The Quintessential American Illustrator: Jessie Willcox Smith

Jessie Willcox Smith was born in Philadelphia on September 6, 1863 to Charles Henry Smith and Katherine Dewitt Smith. At the age of sixteen she was sent to Cincinnati to live with her cousins and complete her education. The artist did not have any interest in drawing at this time, therefore she studied teaching and taught at a kindergarten in 1883. By the end of the year she realised that teaching would be an unsuitable occupation. Jessie discovered her talent for drawing by accident. One of her cousins was an art tutor and this cousin asked the artist to chaperone her to and participate in a private art lesson. At the end the lesson it was noticed that her drawings were very good and when her friends saw the drawings they strongly encouraged her to study art.

In 1884 Jessie moved back to Philadelphia to study at the School of Design for Women, now called Moore College of Art and Design, however she found this school to be unsuitable for her interests and transferred to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. While there she had her first image, entitled ‘Five Little Maidens All in a Row’, published in St. Nicholas Magazine.

Jessie Willcox Smith – Five Little Maidens All in a Row (1888)

Jessie graduated in 1888 and took a position in the advertising department at Ladies’ Home Journal where she finished rough sketches, prepared advertising art and designed borders. While working there she was also actively approaching publishers with her illustrations. The publisher Lee and Shepard accepted some of these images and they appeared in a book entitled New and True, by Mary Wiley Staver. Wishing to improve her drawings the artist enrolled in Saturday afternoon classes at Drexel University, where she was taught by Howard Pyle. She studied there from 1894 to 1897, during which time her illustrations became much more realistic looking. Pyle would actively go out and get commissions for the students that he considered to have good artistic abilities and he did this for Jessie when he secured her the job of illustrating, in partnership with Violet Oakley, the book entitled Evangeline, which was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1897.

After graduating from Drexel Jessie was offered a teaching position there, however, due to her teacher’s help in finding illustration contracts she had achieved some success, so declined the offer. Her new-found financial stability allowed her to leave the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1898. At the turn of the century the artist’s work was in high demand; she was freelancing for several publishers and magazines, including completing a series of covers for Colliers. The artist knew that she could get recognition and contracts by displaying her works at exhibitions. Her artworks received national attention at the Charleston Exposition where one received the Bronze Medal for painting; this would be her first of many awards. Advertising commissions were another source of income and she produced a series of advertisements for Ivory Soap, Kodak and Cream of Wheat. Displayed below is her advertisement for Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company.  This charming image was so well received it was reprinted in many of the popular magazines across America.

Jessie Willcox Smith – Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company Advertisement (1924)

One of Jessie’s most important works during this period was a calendar called The Child, published in 1902. The calendar was a collaboration with Elizabeth Shippen Green and featured some of their most beautiful child-based images. Almost immediately after publication Stokes, a New York based publisher, asked to reprint the works as a book. Mabel Humphrey was commissioned to write a series of poems and short stories to match the illustrations and The Book of The Child was published in 1903. It became so popular that both artists would be guaranteed illustrating contracts well into the future. More recognition followed later that year when the artist exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts and subsequently won the Mary Smith Prize.

The majority of Jessie’s works can be found in magazines which, due to their low sales price, were a popular form of entertainment at the time. As women were the main readership of magazines, editors would seek out women artists who could produce the images that these readers desired to see. The artist’s sentimentalised and idealised illustrations neatly fitted into this requirement and she was constantly in demand. An example of this demand can be seen in 1905 when she was commissioned to work exclusively for Colliers. However she felt that this was a restriction on her art, as she had to decline several other projects because of this work agreement; therefore in 1907 she ended the contract and went back to freelancing. The decision to go back to freelancing was a good idea as she received a commission from Good Housekeeping magazine, which eventually lead her to create every cover image for this magazine from December 1917 through to April 1933, becoming the artist with the longest consecutive run of magazine covers. Some of these covers can be found at the Good Housekeeping website.  She also produced a series of Mother Goose drawings for this magazine, which were then reproduced in the book entitled The Jessie Willcox Smith Mother Goose, published by Dodd, Mead, and Company in 1914.

Jessie Willcox Smith – Good Housekeeping Cover (1929)

Jessie Willcox Smith – Mother Goose (1914)

Book illustrations were a major source of income for Jessie with about fifty books known to contain her images. Her most well-known book illustrations appeared in The Water-Babies. Published in 1916 by Dodd, Mead, and Co., the book was of high quality and the images, printed on glossy paper, displayed her technical abilities and proficiency at using mixed media more than any other published works. The artist must also have considered these to be some of her best works as she bequeathed all twelve of the originals to the Library of Congress, which are now viewable online. Many of the books by Jessie were produced for a global market and there was such high demand for some that many reprints occurred, even now you are able to find some of these reprints. As she was being paid royalties for all these re-releases and wanting to spend more time on private portraiture commissions, she largely stopped producing images for books in 1925. The books containing her illustrations that did appear after 1925 would only have a few images, usually as a frontispiece or dust wrapper. I also suspect that old age—she was sixty-two in 1925—and the demands of having to create multiple original illustrations in a short amount of time would also be a reason for stopping book contracts.

Jessie Willcox Smith – A Childs Garden of Verses (1905)

Jessie Willcox Smith – Summer Passing (1908)

Jessie Willcox Smith – Merry Christmas (1917)

Having rarely travelled, the artist was eventually convinced by friends to go on a European tour, accompanied by a trained nurse. Rather than having a positive affect, this journey simply made all her health problems worse and two years after returning she died on May 3, 1935, at the age of seventy-one.

Smith’s style changed a lot through her career. At the start of her working life she would create black and white images in charcoal and her colour images were mostly watercolours with pen and ink outlines to highlight objects and people in a style often described as “Japanesque”. In later works she became skilled in mixed media, overlaying watercolour and oils on charcoal to get the desired effect. The artist would rarely use professional models and greatly disliked them. When talking about professional models in an interview she expressed the opinion that

Such a thing as a paid and trained model is an abomination and a travesty on childhood – a poor little crushed and scared, unnatural atom, automatically taking the pose and keeping it in a spiritless and lifeless manner. The professional child model is usually a horribly self-conscious, overdressed child …

 

Instead she would use the children of friends and from some of the wealthy families of Philadelphia, she also adapted or reused paintings from her portraiture work, as these children created highly natural and realistic images. She would also photograph and do quick sketches of the children as they sat and played in her studio and gardens which would become part of a large file of images to use when she did not have models available. It is not known why most of her images featured children, though it can be presumed that she did have an intense love for them, based on her first career choice of teaching young children. Having children as models could also have filled in for the lack of her own children. Additionally, she was not creating drawings due to market demands, as all magazine illustrators prior to Jessie’s appearance produced images of women engaged in household work, yet these painters kept receiving contracts despite the absence of children.

Jessie Willcox Smith – Ann and Mary Leisenring (1922)

Jessie Willcox Smith – Jeanne C. Flood (1929)

When compiling this work, I extensively used two books these are: Jesse Willcox Smith: American Illustrator (1990) by Edward D. Nudelman, printed by Pelican Publishing and Jessie Willcox Smith (1977) by S. Michael Schnessel, printed by Studio Vista. Both books have several dozen images by the artist and extensive biographies with Schnessel’s book containing the most written information. I also found that at least twelve of her books have been digitised on archive.org, this includes some of her most well-known works. Lastly, when referencing her first published illustration many sources say it is ‘Three Little Maidens’, however, I have said five as this was the number mentioned in both biographies and the accompanied image clearly shows five children.

Few images from The Book of the Child appear on the internet.  Two of the images appear on Pigtails’ 5th Anniversary post, one from Smith and one from Green.  The remaining images will be published on this site as time permits.  -Ron

If Worship Be the Right Name: Samuel Clemens

One day at Riverdale-on-Hudson, Mrs. Clemens and I were mourning for our lost little ones. Not that they were dead, but lost to us all the same. Gone out of our lives forever—as little children. They were still with us, but they were become women, and they walked with us upon our own level. There was a wide gulf, a gulf as wide as the horizons, between these children and those.  We were always having vague dream-glimpses of them as they had used to be in the long-vanished years—glimpses of them playing and romping, with short frocks on, and spindle legs, and hair-tails down their backs—and always they were far and dim, and we could not hear their shouts and their laughter. How we longed to gather them to our arms! but they were only dainty and darling spectres, and they faded away and vanished, and left us desolate.

That day I put into verse, as well as I could, the feeling that was haunting us. The verses were not for publication, and were never published, but I will insert them here as being qualified to throw light upon my worship of school girls—if worship be the right name, and I know it is. -Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Dictations, April 1908

(Photographer Unknown) – Frances Nunnally and Clemens, London, July 1907

I am always delighted to discover rare tidbits of human interest that relate to little girls. The most notable British case is Charles Dodgson known to most by the pen name Lewis Carroll who was a skilled photographer of children and enjoyed their company. Only a few years ago I learned there was also an American writer of great stature who also had a strong affinity for little girls which manifested itself in an unusual way in the last years of his life: Samuel Clemens (1835–1910), a prolific writer of novels and essays under the pen name Mark Twain. A pseudonym is used to create a kind of alter ego—to distinguish the man from the character of his work. This period in his life in which he became obsessed with school girls is a personal one and, for the sake of convention, I will refer to him as Clemens but when referring to those written works consistent with his other persona, I will call the author Mark Twain.

This interesting epiphany about Clemens’ association with young girls was best fleshed out in a book called Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens Angelfish Correspondence 1905–1910 (1991) edited by John Cooley. Cooley was then a professor of English at Western Michigan University. The editor’s first knowledge of the Aquarium Club came from his second cousin, Marjorie Breckenridge, who still had in her possession the letters Clemens had sent her. Fascinated with his cousin’s teenage friendship with Mark Twain, he set out to find out more—scouring the various institutions that housed his papers. The book endeavored to contain nearly every known written communication between Clemens and the young women who constituted his Aquarium Club. Undoubtedly, many of the letters have been lost. Because of its peculiar nature, this aspect of his life has been largely excluded from biographies.

(Photographer Unknown) – Louise Paine and Clemens in the angelfish headquarters, the billiard room, Stormfield, Summer 1908

When the book was written, only seven letters from angelfish survived of the eighty-seven letters Clemens wrote to them during this period. Since Clemens was a diligent saver of letters, it is assumed that his daughter Clara, who strongly disapproved of the Aquarium Club, disposed of many of them after her return from Europe in September 1908.

For example, Hamlin Hill’s important biography of Clemens’ last decade, Mark Twain: God’s Fool (1973), reveals many aspects of Clemens’ last years that strongly contrast with the image of him perpetuated by his daughter Clara and his official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine. Until then, it was generally believed that Clemens remained the “king” of American humor—a devoted family man and playful public cynic, passing gracefully into retirement and old age. Only more recent biographies gave clues to the breakdown of his family life after 1904, upon the death of his wife Olivia which followed that of his eldest daughter, Susy. His relationship with his surviving daughters, Clara and Jean, became so strained that neither spent much time with their father during his last years. Clemens’ overwhelming vanity and unpredictable rage made him extremely difficult to live with. Quite routinely, after prolonged visits, Clara would place herself in a rest home to regain her emotional strength.

The impulse to be humorous choked a man whose sense of rage at the world in which he lived grew and grew to mammoth proportions. -Hamlin Hill. Mark Twain: God’s Fool, 1973.

(Photographer Unknown) – Irene Gerken and Clemens, Bermuda, Winter 1908

These girls and young women were no doubt reminders of the happy years when his own daughters were younger, and of his girlfriends from that happiest of times, his own adolescence.

His earliest sweetheart was Laura Hawkins. Clemens recalled her as a blond, blue-eyed “charmer” who wore white summer frocks, plaited her hair into two long tails, and lived across the street from the Clemenses in Hannibal. She was also the inspiration for Twain’s Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer and other stories. In the fall of 1908 Laura contacted him and was invited to come visit.

About next Tuesday or Wednesday a Missouri sweetheart of mine, is coming here from Missouri to visit me—the very best sweetheart I ever had. It was 68 years ago. She was 5 years old and I the same. I had an apple, & fell in love with her and gave her the core. She figures in “Tom Sawyer” as “Becky Thatcher” -Samuel Clemens in a letter to Margaret Blackmer, October 1908.

(Photographer Unknown) – Dorothy Quick and Clemens, Tuxedo Park, August 1907 (1)

Another important sweetheart was Laura Wright. She was fourteen when she met Clemens, an age of some significance appearing frequently in his stories. Years later his rules of the Aquarium Club stipulated that only school-age girls were eligible for active membership. In 1906, Clemens dictated a remarkably detailed passage for his autobiography concerning his brief romance with Wright, one summer forty-eight years earlier while she was sailing on a freighter with her parents from St. Louis to New Orleans.

I found that I remembered her quite vividly and that she possessed a lively interest for me notwithstanding the prodigious interval of time that had spread its vacancy between her and me. She wasn’t yet fifteen when I knew her.

Clemens stated that he was never more than “four inches from that girl’s elbow” during their waking hours over the next three days.

That comely child, that charming child, was Laura M. Wright, and I could see her with perfect distinctness in the unfaded bloom of her youth, with her plaited tails dangling from her young head and her white summer frock puffing about in the wind of that ancient Mississippi time. … I never saw her afterward. -Samuel Clemens, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Charles Neider ed., 1959.

