Montclair Art Museum
The following essay excerpt was written by Marilyn S. Kushner, curator of prints and drawings at The Brooklyn Museum of Art.. It is the first chapter of a catalogue essay for the catalogue Morgan Russell (ISBN 1-55595-047-7) which accompanied the exhibition of the same title which premiered January 27, 1998 at The Montclair Art Museum, and later traveled to two additional venues. The exhibition was organized by The Montclair Art Museum. The essay is reprinted with permission of the Montclair Art Museum and Hudson Hills Press, New York..
The Early Years, 1886-1906
by Marilyn S. Kushner
Morgan Russell was born on Monday, January 25, 1886, at 7:00 P.M., on Christopher Street in New York City where he would spend most of his childhood. His parents were Miner Antoinette and Charles Jean Russell, an architect. Both were from Ohio: Morgan's mother was from Portsmouth, and his father was raised in Cleveland. Miner Antoinelte Russell was a Baptist when her son was born, and according to religious custom. she did not have Morgan baptized (an act usually reserved for individual choice on reaching adulthood). Russell eventually converted to Catholicism in 1947, when he was sixty-one. He had no siblings, and not much is known about his youth, though in later years he stated that his parents never had a lot of money when he was growing up. Charles Jean Russell died in 1895, when Morgan was nine, and three years later his mother married Charles Otis Morgan. At that time she broke off relations with her family as well as with the Russells, and eventually Morgan forgot who his extended family was. When his mother died in 1909, Morgan Russell's stepfather stopped answering his letters, leaving the artist with no family.
There is an early account from a chronology written by Russell that refers to his attending school in 1899 on upper Ninth Avenue and Ninety-eighth Street in New York. Not known, however, is when, or even if, the Russell family moved to that area, or if they lived in other sections of New York City as well. Apparently, Morgan was supported by his parents until age seventeen, for he remarked in the same chronology "05-08 make own living." Although he did not say that he left home in 1903, we know that he had done so for periods of time in 1902 and quite possibly had moved out by 1902--3, when he noted that he had spent the summer "across [the] river with Lee," where he began to earn his living by working in restaurants. The Lee he referred to was the sculptor Arthur Lee. (Russell later remarked in a letter to his friend Andrew Dasburg that he had often posed as a model for Lee.) 
During the following year, 1903-4, Russell lived on "Upper 7th Ave with Lee." He continued to work in restaurants and frequently posed as a model for James Earle Fraser's sculpture class at the Art Students League in New York. His presence in Fraser's class is noteworthy, for not only was it an early and important exposure to the arts, but here Russell quite possibly met his future benefactor, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who began studying formally with Fraser in 1904.
During this time, Russell was also enrolled in an architectural school (it is not known where). He apparently had assumed that he would follow in the footsteps of his deceased father, and for two years, between 1904 and 1906, he studied to be an architect. There are no paintings from this early period of Russell's life. He obviously had no intention of becoming a visual artist and until 1906 had no training in either painting or sculpture. Nevertheless, the instruction in architecture made an important impression on the young Russell. Throughout his career as a painter, he would visualize his compositions in depth, always using color properties to render three-dimensional qualities. While artists around him (Robert Delaunay, for example) tried to remain faithful to the two-dimensional, flat canvas, Russell always strove to give his paintings a structural solidity that depended on the stability of the three-dimensional qualities in his work.
