Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Rambling Around the Red Rose Girls

William A. Bouguereau and his Women's Class, late 1890s
Women's Life Class at the Chase School of Art, New York, 1896

What happened to all those women who studied art at the academies in Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries? It seems that many just faded out of sight for one reason or another; their art legacies sealed in a trunk and stashed away in a relative’s attic for many years before finally being excavated.

Edith Lake Wilkinson

Edith Lake Wilkinson
Such was the case with Edith Lake Wilkinson, a gifted artist who was born in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1868 and died in a mental hospital in 1957 at the age of 89, having spent the last 32 years of her life incarcerated for “depression.”  Seven years before she died, she was evaluated by one W.B. Rogers, M.D., in the following manner:  “Patient is quiet on the ward. Makes her own bed. Talks to herself and has numerous unusual ideas. In fact, everything she says is unusual. She is very talkative and imagines everything. Her physical condition is good but there is no improvement in her mental condition.”   That sounds an awful lot like me on one of my better days.  Back then, a little depression exhibited by women was cause for great alarm among family members, and often meant hospitalization and shock treatments that caused far more harm than good, as they did in my own sensitive mother’s case.

Edith Lake Wilkinson
Edith Lake Wilkinson
Edith Wilkinson studied with Kenyon Cox, J. Carroll Beckwith and William Merritt Chase at The Art Students League in the 1890s and returned later in the early 20th Century to study with Kenneth Hayes Miller at the League and Charles Webster Hawthorne in Provincetown, where she adopted elements of her mentor’s fresh, high-key style before she evidently stopped painting after landing in a mental institution for the rest of her life.  She clearly learned quite a bit about painting from all those great instructors.  Belying her presumed mental condition, her highly accomplished, modernist works are filled with light and life.  They are bright and cheerful across a wide range of genres -- figures, landscapes, townscapes and still lifes.

Edith’s story is chronicled in fascinating detail by Jane Anderson, an Emmy award-winning writer and filmmaker, who created a website to honor her great-aunt:  It was Anderson’s mother who had opened a couple of trunks in her brother-in-law’s attic in the 1960s to unearth their talented relative, whose last years seem to have been such a pathetic waste of a joyful, creative spirit. Anderson grew up with her great-aunt’s work on the walls and was inspired to make art herself.  Following Edith’s example, she took classes at the Art Students League and always carries a sketchbook with her on her travels.   Her sketches seem to have the spirit of her great-aunt’s sketches.

Like a lot of single women artists in those days, Edith Lake Wilkinson had a long relationship with another woman.  It’s often not clear whether all those relationships that women artists forged with other women were sexual in nature or just a result of the natural human desire for companionship to weather life’s ups and downs.  No doubt for some serious women artists, it was a way to stay on course without having men around to muck things up.

Elizabeth Shippen Green
Jessie Willcox Smith

Violet Oakley, Penn's Vision is part of the series of thirteen murals Oakley painted for the Governor's Reception Room in the Pennsylvania State Capitol.
Elizabeth Shippen Green, Violet Oakley, Jessie Willcox Smith and Henrietta Cozens in their Chestnut Street studio, ca. 1901
Anderson speculates that Edith might have been acquainted with the most famous of the lot, the extraordinary Red Rose Girls, illustrators Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935) and Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871-1954), and muralist Violet Oakley (1874-1961).  In 1899, those three artists took over the Red Rose Inn, a picturesque old estate on Philadelphia's Main Line, and vowed to live together forever and never marry.  They created art on their own terms in an environment of mutual inspiration, until Elizabeth Shippen surprised her comrades by getting married in 1911.  But Smith and Oakley remained true to their original objective and all three women continued to create marvelous art throughout their careers. 

Historical data and the way things were back then tell us it was pretty tough for women to juggle both a painting career and the demands placed on them by society to be housewives and mothers.  In those days, you couldn’t just copy a photograph while sitting at a kitchen table, sell it on the Internet and call yourself an artist.  You had to undergo rigorous academic training first to be taken seriously as a professional artist.  It was hard sledding for those women who kept at it. 

Every state in the union probably had a handful of strong-willed women artists who returned home after their academic studies to persevere against all odds and take a vital role in shaping the cultural life of their communities.

Elsa Jemne, The Chinese Screen, ca. 1924
Daniel Garber (1880-1958), Portrait of Elsa Laubach, ca.1912, Charcoal on Paper, 21 1/2 x 15 ¼ in.
Elsa Laubach Jemne, for example, was one of eight newly celebrated women artists who blazed a trail for art and culture in their home state of Minnesota in the early 20th Century.  Only four of the artists married and only Jemne and the portrait artist Frances Cranmer Greenman (1890-1981) had children.  

Frances Cranmer Greenman and Mary Pickford in front of Greenman’s Portrait of the Actress, 1935, eBay, Hyee Auctions
All eight artists supported themselves, often with art-related jobs they hated, but which they stuck with out of necessity. While in art school, Elsa did commercial art, which she described in her diary as "stupid, uncongenial, & maddening in its monotony."  

Elsa Laubach Jemne at her Easel, 1922
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1888, Elsa studied out East with two of my favorite painters, the still life painter Soren Emil Carlson at The Art Students League and Daniel Garber at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she was enrolled from 1912 to 1915.  Said to be one of Garber’s favorite students, she was a recipient of the Academy’s Emlin T. Cresson Award, which enabled her to travel to Italy in 1914, where she chose to focus her studies on fresco painting. World War I erupted and she had to return to America.  She went on to a successful career as a portraitist, landscape painter, muralist and illustrator in her home state under her married name, Elsa Jemne.  She achieved her greatest recognition for her many New Deal murals, which were executed in places such as the Hutchinson Post Office, the Stearns County Courthouse, and the Minneapolis Armory.

Elsa Jemne, Iron-Ore Mines Mural, Tempera, Ely, MN Post Office

Elsa Jemne, Wilderness Mural, Tempera, Ely, MN Post Office
Rejecting commercial art work, Elsa toted her painting supplies on Greyhound buses all over the Iron Range of Northern Minnesota during the Great Depression to create murals depicting local or regional themes. Sometimes she had to wait for the plaster to dry on the wall before she could begin her murals in tempera. She occupied her down time painting watercolors of the wilderness surrounding the communities.   She loved creating those murals and took great pride in them.  And her work must have been a lifesaver for her family, as well, because her husband’s architecture practice had dried up during the 1930s.

As an important Minnesota artist, Elsa Jemne was an inspiration to other women, and helped found the St. Paul Women's City Club to promote women's rights. She died in St. Paul in 1974 at the age of 86.

There is a wonderful account of Jemne’s work on a mural for the Post Office in Ely, Minnesota in 1940 written by Irene Grahek for The Ely Echo weekly newspaper:  Grahek’s niece is married to Jemne’s grandson, and they provided details for her story.  When the Post Office mural was finished and the scaffolding came down, Elsa finally saw what she had accomplished and said, “I think it is good.” 

Of all those unrecognized women art students in days gone by, the two who abducted this little ramble of mine, Elsa Laubach Jemne and Edith Lake Wilkinson, had nothing in common, it seems, other than very similar academic art backgrounds.  Elsa was determined to make a living as an artist, and she succeeded.  We’re not sure about Edith's motivation.  Some artists are just more interested in making art than selling it.  I think Edith was like that.  But if you don’t sell your art, what’s the point of making it? Thinking like that can be pretty depressing for any serious artist, let me tell you.