images from the Gallery's collection

MAG Homepage

Main menu:

Site search



RSS Feeds RSS Feed

Hildegarde In Art

by Joan K. Yanni, Docent Newsletter Editor-In-Chief

A recently-acquired painting of a young teen-aged girl now welcomes visitors to the 19th-century European gallery. The painting is by Ralph Peacock (1868-1946), a British artist who specialized in children’s portraits. The girl is Hildegarde Lasell (2005.16) who was a luminous 14-year-old when the portrait was painted in 1902, probably on a visit to Europe with her parents.

The striking painting was donated to the Memorial Art Gallery in 2005 by Dr. and Mrs. Michael L. Watson. The Watsons have been staunch friends and patrons of the Gallery since Emily Sibley Watson founded the Gallery in memory of a son, James Averell, who died of cholera at the age of 26. A son of Mrs. Watson’s second marriage, James Sibley Watson, Jr. and Hildegarde were married in 1916. Watson Jr. would become well known in the Rochester art community and in the art world at large for his literary and film endeavors. After the marriage, Hildegarde also became a dynamic force in the community. An actress, singer, writer, and historic preservationist, she counted e.e. cummings and Marianne Moore among her friends.

6711_a2MAG has two other portraits of Hildegarde: a photograph by Man Ray and a portrait statuette by Gaston Lachaise. The statuette, Hildegarde Lasell Watson (67.11) is probably most familiar to docents, since it has been on view in the sculpture pavilion. The unusual sculpture, about 15 1/2 inches tall, is the figure of a woman in a bouffant gown with a tight-fitting bodice and a long, full skirt. The right leg steps forward confidently; the left is hidden in a billowing skirt. Awareness, intelligence and refinement are depicted in the figure. It has been cast in bronze, with the bodice and skirt nickel-plated, a startling and original composition. Lachaise also executed a larger version of the figure in clay or plaster, as surviving photographs show.

Gaston Lachaise (1882-1935) was born in Paris, the son of a cabinetmaker. He attended the École des Beaux Arts, worked with René Lalique, and exhibited regularly at the Salon. Soon he rebelled against the academic tradition and joined the avant garde circle active at the turn of the century. In 1906 he emigrated to the United States, which he described as ?the most favorable place to develop as a creative artist. Though he worked as a traditional apprentice for artists such as Paul Manship, the works he produced in his free time were unorthodox. Critics liked his work, but it never found favor with the public, and financial difficulties tormented his career. The patronage of several local families–the Watsons, the Iselins and Charlotte Whitney Allen–helped him survive, since he was never able to keep track of money. He seemed fixated on sculpting the ideal Standing Woman–a powerful presence exuding sex and mystery. She stands in a classic stance, large and voluptuous, but standing lightly on her toes. The face is often that of his beloved wife Isabel.

Lachaise probably met Watson through Harvard University connections, since Lachaise’s stepson Edward, ee cummings and Watson were at Harvard together. The relationship continued when Watson and his friend Schofield Thayer, who were ex- Harvard Monthly editors with money and the desire to educate the American public about the arts, purchased a 75 percent share of a monthly magazine called The Dial in order to re-create it as a vehicle for publishing the best writing and art of their time. With Watson and Thayer at its helm the magazine was committed to reviewing significant books, theatre, and music and reproducing some new works of art. The first printing of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was included, as well as writings of Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Vachel Lindsay, Hart Crane, e.e. cummings and Marianne Moore. They were joined by critics such as W. B. Yates, D. H. Lawrence, John Dos Passos, and George Santayana. Reproductions of art works by Cézanne, Demuth, Stuart Davis, William Gropper, Gauguin, O’Keeffe, Picasso and Lachaise made the publication unique. Lachaise enjoyed 23 full-page reproductions as well as four full-size essays. His full-length figure of Hildegarde was published in it, as was his bronze head of James Sibley Watson, Jr. (90.3), both in the MAG collection. Under Watson and Thayer The Dial operated for nine and one-half years, through the July 1929 issue.

Though it is a fascinating work, Man Ray’s Hildegarde Watson (82.46) is not as familiar to docents as is Lachaise’s bronze figure. Because it is a photograph and subject to fading, it cannot be on view for long periods of time. Ray’s photograph presents a portrait from the late 1920s: a fashionably dressed woman wearing long beads and a large hat sits looking out of the picture, her left arm leaning on a table and her chin resting on her right hand. A second look will tell the viewer that the hand is that of a mannequin and that the Surrealist photographer must be Man Ray.

Man Ray (1890-1976), was born in this country but moved to Paris in 1921. He became the most influential American associated with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. A painter by training, he became friends with such artists as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Andre Breton, working in Paris in the 1920s. In 1921 photography was his means of making a living: it was a solution for a frustrated painter who couldn’t sell his work. “I would have been a gangster if I’d had the physique and the courage,” he said in an interview in the New York Times. In 1930 he wrote a pamphlet stating, “Photography is not art, adding that “what I can’t paint I photograph.”

Regardless of his attitude toward photography, his creativity came through in his photographs. In typical Surrealist fashion, the inclusion of the mannequin arm in what is otherwise a straightforward society portrait of Hildegarde is meant to disturb and disorient the viewer–one of the aims of the Surrealist artists. It should be no surprise that Hildegarde Watson would be photographed by the man Jean Cocteau called “the poet of the darkroom.”

Sibley (as Watson Jr. was known) and Hildegarde had two children, Michael and Jeanne. The family still continues their generous patronage of MAG.

Source: Curatorial files. The art can be seen on the MAG website searchable through accession number.

Write a comment