Greenville County Museum of Art
The Fanciful World of Helen DuPré Moseley
The unique and delightful work of Spartanburg artist Helen DuPré Moseley will be the subject of an exhibition that opens January 21, 2001, at the Greenville County Museum of Art.
Born in 1887, Helen DuPré Moseley grew up on the campus of Wofford College, where her father was on the faculty. She was well educated, receiving an undergraduate degree and a Master's in History before marrying in 1913. Her husband's death forced her to take over his insurance business in 1927. Seven years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt named her postmaster for Spartanburg. It was an unusual honor for a woman in those times, and Moseley pursued the position with fervor, overseeing the growth of the postal service and participating in numerous community organizations until she retired in 1956.
Moseley didn't begin painting until she was sixty years of age. Although self-taught, she was an inventive and accomplished artist. She developed her own artistic language, using largely figurative subjects-colorful and challenging images that are extraordinary for an amateur artist painting in the South during the middle years of the 20th Century. At first, Moseley produced black and white drawings of hybrid creatures-mostly animal forms with human characteristics. Two years later, she began to work in oil on canvas.
It is Moseley's "creatures" that capture the viewer's imagination in many of her paintings. One depicts groups of animated, dark-skinned dancers frolicking in a landscape. Many of the "creatures" are involved in exotic rituals and processionals. Pedestals, altars, statues, and even a magic carpet appear as props. Expressive faces-wide-eyed and grimacing-recall masks from Mexico, Oceania, and Africa. Moseley never gave titles to her paintings, a source of great curiosity to the people who saw her work.
Many in Spartanburg believed her creatures voiced a satirical commentary on local society, though she herself denied that was her intention. In fact, her hobbies may have indirectly influenced her art. She was a passionate reader, sampling a variety of subjects, including history, biography, and children's classics. She formed an extensive collection of stereographs, a popular parlor pastime in the late nineteenth century. Through her stereographs, Moseley saw and learned about places, buildings, and people far beyond upstate South Carolina. She also assembled scrapbooks, which she called "Faces," from such popular magazines as National Geographic, Life, and Illustrated London News. Most are photographs of people from around the world, often dressed in tribal costumes, with elaborate headgear. Many are juxtaposed with photographs of animals similarly bedecked.
Although her community respected her as postmaster and businesswoman, Moseley never achieved critical acclaim or genuine understanding for her art. Like many artists, she never gained recognition in her own time and place, and even with the perspective of time, Moseley's artistic achievement is hard to fathom.
The Museum received the support of the artist's children-Cynthia, Carlos, and Daniel Moseley-in bringing this project to fruition.
The exhibition Helen DuPré Moseley opens on Sunday, January 21st, with a 3:00 p.m. lecture by Curator Martha R. Severens, followed by a reception for members of The Museum Association. The exhibition continues through June 10, 2001. Related events include gallery talks on Thursday, January 25th at noon and on Sunday, January 28th at 2 p.m. A fully illustrated catalogue featuring the Museum's collection of Moseley's work accompanies the exhibition.
Essay by Martha R. Severens, Curator
The work of Spartanburg artist Helen DuPré Moseley (1887-1984) defies easy categorization. Although her work reflects stylistic influences as diverse as the art of ancient Egypt, Hieronymous Bosch, and Henri Matisse, ultimately it derived from her own imagination.
She never took a lesson and said she felt impelled to paint. Isolated from the mainstream art world for most of her late-blooming career, Moseley benefited enormously from occasional visits to New York and Europe, as well as from reproductions of fine art and world cultures that she harvested from magazines and antique stereographs.
Moseley lived most of her life in her hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. While her fellow artists attempted realistic portraits, landscapes, and still-lifes, Moseley produced works unlike anything anyone around her had ever seen. In 1960, she told a reporter for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal: "Some people tell me these are just terrible and ask why I don't paint those pretty flowers. I like to paint flowers, too, because I like colors. But I like to paint what I feel and I feel this." Refusing to title her paintings, she insisted that her viewers decipher them for themselves.
Helen DuPré was born in 1887 on the Wofford College campus in Spartanburg, where her father, Daniel Allston DuPré, was professor of physics and geology and also the college treasurer. In 1907, she received her bachelor's degree from Converse College, where two years later she obtained a master's degree in history. She married Carlos Roland Moseley, but after his sudden death fourteen years later, she was left a widow with three small children. To support herself and her young family, she took over her husband's insurance business.
In November 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Moseley postmaster of the Spartanburg Post Office. The local newspaper enthusiastically endorsed his selection, saying: "She has clearly demonstrated business ability, sagacity, and efficiency in handling her own affairs . . . She is well endowed from every standpoint for public service, having the character, ability, and background."
Moseley enjoyed a successful career as postmaster, holding the position for twenty-one years. She was active in such groups as the Spartanburg Humane Society and the Spartanburg Garden Club. She also served on the Board of Trustees of Converse College for ten years, and was a founding member of the Spartanburg Artists' Guild. A passionate reader, she especially enjoyed biography, British history, and children's classics. She wrote and illustrated two small, unpublished volumes for children, "The Woggie Book," a fairytale about a visit to a land of small creatures, and "Cubby Bear."
Moseley was an avid collector of antique stereographs, pairs of photographs that create a three-dimensional effect when seen through a stereoscope. Begun in the early 1940s, Moseley's collection numbered almost 15,000 examples. This extraordinary collection allowed her access to images of people, places, and events far beyond her provincial surroundings. She also assembled scrapbooks, labeled "FACES," from such magazines as National Geographic, Life, and the Illustrated London News. Interspersed among pictures of animals are clippings of people from around the world with parallel facial expressions. Like the stereographs, these images provided a wide-ranging visual repository of potential subject matter.
