Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted November 2, 2004 in Resource Library with permission of the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia. The essay is contained in a brochure which was published in connection with an exhibit of the same name being held at the Georgia Museum of Art October 9-December 5, 2004. We express appreciation to Bonnie Ramsey of the Georgia Museum of Art for bringing the essay to our attention. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to purchase a copy of the brochure please contact the Georgia Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead's (1861-1955) Idealized Visions About Simple Living and Arts and Crafts

by Heidi Nasstrom Evans

 

Whitehead's Life at Arcady

Following their extended honeymoon trip abroad (1892-1893), the Whiteheads moved to the land of sunshine, settling in the sublime landscape of Montecito, California. The Whiteheads designed their home, Arcady, which resembled a Mediterranean villa, with an architect named Samuel Ilsley. They created Arcady's exterior, interiors, outbuildings, and landscape as an organic whole. Even its residents and visitors figured into the design of the house and grounds. In a description addressed to her mother, Whitehead writes:

I am lying on the loggia, and she [a visiting pianist] is playing in the studio with the windows open so I get all the brilliance and speech of Chopin as I look at the blue mountains and blue sea and feel the sunshine and breeze at the same time. It all comes up to me! She makes color and form. What a power! [14]

Here, Whitehead expresses her passion for Chopin's music played by an inspired pianist. Lyrical interpretations of the blue mountains and sea, sunshine and breeze to which Whitehead refers are seen in her paintings of California, such as the landscape in figure 6.

Her desire to create and experience the interpenetration of life and art within her Arcadian landscape reflects the international avant-garde trend of Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, that combined art, science, and metaphysics and dissolved the typical distinctions and hierarchies within the arts that valued fine arts over crafts and other forms of expression. Spearheaded by the German existentialist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), the Gesamtkunstwerk was one of a number of mid-nineteenth-century secular philosophies about holistic living. American Transcendentalism, for example, relates to the Gesamtkunstwerk's organic approach to life and may have been a more direct source of inspiration for Whitehead. The Transcendentalists included writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. These early back-to-nature advocates were part of a larger unorganized group of thinkers and doers including naturalists John Muir and John Burroughs (who later visited Byrdcliffe), and the California architect Bernard Maybeck about whom Charles Keeler wrote The Simple Home (1906). The California model described by Keeler is similar to the environment Whitehead realized at Arcady:

A movement toward a simpler, a truer, a more vital art expression, is now taking place in California. It is a movement which involves painters and poets, composers and sculptors, and only lacks coordination to give it a significant influence upon modern life. One of the first steps in this movement, it seems to me, should be to introduce more widely the thought of the simple home-to emphasize the gospel of the simple life, to scatter broadcast the faith in simple beauty, to make prevalent the conviction that we must live art before we can create it. [15]

In 1894, when the Whiteheads settled in Montecito, they were among the early proponents of simple living in California. Painting eucalyptus in a studio, which was probably on the grounds of the Montecito estate (figure 7), Whitehead was the "poet-painter" of Arcady, a name that refers to a district in ancient Greece where people were known for simplicity and contentment. The Whiteheads lived there until their move to Byrdcliffe in 1903. [16] Whitehead's studios at Arcady followed the fashion current in Paris and throughout the Western artistic world.

The studio-salon, a place to paint and exhibit one's work, was also a place to receive guests. Typically, it was a tall room with a balcony from which hung oriental rugs or textiles. The walls, too, were adorned with textiles, rugs or tapestries. The work of the artist and that of his or her friends, covered the walls or was found casually arrayed on chairs and, more formally, set on easels. Large storage pieces and chairs in the style of the sixteenth to seventeenth century were common furnishings. Exotic touches appeared in the form of oriental brass work lamps or braziers. Oriental rugs or animal skins often lay scattered about the floor. [17]

The passage describes the contents of Whitehead's studio; however, her main studio within Arcady, built on a grander scale than the one illustrated, reflects the studio-salon type architecturally as well. It was double in height with "an open vaulted wooden roof, and underneath the gallery . . . a dais crossing the entire room."[18] With a balcony on one end and windows providing natural light on the other, it had an enormous Gothic-style hooded fire mantel protruding into the center of the space. A tiger skin, upholstery and other textiles on the walls and the stairwell, including those designed by Arts and Crafts luminaries William Morris and C. F. A. Voysey, and copies of ancient and Renaissance sculpture and paintings intermingle with Whitehead's paintings and those of her contemporaries. [19]

Individualized to Whitehead's specifications, her studio also featured a music gallery. [20] Numerous references in Whitehead's calendars from 1898 through 1900 refer to visiting musicians and to performances, supporting the idea that Whitehead's studio acted as a studio, music gallery, and social space. Music continued to be an important facet of the couple's life into their Byrdcliffe years. A circa 1892 portrait in the exhibition shows her playing a madola. Her publication The Morning Songs Sang Together: Folk-Songs and Other Songs for Children (1903), for which she designed the evening landscape featured on the book cover, is another material manifestation of music's sustained presence in her artistic life.

Whitehead was closer to nature at Arcady than when she traveled from one glamorous urban environment to the next as a young woman living abroad. Yet, she continued to wish for greater simplicity in her material world. Hence, the following quotation from a letter she wrote to her husband in 1900, when they were searching for an ideal site for their simple life:

My dear Twin, Yes, let's talk about life. I think a good deal about the questions you have mentioned. . . . With [the occupation of writing] you can combine the principle of living like a peasant. Taken as we are at this time of life and in this house we could not carry it out very far but at any rate we can strive in that direction. Keeping early hours, eating simple food, and working the ground, as if it were someone else we were doing it for, which if done-without fretting-results in health. [21]

 

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