The Grecian Landscapes of Anna Richards BrewsterPosted: October 1, 2017
The American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) has an interesting, albeit odd, art collection. It comprises mostly oils and watercolors, with a few three-dimensional exceptions, such as Paul Manship’s bronze Actaeon. The card inventory that George Huxley and Mary Lee Coulson created in the late 1980s was replaced by a database I developed in the 1990s, in order to record the whereabouts of the artworks which frequently moved from building to building without any notice.
While some of the objects were bequeathed to the ASCSA by former staff and members, most of the material lacks provenance. My first database was short on content, but the more I delved into the School’s institutional records and collections of personal papers, the more interesting information I discovered about the origin of some of the art pieces. In the case of Amory Gardner’s fine portrait by Anders Zorn, I found that it was a gift from the Groton School in 1938.
The sources of some of the modern paintings (e.g., those by Martyl Langsdorf or Tita Fasciotti) were puzzling at first because I could not connect them with any gifts. The advent of the internet, however, has solved many of these mysteries. Searches for artists’ names revealed that some of the modern paintings were connected with Saint Louis, suggesting that some may have come to the School together with the personal papers of archaeologist George Mylonas, who taught at the Washington University in Saint Louis for several decades. (See “The Spirit of Saint Louis Lives in Athens“.)
Inventorying purposes aside, my preoccupation with the School’s art collection did not stem from an art historical interest but instead from a need to contextualize it: for it seemed that each piece had a biography that continued past the death of its creator and owner(s). With patience, some luck, and a good amount of research in the School’s archives, I soon concluded that there was an interesting story to be told about many of these objects, a story that connected them with men and women once intimately bound up with the ASCSA.
The Elusive Mistresses of the American School
As I have noted elsewhere “of the 200 men and women who attended the School’s academic program from 1881 to 1918, the outgoing letters of fewer than a dozen members have survived, and of those only the letters of about six students (or spouses of students, such as Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor) have found their way back to the School’s Archives.” Their letters are treasure troves of information about expatriate life in Greece in the late 19th/early 20th centuries as their creators wanted to capture and convey to their across-the-Atlantic families every moment of their exotic adventures. The letters are also full of people’s names, but, unless a name appears in the official records of the American School, they are meaningless.
“Saturday afternoon Mrs. Townsend gave a picnic at Kephissia… The Gardners were there, Mr. Henderson, Miss Thorman, Miss Negreponte, the Gulicks, Admiral Tufnell, Bijou Eliot, the Salmonds… and Mr. Drope from the British School” wrote Zillah Dinsmoor to her mother (April 29, 1912). Aside from the Gardners (Ernest Gardner was the director of the British School of Archaeology) and the Gulicks (Charles B. Gulick was the Annual Professor for 1911-1912) most of the other names are not traceable. Even Miss Negreponte (Helen Negreponte), who is also frequently mentioned in Carl Blegen’s diaries… remains an elusive one. There is the additional difficulty in identifying people in old letters: married women were always referred to by their husband’s surname, without any other indication.
Looking to satisfy my curiosity about the origins of this custom to name women after their husbands’ name, I came across an informative article titled “Mistress, Miss, Mrs or Ms: Untangling the Shifting History of Women’s Titles” on the NewStatesman (September 12, 2014). There I learned that “Mistress is the root word of both of the abbreviations ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, just as ‘Mr’ is an abbreviation of ‘Master’”; also that “neither ‘mistress’ nor ‘Mrs’ bore any marital connotations” in Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary of 1755; and that until the 19th century most women did not have a prefix before their name, only women of higher social status, married or unmarried. When a woman was referred to as ‘Mrs’ (i.e., a mistress), it meant that “she governed servants or apprentices,” whether in a household or in a business.
