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

by Kathleen McClain Jenkins



The pinnacle of "Freeman" Clark's short but prolific painting career came in 1915, when a great fair was held in California to celebrate both the grand opening of the Panama Canal and the rebirth of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Urban living and modern ideas of personal expression were then beginning to eclipse rural habits and traditional academic standards, and the radical anarchist notions of art introduced to New York by the exhibition of Cubist paintings at the Armory Show in 1913 were just beginning to spread west across the continent. The Panama-Pacific Exposition presented to its viewers a triumph of Impressionist painting, including an entire wall of Monets, and American artists contributed two-thirds of the more than eleven thousand works of art displayed. Whole rooms were devoted to the paintings of Americans Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, John Henry Twachtman, Edmund Charles Tarbell, and Gari Melchers. J. Alden Weir and Theodore Robinson were also included. Jury members Weir, Chase, and Tarbell awarded medals to a number of their fellow American Impressionist painters, including artists of a younger generation. As prelude to this west-coast celebration of Impressionism, Chase had the previous year moved his summer class from its roots planted nearly twenty-five years earlier in the Shinnecock Hills of Long Island to the new art colony at Carmel-by-the-Sea in California. With Chase serving on the panel for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, some of his students naturally earned the honor of inclusion in the juried show. Kate Freeman Clark's "Climbers" was among the sixty works chosen from nine hundred entries. Neither she nor her mentor could have known then that within a year of their joint triumph in San Francisco he would be dead and her painting career virtually ended.

In 1916, as Chase suddenly became seriously ill, probably with cancer, he demonstrated his confidence in his former pupil and longtime colleague Irving Wiles by asking him to complete a portrait of his wife Alice and several other portrait commissions. No other friends or students were allowed to see him as his painful condition rapidly worsened. William Merritt Chase died in New York, surrounded by his family, on October 25, 1916. Yet even before Chase's death, which shocked the American art world, Kate Freeman Clark had almost ceased painting to help care for her aging grandmother. Her final exhibition was held in 1918 at the Men's City Club of New York. "Mama" Kate stayed with her daughter and granddaughter in New York during her last years, and her various infirmities restricted their summer trips. After her grandmother's death in 1919, Kate Freeman Clark re-entered the Art Students League in an attempt to regain her lapsed painting career, but she sorely missed the strict discipline and exciting standards which had characterized it in earlier days. In the meantime, her own mother's health grew increasingly frail.

Cary Freeman Clark died in New York in August, 1922, and her daughter decided -- against the advice of her former instructors and classmates -- to give up New York and painting to return in 1923 to the Walthall family homestead in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She chose not to bring back with her the more than one thousand paintings accumulated during her artistic career, and instead stored them in bales at New York's Lincoln Warehouse. This bulk storage led to the severe deterioration of many paintings, and made an exact naming and dating of the works nearly impossible. Regardless, rather than continuing the identity of professional artist which she had created for herself in New York, once back in Mississippi Clark slipped back into a family aura of Southern nostalgia. The Sons of Confederate Veterans had turned out by the thousands for the 1898 funeral of her great-uncle, Senator Edward Cary Walthall, and local friends and family now welcomed her homecoming.

In spite of proddings by her friends and former colleagues in the North, Kate Freeman Clark declined invitations to participate in exhibitions by various amateur and semi-professional art clubs springing up across the South in the 1920s and 1930s, because these groups could not meet the artistic standards set by the memory of her student days in New York. Clark lived a sheltered life, with a complete household staff and a number of pets. Based on a family tree leading back on her mother's side to a brace of Anglican ministers in eighteenth-century Virginia, Clark became active in both the Colonial Dames of America and the Daughters of the American Revolution. In 1936 she helped to organize the first pilgrimage tours of antebellum homes in Holly Springs to celebrate the centennial of the town's founding. Her correspondence makes evident the contrast between her comfortable lifestyle and the difficulties of artists such as Irving Wiles and Clark's female colleagues who struggled to carry on as full-time painters in New York during the Great Depression and World War II.

In the years leading up to her death in 1957 -- upon which she bequeathed to the city of Holly Springs the Walthall family home, her entire collection of paintings left in New York, and the funds to construct a museum -- Kate Freeman Clark, like "Mama" Kate before her, participated in meetings of the Thursday Club. This women's group had been meeting for tea and cultural discussions on a regular basis in Holly Springs since 1896, the summer of Clark's first enrollment at Shinnecock. Like "Mama" Kate, she sometimes composed musical pieces such as patriotic or school songs. Occasionally, however, she would present to the group a paper detailing her experiences in the North, and in particular recalling fondly the years of devoted study under her master teacher, William Merritt Chase, the guiding star for her artistic career.


Note: Because of his broad historical vision which extended beyond mere "past politics," I dedicate this catalog essay to the memory of the late Dr. Sammy O. Cranford, my thesis director at Delta State University. Also, I extend my deepest appreciation to Dr. Edward L. Bond, my best editor and best friend. - KMJ


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