Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 6, 2009 by permission of the author and the Cleveland Artists Foundation. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, of would like to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Cleveland Artists Foundation directly through either this phone number or web address:
Three Generation of Moralists
By Henry Adams
A vein of moral commentary runs through the art of three generations of the Edmondson family: George William Edmondson (1837-1913); his son, George M. Edmondson (1868-1966); and George M.'s daughter, Ivy Jane Edmondson Starr (born in 1909, and still painting today at the age of one hundred). Surely this thread of continuity was arrived at unconsciously, yet when one lines up the work of three generations the parallels (as well as the differences) are fascinating.
The pioneer of this moralizing tendency was Ivy's grandfather, George William Edmondson who worked in Plymouth, Norwalk, and then Cleveland, Ohio.
His masterpiece is a narrative series of twelve stages of "The Drinker's Progress" made in 1880. This starts with "Satan in his laboratory compounding alcoholic beverages," and then progresses to the "First drink at a fashionable party," the "First drink at a public bar," "First intoxication," and onward on an ever faster downward spiral, as the protagonist gets into a fight on the street, attempts to retrieve his fortune at cards, gets cleaned out, commits murder for gain, accosts a lady of the night and is ensnared by her, and finally succumbs to delirium tremens and dies. This last poignant scene shows the man's lonely coffin on a sawhorse, with no mourners present except for a faithful dog.
Technically, the series was no small accomplishment, since it required costumes, settings and ten or eleven models, both men and women, to create. Indeed, one can think of it as a sort of frozen stage play, or as a still from a film. And often little details lend an appropriate air of pathos, such as the torn coat sleeve of the drunkard, which convinces us of his desperate state when he attempts to earn back the fortune he has lost playing cards, or passes out from too much drink and has his pockets picked.
From our present perspective, part of what is fascinating about the series is the sense of layered levels of authenticity and artifice. George William surely had observed some of the dangers he was warning against and was trying to create a truthful document. Indeed, family legend reports that as a young man he liked to consort with gypsies and sometimes disappeared for days at a time. But as would later be seen in early films, such as The Great Train Robbery, part of the charm of the series is our awareness of an element of artifice: the gestures betray the stage conventions of the period, such as those of Delsarte, and the street against which the streetwalker appears, or against which a fight and robbery takes place, is obviously just a painted backdrop. The wicked people in the scenes were clearly not actually wicked, but the photographer's friends: good, upstanding citizens of Norwalk, Ohio, where he had his studio at the time.
While never so didactic, the work of his son George M. Edmondson also celebrates the virtues of the straight and narrow path. During Cleveland's period of greatest prosperity, around the turn of the century, George M. was Cleveland's leading portrait photographer: the photographer of choice for John D. Rockefeller, Mark Hanna, John Severance, and the eighty-odd millionaires who lived on Euclid Avenue, which at the time rivaled the magnificence of Fifth Avenue in New York and was even once termed -- the blighted street of today gives the words a distinctly tragic quality --"the most beautiful street in America." Edmondson photographed the people, and he photographed their homes, most of which are no longer standing.
Two photographs strike me as his masterpieces, among the great visual statements of the period by an artist in any medium. One shows a dinner party at the home of the great kingmaker of the period, Mark Hanna, with President William McKinley in attendance, as well as John Hay, the secretary of state, and a bevy of demure, good-looking women, most of them wearing white. Hanna, of course, was the great political operator of the period, the man who created a succession of Ohio presidents, the man who showed that money and organization could win elections. The scale of the room, the chandelier, the buffet with all its expensive porcelain and glassware and other loot, even the servant standing discretely in the background, make it clear that this is a place of wealth. But wealth clearly doesn't bring relaxation: there's a sobriety to the whole affair, a severity to the expressions, that make it clear that possession of wealth is a stern duty, that the rich must maintain a standard of sober rectitude if they expect to keep the working classes in line. Even the room, with its dark woodwork, has a quality of solemn darkness-a bunker of power, a bastion against the chaotic city outside, a room in which sunshine would be a threat.
The other masterpiece is his photo of the Hanna-McCormick wedding, a match of two great wealthy Cleveland dynasties, and consequently a lavish affair with some twenty people around a table, the men in dark suits that shrink into the darkness, the women equipped with enormous, improbable, white horizontal hats, like wedding cakes balanced on their heads. Almost swallowed up in the dark gloom are the accouterments of the room -- the leather wallpaper, some vases, alabaster statues, and a chandelier so festooned with branches and flowers that it looks like a Christmas tree. Again, what's impressive is the way the photograph captures the grimness of the whole affair: the solemn expressions of these pillars of the social establishment, solemnizing the nuptials of this baby-faced couple. It's a festivity that doesn't feel like all that much fun -- indeed, if one looks closely one can see that the woman on the far left is biting her lip and that the photographer's flash accidentally highlighted a tear in her eye -- she has just been crying. What are her tears about? Do we get a clue from the fierce glare of the man beside her -- perhaps her husband? As in all great art, the photo hints at deeper levels of meaning that we can only guess at: it feels like the beginning of a short story, perhaps a novel; it has something of the weight and ponderousness of the writings of Theodore Dreiser. The nature of wealth and power at the turn of the century -- the pride that Clevelanders felt in having money, and also the severity, the fierceness of the Cleveland ruling class, with its strange tribal rituals -- has never been better captured.