Russell often wrote that he preferred wearing women's clothes, and indeed, many of the portraits previously thought to be of women are likely self-portraits. His history of dressing as a woman can be traced back to 1890, where he noted in his chronology that "mother put dresses on me as punishment"; in 1895 he was "put in skirts for a week! as punishment." In the nineteenth century it was not entirely unusual for young boys to be put in dresses, and it is possible that Russell's mother did not intend it to be a punishment when she clothed him this way in 1890, when he was four years old. The more important point is, however, that years later when he was writing a chronology of his life, Russell perceived this action as a punishment. For him, it was a denial of his male identity at a time when that identity was essential to normal sexual development. It might not be coincidental that the next incident of cross dressing mentioned by Russell occurred in 1895, the year his father died. This time his male identity was threatened in two ways -- not only did his mother put him in girls' clothes for a week, but he also lost the principal male role model in his life. Much later Russell wrote:
The day I was put into skirts by my mother for once and all is as vivid to me after all these years as it was at the time and I feel the same emotion when recalling it as I felt when it took place -- she violently pulled off all my boys clothes, long trousers, shirt and all -- and after putting me in the chemise, long and white and ornamental and the corset which she laced awfully [sie] tight -- and the elaborately flowered and beribboned drawers she caught up an immense white petticoat, large and long and heavy with flounces and lace -- and swung it over my head in. a circular gesture of finality that there and then drowned out all masculinity from me. She said when doing it, "There -- you will never get out of these for the rest of your life." Another in taffeta followed, and then a heavy long skirt which she fastened with a belt around my waist after putting me into a high necked shirt waist that buttoned up the back and seemed to be an added sign of imprisonment. For I couldn't unbutton it myself [while] in it and there I was. The sensation of the long and voluminous petticoats against my bare legs was a mixture of delight and strange troubling sensation.
While this cross dressing began as a punishment, Russell periodically did so voluntarily throughout the rest of his life. "Muslin petticoat. Night in brown skirt! About 15 3/4 yrs or 16. A most decisive and symbolical event," he noted for the year 1901. Much later he would write to his close friend Mabel Alvarez that whenever he went walking it was in skirts because they were "so much more comfortable than trousers!!! . . . women have the best of it in every way and how can they be so silly as to envy our poor lot and imitate our misery [of tight and restricting clothing]." Indeed, Russell was so taken with the beauty of women's clothes that in the 1930s he did two paintings of figures in beautifully colored long, flowing dresses. These are most likely a portrait of his wife and a self-portrait (Simone Joyce collection).
While Russell did not paint or even enroll in formal art
classes in these early years, it is clear that significant events in his
childhood determined the direction of his career. However, it was not until
he went to Europe in 1906 for his twentieth birthday that he decisively
changed his mind; he abandoned architecture and began to pursue sculpture
and then painting.
1. Most of the information about Russell's early life is taken from a letter he wrote to Mr. O'Brien, postmaster of Los Angeles, August 21, 1951, now in the possession of the U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
2. Morgan Russell chronology, 1942, Morgan Russell Archives, The Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, N.J.
5. Russell to Andrew Dasburg, 1914· Andrew Dasburg Papers, Washburn Gallery, New York.
6. Chronology, Russell Archives, Montclair.
7. B. H. Friedman, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978), 255. Between 1909 and 1915 Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney sent Russell stipends, his main means of support for those years.
8. He also traveled in these years; in 1904 he visited Saint Louis, and in the summer of 1905 he went to Lake George.
9. Chronology, Russell Archives, Montclair.
10. Developmentally at age four a boy has such strong Oedipal feelings that he desires to take his father's place as the sole object of his mother's affections. I wish to thank Dr. Robert Levine for his thoughts concerning the psychological aspects of a young boy's development on which these comments are based.
11. Russell Archives, Montclair.
12.. Chronology, Russell Archives, Montclair.
13. Russell to Mabel Alvarez, March 26, 1936, Russell Archives, Montclair.
14. Cross dressing was not unheard of in Paris in the 1920s. Beginning in 1920 Marcel Duchamp dressed as Rrose Selavy; however, this was done more for aesthetic reasons than comfort and enjoyment, which were Russell's reasons for dressing as a woman.
See Robert J. Stoller, M.D., Observing the Erotic Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985). Russell's history and behavior were fairly typical of cross dressers. They are generally put into women's clothes, by a woman and often as a punishment, at an early age. As observed in Russell's description of that early instance when his mother put him into a girl's dress, it is also not unusual for men describing these experiences to pay close attention to details, especially of the color and texture of the garments they don. Additionally, cross dressers often enjoy photographing themselves cross dressed. Rather than photographing himself -- although there are photographs of Russell in women's clothes [see Chronology] -- Russell painted portraits of himself dressed as a woman. The women whom he depicted with long brown hair are likely Russell. His hair was dark and quite long, at times reaching almost to his waist; he often tucked it up under the beret he usually wore.
Rarely are cross dressers homosexual or even bisexual, and there is no
indication of either in Russell's papers.
Read more about the Montclair Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine
For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 6/3/11
Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.
Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.