Wright’s parents did not approve of her continued association with Clemens who was the pilot of another ship. He wrote to her many times, but the letters were intercepted and disposed of. He did not hear from her until the publication of these passages 48 years later. She wrote to him to ask for money which he sent her, thrilled at the prospect of being her hero. He was quite dismayed by her change of circumstances, having a modest career as a teacher.

When I knew that child her father was an honored judge … What had that girl done, what crime had she committed that she must be punished with poverty and drudgery in her old age? … It shook me to the foundations. The plaited tails fell away; the peachy young face vanished; the fluffy short frock along with it; and in the place of that care-free little girl of forty-eight years ago, I imagined the world-worn and trouble-worn widow of sixty-two -Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Dictations, August 1906.

(Photographer Unknown) – Margaret Blackmer and Clemens in the cart; Maude, the donkey, with her groom Reginald, Bermuda, March 1908

Clemens’ fond recollections were not just from his own adolescence, but from the joy of spending time with his little daughters. And during the period of their childhood, Susy, Clara and Jean Clemens more than filled his need for contact with teenage girls. He teased and played with them and frequently created stories for their entertainment. His desire to relive these wonderful moments was made more acute by the death of his eldest, Susy, in 1896, the death of his wife, Olivia, and the lack of grandchildren. Two manuscripts devoted to his family, “A Family Sketch” and “The Children’s Record” (Mark Twain Papers, University of California, Berkeley) reveal how much pleasure his young daughters gave him.

For Clemens, childhood was the most important time—the central experience of life. Although boyhood portraits figured prominently in Mark Twain’s best-known and greatest works, in later years the author turned his attention to the adolescent female.

Clemens’ repeated concern for the innocence of his angelfish suggests that he believed young women became spoiled or perhaps corrupted upon entering the age of sexual activity. In both his fictional and his autobiographical writing, Clemens returns with some frequency to the idea of the “platonic sweetheart,” in which a somewhat older and more experienced male both longs for and wishes to protect his school-age sweetheart. This paradigm is most clearly expressed in the short story “My Platonic Sweetheart” (1898), which purports to be a report of Twain’s recurring dreams in which he is always seventeen and his love is an innocent maid of fifteen. Although he kisses her and they walk “arms-about-waists”, he insists that it “was not the love of sweethearts, for there was no fire in it.” Nor was it the mere affection of brother and sister, but something “finer than either, and more exquisite, more profoundly contenting” (Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories, 1922).

(Photographer Unknown) – Dorothy Sturgis (?) with Clemens, Bermuda, Winter 1908

Clemens worked out his concept of young female innocence in greatest detail in his Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1895). Clemens remarked that Joan of Arc was written out of love, not for money, and that his heroine reminded him of his daughter Susy and believed it to be his best work. He was something of an authority on Joan—citing eleven books on the topic in his preface. Other revealing though minor portraits of young women appear during Clemens’ last decade of writing: “The Death Disk” (1901), “Eve’s Diary” (1905), “A Horse’s Tale” (1906) and an essay, “Marjorie Fleming, Wonder Child” (1909). There is a note of pessimism in his interpretation of the Saint Joan story: that an innate and powerful goodness cannot survive long in the real world, certainly invoked by his memories of Susy.

It is known that about three hundred letters were written and received by Clemens and the schoolgirls as well as personal notes indicating the extent to which the girls occupied his thoughts during the last five years of his life. In 1908, the Aquarium Club was at its height and Clemens sent several letters a week to the angelfish and received an equal number in reply and became his “chief occupation and delight”. Despite the author’s usual inventiveness in his writing, this correspondence was much more formulaic in his attempt to plead for letters and visits from his young friends. Nonetheless, amongst the gushing sentimentality, one can find small gems of wit, wisdom, and humor we would normally associate with Mark Twain at his best.

In grandchildren I am the richest man that lives today: for I select my grandchildren, whereas all other grandfathers have to take them as they come, good, bad or indifferent.  Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Dictations, April 1908.

(Photographer Unknown) – Dorothy Harvey and Clemens on the front steps, Stormfield, Summer 1908

The spark for the Aquarium Club came from Clemens’ correspondence with a girl named Gertrude Natkin whom he met during his travels. Then one “golden day” in the winter of 1907, a fourteen-year-old English girl and her mother came to visit. Since then, Dorothy Butes and Clemens maintained a correspondence and he considered her his first angelfish. Only later did he begin “collecting” and corresponding with schoolgirls in earnest: Butes was followed by Carlotta Welles and Frances Nunnally, girls he met while on a ship for England. On the return voyage he also met Dorothy Quick. The first half of 1908 is when Clemens formulated his plan to establish his aquarium to be comprised of a school of girls of bright and lively temperament. The club really began to take shape during Clemens’ two winter trips to Bermuda, adding Margaret Blackmer, Irene Gerken, Dorothy Sturgis, Hellen Martin, and Helen Allen. Clemens notes that most readers will understand that, like all collectors, we believe our fad to be more rational than any of the others.

… As for me, I collect pets: young girls—girls from ten to sixteen years old; girls who are pretty and sweet and naive and innocent—dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears. My collection consists of gems of the first water. -Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Dictations, February 1908.

Each of the girls received a pin as a memento of their friendship.

Heather Morgan – Angel-fish pin given by Mark Twain to Louise Paine (Mark Twain Library, Redding, CT)

In June 1908, Clemens moved into a new home in Redding, Connecticut aptly naming it ‘Innocence at Home’ to commemorate his latest fascination. This villa was able to accommodate the angelfish during their numerous visits. New acquisitions at this point were Marjorie Breckenridge, Dorothy Harvey, and Louise Paine. Clemens’ daughter Clara disliked the name of the villa and its associations and had it changed to Stormfield—a name apropos to a period of discord in Clemens’ domestic life and the eventual decline of the Aquarium Club to come.

(Photographer Unknown) – Dorothy Harvey, Clemens and Louise Paine in the “Fish-Market”, Stormfield, Summer 1908

Clemens’s own awareness of his destructive pessimism, of his great rage at the swindle of life, must have driven him all the harder to construct about himself a small court of happiness, innocence, and youthfulness, which he set against the ever painful reality of his life. Thus, his indulgence in stories and tales involving young female characters and his collection of young angelfish serve as a surprising antistrophe to the strophe of his rage and despair. -John Cooley, Mark Twain’s Aquarium, 1973.

Although Clemens’ last years were often dominated by loneliness, illness, and depression, his angelfish letters are nearly always optimistic, loving, and playful; they reveal the depths of his loneliness and the size of his need for attention and affection.

(Photographer Unknown) – Dorothy Harvey and Clemens, Stormfield, Summer 1908

It is interesting to examine this work in the context of his other writings of the period: his autobiography, The Mysterious Stranger, and in his late stories, essays and letters. The contrast between this and his angelfish correspondence helps us appreciate the conflict between his natural inclination for youthfulness, playfulness and affection against his growing fatalism and cynical rage.

Clemens’ writing during his last decade does not include young female characters and reveals his preoccupation with predestination and a corruption seemingly inevitable in adulthood. In one of the most bleak yet most important works of his last years, The Mysterious Stranger, Twain has his cosmic representative, a young cousin to Satan named Philip Traum, reveal that human and earthly reality are purely an illusion. Despairing as this seems, he concluded that the great, unbeatable weapon of the human race is laughter. In another work, What is Man?, the old man declares that nothing is able to shake humanity of its fundamental cheerfulness, not even the most bleak facts of existence.

For Clemens, there seemed an eternal dichotomy between evil and good, darkness and light. As Albert Stone expresses it, Clemens sought to maintain a “desperately delicate balance between despising mankind and loving certain individuals, between intellectual assertion of a meaningless universe and intuitive awareness of love’s reality” (Albert Stone, The Innocent Eye: Childhood in Mark Twain’s Imagination, 1961).

A core issue in this counterpoint between light and dark is Clemens’ ambivalence about sex and sexuality and as Mark Twain, he generally avoided dealing with the subject. A set of writings published posthumously bears this out. Letters from the Earth (1909) concerns morality, the hypocrisy of religion and racism. It takes the form of a personal report to Satan, informing him of the numerous foibles of Earth’s human denizens. Clara Clemens initially objected to its publication in March 1939 but finally conceded that “Mark Twain belonged to the world”. The letters were first collected, edited and published by Bernard DeVoto. Twain writes the following startling revelation expounding on humans’ obsession with sex, despite the well-known presence of Biblical admonitions.

The law of God, as quite plainly expressed in woman’s construction is this: There shall be no limit put upon your intercourse with the other sex sexually, at any time of life.

The law of God, as quite plainly expressed in man’s construction is this: During your entire life you shall be under inflexible limits and restrictions, sexually.

During twenty-three days in every month (in absence of pregnancy) from the time a woman is seven years old till she dies of old age, she is ready for action, and competent. As competent as the candlestick is to receive the candle. Competent every day, competent every night. Also she wants that candle—yearns for it, longs for it, hankers after it, as commanded by the law of God in her heart. -Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth, Letter VIII, 1909

(Photographer Unknown) – Helen Allen and Clemens, Bermuda, 1908

Not all the letters have a cynical tone. Twain speaks eloquently about the beauty of the “sweeter sex” and that of the nakedness of an uncorrupted human body.

The pleasant labor of populating the world went on from age to age, and with prime efficiency; for in those happy days the sexes were still competent for the Supreme Art when by rights they ought to have been dead eight hundred years. The sweeter sex, the dearer sex, the lovelier sex was manifestly at its very best, then, for it was even able to attract gods. Real gods. They came down out of heaven and had wonderful times with those hot young blossoms. The Bible tells about it. -Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth, Letter IV, 1909.

The convention miscalled modesty has no standard, and cannot have one, because it is opposed to nature and reason, and is therefore an artificiality and subject to anybody’s whim, anybody’s diseased caprice. And so, in India the refined lady covers her face and breasts and leaves her legs naked from the hips down, while the refined European lady covers her legs and exposes her face and her breasts. In lands inhabited by the innocent savage the refined European lady soon gets used to full-grown native stark-nakedness, and ceases to be offended by it. A highly cultivated French count and countess—unrelated to each other—who were marooned in their nightclothes, by shipwreck, upon an uninhabited island in the eighteenth century, were soon naked. Also ashamed—for a week. After that their nakedness did not trouble them, and they soon ceased to think about it. -Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth, Letter III, 1909.

This last passage expresses effectively a key philosophy of Pigtails in Paint. Also of interest is a book written by one of the angelfish, Dorothy Quick, Enchantment: A Little Girl’s Friendship with Mark Twain, 1961.

(Photographer Unknown) – Dorothy Quick and Clemens, Tuxedo Park, August 1907 (2)

*Mark Twain’s Autobiographical Dictations are part of a collection of Mark Twain Papers housed at the University of California, Berkeley.

Minou Drouet: A Forgotten Child Poet

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (1)

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the media and public opinion in France, and to some extent in Europe, were impassioned about a little girl who wrote very imaginative poems and letters, sang on stage with famous artists, starred in a film and was even involved in children’s fashion: Minou Drouet. When she grew up, she stopped writing poetry, and soon fell into oblivion, so that now only old people barely remember who she is. As writes Robert Gottlieb in his essay “A Lost Child” (November 2006):

In fact, you can’t find a book by Minou Drouet in any bookstore in Paris, not even her phenomenally successful Arbre, Mon Ami, which was published just over fifty years ago—early in 1956—by the aggressive René Julliard, who a year earlier had scored an international triumph with Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. But Sagan had been eighteen; Minou was eight.

Minou Drouet was born on July 24 or 27, 1947. Her birth certificate did not indicate a father, and her mother relinquished her parental rights, so the baby was put up for adoption. On June 17, 1949, she was officially adopted by Claude Drouet, an unmarried woman who worked as a private teacher. The girl was christened Marie-Noëlle, with the diminutive Minou. As writes Robert Gottlieb:

Minou Drouet’s existence was turbulent well before she became a cause célèbre—in fact, from the very beginning. When she was a year and a half old, she was adopted by Claude Drouet, an educated woman who earned her living by coaching children at home. The story was that Minou’s parents had drowned in a fishing-boat accident, but actually she was illegitimate, and her birth mother had signed away all rights to her.

Indeed, when Ms. Drouet adopted her, she had heard about a child whose parents had both drowned, and she sometimes told that story in order to preserve the reputation of Minou, so she would not be called a “bastard,” since at that time single mothers were considered shameful.

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (2)

The baby was almost blind and affected with a strong strabismus; she also suffered from poor health and it seems that she had difficulties closing her mouth on food. Ms. Drouet herself had a very poor eyesight and had been completely blind during seven years of her childhood, then in her youth she had written a short tale about the marvellous world that a blind little girl creates inside herself as a shelter from the torments of the world. So her choice was deliberate: to raise a child who had suffered in the same way as her. She was also inclined to the occult, and she read the lines in the baby’s hands. Says Gottlieb:

Minou was almost blind at birth, and for three years or so lived in a semi-autistic state, unable to speak and cut off from communicating with people other than her mother and her beloved grandmother. Years later, she wrote, “Locked inside myself, I led the life of some kind of vegetable. … The doctors warned Mama, ‘The condition of this child is desperate. We can’t imagine her being cured.'” Other children were unkind to her, and her emotions were directed almost entirely to nature: to animals, birds, and especially the big tree in the garden—“Arbre, mon ami.”

