A funny thing happened to me at Morven Museum and Garden's first ever art exhibit, "Capturing the Spirit: Virginia Snedeker and the American Scene." I did and didn't see the most interesting painting in the show, a self-portrait, tempera on panel, from 1938. And to be honest, it is and isn't in the show. Like the two other Snedeker self-portraits on view on Morven's second floor, it radiates intelligence, determination, and character. For me, this is the "spirit" being captured in paintings so vivid with the artist's presence that you feel you've walked into her Greenwich Village studio 70 years ago and are watching her at work.
My reaction to the image accompanying this review has itself been a work in progress. Although I had spent well over an hour with the exhibit, what attracted most of my attention was the art Virginia Snedeker did for the New Yorker, which has been informatively and imaginatively arranged by curator Anne Gossen. Later, when I saw this mysterious self-portrait online, I didn't have a clear sense of having actually encountered it. So I went back to Morven for a second look and discovered why I was being haunted by a painting I couldn't remember seeing. The actual work wasn't there; instead, a reproduction was displayed in the room documenting the artist's relationship with the New Yorker. According to Ms. Gossen, the actual painting had to be held back because of the time and expense that would have been required to refurbish it.
Looking beyond the design and execution, the subtle pastel colors and flesh tones, the pose, and the odd placement of the hands, you find yourself in a Mona Lisa moment. What is this person thinking about? She looks more like a girl up past her bedtime than a woman of 29 (she was born in 1909). What is it in her expression that makes you wonder if she's as lost and vulnerable as she appears to be? At the same time, the pose is structured in a way that suggests she might be deliberately mirroring an image out of the work of an old master, perhaps that of a martyr submitting to her fate. And what's she wearing? An artist's smock, of course, since she has three paint brushes in her hands. Yet she seems not to know she's holding them. It's as though someone had inserted them at odd angles in the still-life formed by her hands. Placed one above the other, pointing in different directions, the hands are like a detail waiting to be extracted and studied, a painting within the painting. Look at her eyes in relation to her hands and you can imagine that her thoughts could be compared to the either/or placement of her hands. You could imagine that she's either haunted by a memory or looking toward some impending, life-changing event. It's 1938, World War II is looming, and less than a year later she will do a New Yorker cover fraught with the evils already taking place in the world outside the Bohemian enclave of Greenwich Village.
I know, I'm reading too much into it. But it's a painting that asks to be read. Why not go even farther then? In view of what we know of her life after 1938, let's say that this is a portrait of an artist sounding herself and coming up with intimations of war, marriage, an interrupted career, children, the dream of art giving way to the reality of domestic life and motherhood. This is what happened. She married in 1942; her husband, fellow artist William Lindsay Taylor, went to war; and she went to work in an aircraft plant. He came back, they had children, and the last dated painting in the show tells the story: a portrait of her little girl done in 1949, with this note: "She was never quite happy with the result" because she was "constrained by interrupted work sessions." You know what that means.
I was once close to two artists of Snedeker's generation, both, like her and her husband, students of Kenneth Hayes Miller, both WPA muralists. Both these painters lived and died according to the cardinal rule that their art must come first. One of them avoided "interrupted work sessions" by never having children. The other had a child she loved but without ever relinquishing her death-grip on her art. She produced wonderful work, achieved serious recognition in spite of painting in the unfashionable "urban realist" mode, but on the domestic level, she suffered and so did her only child.
Kids at Play
On my first visit to the exhibit, it was, again, Snedeker's vignettes for the New Yorker, termed "spot art," and her New Yorker covers, that appealed to me more than her oil paintings. She had a knack for capturing a broad spectrum of humorous human attitudes and situations, especially in the context of the city, which explains why the editors of the magazine put her under contract. Her gift for this sort of quick study is evident in After School (1935), one of her most accomplished paintings. With its clarity and smooth, clean lines, it's also the work that most clearly reveals Kenneth Hayes Miller's influence. What makes it stand out is the way she's able to portray the simultaneity of all these clusters of human action without crowding the canvas: kids at play, kids at war, hopscotch, rollerskating, girls gossiping, boys fighting with fists, or sword and shields. A baseball game is in progress while boys on another side of the playground are getting ready to play ball, too, The whole scene is nicely structured, the stanchions of the El giving it a framework, the playground a grey area between a predominantly beige fore and background. All these self-contained little dramas are taking place with plenty of space between each one. Again, you can see what would have translated nicely into New Yorker art. In fact, this would have made an excellent cover.
The New Yorker Work
Virginia Snedeker's spot and cover art for the New Yorker could sustain an interesting exhibit all by itself. Ms. Gossen has done a first-rate job of laying out the evidence for anyone who wants to see how things worked between the magazine and its artists. Of particular interest is the 1944 letter sent to all artists concerning cover art relating to the Fourth of July; the editors suggested something "frankly patriotic this year," specifying a visual play on the idea of the "fireworks quality" of a "night battle," as long as the notion of war was not trivialized.
The three Snedeker cover illustrations that were actually used are on view, both as she submitted them and as they appeared in the issues of June 10, 1939, February 3, 1940, and May 17, 1941. Also displayed are a number of others that were submitted and rejected. All three of the ones that were used reflect the world of an artist: one takes place in an art gallery, another in a post office where a WPA artist is painting a mural (as she herself would do in the Audubon, Iowa post office), but the most interesting is the one for June 10, 1939, that shows a grim-faced man and woman carrying a huge, horrific painting on their way to display it in the Greenwich Village outdoor art show and sale. The painting is like a nightmare cartoon of people enslaved, persecuted, begging for mercy; women and children fleeing the firestorm of war; figures shrouded in black bowing before crosses in a graveyard; a boa constrictor covered with swastikas; a fat, top-hatted capitalist with a bag of money in one hand and a whip in the other; a black man in chains; and along for the ride: Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Hirohito, and, apart from the others, Josef Stalin, who remains aloof since, according to the posted commentary, the artists carrying the painting are meant to be Bolsheviks. Today, politically themed New Yorker covers are common, but not in 1939. Virginia Snedeker's ambitious work marks the magazine's first presentation of cover art containing recognizable caricatures of public figures.
How admirable, and how extraordinary, that this painter could compose the subtle, gentle, mysterious image of herself reproduced on this page virtually the same year she had the range, strength of character, and vision to create, submit, and sell the New Yorker a vision at once satirical and passionately political, and yet open to the local color of tenement fire escapes, water towers, and the outdoor art show where a mousy, bespectacled female artist is all but falling off her chair as she observes this massive image of hell dwarfing her neatly hung little water colors of flowers and sail boats.
When you go to the exhibit, you might want to spend some time face to face with the portrait of Virginia Snedeker's great-great-great-great grandmother, Annis Boudinot Stockton, who gave Morven its name. Here were two spirited, creative, lovely women, one who expressed herself in painting, the other in poetry.
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