Summers of '96 - Shinnecock Revisited: The Inspiration of Kate Freeman Clark by William Merritt Chase

by Kathleen McClain Jenkins

 



 

Edward Clark continued working with Walthall, Lamar, and other Southern Democrats to bring an end to the Republican-controlled Reconstruction which had placed many former African American slaves in public office. After Grover Cleveland's 1884 election as President of the United States on the Democratic ticket, he invited Mississippian L.Q.C. Lamar to join his Cabinet as Secretary of the Interior. Governor Robert Lowry then appointed Edward Cary Walthall to fill Lamar's unexpired U.S. Senate term, and Lamar chose Edward Clark his First Assistant. The family excitement over leaving Mississippi together ended abruptly, however, when Kate Freeman Clark's father died in Washington of pneumonia the day after his Senate confirmation. His widow and young daughter then returned to live with "Mama" Kate at the Walthall family home in Holly Springs.

Still eager to improve her daughter's educational prospects and avoid what her family perceived as a "Negro takeover" in Mississippi, Cary Freeman Clark in 1891 enrolled "little" Kate in the Gardner Institute, a New York finishing school for young ladies. Because of social constraints against young ladies living alone, Cary Clark remained with her daughter as a chaperone and constant companion. "Mama" Kate joined them occasionally in New York, and after her granddaughter's graduation in 1893 the entire family traveled to Chicago for the World Columbian Exposition. There, Kate Freeman Clark, an impressionable eighteen-year-old with artistic inclinations, viewed building after building of the world's finest artwork. In addition to those works featured in the separate women's pavillion, the special fine arts section of the fair displayed a total of nine thousand paintings. The official French exhibit focused mainly on the earlier pastoral "plein-air" landscapes in subdued colors by Barbizon painters such as Camille Corot, but another display assembled from private collections included more recent works in a bolder palette by more contemporary French Impressionist painters. The American section may have provided Clark with her first extensive exposure to paintings by native Impressionist painters including William Merritt Chase and John Henry Twachtman. This Chicago visit may also have played a major role in Clark's decision to enroll at the Art Students League in New York.

The following winter, with her mother still in residence, Kate Freeman Clark began her studies at the League. With nearly one thousand students, the League offered some of the best art instruction available in the country -- and an active social life of grand balls, student dances, and exhibition openings as well. She enrolled first in Twachtman's drawing class, then moved on to a watercolor class taught by Irving Wiles. True to the constraints of "ladylike" behavior, Kate Freeman Clark recoiled from the prospect of soiling her hands with oil paints, and she was naturally attracted first to the watercolor classes. After her first viewing of William Merritt Chase standing before his class handling a palette laden with oils in his immaculate white flannel suit, however, her fear of oil paints subsided, and she enrolled in Chase's oil painting class at the League during the spring of 1895. Meanwhile, "Mama" Kate occasionally escaped the sweltering Mississippi summers to join Kate Freeman Clark and her mother on Long Island or at resort areas in New England which were beginning to host similar art colonies. Clark first visited Chase's summer school at Shinnecock during the Summer of 1895 while she was enrolled in Irving R. Wiles' more intimately scaled summer watercolor class at Peconic on Long Island's north fork. Wiles' summer class apparently lasted only for this one year. The following fall Clark left the League to attend the newly formed Chase School of Art -- later known as the New York School of Art -- and Wiles also departed from the League to become an instructor there.

William Merritt Chase passed on to Kate Freeman Clark and his other students in New York the old-master proclivity for subtle lighting with regard to studio subjects that he had been taught in Munich. His pupils' boldly painted still lifes attempted to duplicate their mentor's proficiency at reproducing a variety of textures: metal, ceramic, vegetable, and floral, often scattered across a wooden table top. Kate Freeman Clark mastered Chase's Munich style so well that some of her dim, somber still life paintings such as "Copper Pot, Tin Plate with Fruit" can hardly be distinguished from those of her master. After a thorough cleaning, one painting (the "Still Life" exhibited at this show) ascribed to Clark for many years, actually revealed Chase's signature.

 

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