Fueled by her passion for history, Moseley made two trips to Europe. In Paris she enjoyed the opera, the cafés, and Notre Dame, especially its gargoyles. After three visits to the Louvre she commented in a postal service newsletter, "I didn't see any paintings like mine." During the 1950s and 1960s, Moseley went regularly to New York, where her sister Grace, an accomplished portrait painter, lived and worked. Moseley frequented museums, especially enjoying the Egyptian wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum. From New York in 1950, she wrote a letter home, describing how she had met "a man, very influential . . . he was quite enthusiastic . . . One thing he was emphatic about-that I should never take a lesson from anyone-said my style was completely my own."
When Helen DuPré Moseley began to make art in 1947, she considered it merely a hobby, as she told a reporter: "I think everyone should have a hobby. It relieves tension and takes your mind off your work and the every-day-of-the-week problems. A hobby does the same thing for you mentally as a good workout in sports does for you physically." Moseley's first body of work consists of figures brushed in black watercolor on paper. Typically, the drawings' contour lines minimally define hybrid creatures-mostly animal forms with human characteristics. When pressed to explain her "creatures," Moseley commented: "As for the human quality, perhaps it is one's opinion of human beings, and of animals, getting a bit mixed up."
Without abandoning her drawings, Moseley began in 1949 to work in oil on canvas. The oils, more ambitious and complex than the drawings, are characterized by her engaging-and at times outrageous?-sense of color and idiosyncratic brushwork. The fact that Moseley chose not to give her paintings titles was perplexing to many. In a 1969 exhibition brochure she explained: "They speak for themselves. I do not try to explain them. If they amuse you, I shall be happy-or perhaps some of you will find a deeper meaning. I hope so."
The lack of titles forced people to reflect on the work and devise their own interpretations. But in the small community of Spartanburg, many people believed she was satirizing specific local individuals. The artist denied that this was her intention, although she may have been poking fun at certain kinds of behavior. As postmaster for more than two decades, Moseley watched the entire community parade before her and undoubtedly found inspiration in such a cast of characters.
Figures of authority seem to be consistent targets for Moseley's satire. Potentates, priests, aristocrats, and high-society types recur throughout her work. Whether allusions to the artist's childhood on the campus of Methodist-affiliated Wofford College or to her own adult acquaintances, the supercilious subjects of these paintings are spared little mercy. For Moseley, faces were potent symbols of emotion. Some, wide-eyed and grimacing, recall masks from Mexico, Oceania, and Africa. The artist once said to an interviewer: "You can't really tell what people think. They all wear masks." The artist's great affection for animals is also reflected in her work. As she once explained, "After all, there's something human in lots of animals, and a lot of animal in some humans."
Many of Moseley's creatures are involved in singing, dancing, and odd rituals and processionals. Pedestals, altars, statues, and even a magic carpet appear as props that hint at arcane activities. Correspondences with the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, which Moseley admired while in Vienna, are apparent. Like Moseley, Bosch employed a thoroughly individualistic style to achieve often indecipherable results.
Although Bosch preceded the Surrealists by more than four hundred years, he is considered the father of the movement, which is characterized by dream-like irrationality. Like Bosch and the Surrealists, Moseley was unperturbed by the lack of obvious explanations. In one of her few written statements about art, she endorsed the concept of open-ended interpretations:
"Art may depict objects we see, emotions we feel, historical events, or things we imagine. To some an imaginary world is very real; to some it is absurd or irrational. (Alice's experiences in Wonderland were hardly rational, but priceless, nevertheless.)"
Of special significance in Moseley's oeuvre is an eight-foot-wide canvas with twenty-two figures. The painting's proportions resemble those of a frieze. Although she likely never saw more than reproductions of the great processions from the Parthenon, the Ara Pacis, or Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Moseley would have witnessed numerous academic ceremonies as a child at Wofford and as a trustee for Converse College. This large painting is a grand parody. Moseley's creatures spiral back single file along the crest of a hill; many of them are carrying what seem to be offerings of miniature creatures. In the far distance looms a turreted building, resembling not only typical collegiate structures, but also castles that the artist cherished seeing on her European trips. The goal of this particular procession is a pure white Greek herm figure raised on a pedestal. The identities depicted in the sculpture and the female creature hovering behind it are intentionally veiled.
In 1969, a few years before Moseley would stop painting, her work was chosen to inaugurate a new gallery in Spartanburg. The organizer of the exhibition provided long-overdue recognition:
Helen Moseley is truly a gifted artist who has never been properly honored in her hometown. Her work is highly imaginative, showing a great deal of sensitivity and tremendous originality. Although some people see a kinship in some of her paintings to the work of Goya and to some of the Expressionist painters, she is, in fact, completely unique in her approach to painting.
Although she was well liked and widely respected in her community, as an artist Helen DuPré Moseley was an enigma. Fellow citizens were often baffled by her untitled paintings of "creatures." Despite the lack of recognition, Moseley persevered for more than twenty-five years creating art that drew upon her rich imagination. She invented a personal artistic vision that transcended both its time and place.
The exhibition Helen DuPré Moseley will be on
view January 21 through June 10, 2001. A fully illustrated catalogue featuring
the Museum's collection of paintings accompanies the exhibition. The Museum
wishes to acknowledge the generous support of Cynthia, Carlos, and Daniel
Moseley, children of the artist, in bringing this project to fruition.
Read more about the Greenville County Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine
For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
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