); June 8, 1909.

‡ Williams either misunderstood the amount and distribution of the prize money or Earle was deceiving him (for any number of reasons constantly at work in Earle).

Sources:

Neil Baldwin, To All Gentleness: William Carlos Williams, The Doctor-Poet (New York: Antheneum: 1984).

Davenport Public Library, “Charles August Ficke: An American Success Story,” DPL Quad City Memory (c2005).

Floyd Dell, The Homecoming (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc. c1933).

Christian Gauss, “The Summer’s Vintage of Verse,” The New York Times, August 10, 1907.

Andrew J. Krivak (ed.), The Letters of William Carlos Williams to Edgar Irving Williams, 1902-1912 (Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press: 2009).

Tom Longden, “Muse of poetry inspired Ficke,” DesMoinesRegister.com (November 3, 2008).

Paul L. Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (New York: McGraw-Hill: c1981).

Nancy Milford, Savage Beauty (New York: Random House: c2001).

Paula A. Mohr, “Ficke, Charles A.,” The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa (University of Iowa Press Digital Editions).

Marcia Noe, “Arthur Davison Ficke” in Philip A. Greasley (ed), Dictionary of Midwestern Literature. Volume 1: The Authors (Bloomington, Ind: U. Indiana Press: c2001), pp 194-95.

Joseph Parisi, Dear Editor: A History of Poetry in Letters: The First Fifty Years, 1912-1962 (New York: W.W. Norton: c2002).

Max Putzell, The Man in the Mirror: William Marion Reedy and his Magazine(Columbia, Mo: University of Missouri Press: 1998).

Jessie B. Rittenhouse, “The Lyric Year: The Great Symposium of Modern American Verse,” New York Times (December 1, 1912).

William H. Roba, “Twins in My Cradle: Arthur Davison Ficke, Iowa Poet,” Books at Iowa 39 (November 1983) .

Alan Shapiro, In Praise of the Impure: Poetry and the Ethical Imagination: Essays, 1980-1991 (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern Universtiy Press: c1993).

Paul Thompson, “Soulful Spectricism Nothing But a Hoax,” New York Times Magazine (June 2, 1918).

William Carlos Williams, The Build-Up (New York: Random House: c1952).

[unsigned], “A 1913 Faust: Mr. Ficke’s Masterful Verion of the Old Theme,” New York Times (December 14, 1913).

Periodic Poetry: Whitman

Bardic Symbols

from Atlantic Monthly (April 1860)

by Walt Whitman

I.

ELEMENTAL drifts!
Oh, I wish I could impress others as you and the waves have just been impressing me!

II.

As I ebbed with an ebb of the ocean of life,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walked where the sea-ripples wash you, Paumanok,
Where they rustle up, hoarse and sibilant,
Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways,
I, musing, late in the autumn day, gazing off southward,
Alone, held by the eternal self of me that threatens to get the better of me and stifle me,
Was seized by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot,
In the ruin, the sediment, that stands for all the water and all the land of the globe.

III.

Fascinated, my eyes, reverting from the south, dropped, to follow those slender windrows,
Chaff, straw, splinters of wood, weeds, and the sea-gluten,
Scum, scales from shining rocks, leaves of salt-lettuce, left by the tide.

IV.

Miles walking, the sound of breaking waves the other side of me,
Paumanok, there and then as I thought the old thought of likenesses,
These you presented to me, you fish-shaped island,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walked with that eternal self of me, seeking types.

V.

As I wend the shores I know not,
As I listen to the dirge, the voices of men and women wrecked,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,
At once I find, the least thing that belongs to me, or that I see or touch, I know not;
I, too, but signify a little washed-up drift,—a few sands and dead leaves to gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the leaves and drift.

VI.

Oh, baffled, lost,
Bent to the very earth, here preceding what follows,
Terrified with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now, that, amid all the blab whose echoes recoil upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my insolent poems the real me still stands untouched, untold, altogether unreached,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written or shall write,
Striking me with insults, till I fall helpless upon the sand!

VII.

Oh, I think I have not understood anything,—not a single object,—and that no man ever can!

VIII.

I think Nature here, in sight of the sea, is taking advantage of me to oppress me,
Because I was assuming so much,
And because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.

IX.