It took on the part of Claude Drouet a long and patient work of love to change this sickly and closed off baby into a healthy, happy and creative little girl. Music was the means by which she could awaken to the world. There are several versions of how it started (her age at that time, the music composer and the medium through which she heard the music vary in each); here is the one of Gottlieb:

Then, when she was three, Minou heard Bach organ music on the radio, and it awakened her to the world. Music became her link to humanity, and in those early years it was music rather than writing that obsessed her. Her passion led to piano lessons from a local teacher, and her abilities led her eventually to Mme. Descaves, in Paris; if the child wasn’t a miniature Mozart (any more than she was a miniature Rimbaud), she was clearly gifted.

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (3)

A more extravagant version of Minou’s early childhood is given by Charles Templeton in An Anecdotal Memoir:

Minou Drouet’s mother was a prostitute and her father a field hand. As an infant she was taken into the home of a middle-aged woman, whose ambition to write well exceeded her talent. She adopted the child and raised her with love, surrounding her with music in a home dedicated to literature. It appeared that Minou was retarded. At six she hadn’t spoken a word. The judgment of four doctors was that she would never be normal.

One day, her mother played a recording of a Brahms symphony for her. Minou swooned. When she was revived, she spoke perfect French in complex sentences. Shortly thereafter she began to write poetry.

Similarly, Carol Mavor writes in “Tragic Candy, Time” (an article leaning towards post-modern speculations and titillation):

Her father was a very poor field hand. Many said that her mother was a prostitute.

By age six, little Minou still had not spoken a word. She was tight-lipped and silent.

In fact, Minou’s childhood has been surrounded by mystery, and fantastic tales have been told about her. Ms. Drouet herself seemed to be involved in fortune telling through cards or reading lines in hands. According to a French online article, Ms. Drouet told the author that Minou possessed a gift of clairvoyance; she could foretell exactly a visit or a death. When the controversy erupted about the authorship of her published poems, some critics hypothesized that her mother had hypnotized her or transmitted her poems by telepathy. The writer Louis Pauwels even hinted at “possession” and labeled her “not a case of a child prodigy,” but “a case of sorcery.”

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet with Lucette Descaves (1956)

In 1954, Minou started piano lessons first with a tutor, Ninette Ellia. The latter put her in contact with famous pianists: Alfred Cortot, Yves Nat, and foremost Lucette Descaves, professor at the Conservatoire de Paris, who took Minou as pupil on July 29, 1954. Minou, an affectionate child, developed strong feelings for her teacher and sent her letters full of love, together with poems. Ms. Descaves showed them to professor Pasteur Vallery-Radot of the French Academy, who became immediately fascinated, and remained afterwards a staunch supporter of Minou’s exceptional talents. He told about her to the publisher René Julliard. Ms. Descaves entrusted Julliard with a batch of Minou’s writings, and Julliard met Minou on May 6, 1955.

Then things started to move fast. Professor Paufique, an ophthalmologist in Lyon, operated successfully on her eyes. In September, Julliard made a private edition of a booklet with a selection of poems and letters by Minou. A controversy immediately erupted, involving the major French media. Some disagreements concerned the quality of her poems, but mainly it dealt with her authorship, many stating that it was an imposture, that her adoptive mother had written the poems and letters herself. Templeton writes (getting wrong with Minou’s age, she was then aged 8, not 6):

Some of the poems were published and immediately provoked debate. It was said that no child of six could possibly have such thoughts, much less express them so profoundly. It was argued that, unlike music, poetry demands an experience of life, experience that no child so young could have had. It was charged that her adoptive mother — a poet herself who aspired to recognition but had been judged second-rate — was the author of the verses.

Several journals sent reporters to interview the Drouet family. In particular the magazine Elle sent a journalist and a photographer for an “investigation,” then published their report, claiming to give a “proof” of forgery. This article was shown to Minou. Also journalists revealed her adopted child status, something that Claude Drouet had hidden her in order to protect her. Many letters of Minou published later show the deep hurt felt by that sensitive girl, resenting the cruelty and wickedness of people; in a very sad one of them, addressed to her mother, she compares herself to a frightening cat whose whiskers have been cut out, or to an old castle surrounded by moat.

Graphologists and writing experts were called in by both sides, with conflicting opinions. At the end of November 1955, Julliard took Minou without her mother at his home for a few days, so he could witness himself how Minou composed her poems (and it is during that stay that she wrote that letter to her mother mentioned above).

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (4)

The surrealist leader André Breton published in Paris-Presse, December 20, a short article where he stated firmly that he did not have to investigate the facts, simply by examining the texts he could deduce that no child aged 8 and even beyond could write such texts, which show a maturity and experience of life unavailable to such a child. “Between the physico-mental structure of Minou and what is published under her name there is an incompatibility of structure.” He invoked in particular the works of Jean Piaget on the psychological development of children. He finally speculated on Ms. Drouet’s personality, and the possible reasons for her to write under the guise of her daughter.

Minou seems to hint at that in a letter to Pasteur Vallery-Radot, where she mentions “the article by B,” adding that “if this was true, I would have only to go back to classroom and burn everything I have written. This dreadful man says that some sixty-year-old dictates me what I write.”

Breton would not have written such a nonsense if he had only examined the writings of Ms. Drouet herself. As she told Julliard, in her youth she submitted some poems to a “floral games” competition, but did not win. Then around 1925 she had submitted her tale about the blind little girl, which was again rejected, and in 1948 she had again tried to publish it, still without success. She contributed articles to third-rate serials, especially religious ones. The book L’affaire Minou Drouet by André Parinaud reproduces two of her works, an article about the misery of fishermen and a short tale about a poor family, they are drab and show her as a mediocre writer, very far from the flamboyant imagination shown by Minou. And indeed Julliard said to Parinaud that he saw her writings, except her poems, and their dullness reassured him. When Ms. Drouet was accused of fraud, he envisaged publishing these texts, but he felt this would be ungracious to her.

It has been said that this “literary” quarrel was a way for media bosses to settle their accounts, in particular between Hélène Gordon-Lazareff of Elle and Françoise Giroud of l’Express, and that Julliard himself encouraged the debate in order to get more publicity. In particular he published in 1956 L’affaire Minou Drouet by André Parinaud, a detailed analysis of the whole controversy.

On January 14, 1956, Julliard published Minou’s first book, Arbre, Mon Ami, with 21 poems followed by letters she wrote to various people. In it she displays a flamboyant imagination, with powerful metaphors, and she freely creates neologisms. As remarks Carol Mavor, “like Apollinaire, she liked to make her poems into calligrammes, serpentine shapes, crystal cages of words.” At the same time she shows an immense sensitivity, a huge capacity for love towards all her friends, and a maturity usually not expected at that age. The book knew an immediate success. As writes Gottlieb:

By the time Arbre, Mon Ami was published, in January 1956, the publicity had been so unrelenting that within a few months the little book had sold forty-five thousand copies. (Later, Minou said, “I believe that René Julliard himself was at the bottom of this campaign.”) The celebrated actress Madeleine Renaud recorded a group of the poems and letters. A jazz band, Michel Attenoux et Son Orchestre, released the “Minou Drouet Stomp”—you can find it in a recent CD collection, Jazz in Paris.

A month after publication, Minou was put to the severest test of all. The February 13 issue of Life tells the story: To resolve the controversy, Minou agreed to take a test for membership in the Society of Authors, Composers, and Music Publishers. She was left alone in an office (from which “the telephone had been removed to prevent all communication with the outside world”) and given a choice of two topics to write on: “I’m Eight Years Old” or “Paris Sky.” “My eight years were already too sad,” she said. “I chose Paris Sky.” Within twenty-five minutes she had written a few dozen lines, and the judges, as Life put it, admiringly awarded her membership. ‘I’ve won’ yelped Minou.”

This poem, “Ciel de Paris,” was published in her second volume, Le Pêcheur de Lune (1959), with the following dedication (translated from French by me):

My Mummy, it is to defend you that I composed this poem, to prove that it was indeed me who wrote my little things. This text has been much more than an imposed subject, it has been for me an act of love towards you.

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (5)

Gottlieb tells then how Minou became a showbiz star:

Soon after the publication of her book, Minou’s life began its transformation from that of a controversial child poet to that of a full-fledged celebrity. She mixes with cabinet ministers at the Julliards’; she collaborates with famous singer-songwriters like Gilbert Bécaud; she’s photographed with Maurice Chevalier (he’s kissing her hand) and at the premiere of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s The World of Silence. (She’s ten, and that big bow is still in her hair.) She stars in a movie. She launches and designs lines of children’s fashions. She demonstrates her guitar playing for Andrés Segovia. Pablo Casals teaches her his “Song of the Birds.” In Rome, she encounters Vittorio De Sica, and “quickly we were inseparable—we spent the entire day together.”

By this time, Minou was in rigorous training, every minute accounted for. She practiced the piano for hours every day; studied guitar and gymnastics; spent six years learning ballet. Soon she was touring France, appearing with other celebrities—pop singers and comedians—in nightclubs, theaters, arenas. Her act involved reading her poems aloud, singing to her own guitar accompaniment, playing “Clair de Lune,” Handel’s Passacaglia, Albinoni’s Adagio on the piano. (There’s a demented photograph of her standing on a piano, arching backward until her fingers are on the keyboard. She’s playing upside down!) In June 1957—she’s about ten—she’s at the Gaumont Palace in Paris, the largest theater in Europe (six thousand seats), performing between screenings of Gary Cooper’s Friendly Persuasion. In Brussels, she’s on with Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour. At La Scala, she’s a guest of honor at a gala for Mario del Monaco. She’s thirteen when a rose is named after her.

She starred in the film Clara et les méchants directed by Raoul André in 1958 (some pictures from it can be seen here). In his article, Gottlieb recounts her private audience with Pope Pius XII, and how she made him laugh (the story can also be read in his shorter article in the JohnShaplin blog).

Claude Drouet’s influence on Minou has been much discussed. Because of her eyesight problems (and maybe the scoffs of other children), the girl did not attend public school for a long time, so she was educated at home by her mother. Julliard wrote in the introduction to Arbre, Mon Ami that Ms. Drouet raised her daughter with as much tenderness as severity, and that she constantly encouraged her to work, both for music and for her general education. Gottlieb writes: “The child was firmly disciplined—kept hard at work and punished for infractions of the rules.” In several letters, Minou mentioned being spanked on the buttocks, and Ms. Drouet did not deny using this form of punishment, which was considered normal at that time. However the press spread the rumour that Minou was a battered child, that one witness said having seen Ms. Drouet beating her daughter with a wet towel, etc. This image of an abusive mother is echoed in the article by Carol Mavor:

As in many fairy tales, Maman was the wicked stepmother. Mme. Drouet cracked the whip: ballet lessons, guitar lessons, hours of piano practice and gymnastics, “every minute accounted for.” Even though she could play Mozart while doing a backbend on the piano, Minou could never be perfect enough; one might even say “empty” enough. (“Innocence is … like air … there’s not a lot you can do but lose it.”) Mme. Drouet beat the innocence (air) out of Minou for the most minuscule mistakes.

Nevertheless, since Ms. Drouet had chosen to adopt a child who suffered the same blindness as her in her own childhood, one may speculate whether she used Minou’s talents in order to compensate for her own failure as a writer. Gottlieb writes:

Mme. Drouet encouraged her gifts—some would say exploited them. However devoted she was to her child, to strangers she could appear severe, controlling, overprotective. She would jump to answer questions put to Minou, declaim her poetry, boast about her talent. She was, clearly, a classic stage mother—using her child both to live out her own ambitions and to carry her and Minou onto a larger stage than was available to them in La Guerche-de-Bretagne. Minou read the situation with a cool precision: “My successes opened the door for her to opportunities that would otherwise have remained closed.”

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (6)

After her second volume, Le Pêcheur de Lune (1959), Minou ceased to write poetry. She tried writing novels and singing, studied nursing, married the artist and radio chronicler Patrick Font and soon divorced. Says Gottlieb:

In her early twenties, Minou published some fables, a novel for children, and a novel for adults, but the irresistible impulse to write had left her when she was fourteen: “When a bird no longer feels the desire to sing, it stays silent.” Her mother contracted Parkinson’s and needed her, her marriage petered out, and in her early thirties she retreated to La Guerche-de-Bretagne, to the house where she had grown up. There she cut herself off completely from her public past, making no appearances and refusing all interviews, until 1993, when, having remarried—her husband, Jean-Paul Le Canu, is a local garageman—she published a reticent and skimpy memoir, Ma Vérité (My Truth). But the public was indifferent. Her celebrity, like her talent, had disappeared.

In that book she wrote that since the death of her mother, “I sing in myself and I am the only one to hear me.” I quote again Gottlieb:

In her book, Minou acknowledged that part of her had found it hard to give up the fame, the applause, the perks: “You amputate part of yourself.” But she went on to say, “If I had the kind of child I myself was, I would try to protect her from all the temptations and assaults of the world. … Beyond the public recognition there’s everything that can’t be replaced—play, friends, family, a kind of freedom. Everything I had to live without.”

It doesn’t require much psychological acumen to figure out that what she needed to express and what she needed to suppress are the same thing: her anger at what had been done to her. “No one protected me. Adults rode on my back to exploit me. . . . I was caught up in the gears.”