Whether due to his temperament or to his studies in Paris, George William's other artist son, impressionist William John seems to have been relatively untouched by the proclivity towards moralizing. True, his many Cleveland portraits embody the same austere rectitude of George M.'s photographs, but he also painted flappers, bon vivants, and fellow artists. His Portrait of Ora Coltman portrays Edmondson's friend wearing a painter's smock with the open window behind him through which one sees the church and street just outside Coltman's Little Italy studio. William J. preferred landscapes to portraiture, and his many works in that genre reveal him as a perceptive and serene impressionist with a keen sense of light and color.
Given such an artistic family, it is not surprising that George M.'s daughter, Ivy Jane Edmondson, who on her marriage became Ivy Jane Starr, pursued a career in the arts. Her training came from teachers like Paul Travis and Henry Keller at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and included a stint in New York with the famed Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton -- who provided a lesson in the dangers of drink almost as memorable as the photographs of her grandfather. For a while Jackson Pollock -- "a very intense young man" -- was her classmate. When she and her husband moved to Cincinnati, she took up sculpture under Charles Cutler at the Cincinnati Art Academy. However, Ivy affirms that her most important teacher was William J. Edmondson, her "Uncle Will." Her artistic career, which she pursued while working as a schoolteacher and raising four children, has been quite varied: landscapes, portraits, collage, and hand-hewn stone sculpture of children and animals. But it is striking that her latest and most ambitious series of paintings has been in a moralizing vein-a series of scenes setting Biblical stories in contemporary guise. Sarai, Hagar and Abraham; Tamar and Judah; Joseph and Potiphar's wife; David and Bathsheba; David and the Queen of Sheba.
The genius of the series is the way it peers into the bare narrative of the Biblical accounts and peoples them with convincing three-dimensional characters: cowboys, urban hipsters, Palm Beach partygoers, housewives and widows, each one vividly and memorably personified. And often it brings out elements of the Biblical narrative that we generally forget, such a the fact that Moses began his career as something of a wimp, overshadowed by his strong-willed wife and his stronger and more eloquent brother, Aaron. Like the work of her grandfather, there's a sense of comic melodrama to Ivy's paintings; but also an underlying seriousness, since she seeks to explore how these distant events are not shut off from us, but illuminate the present moment.
Another aspect of this tendency to moralize are the two paintings, Just Too Many of Us and What the Frogs Are Telling Us, which wryly comment on the dangers of over-population and the damaging of some aquatic species through the loss of habitat, pollution and the thinning of the ozone layer. Tuned in to current events and scientific news, Ivy offered up her interpretation of the negative impact of human activity on the world around us.
Three generations of moralists. There's a continuity to
the family art product, as it extends through several generations, but what's
also intriguing is the way in which the notion of moral standards subtly
shifts from didactic statement, to a more reportorial view, to a frank delight
in human folly and the vagaries of human character. In the progression one
can get a glimpse of the way that America itself has evolved, from the certainties
of the 19th century to the more fluid multicultural society of the modern
1 Daughters of Eve: Portraits of Women of the Old Testament, Paintings and Text by Ivy-Jane Starr, Mountain-Edmondson Press, 1998.
About the author
Paul Travis (1891-1975): A Retrospective, a Resource Library article, cited the exhibition as curated by Henry Adams of the Cleveland Museum of Art and Case Western Reserve University.
About the exhibition
Art in the Veins: The Legacy of the Edmondson Family in Cleveland was held June 13 - August 1, 2009 at the Cleveland Artists Foundation. From the late 1800s through the whole of the 20th century, the Edmondsons -- a family of painters, printmakers, sculptors and photographers -- were major contributors to the arts in Northeastern Ohio. This exhibition tells the story of a family and the place that formed them. Artists featured in the exhibition include George William Edmondson (1837-1913, George Mountain Edmondson (1866-1948), William John Edmondson (1868-1966) and Ivy Jane Edmondson Starr (b. 1909).
Resource Library editor's note
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on August 6, 2009, with permission of the author and the Cleveland Artists Foundation, which was granted to TFAO on August 6, 2009.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Lauren Hansgen, Interim Director, Cleveland Artists Foundation for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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