You oceans both! You tangible land! Nature!
Be not too stern with me,—I submit,—I close with you,—
These little shreds shall, indeed, stand for all.

X.

You friable shore, with trails of debris!
You fish-shaped island! I take what is underfoot:
What is yours is mine, my father!

XI.

I, too, Paumanok,
I, too, have bubbled up, floated the measureless float, and been washed on your shores.

XII.

I, too, am but a trail of drift and debris,—
I, too, leave little wrecks upon you, you fished-shaped island!

XIII.

I throw myself upon your breast, my father!
I cling to you so that you cannot unloose me,—
I hold you so firm, till you answer me something.

XIV.

Kiss me, my father!
Touch me with your lips, as I touch those I love!
Breathe to me, while I hold you close, the secret of the wondrous murmuring I envy!
For I fear I shall become crazed, if I cannot emulate it, and utter myself as well as it.

XV.

Sea-raff! Torn leaves!
Oh, I sing, some day, what you have certainly said to me!

XVI.

Ebb, ocean of life! (the flow will return,)—
Cease not your moaning, you fierce old mother!
Endlessly cry for your castaways! Yet fear not, deny not me,—
Rustle not up so hoarse and angry against my feet, as I touch you,or gather from you.

XVII.

I mean tenderly by you,—
I gather for myself, and for this phantom, looking down where we lead, and following me and mine.

XVIII.

Me and mine!
We, loose windrows, little corpses,
Froth, snowy white, and bubbles,
Tufts of straw, sands, fragments,
Buoyed hither from many moods, one contradicting another,
From the storm, the long calm, the darkness, the swell,
Musing, pondering, a breath, a briny tear, a dab of liquid or soil,
Up just as much out of fathomless workings fermented and thrown,
A limp blossom or two, torn, just as much over waves floating, drifted at random,
Just as much for us that sobbing dirge of Nature,
Just as much, whence we come, that blare of the cloud-trumpets,—
We, capricious, brought hither, we know not whence, spread out before you,—you, up there, walking or sitting,
Whoever you are,—we, too, lie in drifts at your feet.

At the beginning of 1860 Walt Whitman was a poet of some renown. Two editions of Leaves of Grass had been published; the first (Brooklyn: 1855) contained 12 poems; the second (Brooklyn: 1856) 32. His hope of receiving a critical stamp of approval from the foremost American intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was more than gratified when Emerson responded (Concord, July 21, 1855) to his unsolicited letter enclosing the first edition of the book: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Emerson’s praise did not stop there; he went on: “I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire.” And to make this response the more remarkable, Emerson said he had a “wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respects.”

Such a review from such a source is not something that every novice poet receives. Whitman did not hide his candle under a bushel. He had the letter printed in the October 10, 1855 issue of the New York Tribune which had previously faulted the collection. The paper prefaced the letter by saying: “We some time since had occasion to call the attention of our readers to this original and striking collection of poems, by Mr. Whitman of Brooklyn. In so doing we could not avoid noticing certain faults which seemed to us to be prominent in the work. The following opinion, from a distinguished source, views the matter from a more positive and less critical stand-point.” Not satisfied in using the letter to settle a score with the Tribune Whitman had the letter printed as an appendix to the second edition of the collection. (Over the years Whitman has taken some heat for his brazen promotional use of the letter. The letter itself, however, looks like it was designed for such use; in any event it didn’t seem to have offended Emerson.) Emerson in fact visited Whitman in Manhattan that year. The next year another representative from Concord would visit him, this time venturing into Brooklyn. Bronson Alcott, turgid writer and iconoclastic educator began a lifelong friendship with Whitman with his October 1856 visit. (His daughter Louisa May had published her first work, a collection of fantasies, 7 years earlier. In 1860 she would have a story published, “Love and Self-Love,” in the Atlantic Magazine one month before Whitman’s poem appeared. Like Whitman she would spend some of the war in hospitals.) Bronson a month later brought to Brooklyn another representative from the seat of American high culture, Henry David Thoreau, to see Whitman. Whitman would also during these years become acquainted with the artistic talents that Manhattan produced.

