Study for History of Meharry Medical College

This work is William Edouard Scott’s polished study for a mural painting offering a composite visual history of Meharry Medical College, in Nashville, Tennessee. The central image is a group portrait of the Meharry brothers, whose modest bequest to the Methodist Church established a school “for the training of Negro youth in medicine” in 1876. The five white men stand before a desk bearing a document that references the Freedman’s Aid Society, founded during the Civil War to create schools for former slaves, and the year 1866, when Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment granting them citizenship. Progressing from the bottom to the top of the composition are other vignettes of the institution’s history. At the lower right Scott shows the incident that inspired the Meharrys’ gift, when a poor black family risked their liberty to aid the young Samuel Meharry, an Ohio farmer then traveling through Kentucky. At the upper left, the school’s founding president, a Northerner, and first professor, a Southerner, together instruct the first students; above, Dr. John James Mullowney lectures to a class in 1921, the year he assumed the presidency of Meharry; and crowning the composition is a view of Meharry’s new building complex in North Nashville, completed in 1931. In interpreting Meharry’s history as an unbroken narrative of white, male leadership, with African Americans as passive generic recipients of their benevolent guidance, Scott closely followed Mullowney’s telling of Meharry’s history.i

The mural, which stands more than seven feet tall, remains at Meharry Medical College, for which it was painted in 1938 on the occasion of Mullowney’s retirement after seventeen years as president. In his autobiography, published in 1940, Mullowney claimed credit for the idea of celebrating the school’s history in an oil painting to be displayed in the lobby of the 1931 building. The selection of Scott for this commission, however, might have come from its donor, a Chicagoan. The inscription at the lower left corner of the study identifies him as Dr. Maurice E. Hebert, a 1923 graduate of Meharry. The first black periodontist in the Chicago area, Hebert perhaps knew Scott by reputation if not personally and may have recommended him for the commission. This study was likely made to send to Meharry for the institution’s—that is, Mullowney’s—approval before Scott began work on the mural itself.

By the 1930s, Scott’s reputation for mural paintings in particular was at its height. Early in his career he had made such works for schools and other institutions—settings that favored idealized historical imagery and encouraged a straightforward, accessible style. Later, Scott painted murals across the US, including for Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress Exposition and under the sponsorship of the WPA. He was a natural choice for a celebratory official portrayal of Meharry’s history. Legible and accessible, this mural combines a naturalism grounded in Scott’s academic training with a modernist approach to composition in the use of striking diagonals to separate the various scenes that map out Meharry’s history.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i John J. Mullowney, typescript “A Pictorial History of Meharry Medical College,” May 1938, Meharry Medical College Archives, and Mullowney, American Gives a Chance (Tampa, FL: The Tribune Press, 1940), 90.

Untitled (At Oldenburg)

This unusual work is a cooperative group portrait made by seven members of Chicago’s Palette and Chisel Club. Shown bending over the far side of a pool table, each artist is poised to strike a ball with the tip of his cue. All in shirtsleeves, they form a rhythmic series of black and white forms interrupted by the central figure of Otto Hake: the only man not wearing a vest over his white shirt, he sports distinctive round spectacles and a green tie. Above each figure on the dark background hangs his painting palette inscribed with his name and that of the artist who presumably painted him. Each man is individualized in pose, stature, and facial features: the third from the left, for example, is clearly distinguishable as Rudolph Ingerle by his goatee. Yet the faces are generalized and the manner in which the figures are painted is notably uniform, as if the portraitists collectively strove for a consistent effect. The balls spread across the smooth green surface of the pool table in an irregular line follow the order of the color spectrum, mimicking the arrangement of dabs of pigment on each of the palettes above. These are subtly varied as to shape, with L. O. Griffith’s rectangular palette standing out visually among them.