She is also reported to have said: “I was sold like a soap, I was criticized as a child prodigy. I was neither.” Gottlieb stresses the responsibility of her mother:

And who was the person who should have protected her? Her mother—the one who exposed her to the world, first as a beleaguered victim, then as a performing seal. Yet it’s also her mother who rescued this semi-autistic, semi-blind orphan and gave her a life. Minou is rigorously fair, fully aware of her debt to the woman who adopted and succored her. But her account has very little warmth, and it leaves out a good deal—for instance, that her birth mother, who she discovered lived only a few kilometers away, had refused to meet her.

Under the influence of her mother, Minou Drouet rose from a near-autistic and nearly blind baby to a precocious poet with a powerful imagination, becoming a superstar … then abandoned poetry and fell back into silence, finishing her life in seclusion. Was the weight of her mother too heavy? Or was it the cruel adult world that tore her sensitive soul? Gottlieb concludes:

This is Minou Drouet before she’s eight—a primitive, an ecstatic, an original. A few years later, she’s become a phenomenon, a scandal, a by-word. “I was a lost child,” she says. “I was only a pathetic little animal,” she says. “What crime did I commit to be persecuted this way?” she asks. There is no answer. That she survived at all is a testament to her strength. That she lost Minou on her way to becoming Mme. Le Canu is the price she was willing to pay.

On the other hand, Carol Mavor writes:

Completely sugarcoated and consumed by the time she was fourteen, Minou lost her passionate desire to write.

As in the years before she was six, Minou is once again silent.

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (7)

The photographs by Roger Hauert shown in this article were scanned from the booklet Poèmes. They are included here for scholarly purposes. Please do not use them publicly without citing their authorship (or, for commercial purposes, without the express permission of the copyright holders).

Bibliography:

  • Minou Drouet, Arbre, mon ami, Julliard (1956).
  • Minou Drouet, Poèmes (with photographs by Roger Hauert), René Kister (1956).
  • Minou Drouet, Le Pêcheur de lune, Pierre Horay (1959).
  • André Parinaud, L’affaire Minou Drouet, Julliard (1956).
  • Chez les libraires associés, “Minou Drouet : ‘On a fait de moi un animal qui a mal’,” September 13, 2012.
  • Robert Gottlieb, “A lost child,” A critic at large, The New Yorker, November 6, 2006 (Full article reserved to subscribers). Republished in Lives and Letters, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Apr 26, 2011, pages 52–64.
  • Carol Mavor, “Tragic Candy, Time,” Cabinet, Issue 40, Hair Winter 2010/11.
  • Charles Templeton, An Anecdotal Memoir (1982), “Inside Television CBS & CBC.”

Preserving a Sense of Wonder: Rachel Carson

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full or wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. -Rachel Carson, A Sense of Wonder, 1965

The power of a single image is amazing, like the following odd but charming image found on a sales site. It came with no identifying information except that the face looming in the background was Helen Hayes. Being a famous actress, I figured there should be some clue to the photo’s history. One of our guest writers, Arizona, took the initiative and offered a treasure trove of leads which are the basis of this post.

Jules Power International - The Sense of Wonder (promotional photo) (1968)

Jules Power International – The Sense of Wonder (promotional photo) (1968)

It turns out that it was a promotional shot for a special nature documentary to be aired on ABC in late 1968 called The Sense of Wonder. This film was a posthumous tribute to biologist, writer and environmental activist Rachel Carson (1907–1964).

Carson was born near Springdale, Pennsylvania. An avid reader, she also spent a lot of time exploring her family’s 65-acre farm. She started writing her own stories at eight and by age ten, was published in St. Nicholas Magazine. In her childhood, she was inspired by Beatrix Potter, Gene Stratton Porter, and in her teens, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson.

(Photogapher Unknown) -Rachel Carson reading to her dog Candy (c1913)

(Photogapher Unknown) -Rachel Carson reading to her dog Candy (c1913)

At the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), Carson studied English then switched her major to biology in 1928, still contributing to the school’s student newspaper. She graduated in 1929 and did postgraduate work in zoology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University, earning her master’s degree in zoology in 1932. She intended to continue on to doctorate work, but the first of a series of family tragedies in 1934 forced her to find steady work to support her family.

She took a temporary position with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, writing radio copy for educational broadcasts focused on aquatic life, all the while submitting articles to newspapers and magazines. In 1936, Carson became only the second woman in the Bureau of Fisheries to be hired for a full-time professional position. Due to her skill at writing, she was encouraged to expand her various research articles into a book, Under the Sea Wind (1941). Carson continued with the Bureau (by then called the Fish and Wildlife Service) through the 1940s because there were few other naturalist jobs—money in the sciences was focused on technical fields during the advent of the nuclear age. During that time, she encountered the subject of DDT, a revolutionary new synthetic pesticide, but because editors found the topic unappealing at the time, nothing was published on the subject until 1962. Carson continued to move up the ranks in the bureau with its increasing administrative demands, prompting her to make a conscious effort to transition into full-time writing. By 1950, she published The Sea Around Us. Because of the success of this book and a reprint of Under the Sea Wind, she was able to break away permanently in 1952.

Her books were made into a screen adaptation in 1953, but she was displeased with the result and lack of creative control and never sold the film rights to her work again. Her third book, The Edge of the Sea (1955), focused on her special interest in the dynamics of coastal ecosystems. She had a special connection with the coastlines of Maine and she along with her closest friend, Dorothy Freeman, purchased and set aside some land for preservation they called the “Lost Woods.”

Another family tragedy gave Carson the responsibility of raising her orphaned 5-year-old nephew and she moved to Silver Spring, Maryland. For the rest of her life, she would focus on the overuse of pesticides, particularly chlorinated hydrocarbons and organophosphates. The result of her careful research in the subject led to her most well-known book, Silent Spring (1962). It was a pioneering piece and is credited with being to first to give public attention to environmental degradation caused by pesticides and industrial activities generally. To accomplish credible research, Carson took advantage of her personal connections with government scientists, who willingly shared confidential information. She attended FDA hearings on revising pesticide regulations, coming away discouraged by the aggressive tactics of the chemical industry and the insidious implications of financial manipulation. She also developed good working relationships with medical researchers investigating the carcinogenic effects of these compounds. The completion of Silent Spring was delayed because of Carson’s poor health and subsequent diagnosis with breast cancer in the early 1960s. After her dire prognosis, she arranged for her manuscripts and papers to be bequeathed to the new state-of-the-art Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

In 1965, Marie Rodell, Carson’s long time agent and literary executor arranged for the publication of an essay intended for expansion into a book: A Sense of Wonder. The essay exhorts parents to help their children experience the pleasures of contact with the natural world. Carson early recognized the importance of exposing children to nature and even wrote an article dedicated to the subject, Help Your Child to Wonder (1956). But it was only during the raising of her nephew that this idea came to the fore. After the publication of A Sense of Wonder, Jules Power, an executive producer of nature films for ABC took an interest in making a news special based on Carson’s work. The script, written by Joseph Hurley, was based on that essay and was supplemented with information from The Edge of the Sea. It was narrated by Helen Hayes and its two-year production brought cameramen to several locations in the United States, with special emphasis on the Maine and Florida coastlines. The film, The Sense of Wonder, was produced by Daniel Wilson, directed by Alan Seeger and aired in November 1968. The film also gave some coverage to nature photographer Ansel Adams, offering a west coast perspective.

Jules Power et al - The Sense of Wonder (1968)

Jules Power et al – The Sense of Wonder (1968)

Carson understood the challenge of parents who have inquisitive children; they would never be confident about answering all their questions which might range from the microscopic world to the mystery of the skies. Her answer to such concerns was that attitude is much more important than knowledge.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in. -Rachel Carson, A Sense of Wonder, 1965

I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. -Rachel Carson, A Sense of Wonder, 1965

Carson was also aware of the realities of city life for many children and encouraged them nonetheless to explore what nature existed there and to listen to the songs of birds and insects.

Although the film was innovative for its time, it is hard to recognize this with today’s highly-polished, big-budget nature documentaries. As a result, there are only a handful of neglected copies in university libraries in the midwest. You will notice how red the film still is—a consequence of celluloid that was not stored properly. It is ironic that a little girl was used to promote the film, because most of the scenes with children in the documentary showed boys. This may have been an unconscious bias of the producers, but I think Carson would agree that it is just as important to expose little girls to nature and science as boys.

Sinister Charm: Ronald Searle and the St. Trinian’s Girls

In the course of working on Pigtails, I have to view a lot of films that feature little girls. Some are good, some not and some defy classification. One was The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) and after watching it, I knew I had to review it because of its unusual portrayal of girls. Upon further consideration, I could not help wondering where the idea for the film had come from.

After leaving school at the age of fourteen, Ronald Searle (1920–2011) took night classes at the Cambridge School of Art. To pay for his tuition, he worked various jobs: solicitor’s clerk, parcel-packer and clerk at the Co-op. At fifteen, he became the resident cartoonist on the Cambridge Daily News and in the next year began contributing to the student magazine. A scholarship awarded in 1938 allowed him to study full-time at the school. In April 1939, he joined the Territorial Army as an Architectural Draughtsman and saw his first drawing published in the Daily Express that November. His military service then took him to the village of Kirkcudbright in Scotland, which happened to be an artist’s community. One of his most welcome ports of call was the home of the Johnston family. One day, as a purely domestic joke, he made a drawing to please the two schoolgirl daughters who attended an academy by the name of St. Trinnean’s.  He was encouraged to include it with a small number of cartoons he was hoping to submit to the monthly magazine, Lilliput.

Searle, however, had been posted abroad before publication and within a month of his posting in Singapore, the Japanese invaded. While under fire, Searle found a copy of the October issue of Lilliput and saw his cartoon in print for the first time. After the British forces surrendered, Searle was listed as missing and no more was heard of him for almost two years. On December 29, 1943, the Red Cross finally informed his family that he was in fact alive.

During his incarceration as a prisoner of war, Searle continued cartooning and drawing secretly, recording many of the atrocities he witnessed. The Japanese were aware of his activities, and for three months in 1945 he was allowed to draw murals at a beach villa and officer’s club. In August 1945, a ceasefire was declared and he returned home that October.

An Assistant Editor at Lilliput noted that he picked up his career right where it had left off.

…[Searle] walked into our offices bearing a neat folder containing seventy-two cartoons. They were drawn in faded brown ink, on stained and yellowing paper. Some of them were crumpled. Most of them had survived burial in the jungle undergrowth or under disease-ridden mattresses, where the Japanese would be unwilling to search…We asked him for more and published them every month for the next three years. -Kaye Webb, November 1945

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (1)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (1)

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (2)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (2)

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (3)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (3)

It is reasonable to expect that Searle’s experiences would have found a way to spill over into even his most light-hearted work. Webb, with whom Searle began an affair, stated that:

It hardly seems necessary to mention that Searle does not really think of schoolgirls as murderous little horrors. But unconsciously he was seeking to reduce horror into a comprehensible and somehow palatable form.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (4)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (4)

In 1947, Webb gave birth to a twin son and daughter at about the time the gin-swigging, cigar-smoking portrayal of the girls emerged.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (5)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (5)

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (6)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (6)

Hurrah for St Trinian’s! (1948) was introduced by D.B. Wyndham Lewis, who became the girls’ official chronicler when a writer was needed to accompany Searle’s cartoons. He later published a full-length novel with Searle, The Terror of St Trinian’s (1952), writing as Timothy Shy. Other books included The Female Approach (1950), Back to the Slaughterhouse (1952) and Souls in Torment (1953). Additional writers seized on the opportunity to bring St Trinian’s to life with more stories and songs. After the cartoons were reprinted in The Tribune, Art News and France Dimanche, the girls had become unstoppable and, despite his intentions, Searle’s cartoons remained in print into the 1990s. The first book to publish the complete drawings was finally compiled in 2007 as St Trinian’s: The Entire Appalling Business.

Searle’s biographer Russell Davies noted that though, at the time, scarcely more than a dozen St. Trinian’s drawings had yet appeared, the invention of new horrors for the girls to wreak was becoming a chore. By 1952 Searle decided that his life had been dominated by them for too long and stopped drawing them, killing the girls off in an atomic explosion the following year.

St. Trinian’s has gone. Encouraged by the success of recent atomic explosions in the Pacific, the school Nuclear Fission experts threw themselves into their experiments with renewed enthusiasm and with the help (thanks to certain old girls) of some newly acquired top secret information, achieved their objective at midnight last night. The remains of the school are still smouldering. By some miracle the statue of our patron saint, scorched but uncracked, still stands where once the ripple of girlish laughter could be heard on a clear frosty morning. The fate of the teaching staff is unknown, nay, will never be known, and a few young ladies are believed to have survived. Early morning reports from parts of the country bring news of blackened figures silently trotting through sleepy villages, but bloodhounds have failed to pick up a scent—however radioactive. This blow from which St. Trinian’s cannot recover (the building fund has been embezzled anyway) may bring a sigh of relief to many a parent and a quiet tear from true lovers of healthy girlhood. Let it suffice for us to say (before we draw a veil over the last broken limb) we are proud that the name of St. Trinian’s has echoed through the land. R.S. -From Souls in Torment, 1953

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (7)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (7)

Searle may have been trying to please the British public and presumably the children’s book critics, but he was not happy to regard it as a key part of his life’s work.