But even in those days, when people actually read new poetry, poet was not an occupation. In fact, Whitman was still scurrying about trying to make ends meet. It didn’t help that he stayed around Brooklyn and Manhattan, then as now more interested in commercial than intellectual matters. Although he had tried teaching on a couple of occasions, he was either not good at it or not interested in it. He also didn’t seem to have the discipline or inspiration to write fiction or extended prose. (He had written a temperance novel in 1842, Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate.  He later called it “damned rot” — an opinion you can quickly confirm here.) His poetry by the standards of the day (and even now) was sui generis. And so he was required to take menial labor jobs in the printing business. In 1857 he became an editor of a Brooklyn paper but by 1859 lost that job.  According to William Dean Howells Whitman also pursued the dollar in a way many current struggling Manhattan artists do — he drove hack.

During this time Whitman became an habitué of Pfaff’s beer hall. Pfaff’s was one of those places that fly under the radar of notice of polite society (and usually history) but provide a meeting place for nonconformists of all stripes. Pfaff’s brought together a remarkable assortment of serious modern literary novices, sexual nonconformists, actors, future critics and biographers and the like. The cellar provided a meeting place for serious literary discussions, sexual hook-ups, hedonism, and alcohol-fueled carousing. It  became the epicenter of Bohemian culture, whose members made the recently deceased New Yorker Edgar Allan Poe their patron saint. Among the remarkable array of patrons were future literary lion William Dean Howells (who went once and endured the Bohemianism in order to make the contacts that would jump start his career), the future great American landscape painter and water colorist Winslow Homer (who would soon begin his career with war illustrations), political cartoonist Thomas Nast, future poet, novelist and Atlantic contributor Elizabeth Barstow Stoddard as well as her husband, critic and poet Richard Henry Stoddard (who later denied he had ever set foot in the place), future Atlantic editor Thomas Aldrich, “Hashesh Eater” Fitz Hugh Ludlow, and popular essayist and poet for Vanity Fair, Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly George Arnold.  The future French premier Georges Clemenceau, writing for a French paper in New York City at the time, claimed to have had a reserved table at Pfaff’s.  (Clemenceau was a patron after Whitman had gone off to observe the war.) Sexually liberated women frequented Pfaff’s. Ada Clare, who famously bore a child out of wedlock to pianist and once popular composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, became known as the “Queen of Bohemia.” Pfaff’s was also the center of the “man-man” love group known as the Fred Gay Association.  At the time Whitman appeared to have had an affair with group memember Frederick Vaughan, a fellow hack driver, who greatly supported Whitman through the publication of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, who was probably the inspiration for Whitman’s Calamus poems, which celebrated the “manly love of comrades,” and who later deserted Whitman, got married and had 4 children, and rarely had contact with Whitman again.

The literary organ of Bohemia was the New York Saturday Press, a lively literary weekly with poems, fiction, criticism and other comment, edited by Henry Clapp Jr., who after tasting the wine of Parisian leftist thought and café high culture, returned to New York to found an avant-garde coterie who would contribute to an honest intellectual production.  The newspaper noted that it proudly (and perhaps uniquely) refused payment for favorable reviews.  It provided a regular forum for Ada Clare’s views on women and other things.  It tirelessly promoted Leaves of Grass.  William Dean Howells would much later — at a time when he no longer flirted with Bohemianism (in an article entitled “First Impressions of Literary New York” for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1895, p63) — describe the New York Saturday Press as the literary production which

“really embodied the new literary life of the city. It was clever, and full of the wit that tries its teeth upon everything. It attacked all literary shams but its own, and it made itself felt and feared. The young writers throughout the country were ambitious to be seen in it, and they gave their best to it; they gave literally, for the Saturday Press never paid in anything but hopes of paying, vaguer even than promises. It is not too much to say that it was very nearly as well for one to be accepted by the Press as to be accepted by the Atlantic, and for the time there was no other literary comparison. To be in it was to be in the company of Fitz James O’Brien, Fitzhugh Ludlow, Mr. Aldrich, Mr. Stedman, and whoever else was liveliest in prose or loveliest in verse at that day in New York. It was a power, and although it is true that, as Henry Giles said of it, ‘Man cannot live by snapping turtle alone,’ the Press was very good snapping-turtle.”