According to the inscription across the bottom edge of the canvas, the painting was made during an excursion to Oldenburg, Indiana, in 1910. As early as the 1890s, artists from Chicago traveled out of the city in the summer to paint the rural landscape and to study the figure posed outdoors in natural light. Members of the Palette and Chisel Club established a seasonal rustic camp at Fox Lake, Illinois, in 1905; in subsequent summers they also visited Brown County, Indiana, and the St. Joe River in Michigan. In late September 1910, according to newspaper accounts, Victor Higgins led a group of seven fellow club members to the “quaint German village” of Oldenburg in east-central Indiana, where, “planted in the midst of modern American civilization, exists a typical hamlet of the old world with its characteristic traditions.”i Finding that “the surrounding country . . . would furnish a life-time’s work to the most active and able artists,” the group settled in for “two weeks of hard work.”ii  They found accommodations at the Gibson Hotel, whose proprietor, Joseph Merchen, also ran one of six local saloons undoubtedly furnished with pool tables. The hotel hosted a display of 130 landscape sketches the artists made while in Oldenburg. Later, the sketches which were also shown back in Chicago on the Palette and Chisel’s premises. This group portrait was probably not among them, however: its provenance indicates that the artists left it behind in Oldenburg after their stay, perhaps in gratitude for an enjoyable and productive visit.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i  “Artists from Chicago Spend Two Weeks at Oldenburg Making Landscape Sketches,” Brookville Democrat, Oct. 6, 1910; Chicago Record-Herald, Nov. 20, 1910, in Art Institute of Chicago Scrapbooks, v. 27, Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago.
ii  “Academy Echoes,” unidentified newspaper clipping dated from Oldenburg, Indiana, Sept. 30, 1910, in Palette and Chisel Club Logbooks, v. 2, on deposit in the Newberry Library.

Portrait of Miss N.

The subject of Arvid Nyholm’s Portrait of Miss N. is a pretty young woman who glances appealingly at the viewer, one hand to her bosom and the other holding her place in an illustrated magazine or book. Her gold-toned floral brocade dress and necklace of green beads are stylish complements to the bobbed hair that closely frames her face. A mottled-brown curtain forms a soft backdrop. The slightly elevated perspective on the figure, as if from a standing position, allows a full view of the objects on the chest of drawers that serves as her reading stand, notably a tall blue vase of peony blossoms. In 1911 Chicago Tribune art critic Harriet Monroe had lauded Nyholm for “a fluent style and a convincing intuition of character,” but faulted his “restricted range of color.”I This portrait’s strong, contrasting hues almost seem intended to counter such criticism. Reviewing the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual “Chicago and Vicinity” exhibition of 1917, critic Lena McCauley judged Portrait of Miss N. “one of the best [portraits] he has done.”ii

By the mid-1910s Nyholm was well-established as a painter of commissioned likenesses and figural works. The latter included both domestic genre scenes and portrait-like studies of individuals, such as this work. The artist’s wife and their five children frequently served as his models, wearing either traditional Swedish peasant garb or, as here, fashionable contemporary dress. Portrait of Miss N. apparently portrays the artist’s second daughter, Greta, earlier his model for a painting that won the Municipal Art League Prize for Portraiture in the 1915 “Chicago and Vicinity” show. Born in 1899, Greta Nyholm aspired to follow her father into an artistic career. She exhibited alongside him at the Swedish Club in the mid-1920s before becoming a high school art teacher. In Portrait of Miss N., the young woman’s direct, warm gaze hints at her special bond with the painter.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i  Harriet Monroe, “Scattered Art Shows for Week; Swedish-American Group Here,” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 19, 1911.
ii  Lena M. McCauley, “38 Canvases Show New Ideas in Color,” Chicago Post, Feb. 6, 1917.

Untitled (Portrait)

The young painter in Jessie Pixley Lacey’s portrait works studiously at the small canvas on the easel before her, eyes bent on her work and her left hand resting on her hip. The green collar of her dress strikes a bright note in the light that illuminates her from above; presumably it comes from the skylight of a studio, a setting also suggested by the small landscape paintings hanging on the brown-tinted wall behind the figure. This intimate glimpse of an artist at work seems to have been rapidly sketched in paint from life rather than fully composed, drawn, and then painted according to standard academic practice.