“Mt. Hymettus from the American School”
Back to the mistresses who were frequenting the grounds of the American School in the spring of 1912: “I have been quite a bit with Mrs. Wheeler, Mrs. Brewster and Mrs. Robinson” wrote Zillah to her mother a few days earlier (April 18, 1912). It wasn’t difficult to guess the identity of two of the women: Mrs. Wheeler (née Jane Hunt Pease) was the wife of James R. Wheeler, professor of Greek at Columbia University and Chair of the ASCSA Managing Committee (1901-1918), while Mrs. Robinson was probably the wife of Charles A. Robinson, professor of Classics at Princeton, who was also spending time in Greece in 1912. Brewster’s name, however, did not appear either in the narrative or in the lists of Louis E. Lord’s History of the American School (1947). It was only in a recent reading of Zillah’s letter that it flashed in my mind that I had seen Mrs. Brewster’s name before. But where?
The following passage in Zillah’s letter helped me make the connection. “Yesterday afternoon Mrs. Brewster gave us an exhibition of her paintings and dearest, I wish you could see them… She had about seventy-five, some from Spain, many of Egypt and a few she had done in Greece. You would love Mrs. Brewster,” asserted Zillah to her mother further adding that “her father was an artist, Mr. Richards.” It was then that I realized where I had seen the “Brewster” name before: signed on a painting in the School’s art collection. A quick check on the database confirmed my suspicion. One of the oils was signed: A.R. Brewster. The google search proved even more rewarding. There were several entries for Anna Richards Brewster (1870-1952), including a short documentary about her on YouTube, as well as references to a recent exhibit catalog by Judith Kafka Maxwell, Anna Richards Brewster, American Impressionist (Berkeley 2008).
The daughter of two gifted people, the poet and playwright Anna Matlack and the landscape painter William Trost Richards, Anna Richards Brewster studied painting in good schools (Cowles Art School, Art Students League of New York, and Académie Julian) and with famous teachers such as the muralist John LaFarge. She also travelled extensively with her family to Europe (1890-1895) and painted alongside her father during their travels. In 1896, Anna settled in London where for the next nine years she kept a public studio at Chelsea. Convinced that she would remain unmarried, her meeting and marrying William Tenney Brewster, a professor of literature at Barnard College, was an unexpected but welcome event in Anna’s life. Bill Brewster never ceased to support his wife’s work throughout their life together. They continued to travel a lot and to faraway places, including trips to North Africa, Syria, and Palestine. On their way to one of these places, they stopped in Greece, in the spring of 1912, to join the Wheelers. Brewster and Wheeler were colleagues at Columbia. It was through the Wheelers that Bill and Anna Brewster socialized with other members of the American School including the Dinsmoors.
Brewster’s painting, which adorns the small sitting room in the Director’s house, is, like most of her other paintings, of small dimensions (12×16 inches). On the back of the old frame, the theme is identified by Anna herself as: “Mt. Hymettus from the American School.” Looking at the painting, one sees in the foreground the School’s lower garden, once full of olive trees, with its characteristic stone wall. Next come the tall cypresses of Moni Petraki (the near-by monastery) and part of the church’s bell tower (which no longer exists). The entire scene is set against a barren Hymettus. Her greens are soft but vibrant. The painting is signed on the lower left side.
Brewster’s painting of the School’s garden and Mt. Hymettus is a modest one compared to her other work. Anna was a gifted, versatile painter who drew inspiration from a wide array of themes. Her scenes of Arab streets and markets are simply enthralling. The streets of New York are equally captivating. Zillah’s description implied that Anna had displayed at the School a fair number of paintings inspired from Greece. With this in mind I embarked on a quest to locate Brewster’s other Grecian paintings. I was curious because while I could recall the names of several British and American women travelling to and writing about Greece in the 19th/early 20th century, I couldn’t evoke any foreign woman traveler painting Greece during the same time. (While discussing this with Professor Geraldine Gesell, she reminded me of Mary Hogarth’s watercolor of the Church of St. Eleutherius in Athens from ca. 1890). I think that paintings of Greece by women travelers are rare or remain unknown because very few of them exhibited their work publicly for lack of institutional support or other patronage.
