American Aristocracy | GODS OF COPLEY SQUARE | Magic II.
John Singer Sargent was not the only artist in Copley Square whose art disclosed a powerful engagement with black men. Nor was Tom McKeller the only African American model who was apparently as much muse as model. The seminal late 19th- and early twentieth-century pictorialist photographer F. Holland Day was even more strongly identified with the portrayal, indeed, the ennobling, of male African Americans, in which cause he enlisted his favorite model, J. Alexandre Skeete. Day was, in fact, among the first American artists of which that could be said.
A pioneer of late 19th- and early 20th-century art photography, Day was dedicated to raising this relatively new medium to the level of the fine arts, even lifting it into the realm of, say, a Sargent portrait. When in 1901 he moved his studio from Boston’s older Bohemia on Beacon Hill, centered on Pinckney Street on the South Slope, to the newer Back Bay Bohemia around Huntington Avenue and St. Botolph Street, he established a new base of operations in the Harcourt Studio Building between Irvington and Harcourt Streets, a building filled with Boston’s best known artists, most connected with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, including William McGregor Paxton, Edmund Tarbell, Joseph DeCamp and Charles Woodbury.
According to his best biographer, Patricia J. Fanning — best not least because Fanning is a sociologist and not an art historian and looks at Day clear-eyed — the move marked a turning point in Day’s life: “although he participated in several exhibitions in 1902, including Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession in March, the 7th International Salon in Paris in May and the 10th Linked Ring Salon [in London] in October, the Harcourt studio enabled [Day] to curate his own shows for the first time.” Moreover, she observes, Day in his new situation “encouraged the use of this studio as a gathering place and work room for acquaintances, associates, and proteges, sharing techniques, supplies, and equipment, and testing models, props, backgrounds and picturesque settings with others.”
Among the first such projects, characteristically, was one in which Day involved himself in an informal collaboration with his close friend and fellow photographer, Clarence White, wherein Day himself posed, probably in 1902, for a series of photographs by White of Day with a black model, a case not just of black and white, but of fully clothed (Day) and naked (the black model). The pose, indeed, illustrated here shows Day at his most decadent-seeming, “very much the refined aesthete . . . wearing a cravat and pince-nez and holding a cigarette. Behind him, the barely visible figure of a nude black man echoes with a pensive pose the elegant gesture of [Day’s]” — I am quoting from the curatorial notes that accompany this work on the website of New York’s Metropolitan Museum — “a soft focus enhances the dreamlike effect: muse, alter ego, or erotic phantasm, the shadowy presence seems a creation of [Day’s] mind.”
The author of the Met’s description, who mistakenly assumes the work was solely Day’s and only discovered in 2005, is, however, more on the mark when the photograph is described, with respect to Day, as “private, nearly confessional.” It is certainly very intriguing and provocative and meant to be. My own gloss is that this work is sufficiently mysterious, and in that at least goes to the heart of Day’s life and work.
The model in this photograph is too dimly lit to be identifiable. But Day as much as Sargent seems to have had his young black male muse — J. Alexandre Skeete who like Thomas E. McKeller daily crossed over the railroad bridge from the South End to engage Day as forcefully perhaps as McKeller engaged Sargent; not, I think, so intimately, but certainly very personally, as is disclosed by a half dozen or so letters made available to me by my friend and colleague, Professor Patricia J. Fanning of Bridgewater State University and quoted here for the fist time. Certainly they speak to the place of the artist’s model of color in 1890s Copley Square, disclosing same from a point of view not usually heard from — the model himself.
“I receive your letter” — note Skeete’s linguistic fluency but problematic grammar and punctuation in this letter of June, 1897 — “and was glad to hear from you in such short time. I feel much better regarding the loan. I did not state the amount through lack of embarrassment but I will and tell you what for in detail I am not afraid to let you know my condition I want to get a suit so that I can make a respectable appearance . . . and besides get sundry articles so I think 20$ will cover the whole thing but Mr. Day I would like to pay you back very much. I have never done anything for you that you should give me a gift.”