Lacey may have painted this image during her stay in Paris in 1899–1900. There she shared a studio with Minerva Chapman, a rising miniature, portrait, and landscape painter and fellow alumna of the Art Institute of Chicago. This portrait appears in two period photographs of the studio but it is evidently not a self-portrait, for the subject’s facial features do not correspond with Lacey’s as recorded in photographs made about the same time and in two known self-portraits. With her straight nose and rounded chin, the woman in fact somewhat resembles Chapman as she appears in her contemporary bust self-portrait (circa 1898–1903; Mount Holyoke College Art Museum). If Lacey’s work does indeed portray Chapman, it may have been made to reciprocate the latter’s now-unlocated portrait of Lacey, which was shown in the Art Institute’s 1898 annual exhibition of American art. While the identity of Lacey’s subject may never be ascertained, the work testifies to the serious professionalism of Lacey and her female cohorts who gathered in Parisian studios at the turn of the century to pursue their professional artistic ambitions.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Daniel Webster

It has been said that no man was ever so great as Daniel Webster looked. George P. A. Healy’s portrait of the American statesman fulfills an historian’s description of Webster as “a swarthy Olympian with a craggy face, and eyes that seemed to glow like dull coals under a precipice of brows.”i His level gaze, firmly set mouth, and disheveled hair evoke Webster’s popular image as an inspired orator and an impassioned defender of the Union. In Healy’s portrait, the sitter’s striking features are set off against an undefined background that graduates from dark to light to create a halo around his head. The painted oval indicates the original intention to place the painting in a rectangular frame with an oval liner, a common portrait format in the pre-Civil War period.

In mid-nineteenth century America, painted and sculpted portraits of Webster were prized by individuals and organizations with staunch Union sympathies, such as the Union League of Philadelphia and the Union League Club of Chicago. Powerfully projecting Webster’s forceful character, Healy’s image was widely replicated. The artist himself made some dozen portraits of him, primarily of this type, which others copied. Healy first painted Webster from life in Boston in 1845 on commission from King Louis Philippe of France, as one of a series of likenesses of international statesmen. He then decided to incorporate the portrait into an ambitious history painting depicting Webster’s most famous speech in the U.S. Senate: his defense of the Union in reply to South Carolina senator Robert Hayne’s assertion of individual states’ rights. Completed in 1851, Webster Replying to Hayne was acquired by the City of Boston the following year, just after the death of the revered orator sparked renewed interest in his likeness. For the next several months, Healy was, he reported, “fully employed” in turning out images of Webster based on his widely circulated history painting. The artist charged between two and three hundred dollars apiece for these portraits, of which this is one.ii

Exemplifying Healy’s portraiture, this work combines a solid representation of the sitter with relatively painterly handling of such secondary elements as the coat and the background, where brushstrokes are clearly evident. Healy’s sophisticated style and ability to communicate the individuality of his subjects in flattering likenesses explain much of his enormous success in Chicago, where no European-trained artist had yet settled when he arrived there in 1855.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, The Growth of the American Republic, v. 1 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 478.
ii Healy quoted in Frederick Voss, “Webster Replying to Hayne: George Healy and the Economics of History Painting,” American Art 15 (Autumn 2001): 50.

Louise Sellergren Holding a Rose

Dramatically illuminated from below as if by stage footlights, Louise Sellergren is draped in a wide-sleeved Chinese coat in this portrait by Otto Hake. Gathering the glamorous embroidered silk garment about her, she holds a red rose between her fingers. Sellergren casts a lavender-and-blue shadow on the pastel-tinted folds of what appears to be a stage curtain just behind her. Notwithstanding these references to the subject’s theatrical career, the portrait presents her not in character but as a fashionable woman of her time. Her hair is bobbed according to 1920s fashion and she wears a black dress or blouse with a simple neckline beneath her colorful coat. Lending a touch of sophisticated elegance and exoticism, such striking apparel was common in portraits and images of women by American artists beginning in the late-nineteenth century—as also seen, for example, in George Oscar Baker’s The Chinese Coat.

Hake’s portrait was exhibited in the Palette and Chisel Club’s “studio show” in April 1928. When it was shown again in the club’s thirty-fourth annual members’ exhibition the following month, the critic for the Chicago Daily News remarked that “Otto Hake’s imposing canvas of a blond [sic] young woman in a Mandarin coat” was one of several works “that bespeak the serious artistic intentions of this club.”i Although Hake was better known as a painter of landscapes and figural murals, this work testifies to his ability as a portrait painter. The graceful monogram with which he signed it also hints at his career as a designer and illustrator.