The cartoons were both incredibly popular and highly ridiculed. The novelty of British schoolgirls breaking stereotypes may simply have been refreshing, but it may have also had therapeutic value for a populace recovering from the horrors of war. For women and girls, it likely had a liberating effect—giving them a way of voicing a seething resentment at the confinement of polite British society and hope in being accepted as they are, warts and all. The ridicule was a predictable backlash against women’s independence and the latent fear of lesbianism. Despite these attacks, St. Trinian’s became a household name and the basis for countless inside jokes.

It was probably Arthur Marshall—another St. Trinian‘s author—who gave the school’s headmistress, Ms. Fritton, her persona in the film comedies that followed. As is often the case, the first film was the best and it was no small task for the screenwriters—Frank Launder, Sydney Gilliat and Val Valentine—to patch a series of comedic beats together into one coherent story.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (8)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (8)

The main plot is about the goings on surrounding a horse race. Ms. Fritton’s brother—both brother and sister were played by Alastair Sim—has a contender named Blue Prince and is coercing his sister to allow his daughter, Arabella (Vivienne Martin), to reenroll in the school after having been expelled for arson. That in itself would have been a small matter except for the fact the the building in question was not insured. Here we meet Bella and one can see she is holding a cigarette at the bottom of frame.

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (1)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (1)

The reason for her return is to help her father spy on another contender, a horse owned by a sultan called Arab Boy. This is his daughter Fatima’s (Lorna Henderson) first year at St. Trinian’s and will presumably be the source of the intelligence.

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (2)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (2)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (3)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (3)

When the girls of the Fourth Form learn how fast Arab Boy is, they hope to make some money by placing a bet on him before word gets out. At one point, due to Bella’s interference, they have to hide the horse in their dorm room. Ms. Fritton gets wind of this situation and also sees it as an opportunity to finally get some funds for the school and perhaps finally pay off her staff. The situation has the Fourth Form and Sixth Form girls plotting against each other and one can’t help rooting for the younger girls who finally prevail.

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (4)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (4)

One girl in particular has learned to survive by keeping her ear to the ground, and she is periodically squeezed for information by the other girls.

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (5)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (5)

Even in the beginning of the film, it is established that the girls terrify the local constabulary which, along with the Ministry of Education, is conspiring to shut the school down.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (9)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (9)

A female detective infiltrates the school posing as a gym teacher in order to gather evidence. A tour of the school exposes her to the many terrors of the school and what the girls get up to. In chemistry class, Ms. Fritton advises the girls to be cautious when working with nitroglycerine and we also learn they are producing bootleg gin which a shady character named Flash Harry helps them sell.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (10)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (10)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (6)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (6)

The detective is dismayed to learn of the girls’ lack of discipline and tactics in field hockey matches. They do not win by skill, but by literally putting their opponents—and any meddling referees—out of commission well before the second half! There is always a stack of stretchers on hand at these games.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (11)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (11)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (7)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (7)

The girls of the Fourth Form have saved the day and for the first time since 1927, the school is able to give an award for good conduct, which the girls immediately spoil.

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine - The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954) (8)

Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat and Val Valentine – The Belles of St. Trinian’s (1954) (8)

There were several sequels, but there was no consistent feel to the films given how far apart they were produced. In Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s (1957), the girls contrive to cheat on a national competition to justify traveling abroad to meet a rich and eligible bachelor. In The Pure Hell of St. Trinian’s (1960), the girls are subjected to a scheme to be inducted into a sheik’s harem. In The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966), the girls are relocated after burning down their school and discover that robbers have stashed their booty there. In The Wildcats of St. Trinian’s (1980), the girls decide for some reason to go on strike and get other schools to join them. And then there has been a recent spate of remakes: St. Trinian’s (2007) and St. Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold (2009) which take advantage of the public’s new familiarity with British boarding school life since the Harry Potter films.

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (12)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (12)

Ronald Searle - (Untitled) (c1950) (13)

Ronald Searle – (Untitled) (c1950) (13)

Although St. Trinian’s is a fictional school, various aspects of it were inspired by different schools. It was reputedly based on two independent girls’ schools in Cambridge—Perse School for Girls and St Mary’s School. Searle, growing up in Cambridge, saw the girls on their way to and from school on a regular basis. In fact, in the Perse School for Girls’ Archive area there are several original St. Trinian’s books, given to the school by Searle himself. The gymslip style of dress worn by the girls closely resemble the uniform of the school that Searle’s daughter Kate attended.

I found an interesting site that chronicles the history of girls’ schools, both real and fictional, and you can read more here.

Science at Age 9: Emily Rosa

Linda Rosa - Emily Rosa at age 11 (1998)

Linda Rosa – Emily Rosa at age 11 (1998)

One usually considers children as naive, even gullible, and living in a magical fairy-tale world. However, when adults put their trust in them, children can show themselves to be logical, skeptical and even scientific.

Emily Rosa was born on February 6th 1987 in Loveland, Colorado. In 1996, she saw a video about the so-called Therapeutic Touch, a quack medicine whose practitioners claimed they could feel the “Human Energy Field.” Astonished, Emily decided to scientifically test that claim. For her 4th grade science fair she devised a simple and elegant experimental protocol; technically speaking, it was single-blind, which means that the subject is not aware of the experiment’s procedure and development, while the experimenter knows it. Through two sessions, 21 Therapeutic Touch practitioners were asked to sit at a table and extend their hands through a screen; on the other side of the screen, Rosa randomly selected (by flipping a coin) which of the practitioner’s hands she would hold her hand over. Then they were asked to state whether her unseen hand hovered above their right hand or their left hand; the practitioners identified the correct hand in only 123 (44%) of 280 trials. This shows that they were unable to detect the investigator’s so-called “energy field.” This experiment led to a scientific paper co-authored with her mother Linda Rosa, a registered nurse, her stepfather Larry Sarner, who made the statistical calculations, and Stephen Barrett, an MD who suggested the publication of the results. It appeared on April 1, 1998 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a renowned peer-reviewed medical journal.

Emily performed this research at age 9, and the result was published when she was 11 years old. For this she holds the Guinness World Record for the youngest person to have research published in a scientific or medical journal.

Emily Rosa Wikipedia page.

The above photograph is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

To Become Somebody: Paula Modersohn-Becker

There is so much more that I have to learn, and then maybe I’ll become someone… –Paula Modershon-Becker in a letter to her husband, Otto Modersohn, 1906

I am becoming somebody—I’m living the most intensely happy period of my life. –Paula Modersohn-Becker in a letter to her sister, Milly Rohland-Becker, 1906

I am beginning a new life now. Don’t interfere with me; just let me be. It is so wonderfully beautiful. I lived the past week in such a state of excitement. I believe I have accomplished something good. –Paula Modersohn-Becker in a letter to her mother, Mathilde Becker, 1906

If a man had written these words, we would get the impression of blind ambition—someone simply wanting to make a name for himself for its own sake. But a closer look at this artist’s life and the emphasis in the letter to her mother, it becomes clear this is about freedom—freedom at a time when women had little leeway to really be themselves and accomplish outside the domain of traditional gender roles.

Born Minna Hermine Paula Becker in Dresden, 1876, she was the third of seven children. She grew up in Bremen and her father insisted she study a profession so she could stand on her own two feet. While training as a teacher there, she took some classes in painting. She loved it and pursued her interest enthusiastically. In 1896, she enrolled in a school of drawing and painting sponsored by Verein der Künstlerinnen und Kunstfreundinnen in Berlin (Union of Women Artists and Friends of Art). It was one of the few options for aspiring women artists because they were not allowed in most art schools. The official justification was that women would be shocked or corrupted by the presence of nude models. She also had a wonderful experience taking classes for 7 months in London in 1892 but became disillusioned by their emphasis on effect rather than form. She was an eager student and diligently honed her skills, carefully assimilating any critique of her drawings. Over 1200 sheets are known to exist, some two-sided.

I live entirely with my eyes now and look at everything with the mind of an artist. –Paula Becker in her diary, 1896

Paula Becker - Standing Child Nude with the Skeleton Drawn In, 1899 (cat. 108)

Paula Becker – Standing Child Nude with the Skeleton Drawn In, 1899 (cat. 108)

Paula Becker - Standing Girl Nude with Her Hands Behind Her Head, c. 1899 (cat. 107)

Paula Becker – Standing Girl Nude with Her Hands Behind Her Head, c. 1899 (cat. 107)

In her eager researches, she saw an exhibition of works from the Worpswede Secessionist colony in 1895. As a result of that exposure, she included Worpswede in her vacation plans in 1897. There she befriended many people including Otto Modersohn, who would become her husband in 1901, and Heinrich Vogeler, who became one of her closest friends.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Standing Girl in Front of a Goat Shed, 1902 (cat. 27)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Standing Girl in Front of a Goat Shed, 1902 (cat. 27)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Head of a Blond Girl in Front of a Landscape, 1901 (cat. 14)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Head of a Blond Girl in Front of a Landscape, 1901 (cat. 14)

Although Becker made extensive use of the local landscape and people in her work, many of her ideas about form, composition and texture were not embraced by the group and she had to experiment in seclusion. Becoming acutely aware of the importance of Paris to the art world, she made her first of four visits there in 1900. Initially, she was a sponge, trying to learn all she could from the old masters. But in subsequent visits, she trained a more critical eye on those anointed artists who came before. She was particularly taken by a series of mummy portraits recently excavated in Egypt; they are a kind of life-cast made in one’s youth to preserve that image for eternity after death. In viewing these, she had a breakthrough and this mask-like quality is evident in her work.

I see such a lot and believe that I am getting closer to beauty in my mind. In the last few days I have discovered form and have been thinking much about it. Until now I’ve had no real feeling for the antique…I could never find any thread leading from it to modern art. Now I’ve found it, and that is what I believe is called progress…A great simplicity of form is something marvellous. –Paula Modersohn-Becker in a journal entry, 1903

One of the Worpswede children she painted was her own stepdaughter, Elsbeth.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Bust of Elsbeth with a Flower in Her Hands in Front of a Landscape, c. 1901 (cat. 15)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Bust of Elsbeth with a Flower in Her Hands in Front of a Landscape, c. 1901 (cat. 15)

In 1905, she was accompanied by her sister, Herma Weinberg, who was a frequent and patient model. She took every opportunity to see the works of masters, such as Gaugin, found in private collections. She had high regard for two living artists, Charles Cottet and Maurice Denis, and made a point of visiting them as well. She alternated between Worpswede and Paris in her short career, gleaning the best of both worlds. In Worpswede, there was seclusion and beauty and a strong Germanic accent while in Paris there was freedom, vitality, the spirit of internationalism and access to the work of great masters. This alternation was reflected in the juxtaposition of Northern elements—an amber necklace, for instance—and those of the South—exotic fruits and flowers.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Seated Mother with a Child in Her Lap, May/June 1906 (cat. 76)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Seated Mother with a Child in Her Lap, May/June 1906 (cat. 76)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Zwei kniende Mädchenakte, 1906/07

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Zwei kniende Mädchenakte, 1906/07

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Seated Girl with a Black Hat and a Flower in Her Right Hand, c. 1903 (cat. 32)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Seated Girl with a Black Hat and a Flower in Her Right Hand, c. 1903 (cat. 32)

Modersohn-Becker defies classification in many ways and yet we learn much in the attempt. Living between the formal periods of Impressionism and Expressionism, some say she presages those later developments, boldly forging ahead with no role models. But I believe she expresses a raw feminism that has eluded classification simply because art movements have been interpreted in terms of patriarchal scholarship. An honest analysis of her work reveals that her subject matter is a sincere and passionate expression of the female psyche.

I don’t think a man could have made these paintings. I mean she’s already gone further than so many other artists at that time. She was the first woman to paint herself nude—and on her sixth wedding anniversary, too! –Chantal Joffe in an interview with Greta Kühnast, 2014

…when I was a child, it spooked me. The smile is strange and somewhat insane and then there is this weird intimacy, like the woman is luring you into her secret room…She holds a secret and it is intriguing, but at the same time you don’t really want to know about it because you sense that it could be something horrible. –Daniel Richter in an interview with Tine Colstrup, 2014

There are many parallels to artists who followed and Francesca Woodman comes quickly to my mind when reading accounts of her life. Both women, separated by almost a century and using different means, engaged in obsessive self-exploration and created images of themselves nude. In this respect, Modersohn-Becker is a pioneer, being credited with being the first woman to paint a full-length nude of herself. Some male artists have done this before, but never before a woman. And because her images did not express the kind of idyllic sentimentality of the female body—objects of male artistic and romantic inspiration—she once again shattered conventions, ruffling the feathers of many in the artistic community.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Self-Portrait as a Standing Nude, Summer 1906 (cat. 68)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Self-Portrait as a Standing Nude, Summer 1906 (cat. 68)

Art historians often lose sight of how acculturated we can be. Many have observed the strange posture of the self-portrait and the unconventional use of fruit. The simple explanation is that Modesohn-Becker was not constrained by the established modes of symbolism. She often used fruits (particularly citrus) and flowers (like poppy and foxglove) and was able to intuit a sensible symbolic meaning. Citrus was relatively exotic at the time and thus gave extra punch to the symbolism that a more mundane fruit would not have. Also, the strange pose was not used tactically to observe some convention of modesty; breasts and pubic area were in plain view. But the positioning was meant to emphasize the mystery of the female body, one hand at the breasts and the other on the belly.

