One of life's universal themes is the search for love.
A peek into the private lives of artists and their subjects reveals vengeful goddesses, philanderers, rakes, loners, disobedient heirs, and scandal aplenty.
Love Don't Come Easy includes a selection of works from the Amon Carter's collection that exposes the uneasy combination of creative work and the quest for love.
DIANA, MISS NESBIT, and MADISON SQUARE GARDEN
The myth of Diana is a tale of unwanted affection. In the great work of classical poetry, Ovid's Metamorphoses, we learn of the chaste goddess Diana and the unfortunate young man who inadvertently disrupts her desire to remain that way, the hunter Actaeon. Out in the woods one day, Actaeon stumbles upon Diana, the goddess of the hunt, while she is enjoying a bath with her nymph handmaidens.
Actaeon, weary from a day of hunting, accidentally sees what he should not: the goddess disrobed. Diana, in a fit of embarrassment, causes Actaeon's dogs and fellow hunters to mistake him for a deer. Unfortunately, he can't speak of his true identity and the inevitable tragedy happens.
Centuries of painters and sculptors have delighted in this scene—a thin pretext for nudity and a particular challenge to show a man transformed into a stag.
Diana by Frederick William MacMonnies
Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907) was asked by his close friend, the celebrated New York architect Stanford White (1853-1906), to create a sculpture for the top of his new Manhattan landmark, the entertainment center at Madison Square Garden.
Saint-Gaudens chose to make a monumental weather vane of Diana in the buff, one of the most prominent sculptures in New York and the first to be illuminated by electric lights.
Of course, no one is supposed to see Diana naked, Actaeon serving as a cautionary tale, so it was pretty revolutionary to place a giant nude of her on top of a major public building. Saint-Gaudens’s Diana was the talk of the town in her heyday.
Given the popularity of the sculpture, Saint-Gaudens made individualized bronze reductions of the larger sculpture, of which the Amon Carter’s 1899 version is but one example.
Diana of the Tower by Augustus Saint-Gaudens
So…on to the scandalous love story, which relates to the architect Stanford White, not the sculptor Saint-Gaudens.
White was, shall we say, a collector of women. He was said to have a seductive bachelor pad equipped with a velvet swing suitable for any number of showgirls to use, but one showgirl in particular turned out to be his undoing.
While seeing the goddess Diana nude might result in a killer transformation, a relationship with the famous entertainer Evelyn Nesbit would result in murder.
Portrait of Evelyn Nesbit by Gertrude Käsebier
White seduced Nesbit when he was forty-seven and she was sixteen. These shenanigans eventually caught up with White when Nesbit’s husband, Harry Thaw, a Pittsburgh millionaire with a history of mental instability, decided to act on his mounting jealousy.
On the night of June 25, 1906, at the feet of the Diana sculpture atop Madison Square Garden, White attended a theater performance. During the show’s finale, Harry Thaw fired his pistol at White. Though the crowd thought it was all part of the show, it finally dawned on the audience that the three pistol shots resulted in White’s demise. The ensuing court case was dubbed “the trial of the century.”
In his renowned novel, Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow suggests that Thaw’s rage was inspired by the embarrassment he felt at seeing the Diana sculpture atop Madison Square Garden because the model for the statue was Nesbit. But in fact Diana was placed on the tower in 1893, when Nesbit was only about nine years old, several years before she was introduced to White.
Perhaps Severin Roesen (1816–after 1872) painted so many scenes of floral arrangements because he had to apologize to so many women?
Roesen was born near present-day Cologne, Germany. He left his home country for the United States in 1848, residing for a time in New York. Somehow he “forgot” his wife back in Cologne and remarried in New York, listing himself as a widower. He was technically a widower at the moment at which his first wife died, but he had remarried before that happened.
In 1862, Roesen settled in Williamsport, a small city in north-central Pennsylvania. As a U.S. lumber industry capital when Roesen moved there, it claimed to have more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country—so he had plenty of wealthy patrons. It seems that he left a little something behind in New York when he launched his career in Pennsylvania: he abandoned his New York wife, leaving her alone with their kids.
While Roesen's love life seems to have been, shall we say, abundant, so too were the contents of the more than 300 still lifes he painted for Pennsylvania’s elite.
Roesen’s lavish, opulent images effectively captured the feelings of wealth and optimism of the pre-Civil War years. Signature elements include champagne flutes, bird nests, grapes, and peeled lemons, not to mention a ton of flowers.
Here’s a love story with a happy ending…not about the artist (John Singer Sargent) but about the subject of this painting—Alice Vanderbilt Shepard (1874-1950).
A member of the prestigious New York Vanderbilt family, Alice was known to her family as Angela because of the sweetness of her disposition and the beauty of her face. She was said to be more of a rebel than an angel, climbing a tree against her father's specific instruction, resulting in a permanent spinal injury.
Her love story begins on a steamship trip to France. There David “Dave” Morris noticed her and was immediately smitten. Unfortunately, her father thought Dave had no future and refused permission when Dave asked for her hand.
It’s a good thing that Angela was a bit on the disobedient side, because she made up her mind to elope. In 1895 they married.
If the couple’s six children are any indication, they had a happy marriage.
Defying social norms, Alice actually became a renowned linguist. She and her husband founded a language association with the goal of developing a universal language–Interlingua.
Dave, who wasn’t ever supposed to amount to anything, became the U.S. ambassador to Belgium.
It seems from his copious paintings of courtship from the 1860s and 1870s and tales of his social engagements that Winslow Homer (1836–1910) may have found himself in the midst of potential romances.
Nevertheless, he never married and his move in the last decades of his life, to what seemed like an awfully secluded studio in Prout’s Neck, Maine, solidified his reputation for being a rather hermit-like character.
On the subject of Homer and love, though, one thing we do know: he loved and was loved by his family. Winslow Homer was the second of three sons. His favorite brother seems to have been Charles Savage Homer Jr., an industrial chemist.
Charles worked for a varnish company and several industries with ties to paint. By all accounts their relationship was one of the most important in Homer’s life. Charles secured patrons for Winslow and even provided him with the color theory book that became his bible.
One charming anecdote is that Charles is said to have purchased Winslow's first oil painting, The Army of the Potomac—A Sharpshooter on Picket Duty (1863). Winslow allegedly remarked that he would embark upon a career as a painter if his painting sold, so Charles bought it.
As for his lonely retreat to Prout’s Neck, Maine, it’s important to remember that he was not always alone there—it was a family compound with both brothers owning houses.
When not in Prout’s Neck, Charles and Winslow were both avid fly-fishermen and went to the Adirondacks and afar on frequent excursions. Winslow delighted in a strong relationship with his sister-in-law, Mattie. The two shared a love of art, gardening, music and wrote witty, emotional letters to each other.
The Amon Carter's painting Crossing the Pasture could be described as emblematic of the strong bond between brothers.
The wholesome country boys are an idealization of brotherhood, the older one standing protectively between the alert bull and his younger sibling. The younger boy's bare feet symbolize his closeness to nature, making him appear more vulnerable and innocent.
Standing together against the hills, the boys serve as redemptive symbols of hope for the country's united future after the Civil War pitted brother against brother.
Author—Maggie Adler, assistant curator, Amon Carter Museum of American Art