How Hake came to portray Louise Sellergren is unknown, and no portrait commissions are associated with his career. Sellergren was born in 1902 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and studied at the Chicago College of Music. Between 1923 and 1935 she enjoyed a minor career as a singer in concert, church, and radio recitals and in light opera, including one season in New York. The ring she wears on her left hand in Hake’s portrait is likely not a wedding band, for Sellergren was single until 1935, when she married physician Johnson F. Hammond. Thereafter, Louise Hammond became active in various music and arts organizations, serving as director of the Chicago-based Musicians Club of Women, for example. She died in Chicago in 1994.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i “Spring Exhibitions,” Chicago Daily News, May 2, 1928.

Untitled (Portrait of a Girl)

Portraits of children were a staple of Frances Foy’s artistic practice. In this example, she captured a little girl patiently posing in her formal best on a blue upholstered sofa. Complementing the tones of her pink-and-white checked jumper are several bright blossoms in a cut-glass bowl on a round table positioned between the figure and the viewer. Resting one hand on an open book, the sitter gazes off to the left as if she has just looked up from reading. Characteristic of Foy’s style are the delicate muted colors and the all-over patterned brushwork that lends a subtle vibration to surfaces. The diagonal curves etched into the glass bowl at the lower right echo the graceful line of the sofa back against the neutral background, while the rectilinear form of the book is repeated in the square buttons and checked pattern of the girl’s dress.

At the midpoint in her career, Foy was identified as an artist “who paints flowers, children and still life with delicate feeling and a pale, elusive color scheme.”i This work combines her characteristic subjects in what is most likely a commissioned portrait, as indicated by its solid realism and the formality of the little girl’s studied pose and Sunday-best attire. In the 1920s, Foy emerged as a modernist among Chicago artists with paintings that use expressive distortion of line and shape in images of everyday objects and scenes. This work, however, indicates her adaptability to more traditional standards of representation in a detailed and perhaps flattering portrayal of a specific individual. By the 1940s, Foy cultivated the favor of a mainstream public, regularly sending works on consignment to the art gallery at Marshall Field and Company department store, for example.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i Daniel Catton Rich, “Chicago Painters,” American Magazine of Art 24 (Feb. 1932): 113.

The Hostess (Portrait of Helen Gertrude Strain)

The Hostess is Frances Foy’s portrait of Helen Gertrude Strain, the older half-sister of Foy’s close friend and fellow artist Frances Strain. Known as Dedie, Helen never married, and she supported herself and her three younger half-sisters by working as a stenographer, later rising to an executive position. Foy posed Dedie, wearing a simple black dress, against a backdrop of houseplants and a light-colored wall or open window. The large yellow stone in a necklace at her throat and her matching bracelet and ring pick up the reddish-gold of her fashionably crimped hair. Holding a cigarette in her right hand, Dedie supports her left hand on her right forearm in an elegant gesture that suggests her social ease. Her facial features are individualized in a likeness that captures her self-confident, independent persona without idealizing her physiognomy. Dedie’s casual pose, attentive expression, and remote gaze suggest that she is engaged in conversation with an unseen partner. The Hostess, Foy’s apt title for this work, is given on a hand-written label, probably inscribed by the artist, on the back of the canvas.

Foy was a versatile artist who by the mid-1930s was well-known for still-life images and murals on narrative themes as well as images of children, as for example her Portrait of a Girl. Although many of her portraits were commissioned likenesses, Foy also portrayed family members and close friends. Four years before she painted this portrait of Helen Strain, she made a sympathetic image of her friend Frances (formerly Powell and Barbara Bridges Collection). Both works may have been gifts to the sitter’s family. In any case, the two portraits descended to Frances Strain’s son Garrett Biesel.