Modersohn-Becker would never be accused of painting pretty pictures—portraying local peasants, including children, in a frank introspective way. This contradicted the propaganda of the National Socialist Party (The Nazis) portraying peasants as beautiful and valued subjects of the state. Thus her work was included in two exhibitions of so-called degenerate (entartet) art in 1933 and 1937.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Girl in a Red Dress at a Tree Trunk in Front of a Background of a Clouded Sky, c. 1905 (cat. 57)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Girl in a Red Dress at a Tree Trunk in Front of a Background of a Clouded Sky, c. 1905 (cat. 57)

Even the least sentimental paintings of children have their charm and they were subjects in over 300 of the artist’s 734 cataloged paintings. But even here, she manages to avoid the traditional portrayals and brings us the child as a personality with a vivid inner world. “Creating free children will be the most distinguished task of this century,” (Rainer Maria Rilke, 1902) expressed the dominant sentiment of the time. Yet there is an undeniable sweetness when the children are paired with other children, mothers or an animal. The reality of a peasant’s life is hardship and work, little time for the niceties of raising and enjoying one’s children. It was quite usual, especially in large families, for the older siblings to raise the younger. This fact means that in studying children as they really were, which the artist did fastidiously, one comes away understanding that there would be a strong bond and solidarity between siblings and between children and animals in the absence of adult affection. Modersohn-Becker effectively illustrates this phenomenon in her paintings.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Kneeling and Standing Girls Nude, Poppies in the Background II,  1906 (cat. 73)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Kneeling and Standing Girls Nude, Poppies in the Background II, 1906 (cat. 73)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Girl in a Birch Forest with a Cat, 1904 (cat. 48)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Girl in a Birch Forest with a Cat, 1904 (cat. 48)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Girl with Rabbit in Her Arms, 1905 (cat. 58)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Girl with Rabbit in Her Arms, 1905 (cat. 58)

During this period, the “cult of the child” was in its heyday and images were usually idyllic and bereft of character. The portrayal of nude children were either produced as a matter of course or to exemplify ideals of purity or innocence. An examination of Modersohn-Becker’s paintings of children show them naked or wearing the most plain and indistinct clothing. This was her way of washing out any distracting cultural accoutrements and allowing the child to express the artist’s symbolic intent more clearly. Stripped of class and nationality, these images express universal ideas that can have an enduring impact on the art world, despite the artist’s short career.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Kneeling Girl Nude with a Stork, 1906/07 (cat. 87)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Kneeling Girl Nude with a Stork, 1906/07 (cat. 87)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Two Girls in White and Blue Dresses, May/June 1906 (cat. 72)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Two Girls in White and Blue Dresses, May/June 1906 (cat. 72)

There was plenty of tension in her marriage with Otto Modersohn. Ironically, with her focus on the mystery of the female body, she failed to satisfy her own desire for children. In addition, Otto himself was just as baffled as his colleagues by Paula’s artistic ideas and was openly critical of her work. During a trial separation, Modersohn-Becker visited Paris for the fourth and final time in1906. This was a time when she really came into her own and expressed some of her most ecstatic feelings about what she was accomplishing. She returned to Worpswede one last time to try once more to have a child. This time she was successful and Mathilde was born in late 1907. Shortly thereafter Paula complained about pain in her legs which was misdiagnosed and she died from an embolism. Most of the work she did in seclusion only became known to her closest friends upon inspection of her estate. Heinrich Vogeler was one of the first and made an effort to document the artist’s output and Rainer Maria Rilke, one of her closest confidants, wrote a requiem for his cherished friend.

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Elsbeth among Fire Lilies, 1907 (cat. 91)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Elsbeth among Fire Lilies, 1907 (cat. 91)

Many women artists have found kinship in this pioneer of feminine artistic expression. Interviews with Rineke Dijkstra and Chantal Joffe bring out many of the parallels and I believe history will bear out the long-term significance of the work of Paula Modersohn-Becker.

Paula Becker - Standing Girl Nude,Turned Left, c. 1898 (cat. 109)

Paula Becker – Standing Girl Nude,Turned Left, c. 1898 (cat. 109)

Paula Modersohn-Becker - Seated Girl Nude, Turned to the Right, 1903 (cat. 35)

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Seated Girl Nude, Turned to the Right, 1903 (cat. 35)

This artist came to my attention from an associate who visited the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark during their exhibit of the artist (December 2104–April 2015). Another major exhibition is scheduled for the Spring of 2016 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The information for this post is gleaned almost exclusively from the museum’s excellent catalog which can be ordered through artbook.com. Unfortunately, I am told that the museum itself is currently out of stock. Hopefully, there will be a resurgence in interest in this artist and they will see fit to commission a reprint.

Below is a list of the excellent essays and interviews (in English) contained in the catalog:

  • Venus of Worpswede, Tine Colstrup, Curator
  • The great simplicity of form: Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Art in Modernism, Uwe M. Schneede
  • Paula Modersohn-Becker—Pioneer of Modernism: Her life and work as reflected in her self-portraits, Rainer Stamm
  • “It’s good because it’s serious. And peculiar”: An interview with the German painter Daniel Richter, Tine Colstrup
  • Paula Modersohn-Becker: Meaning of Flowers and Fruits, Gisela Götte
  • The cradled cat: Children and Animals in Works by Paula Modersohn-Becker, Verena Borgmann
  • Body of Evidence: Modersohn-Becker’s Reclining Mother-and-Child Nude, Diane Radycki
  • Paula-Modersohn-Beckers Still Lifes: Construction and Poetry, Anne Buschoff
  • “The complexity of every single human being”: Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra on Paula Modersohn-Becker, Hans den Hartog Jager
  • Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Drawings: Absolutely Modern in the Tradition, Anne Röver-Kann
  • “A radical way of seeing”: An interview with the British painter Chantal Joffe, Greta Kühnast
  • Biography, Wolfgang Werner

Potent Personalities: Sally Mann

Mann’s challenging images of childhood and, by extension, motherhood have become ubiquitous. This post has been long in coming because of the nagging question: How will I ever do justice to this artist’s work? Finally, the release of Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, published by Little, Brown and Co., this May forced my hand and convinced me that I could procrastinate no further. The book is the kind of self-examination that would have made Socrates proud and an enviable genealogical legacy to her entire family.

Sally Mann (neé Munger) was born in 1951 in Rockbridge County, Virginia. Her father, a family physician from an established Texan family, was educated in the North where he met Sally’s mother. This kind of heritage would almost inevitably make Sally a fish out of water in social circles but impress upon her an appreciation for the land itself. She took a serious interest in photography when at The Putney School in Vermont which her two brothers had attended before her. Her father introduced her to the arts and she has fond memories of several books he shared with her. One was The Family of Man (1955) and on only her second roll of film, she shot her first nudes in 1969, inspired by Wynn Bullock’s Child in Forest. For the most part, Sally bares all in her book, but out of respect for one of her subjects who now has a prominent position in a major corporation, she did not reproduce it.

Wynn Bullock - Child in Forest (1951)

Wynn Bullock – Child in Forest (1951)

Two films were produced about Sally, both directed by Steven Cantor. The first, Blood Ties: The Life and Work of Sally Mann (1994), was shot and produced during the furor over the exhibitions of her child nudes and the second, What Remains (2005), gives a much more comprehensive picture of her inspirations and body of work. When I personally learned of the artist’s work, I was naturally impressed by the raw and pristine imagery, but after seeing these films, I admit to falling in love with the humanity of this imaginative and tortured soul. We begin to get an insight into Sally’s attitude about nudity by the fact that in her first two years of life, she obstinately refused to wear clothes. In fact, the assumption that nudity was an integral part of everyday childhood caused her to overstate in interviews the number of photos that existed of her in a state of undress. After a careful review, she was compelled to amend the record. Some of the photographs of young Sally reveal some of the striking characteristics to be seen later in her own children.

Steven Cantor - What Remains (2005) (1)

Steven Cantor – What Remains (2005) (1)

After high school, she opted to attend Bennington College, deciding that she was not cut out for one of the more urban schools. She met Larry Mann during a Christmas visit home in 1969 and they were married six months later. During their early years together, they traveled throughout Europe on a thin shoestring budget, much to the consternation of Larry’s socially ambitious parents. And even after visiting some of the most beautiful places in Europe, the couple felt nothing held a candle to Rockbridge County so they moved there for good in 1973. Sally shares a rich tapestry of family history including how her father first bought the land and how she later bought out her brothers’ shares so that it could become the Mann estate.

It seems remarkable in retrospect, but at first, Sally did not consider her children suitable subjects for art photography. She did the usual photos that parents are expected to make, but they were snapshots and not done with an artist’s eye. Sally has always respected the presence of serendipity in the creative process and in 1985, one of her biggest took place. Emmett, Sally’s eldest child, was born in 1980 and then Jessie came in 1981. With the birth of Virginia, she fancied that she should capture the event on film. Unfortunately, the exposure time needed to compensate for the poor lighting meant that Virginia’s entry into the world was a blur—”a dud”. A few months later, Sally took what she considered her first good family picture, Damaged Child, of Jessie’s swollen face from insect bites. She got the idea from the title of a Dorothea Lange photo Damaged Child, Shacktown,Elm Grove, Oklahoma (1936). As she continued her efforts in this vein, she began to realize that she was blessed with children of potent character. Even so, none of this would have materialized without an attitude shift. It is perhaps within the most mundane material that we find the sublime.

Sally Mann - Damaged Child (1984)

Sally Mann – Damaged Child (1984)

Sally’s family photographs are a mixture of spontaneity and deliberate composition. For example, here we can see her directing Virginia to get one of her shots.

Steven Cantor - Blood Ties (1994) (1)

Steven Cantor – Blood Ties (1994) (1)

Sally Mann - At Warm Springs (1991)

Sally Mann – At Warm Springs (1991)

On the other hand, when she sees something she just has to capture she asks the child to hold still until she can get her camera set up. These are precarious times because as time passes, some of the spontaneity is lost and the strain of holding the pose adds to the intensity of the posture and facial expression. In one of Sally’s favorite images, she had the camera nearby and was able to shoot The Perfect Tomato. The strange title was the product of haste; the tomatoes were the only thing in focus in the shot. The lens flare was a happy accident that gave the subject an angelic quality. In Blood Ties, Jessie described her memory of how it happened.

Steven Cantor - Blood Ties (1994) (2)

Steven Cantor – Blood Ties (1994) (2)

Sally Mann - The Perfect Tomato (1990)

Sally Mann – The Perfect Tomato (1990)

In 2000, Melissa Harris interviewed Jessie Mann who was preparing for her freshman year in college. Among other things, she spoke about the nature of her relationship with her mother.

When we were taking pictures, it created a relationship with Mom that’s very different from other people’s relationships—much more powerful…Because there already is a very powerful bond, then add to that the bond between artist and subject…On top of being our mother, she became a whole lot more. So that made our relationship stronger, but of course more complicated. -Jessie Mann, 2000 (Aperture No. 162, Winter 2001)

The combination of an artist’s eye and a desire to get the image just right created a kind of ambivalence within the family. On the one hand, it is flattering to get so much attention, but getting the image right sometimes meant a seemingly interminable effort. In the case of the image The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude, 1987, when she first saw Emmett in the water, she did the usual and asked him to hold still. Shot after shot did not come out to Sally’s satisfaction and over the next 7 or 8 days, Emmett patiently followed his mother’s instructions until everything was right: the light, the reflection in the water, the eye level, Emmett’s position in the water, Emmett’s position in the frame and the right pose and facial expression. The title, which later came to have a double meaning, was meant to express the exasperation after such an ordeal. Several versions were reprinted in Hold Still to illustrate this process.

For the most part, Larry and the kids were good sports and for that reason, Sally has to give equal credit to her subjects for the successful collaboration. But sometimes, as Emmett remarked, whenever one of them noticed that look in their mother’s eyes—when she suddenly “saw” a picture—if one was not in the mood for another photo session, one had better make himself scarce. Or if there was no way out of it, the kids could torment their mother in more subtle ways. The top shot of all three kids appeared on the cover of Immediate Family, but the bottom illustrates one of the variations where the girls have softer facial expressions. Emmett confessed later that during this shoot, he was moving his body ever so slightly forward and back to keep his mother from getting the perfect focus.

Sally Mann - Emmett, Jessie and Virginia (1989) (and variant)

Sally Mann – Emmett, Jessie and Virginia (1989) (and variant)

Despite these battles of will, the family members recognize that Sally brings out something special in the seemingly ordinary.

…She sees the world in images. -Larry Mann (What Remains, 2005)

It’s almost like she sees something happening and she just thinks to herself, “I know that this is special—what I’m seeing right here.” -Emmett Mann (What Remains, 2005)

When you’re around an artist all the time, you’re always reminded of what’s beautiful and what’s special, and you can’t forget it. -Jessie Mann (Aperture, No. 162, Winter 2001)

I think what makes Mom different is that she can look at the same object that I would consider pretty commonplace and ordinary, but she’ll make a print of it and suddenly I’ll see the beauty of it. -Virginia Mann (What Remains, 2005)

When Immediate Family was published in 1992, Sally assumed it would be greeted with moderate acclaim just like her previous work, At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women (1988).