One of the key characteristics of the group who ran and clustered about the place was their virulent hatred of the literary capital of America (“First Impressions,” p64):

“I had found there a bitterness against Boston as great as the bitterness against respectability, and as Boston was then rapidly becoming my second country, I could not join in the scorn thought of her and said of her by the Bohemians. I fancied a conspiracy among them to shock the literary pilgrim, and to minify the precious emotions he had experienced in visiting other shrines; but I found no harm in that, for I knew just how much to be shocked, and I thought I knew better how to value certain things of the soul than they. Yet when their chief asked me how I got on with Hawthorne, and I began to say that he was very shy and I was rather shy, and the king of Bohemia took his pipe out to break in upon me with “Oh, a couple of shysters l” and the rest laughed, I was abashed all they could have wished, and was not restored to myself till one of them said that the thought of Boston made him as ugly as sin: then I began to hope again that men who took themselves so seriously as that need not be taken very seriously by me.”

(An extensive history of New York’s Bohemia, including digitalized images of The New York Saturday Press can be found at the very valuable site The Vault at Pfaff’s, maintained by Lehigh University.)

Having been ogled at by the Boston literati and accepted by the New York Bohemians must have been bracing for Whitman.  Since 1856 he had produced nearly 100 more poems for Leaves of Grass (for which he was searching for another publisher).  Howells reflected that it was the embrace of Bohemia that saved Whitman (“First Impressions,” p65):

“who, when the Saturday Press took it up, had as hopeless a case with the critics on either side of the ocean as any man could have.  It was not till long afterward that his English admirers began to discover him, and to make his countrymen some noisy reproaches for ignoring him; they were wholly in the dark concerning him when the Saturday Press, which first stood his friend and the young men whom the Press gathered about it, made him their cult.  No doubt he was more valued because he was so offensive in some ways than he would have been if he had been in no way offensive, but it remains a fact that they celebrated him quite as much as was good for them.” (To see an illustration of Howells meeting Whitman at Pfaff’s, see “First Impressions” at p67.)

Nevertheless, 1860 found Whitman still retailing poems and, more remarkable given the precipice facing the country, writing poems about the oneness of America. On Christman eve 1859, the New York Saturday Press published his “A Child’s Reminiscence.” Clapp offered it as a Christmas gift to his readers. True to his publishing honesty, Clapp published on the following January 7 a review from the Cincinnati Commercial.  It began:

“The author of Leaves of Grass has perpetrated another ‘poem.’ The N. Y. Saturday Press, in whose columns, we regret to say, it appears, calls it ‘a curious warble.’ Curious, it may be; but warble it is not, in any sense of that mellifluous word. It is a shade less heavy and vulgar than the Leaves of Grass, whose unmitigated badness seemed to cap the climax of poetic nuisances. But the present performance has all the emptiness, without half the grossness, of the author’s former efforts.”

The anonymous author used the occasion to unleash a broadside against Whitman:

“Perhaps our readers are blissfully ignorant of the history and achievements of Mr. Walt Whitman. Be it known, then, that he is a native and resident of Brooklyn, Long Island, born and bred in an obscurity from which it were well that he never had emerged. A person of coarse nature, and strong, rude passions, he has passed his life in cultivating, not the amenities, but the rudeness of character; and instead of tempering his native ferocity with the delicate influences of art and refined literature, he has studied to exaggerate his deformities, and to thrust into his composition all the brute force he could muster from a capacity not naturally sterile in the elements of strength. He has undertaken to be an artist, without learning the first principle of art, and has presumed to put forth ‘poems,’ without possessing a spark of the poetic faculty. He affects swagger and independence, and blurts out his vulgar impertinence under a full assurance of ‘originality.'”

January 7 found Whitman trying to hawk his “A Chant of National Feuillage” to Harpers Magazine.  The magazine rejected it. The 16th found him trying to sell “Thoughts” to the New York Saturday Courier. On January 20 Whitman found out that James Russell Lowell of the Atlantic Magazine accepted “Bardic Symbols” for publication. Ultra Bostonian Lowell was squeemish about two lines (after line 3 in stanza XVIII) which he proposed cutting:

(See from my dead lips the ooze exuding at last!
See the prismatic colors glistening and rolling!)

Whitman said that the lines intended “an effect in the piece which I clearly feel, but cannot as clearly define.”  He nevertheless agreed to their omission. (They were put back in when he published it in the third edition of Leaves of Grass, where the poem was included as untitled “Leaves of Grass” number 1, at pp195-99. The lines are in Stanza 16 at p199.)