This painting amply displays Foy’s characteristic delicacy of line and color. Using short, choppy brush strokes, she modulated the tones and subtly animated the surfaces of forms ranging from the sitter’s flesh, hair, and dress to the crisply curling leaves that create a decorative backdrop for the figure. She likewise softened color, suggesting a diffused, even light filling the space and downplaying the contrast between pale background and the solid black of Strain’s dress. When The Hostess was shown in the 1937 annual exhibition by the Chicago modernist group The Ten, the Chicago Tribune’s conservative critic Eleanor Jewett noted that the portrait’s “blond motif” might easily have resulted in a “monotonous whine” in less capable hands: “Miss Foy, however, is a past mistress at keeping a low keyed picture vivacious and alert.”i The harmonious formal aspects of this portrait complement a sympathetic likeness of a subject with whom the artist certainly had a personal connection.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

i  Eleanor Jewett, “The Ten Meet Expectations in Annual Exhibit,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 19, 1937.

Untitled (Girl with a Fan)

The little girl in L. C. Earle’s painting looks intently toward the viewer as she poses self-consciously, holding an oriental fan in her lap. Echoing the gold tints of her hair is a swathe of rich fabric that cascades from the back of the oversized chair, softening the composition and reflecting the strong light illuminating the scene unevenly from the left. The girl’s right foot tucked under the skirt of her green dress is the only hint of a child’s natural freedom from the strict rules of grown-up conduct. Earle was known for his perceptive character sketches and single-figure genre works. This image, however, displays a formal portrait’s conventional pose, composition, and individual characterization enlivened by the sitter’s direct gaze. Its diminutive scale marks it as an object for display in a private, domestic setting, perhaps by the fond parents of the young sitter, whose identity is unknown.

The naturalism of this image, along with its subdued colors and emphasis on contrasts of light and dark, testify to Earle’s training in Munich, a city that drew numerous American art students in the 1870s and 1880s. Earle’s work ranged widely, embracing not only portraiture but also still life, landscape, and genre painting. Regardless of subject, his easel paintings and watercolors are characteristically intimate in approach, making Earle a sympathetic portrayer of children.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD

Portrait of Clarence J. Bulliet

For her image of Clarence J. Bulliet, Macena Barton used a thoroughly conventional bust portrait format, showing the subject from the shoulders up and turned slightly to one side against a flat background. Formally attired in a dark suit, Bulliet gazes inscrutably at the viewer, the intense blue of his eyes echoed in the mottled color of the surrounding surface. As if to break up the void of the background, Barton enlivened it with patterned brushwork, lightened it around Bulliet’s head in a subtle halo effect, and superimposed on it three identical figures of intersecting lines and dots in red, matching the sitter’s tie.

The portrait gives no clue to the identity of its subject, whose appearance suggests a prosperous businessman or professional. In fact, C. J. Bulliet was an art critic whose relationship with Barton was perhaps the single most important of her career. Bulliet was born in Indiana in 1883 and worked as a journalist and theatrical promoter before turning to art criticism. Hired in 1922 by the Chicago Daily News, he soon became an influential champion of modernism in a city well-known for its cultural conservatism. Barton was a rising young painter in 1931 when she asked Bulliet to write the catalogue introduction for her first solo exhibition, at Chicago’s Findlay Galleries. Claiming a “brilliant future” for Barton, Bulliet soon became her advisor and then her lover, although he was already married to landscape painter Katherine Adams Bulliet, who often showed in the same group exhibitions as Barton. Bulliet and Barton were an unlikely pair: she was petite, well-groomed, and stylish; Bulliet, nearly sixty when they met, was paunchy, walked with a limp, and had lost several teeth but refused to wear dentures. They shared a passion for books as well as art, and Bulliet promoted Barton shamelessly. Not until after Bulliet’s death in 1952 did she marry for the first time.

This is one of two portraits of Bulliet that Barton made. The better-known likeness (Union League Club of Chicago) dates to 1932 and refers pointedly to Bulliet’s relationship with the artist as well as to his published writings. In the two portraits Bulliet wears what appear to be the same dark suit and red tie, and he seems about the same age. However, this image lacks the expressive painted “halo” with which Barton often surrounded her subjects in portraits made between 1932 and 1935, suggesting it was made at a slightly later date. In contrast to the 1932 portrait, which Barton exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1932 and again in 1939, no record of exhibition of this portrait has come to light. Barton may have painted it for purely personal reasons.

Wendy Greenhouse, PhD