Unlike McKeller, whose career path as a bellhop would likely have been in hotel work, Skeete was an art student at a respectable school, and though he was an alien — a native of British Guiana — it was not an era in which that status was crippling, and we know that by 1900 he was employed as an illustrator, of which more soon. Still, his was no easy path, as another missive 1897 to Day makes plain, though it perhaps also shows his “artistic temperament”, also of which more soon:
It is now 11:30 PM. have been in bed but could not sleep I don’t know what ails me I have been this way since Sunday during the day I try to read but I can’t get interested what do you think is the matter with me I feel as dull as a door nail I have receive no word from Newport as yet. and the season is flying. Mr Day I get inspired every time I call on you. last Saturday from the time I left you I was a different man I forgot myself my friend on our way home noticed me a good many times I dont know but I forget everything outside of Art and now as I am writing this letter by a very bad light as you termed a candle I feel different If I can only keep from getting discourage but I think the odds are against anyone in my position would here I am idling the whole summer away no work no chance to sketch in fact no nothing I must not bore you on this part of my letter but it is just the way I feel I would not write the same thing to anyone else but I feel towards you as my true friend [both words underlined] a kind you don’t find every day or year (thanks so Hunterbrocken) about him I havent seen or heard of him lately I wonder how he is or where he is the noble personage Must close am getting tired write me a good letter one that will cheer me up Sincerely.
Three years later things were no better. “I hustle around to the different steamship agents” he writes from London, “trying to get a chance to work my way back but to no success . . . I went to see Mr Speed and he gave me a letter to his friend who conducts an Art School, I get 2 week costume [posing] beginning Friday . . . I inform the landlady of my success so she let me stay my two weeks . . . H [presumably the mysterious Hunterbrocken, of which nothing more is known] is a gay bird the news don’t startle me a bit he is capable of doing or saying anything . . . evidently he had forgotten me did he say he was married to a rich lady.”
Skeete’s big break, however, seems to have come the next year, back in Boston, when he was hired as “head of our staff of artists” at the Colored American Magazine, which in its announcement filled in some of his biography: “Mr Skeete was born in British Guiana, S A January 16, 1874 [On his draft card Skeete wrote 1878]. Having inherited an artistic temperament from his mother, he came to Boston in 1888 to begin the study of art. From the first, Mr Skeete showed great promise, and after the required course graduated with honor from the Cowles Art School, Boston. Soon after his graduation, Mr Skeete went abroad to perfect his studies. On his return he immediately took up illustrative work on the Boston Herald and other papers.”
Cowles was Copley Square’s largest art school, not so selective as the Museum School, but important and with a good reputation: the Impressionist Denis Bunker was one of the instructors; Back Bay artist and grand dame Sarah Choate Sears a student there. As important as Cowles was the Colored American Magazine. Founded in 1900 by black Bostonian, Walter Wallace, and considered by historians of American journalism to be the first general African-American magazine, published in the U.S. It was an arts and literary journal first, then abandoned that very Boston and genteel image, moved to New York and took up politics as a theme. In Boston, its home base was in the South End, at 232 West Canton Street, and then on the eastern fringes of Copley Square in what in later decades would become Park Square.
Another high point for Skeete came in 1909 when he married Eliza King of Cambridge, by whom, so the Census reports, he had two children James A. Jr. and Gertrude.
But the decline is swift. In 1913 Skeete is listed in the Boston Street Directory as an “artist.” The next year he is listed as a “janitor,” for knowledge of which recourse to The Negro Wage Earner proves useful: “For the Negro there was usually no chance for advancement. In cases where the Negro janitor was equal in skill to the White the question thrust at a white employer as to whether he would give a Negro a job in preference to a white man usually settled the matter. The large increase of Negroes in such jobs as janitors . . . indicated that in the case of janitors they usually accepted jobs where the pay was less and more work was required than if they had been white.”
That year, 1914, Skeete boarded in the same neighborhood — at a rooming house at 694 Shawmut Avenue — as McKeller, Sargent’s model, who boarded three years later in 1917 at 523 Columbus Avenue. Not until the 1920s is Skeete, still a janitor, listed as living with his wife, and then, in 1931, on Mt. Pleasant Street in Cambridge. Throughout the 1930s his listing is erratic. Finally, in 1937 Eliza, a seamstress, is listed as his widow. By 1937 Skeete would have been only 63. He died, like McKeller, in complete obscurity. Yet McKeller as Atlas was not a more wondrous transformation than Skeete’s through Day’s lens, for famously Day had in 1897 posed Skeete as Menelik, the then Emperor of Ethiopia and namesake of the tenth century ruler who had founded that country. Nor did Day ‘bleach’ Skeete as Sargent had McKeller. Indeed, as Barbara Michaels has pointed out, “Day always chose to photograph dark, rather than light skinned African Americans.”