Sally Mann - At Twelve (c1984)

Sally Mann – At Twelve (c1984)

The family was not prepared for the explosive sales and the notoriety that came. Listening to the detractors, one might come away with the impression that Sally published the work without regard to the feelings and reputations of her family, but this was far from the truth. The children were consulted about their favorites and which images they objected to. Never was nudity at issue and Larry mediated to make sure the children were not just trying to please their mother. For example, Emmett vetoed an image (Emmett Asleep, 1985) because, at the time, he was pretending to be Bugs Bunny and was wearing white stockings on his arms. Given his age, he was concerned about looking like a dork. Another candid image was of Virginia entitled Pissing in the Wind. Now that they are grown up, they can appreciate these images for what they are, candid moments of family life and these two examples were reprinted in Hold Still. Sometimes Sally censored herself as in The Bent Ear. With Jessie’s thin figure and the strain of waiting for the camera to be set up, Sally thought the picture made her look like a torture victim and was simply too painful to look at.

Sally Mann - The Bent Ear (1989)

Sally Mann – The Bent Ear (1989)

When the letters came in, Sally was surprised at the range of comments. In her characteristic fastidiousness, she sorted them into For, Against and What the Fuck? Although a sense of humor was undoubtedly helpful, the one ray of light was that more than half the letters were positive. It is tempting for visually literate people to write off any negative comments as narrow-minded and not worthy of acknowledgment. Whatever the interpretation, what was happening was a kind of culture clash. Nudity seems to be a natural mode of expression for the liberal-minded proponents of counterculture; and just as there are clothing-optional parks and beaches, there are bound to be many households that observe this custom as well.

The real breakthrough in Hold Still is that Sally makes the context of the land paramount in the interpretation of the pictures. Within this context, these images make perfect sense and without it, they seem bizarre at first glance. The land that the Manns owned was a secluded plot surrounded, unusually, on three sides by the Maury River. Even in the most difficult of times, the family felt safe there away from the madness and ridicule of society—without radios, without television and without computers.

How natural was it in that situation, to allow our children to run naked? Or, put another way, how bizarre would it have been to insist on bathing suits for their river play, which began after breakfast and often continued long after dark, when all three would would dive like sleek otters for glow sticks thrown in the pool under the still-warm cliffs? -Sally Mann (Hold Still, 2015)

For the most part, Sally would avoid looking at the almost endless barrage of reviews. She was an artist, after all, and would not want her art to be tainted by the influx of public opinion. But occasionally, something would come across her radar and one review in particular was devastating in its thoughtlessness and self-righteousness. It was an editorial by Raymond Sokolov, a food critic of all things, published in the Wall Street Journal in February 1991. Ostensibly about government funding of the arts, it took the opportunity to ridicule and mutilate an image published on the cover of the Fall 1990 issue (No. 121) of Aperture. Virginia happened to see it and was very upset about being “crossed out”. For a time, she became extremely self-conscious about her body and even wanted to wear shorts and a shirt in the bathtub the following night. In an attempt at a kind of psychotherapy, a photo shoot was conducted to make a light-hearted mockery of the censorship.

Virginia at 4 (1989) ; Sokolov Article, Wall Street Journal (1991); Virginia's Letter to the Editor (1991)

Virginia at 4 (1989) ; Sokolov Article, Wall Street Journal (1991); Virginia’s Letter to the Editor (1991)

Sally Mann - (Untitled) (1991)

Sally Mann – (Untitled) (1991)

To Sally, her family photographs were partly therapeutic. She would take every mishap and exaggerate it into a worst-case scenario to help alleviate her own anxieties about motherhood and as a kind of sympathetic magic to prevent the worst from actually happening. Whether this actually worked is a matter of perspective. Both Jessie and Emmett are only alive today because of stokes of good fortune, Jessie having been born premature and in guarded condition for an extended period and Emmett surviving a car impact that ought to have killed him.

Sally Mann - Jessie's Cut (1985)

Sally Mann – Jessie’s Cut (1985)

As statistics will bear out, whenever there is a large group of people, a tiny percent are bound to be weirdos. Two particular individuals stand out in Sally’s memory and their tales are told in the book. A few years into their marriage, Larry’s mother, who lived in Connecticut, murdered her husband and then killed herself. Because the couple was respected in the community, the police did not really conduct a full investigation and quickly closed the case. Sally fancied she’d investigate further on her own and called the police to request a copy of the case file. Strangely, the police had the file readily at hand. The reason was that they were receiving strange letters from someone in Richmond with fanciful suggestions of foul play. It turned out to be the mother of a disgruntled artist, envious of Sally’s fame. The other was a man who became love-sick for the Mann children. He would track down family members, neighbors and institutions for any scrap of information about them such as birth certificates, school events and grades. The FBI became involved but informed the family that since this man did not make any threats and had not trespassed onto the property, nothing could be done. The family decided not to go public with this information until now based on the notion that they should not dignify the efforts of this man. Ironically, in their diligence to keep a wary eye out, this man came up in family conversations more often than blood kin. In a sense, he got his most fervent wish as his specter was a constant presence in the house.

Perhaps the most hurtful type of negative criticism was that Sally was a bad mother. This put her in an intractable position as no mother is perfect, but with the public scrutiny, every little thing would be interpreted as some shortcoming. As mentioned before, mother and children are all strong-willed people and there were the usual conflicts as is bound to happen in any family. Sally was apparently not physically affectionate with her children and so there are signs that they sought other forms of comfort. Jessie, for example, developed a drinking problem which she has been managing. After reflection, the children now recognize that their mother expressed her love through her art and gifted them with a sense of their beauty. For this reason, each of the children are consistently very protective of their mother and defend her as necessary. And Sally has her regrets as well, like the time Jessie refused to eat her flounder and was made to sit there all night until she finished it.

Sally Mann - (Untitled) (c1986)

Sally Mann – (Untitled) (c1986)

Fame is a two-edged sword, but it would be unfair to blame its negative effect on an artist who could never have anticipated it. She reasonably assumed that quality work would eventually get recognized by cultured people—but slowly. Sally’s notoriety sometimes interfered with schoolyard relationships because other kids would tease them or other parents objected to their mother’s work. With this kind of fame, what room is there for the children to find their own place in the world? Once Emmett and Jessie were in college, they started talking to each other about their childhood in a kind of exclusive support group; who else would understand their experiences? And should they parlay their mother’s fame to their own benefit? Another effect of all this attention is that one can get used to it. In the film What Remains, Jessie talks about being a kind of modeling junkie. Whenever someone wanted to do a photo shoot of her, she just couldn’t say no. On the other hand, Virginia, being much younger, had a slightly different perspective, hoping simply to fit in and get on with her life.

All the while, in the background of all this drama, was the land. One can see Sally’s interest in the family photographs wane as the children became smaller and smaller in the background of these timeless landscapes.

Sally Mann - Sempervirens "Stricta" (1995)

Sally Mann – Sempervirens “Stricta” (1995)

A theme that permeates Sally’s retrospective is death. She learned that her father collected art that featured portrayals of death and analyzing Southern culture, Sally feels there is always an undercurrent of death, as though it were a familiar companion. This is an understandable reflection of all the blood shed on battlefields and the brutal use of Africans and their descendants in the building of the South.

There were two events in Sally’s life that precipitated two of her projects. The first was the death of one of her beloved greyhounds, Eva. She could not bear to bury her and so, over time, she studied her pet’s decomposing remains. Even the smallest fragment of bone seemed to evoke memories of Eva. She became fascinated about what happens to bodies when they decay and was given permission to photograph bodies at a facility where they study decaying bodies in the open. The results of her work appeared in the book, What Remains (2003). The other event was the killing of an escaped convict on the family compound. When the authorities finally cleared out, she stared at that place contemplating the dichotomy of death and renewal. While the land indiscriminately recycles, the memories of death linger in the writings and minds of human beings. This prompted a visit to the great battlefields of the South to capture this sentiment on film, culminating in the book Deep South (2005). And as if there were not already enough presence of decay in Sally’s life, Larry was diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy in which the muscles waste away. Fortunately, Larry had a well-developed physique to start with so it would take longer for the condition to be debilitating. For most men, this kind of indignity would cause him to hide his disease, but instead Larry has generously allowed Sally to photograph him and his condition as time passes in a project calls ‘Proud Flesh’.

Another expression of Sally’s fascination with the past is that she processes her own negatives and has practiced a number of antiquarian techniques. She likes the feel of handling the materials, much as Julia Margaret Cameron did. Also like Cameron, she welcomes the serendipitous flaws that are rejected in a professional process: dust getting on the plate or laminate peeling on the negative in just the right place. Using older techniques also means longer exposure times and in her series, ‘Faces’, she asked her grown up children to hold still for various 3-minute exposures. The flaw in this image gives the impression of soapy tears.

Sally Mann - Faces No. 10 (2004)

Sally Mann – Faces No. 10 (2004)

A manifestation of the superficiality of society is that if a gallery can’t make money on art, they aren’t interested. Sally was disheartened that no New York gallery would exhibit ‘Faces’ and she later found an excellent venue in Washington DC which made it possible for friends and neighbors to view it. This project also became a kind of personal discipline. Sally admits to being a nervous and frenetic person by nature and so has challenged herself to produce self-portraits that require her to hold still for 6 minutes while she exposes the plate.  This development is also a result of the fact that her children are no longer on hand to model

Steven Cantor - What Remains (2005) (2)

Steven Cantor – What Remains (2005) (2)

Having both Southern and Yankee blood, Sally was exposed to the best and worst of both cultures. She embraced the philosophy behind the Civil Rights movement, but she herself was raised by a black woman she knew as Gee-Gee. The day-to-day management of the household was done by this woman and she made sure Sally was fed, dressed and ready for school. Sally’s contemplation of the role of black people in the South made her wonder about this alien lifestyle and upbringing—so utterly different from her own. In an effort to explore this “otherness”, she recently embarked on a project to photograph the bodies of black men. To bring out the truth in her subjects, she keeps things as anonymous as possible. She does not ask them about their lives and she does not share any particulars about herself except what she requires of them. After about an hour, they part company.

From time to time, Sally—sometimes with the kids—would review the family photographs. She shares an interesting theory about the interplay of memory and photography. Not really remembering her own childhood, she has relied on photographs and other artifacts to reveal her own past. It is as though the ability to record things photographically diminishes our capacity to remember. Historians have noted something similar after the invention of mechanical printing and the development of popular literacy centuries ago. In her Aperture interview, Jessie expressed a sense of disembodiment about her old pictures, a feeling that they are not really of her. This makes some sense since we are not the same people we were as children and here the images are not just family snapshots, but partly constructions from their mother’s imagination. An anecdote about Jessie takes place when she was dressing for an exhibition of the the family pictures. She realized that a sleeveless top she was considering would expose her chest if she raised her arms and so she rejected the garment. A friend remarked how odd it was that she should be concerned since there would be numerous photos showing her chest at the show. Then Jessie responded, “Yes, but that is not my chest. Those are photographs.” Children can indeed distinguish between the production of an image and the real thing.

Sally Mann - White Skates (1990)

Sally Mann – White Skates (1990)

Sally Mann - Holding the Weasel (1989)

Sally Mann – Holding the Weasel (1989)

Many today might feel that Sally Mann and her family have been vindicated. They rode the rough waters of celebrity and controversy, the adult children continue to make their way in life and Sally is still pursuing her art. But one unrecognized effect of the thoughtless rhetoric has been that many good family photos have still not reached the public. This subject was discussed in What Remains, but whenever the family mulled over the possibility of another book or exhibition, there was the inevitability of answering the same tiresome questions and they became discouraged. Perhaps someday we will see them when our society respects real artists and galleries regard them as more than just an opportunity to make money.

A favorite image of mine is Steven Cantor’s parting shot in Blood Ties. In it, Virginia is saying that she wishes her mother would take a picture of her right now.

Steven Cantor - Blood Ties (1994) (3)

Steven Cantor – Blood Ties (1994) (3)

Thank you Virginia, Jessie, Emmett, Larry and Sally for your courage, generosity and irrepressible human spirit.  -Ron

Sally Mann photography (official site): some of the unseen family photographs may be coming to light here.

Jessie Mann (official site)

Pigtails posted a this delightfully irreverent image a while back.

An excellent collection of reproductions of Sally Mann’s work were published in a Christie’s catalog for an auction held on October 7, 2009 and copies have been sold on the secondary market.

I have done my best to give a good overview of this artist, with an emphasis on the children, but Mann’s work is such a linchpin to many issues regarding art, child rearing, nudity, psychology, social justice, commerce and privacy that these will have to be discussed in a supplement post later.

[160108] A colleague has informed me of a scholarly article about the Mann photographs entitled “Public/Private Tensions in the Photography of Sally Mann” by Sarah Parsons.  It is worth a look for anyone interested in the work of this artist and how it has affected the family dynamic. -Ron

Truth in Beauty: Georges Guérard

It seems the greatest discoveries are always accidents. I was sharing the acquisition of a new sculpture with Peter Dominic and he said it reminded him of another sculptor and sent me an image. He was given permission to photograph the sculptures at an exhibit by La Fondation Taylor in Paris in April 1992. He shared many of his slides and forwarded whatever reviews he could find on the artist, Georges Guérard. Thanks also go to Christian for translating the text and thus saving me a lot of time.