I succeeded in locating five more Grecian landscapes by Brewster: the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, the Temple of Aphaia on the island of Aigina (?), the Nike Temple on the Acropolis, as well as a view of the Corinthian Gulf. Notice how in her paintings of Greek temples, Brewster opted for a partial and angle view, just as if she were catching them with the corner of her eye. (One of her paintings, the Olympieion I believe, was sold for $12,000 a few years ago. The Jaffa Gate was sold for $10,000 at Christies, April 12, 2007.)
Yet, I found from other sources that she painted many more Greek landscapes. Coverage in the press of an exhibit that Anna held in 1915 at the Arlington Galleries on Madison Avenue, writes that “the sketches along the Ionian isles [were] simply delightful” (American Art News, February 6, 1915). In The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (February 7, 1915), which dedicated the largest part of a column to Brewster’s art show, her Greek landscapes received special praise: “and [if] her set of Greek canvases is more attractive than any other, which is doubtful,” it is because “of her revelation of the translucent atmosphere in Greece. Several canvases reveal delightfully the Acropolis at Athens, for the famous building is seen in many aspects, and with its surroundings. Elsewhere is the wild region of Greece in ‘Taygetus, From the Acropolis of Sparta,’ and that in the ‘View from the Temple of Delphi.’ And there is the classic ‘Mount Hymettus from the American School at Athens,’ besides a view of Salamis from the Acropolis at Athens… Very beautiful is ‘Nauplis from Tiryns,’ from a panoramic standpoint, as, also, is ‘The Argive Plain’.”
Very few of Brewster’s Grecian landscapes appear in the Smithsonian’s large database (SIRIS) which lists 254 of her works. About half of her catalogued paintings belong to the Lyman Allyn Museum in New London, Connecticut, the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Georgia, the Museum of City of New York, the Butter Institute of American Art in Youngstown in Ohio, and the Massillon Museum in Ohio. The other half is still being traded in the art galleries of New York and Philadelphia. Finally, about a dozen are listed in private collections. With the exception of the “The Foothills of Parnassus,” which belongs to the Indianapolis Museum of Art (no image available, however), almost all of her other Greek paintings must be part of private collections (some could also be lost).
If “Mount Hymettus from the American School at Athens” was on display in New York in 1915, how did it find its way back to Athens? Through the so-called Blegen collection, after Carl Blegen’s death in 1971. (Elizabeth Blegen bequeathed their house on 9 Ploutarchou to the American School.) But when and how did the Blegens obtain the painting? I suspect that it was Elizabeth who acquired it, naturally because of its theme, but also because she herself as a good painter must have known and admired Anna Brewster’s art. It is also likely that Elizabeth knew the Brewsters personally, from the time she did graduate work at Columbia in 1912-15. Did she also attend Anna’s show in February 1915? And did she buy “Mount Hymettus” as a present to her close friend and teacher Ida Thallon, who had lived at the American School for two years at the turn of the century? Maybe I am imagining too much…
A New Alice in the Old Wonderland
Something more to add about Anna Richards Brewster. Anna was raised in a Quaker family in Philadelphia, one of eight children. Her father William Trost Richards was a landscape painter associated with the Hudson River School and the pre-Raphaelite movement. Anna and her siblings (one of who would win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1914) were unusually lucky to also have an enlightened mother, the writer Anna Matlack Richards (1834-1900). Today Matlack is remembered for her alternative version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in the Wonderland. Hers, A New Alice in the Old Wonderland, which appeared in 1895, offered an expanded version of the main story based on the stories she invented for her children when they were small. New Alice was the product of Matlack’s collaboration with her daughter Anna, who illustrated her mother’s stories, following, however, the style of the original illustrations by John Tenniel. According to Carolyn Sigler, an authority on alternative “Alices,” Matlack’s New Alice was a brave one who “maintained power over her own fantasy, rather than allowing herself to become its victim,” very much like the daughter she had raised.