And then, in February, Whitman got the best news of all.  A new publishing firm in Boston wrote offering to publish the new edition of Leaves of Grass. The firm of two young men, William Wilde Thayer and Charles W. Eldridge offered to either “buy the stereotype plates of Leaves of Grass, or pay you for the use of them” in addition to the regular royalties (which would be 10%).  More importantly perhaps the publishers gratified his feelings as well as promised to promote the book vigorously:

“Now we want to be known as the publishers of Walt. Whitman’s books, and put our name as such under his, on title pages.—If you will allow it we can and will put your books into good form, and style attractive to the eye; we can and will sell a large number of copies; we have great facilities by and through numberless Agents in selling. We can dispose of more books than most publishing houses (we do not “puff” here but speak truth).”

The deal was good enough to have soon have Whitman in Boston to supervise production and there meet again Emerson and others of the transcendental persuasion. Fred Vaughan wrote to Whitman there offering to introduce him to stage driver friends of his: “If you want to form the acquaintance of any Boston Stage men, get on one of those stages running to Charlestown Bridge, or Chelsea Ferry, & enquire for Charley Hollis or Ed Morgan, mention my name, and introduce yourself as my friend.”

As for “Bardic Symbols,” it met with the same hostile newspaper critics as rejected the earlier Leaves of Grass editions. Henry Clapp wrote him that “[t]he papers all over the land have noticed your poem in the Atlantic and have generally pitched into it strong; which I take to be good for you and your new publishers, who if they move rapidly and concentrate their forces will make a Napoleonic thing of it.”

But Howells, writing for the Daily Ohio State Journal (where his father first had his poems published when Howells was 15 and where Howells had been working for 2 years), gave a judicious review. The work, after all, was among the least daring of Whitman’s works and would not even be controversial once the third edition of the collection was published with its Calamus poems. It had none of the self-promoting bravura that shocked conventional readers of the first collection. In fact, Whitman whistfully contemplates his own insignificance against the sea.

“I, too, am but a trail of drift and debris,—
I, too, leave little wrecks upon you, you fished-shaped island!”

(This is certainly less falsely modest than T.S. Eliot in the “What the Thunder Said” section of The Waste Land.) It has a sustained symbol throughout, unlike many of his poems and the symbol has many levels of meaning.  In Stanzas XIII and XIV he calls the sea “Father” and requests a kiss. It is a startling apostrophe and perhaps suggestive of his homoerotic longings.  These Stanzas are followed up with:

“Sea-raff! Torn leaves!
Oh, I sing, some day, what you have certainly said to me!”

In the 1860 Leaves of Grass version of the poem the verses are revised:

“Sea-raff! Crook-tongued waves!
O, I will yet sing, some day, what you have said to me.”

Is it too much to see another influence on Eliot?  Recall the ending of the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

“I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

(I will no belabor the comparison by pointing out the story from the Inferno in the Epigraph of Prufrock.)

In any event, Howells writes:

“No one, even after the fourth or fifth reading, can pretend to say what the ‘Bardic Symbols’ symbolize. The poet walks by the sea, and addressing the drift, the foam, the billows and the wind, attempts to force from them, by his frantic outcry, the … true solution of the mystery of Existence, always most heavily and darkly felt in the august ocean presence. All is confusion, waste and sound. It is in vain that you attempt to gather the poet’s full meaning from what he says or what he hints. You can only take refuge in occasional passages like this, in which he wildly laments the feebleness and inefficiency of that art which above all others seeks to make the soul visible and audible:

O, baffled, lost,
Bent to the very earth, here preceding what follows,
Terrified with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now, that amid all the blab, whose echoes recoil
upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or
what I am,
But that before all my insolent poems the real one still stands untouched, untold, altogether unreached,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory
signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I
have written or shall write,
Striking me with insults till I fall helpless upon the sand.”

Howells compares this section with Tennyson’s poem “Break, break, break”:

“Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me!

An aspiration of mute words without relevancy, without absolute signification, and full of ‘divine despair.’

Howells was at the beginning of his career as well and would have no way of knowing that Whitman was to have much more in common with what would follow long after than what had just gone before.