Guérard (1909–1990) was born in Saint-Denis, France. He was the youngest of six children and orphaned while he was only 9 years old. His life after that reads like a Dickensian novel: first working hard labor in a trading house for some people in Groslay, near Montmorency and then to an orphanage, where he received blows more consistently than food. He was finally given a home by his elder brother, Robert, who was married and a roofer by trade in Le Havre. But he still had to earn his way at the tender age of 13. Unskilled at masonry, he did numerous odd jobs and in his few hours of rest, he taught himself sculpting, using his pocket knife to carve small figures in wood, chalk, barely-baked clay or other materials encountered on work sites during the day.

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (1)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (1)

*The image above and number 9 below are of a girl named Christine.  The model recently came forward to identify herself and to attempt to contact the artist’s son.

Another uncle Georges, also living in Le Havre, took notice of these little works and enrolled him in drawing and modeling courses at the School of Fine Arts in Le Havre. Showing promise, he studied under the tutelage of a Professor Doisy, a medal maker, and lessons took place every evening from 6pm to 10pm. But the next morning, he would still have to get up early and go to work to earn his keep. At age 17, Doisy decided to enter some of Guérard’s little medallions at the great Paris Salon of 1926 where he received an honorable mention. This distinction and his consistent beautiful work earned him a scholarship in 1927 and a membership to a society of French artists. Later that year, he took the entrance examination for the National School of Fine Arts in Paris and placed first, introducing him to the workshop of a renowned master, Jean Boucher.

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (2)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (2)

Over the years, he gained acclaim with a number of prestigious awards but had his share of failures as well. Not conforming to the fashions of his time, he made it his express purpose to bring out the essential qualities of clarity and balance, whether in clay, stone or cast bronze. The best examples of this are his busts and portraits of children which capture the crisp character and emotion of each subject with an almost Hellenistic purity. He managed to make the best of his knowledge of tradition without being locked into any particular convention. He showed a true appreciation for children, not just as subjects for his art, but also as recipients of his charming visions in the form of bas-reliefs he produced for school groups.

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (3)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (3)

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (4)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (4)

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (5)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (5)

Having had such a rough life himself, one might imagine that he demanded that his subjects tolerate the rigors of modeling without complaint. However, Guérard’s son, who was sometimes present at the 1992 retrospective, liked to share the tale of how his mother would keep the children entertained with stories while his father worked.

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (6)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (6)

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (7)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (7)

In his later years, he could be found dressed in a grey overall, hiding from the noisy stir of society outside, in an environment propitious for reflection. There he could create without considerations of being appreciated by the mass media, the scourge of his time—and ours.

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (8)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (8)

Georges Guérard - (Title Unknown) (9)

Georges Guérard – (Title Unknown) (9)

Thanks go also to Roger B. Baron, whose personal account of a visit in 1981 gave us a real insight into the man.

A Kinder, Gentler Nation? Chris Madaio Revisited

When I wrote my previous post on this artist, I simply took information from the book Il Ritratto Giovanile. When I look beyond the beautiful images and read something about the artist, I usually feel a spiritual connection and the work begins to have a deeper meaning for me. In this case, my own memories of spending time with various families while stationed in Germany gave me some context to understand Chris Madaio’s artistic experiences. After completing that last article, I decided on a whim to try to contact the artist through the internet. I found a strange news item about a Chris Madaio in Alabama being arrested for failure to register as a sex offender. Further digging revealed this was indeed the same artist I had just covered and I could not help wondering, “How could someone who produces work with such sensitivity be capable of such a crime?” I have wisely learned to be skeptical of almost anything in the media and given the grave paranoia about people who work with children, especially in the South, I decided to uncover the facts. I managed to reach him to get his side of the story and give the readers a clearer understanding of his art.

Chris Madaio - Luciano - Napoli (1992)

Chris Madaio – Luciano – Napoli (1992)

Chris Madaio was born in May 1947 in the Bronx, NY and took an early interest in photography. By age 10, he owned his first camera–taking the requisite photos of landscapes, architecture and people. He was also an avid collector of cameras and got his first collectible at age 16—a 35mm Leica IIIf—continuing to hone his craft while working on the high school yearbook. After graduating, he went to Penn State and earned a degree in Fuel Science in 1969 before enlisting in the U.S. Navy. His tour of duty offered him his first chance to live overseas and he was stationed in Gaeta near Naples in Italy, the homeport of the 6th Fleet flagship. Exploring on his time off and rarely without his camera, he caught the attention of the local people, fast making friends and eagerly learning the language. He began to recognize his skill as a teacher after first successfully coaching the kid’s basketball team then later teaching English and science to the young people there.

Digital cameras are ubiquitous and easy to use now, but at that time, the practice of street photography was still something of a novelty and Madaio made one of his first discoveries: young people love to have their pictures taken. Over time, he realized that having someone take one’s picture is a form of validation that can boost self-esteem. The following comes from a 1976 issue of the Penn Stater:

Most serious amateur photographers don’t venture beyond scenics, muscular sports heroes or glamorous models. It’s the small, unnoticed people and things that also require our attention if we are to go beyond the ordinary and mundane … I feel that everyone has a need to be recognized. During that instant when the shutter is snapped, the subject is important to one other person in this world—important enough to have his or her picture taken.

Chris Madaio - Emanuela (1993)

Chris Madaio – Emanuela (1993)

After completing his tour on active duty, Madaio returned to the U.S. with a strong attachment to this beautiful place. He went back to Italy in 1972 to use his GI Bill and take additional courses in engineering while maintaining his connection to the people and place. Recognized and appreciated for his work, he was published in Long Island Newsday in 1973 and then in the Penn Stater magazine in 1976, the same year he held his first photo show at La Nave Caiattas in Gaeta during a vacation. Shortly thereafter, he had his first major exhibition at Penn State and 10 other Pennsylvania commonwealth campuses. He continued his work as a part-time professional by covering gymnastics, swim and softball teams and capturing important milestones of the adults and youngsters in Maryland and Pennsylvania. His photography also included travel, industrial, wedding and architectural subjects.

Chris Madaio - Maria (1994)

Chris Madaio – Maria (1994)

Because of his skill in engineering, he had the opportunity to travel throughout the world on one project or another working for Bechtel Corporation and a few other companies. All the while, he made a point of returning to Gaeta every few years to spend time with his friends. In 1999, he became an avid biker and in 2001 trekked from Great Yarmough, UK to Gaeta on a Triumph Trident motorcycle—a 1600 mile journey.

Chris Madaio - Angelica (1994); (2002)

Chris Madaio – Angelica (1994); (2002)

After leaving samples of his work in a bookstore in Amsterdam, Madaio caught the attention of Ophelia Editions and was offered his first chance to publish. The result was Il Ritratto Giovanile (Portraits of Youth) in 1996. As a fledgling company, Ophelia Editions had a necessarily narrow focus, hoping to establish itself in a wider market and that has given most people—at least those who don’t really know him—the wrong impression about the artist’s scope and interest. There were plans for another book, Lo Scugnizzo, covering his work with street boys in southern Italy until Ophelia Editions shut down. In retrospect, the failure to publish the second book may have been a blessing. Scugnizzo translates as “street urchin” and in the English-speaking world, that has connotations of poverty but also of charm due to Charles Dickens’ humanistic portrayals. In Italy, however, the expression has a more pejorative meaning and having his now grown-up subjects—especially those who were not really street kids—associated with that term would belie the artist’s respect for the people whom he still regards as friends.

Chris Madaio - Giovanni (1974)

Chris Madaio – Giovanni (1974)

One of Madaio’s most vivid memories is of a boy who might more properly be called a scugnizzo:

I was hiking/backpacking through Tarragona Spain, on leave from the U.S. Navy (I did that often). I believe it was 1970 and I was 23 years old … I slept in an open meadow that night. When I got up the next morning, Francisco was hanging around. He told me he lived in a trash dump nearby (presumably with his parents), and he had a horse. I assume he told me the latter because it was painfully obvious how poor he was, so I guess that was his way of saying he had something of value. Then we split up and went our separate ways.

This picture appeared in Newsday and the Penn Stater.

Chris Madaio - Francisco sin Caballo - Tarragona (1970)

Chris Madaio – Francisco sin Caballo – Tarragona (1970)

After the publication of Ritratto, another major show was held in Gaeta—promoted by the local community—and another at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland shortly thereafter.

Chris Madaio - Martina

Chris Madaio – Martina (1999)

Despite his earlier success, by 2003, Madaio had largely curtailed his photography of young people as he noticed a decline in demand and less respect from his former clients and friends about the focus of his work. He attributes this to the rising hysteria taking place in the U.S. that casts a suspicious eye on anyone doing substantial work with youth.

Keep in mind that one of the joys of taking pictures of children is when they actually act like kids and not little adults. Sometimes kids act goofy. It may not be artistic, but the spontaneity is enjoyable and reflective of my attitudes toward childhood … Anything can happen with kids and usually does. This spontaneity can manifest itself either with a street boy skinny-dipping in a public fountain in Italy or little girls cutting up in gymnastics class.

Chris Madaio - Frederick Gymnastics Club (1993)

Chris Madaio – Frederick Gymnastics Club (1993)

Accompanying the decline in photographic work came a stressful period during his mother’s precarious health. These conditions contributed to what could only be called an addiction to pornography. Despite these setbacks, he continued to get good engineering jobs, the latest in Alabama in 2002 and he moved there. In 2004, he brought in his computer for repair and was reported to the authorities for his images, many which had been exhibited or published. In October of that year, FBI agents from the Huntsville office visited his home without a warrant and inquired about those photos. Madaio did his best to cooperate and turned over his two computers, fully aware that adult pornography would be found and he gave them some of his professional photography as well. He was surprised when over a year later an indictment was handed down from the federal authorities accusing him of receiving child pornography. Madaio had cooperated confident that no such images were present on his computer—only legitimate adult pornography. It appears the prosecutors used his browsing history to help secure the indictment and then stretched the definition of “child” to bolster their case. He was released on pre-trial bond at a January 2006 arraignment. He was not savvy to the ways probation officers gather evidence, so after winning a gun in a company raffle (he is a certified expert marksman), he made sure it was turned in to comply with the probation conditions. They say no good deed goes unpunished and that gun was then used to justify incarcerating him until his conviction on child pornography charges in June 2006. He served 48 of the 60 month minimum sentence in a federal prison. Little did he know his mother would pass away during this time and he never had the chance to see her again.

Regarding the professional photographs that were still being held by the authorities, Madaio filed a civil action under the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 (PPA)¹. However, unable to get any legal assistance from the local or national chapters of the ACLU²—who seemed more concerned about their political image than justice—the petition was dismissed in 2010 on a technicality. While in prison, he taught literacy and GED courses to prisoners and in 2008 began to take paralegal courses so he could defend himself and his fellow inmates more effectively. After his release in early 2010, he was instructed to return to Alabama despite no longer having any ties there—neither a job nor property. Thus began a 3-year fight to convince the U.S. Probation Office to allow him to return to his native New York where his handicapped sister was living.  In the mean time, he had to comply with state laws regarding sex offender registration and in the heat of legal negotiations, he momentarily forgot about a new Alabama law that required him to register quarterly. When he did present himself to register, he was arrested and searched, this time by the local Sheriff’s Office. Many items were seized including those that had been returned by the federal authorities in 2010. To complicate matters, a one-time associate of his shortly thereafter had a storage unit raided where child pornography was found and was used as a basis for additional charges issued in December 2012. He was released on bond that same month and a month after that was released from the federal probation restrictions. But he still faces a possible second trial on the state’s charges this February.

Madaio is not claiming to be completely blameless and in a properly functioning justice system, he knows he should pay some kind of penalty for his hapless browsing in 2004. But the tragedy is that because of the stigma of this kind of conviction, he cannot get a fair hearing or a fair sentence and to make matters worse, there is a culture of vigilantism in the South that prevents him from moving on and reintegrating into society. Our society would rather punish than treat a person’s problem and because of these restrictions, he has not held a steady engineering job for more than four years. On the brighter side, most of his own photographs were returned after the original seizure and are therefore still available to us. He recognizes that there are fewer years ahead of him than behind and is making a concerted effort to establish a noble and compassionate legacy.

Chris Madaio - Vista da San Francesco (1986)

Chris Madaio – Vista da San Francesco (1986)

Legal battles cost money even if one is representing oneself, so any assistance in scraping together some funds would be very much appreciated. To offer your support, order prints or hire his legal services, you can visit his website here.

In reviewing the background material for this article, I realized that the artist’s experiences are a treasure trove of legal and political advice. It would be naive for the layman to imagine that his legal system is just and that he would have nothing to worry about if he were accused unfairly. Therefore, I intend to write an article that will make use of this material and shine a light on our current political situation, its realities and offer some vital practical advice. -Ron

Footnotes:

‭1. The Privacy Protection Act of‭ ‬1980‭ [‬42‭ ‬USC‭ §‬2000aa‭]‬,‭ ‬was enacted into law by Congress to limit searches for materials held by persons involved in First Amendment activities who are themselves not suspected of participating in the criminal activity for which the materials are sought. This is meant to discourage law enforcement officers from targeting publishers simply because they incidentally gathered evidence of a crime.

2. The American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) stated mission is “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”  The Free Speech Coalition was also approached to no avail.

Madaio’s tumblr account