F. Holland Day, if not J. Alexandre Skeete, has long since been rediscovered. Yet no American artist of his era of transatlantic significance is harder to assess than Day, largely because, in the first place, as Pamela Roberts writes in her biography of the artist in John Hannan’s Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, “Day was not only a man who took calculated risks but was able to carry them off with undeniable photographic expertise and aesthetic judgment,” and, in the second place, he did so in the two discourses never scanted by any of us, sex and race. As Professor Christopher Reed admits, it would be “simplistic to imagine that sex completely explains — or completely corrupts — [Day’s] intellectual and emotional engagement” with other aspects of the culture he was active in, but Day was a key part of the “prolonged debates over the interaction of racial and sexual identity in the early 20th century.”
Even Day’s social position is confusing, and therefore like Sargent’s, whom some would still contend was not a true Boston Brahmin. In Day’s case the way I’d put it is that F. Holland Day was not a Brahmin — not yet; but he certainly was one in the making, all the more interestingly because just at the time the caste’s decline and fall was beginning to develop. Day was an upper middle class person of the sort — like William Barton Rogers or Alexander Graham Bell or H. H. Richardson or Frederick Law Olmsted — that Boston Brahmins at their best were always ready to recruit and assimilate. Already, for instance, he had advanced beyond his parents’ Universalism to Unitarianism, though not yet to Harvard; fatal flaw, Day did not go to college.
Yet of Day’s own Emersonianism there was no doubt. Copley Square, although it chiefly offered jobs to working class residents of the South End, also directly facilitated outright do-goodery there by the Back Bay all the time. Led by Vida Dutton Scudder, a Trinity parishioner and admirer of Phillips Brooks who was the first American woman to enter upon graduate study at Oxford, where she was much influenced by Ruskin’s social teachings and on her return to Boston became a professor at Wellesley College, a group of women (including future Nobel Prize winner, Brahmin born Emily Balch) founded Denison House, the third settlement house in the U.S., in 1890. Day was one of their most stalwart supporters, regular in his work there, where, in fact, he met his best known protege, the Lebanese American poet, Kahlil Gibran — he of The Prophet — whose Arabic writings were as hugely influential in that arena of discourse as his English writings still are in America.
Day also possessed golden credentials. His mother was a close friend of Archibald Grimke, who was born into slavery but worked his way up through enlightened assistance to attend Harvard Law School and become a Boston lawyer, and who dedicated his biography of abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison to Anna Day. Her son grew up as welcoming of black friends as white.
What makes Day so fascinating, however, is that he was also a decadent in many ways, as those Clarence White photographs with the nude black model suggest. For this reason, as we will see shortly, a comparison of Day’s work with Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s is interesting, because Saint-Gaudens was a racist, yet was also a great artist, but knew in order to live up to his artistic principles he had to suspend his racism and seek out the humanity and individuality of all his black models. In Day’s case he had no such problem with his black models, and could easily have become the do-gooder in his art he was in his daily life, which, thanks be, he did not. Day’s pictures of African Americans are very edgy, his “ennobling” very knowing of the human condition generally.
One reason is that Day liked black people, interestingly enough in the same way Sargent did. Sargent once wrote a friend about his need to regularly escape the Anglo-American and European world: “my hatred of my fellow creatures extends to the entire race or to the entire white . . . To call upon a Caucasian when abroad is a thing I never do.” Compare this with a letter to Day from Herbert Copeland, his publisher partner: “How you would love it here! Two whole days and I only saw two white faces.”
The keenest comparison would be to appropriate from Day what Trevor Fairbrother says about Sargent in The Sensualist, that “his pictures of non-Caucasian people, including his male nudes,” seem to that art historian to “straddle . . . sacred and profane instincts,” and, indeed, to reflect “Sargent’s personal battle with repression and self expression, a struggle that in many instances fostered outstanding art.”
The widest discourse Day appears in bears this out, evident in Christopher Reed’s Art and Homosexuality (Oxford University Press, 2011) the first global exploration of that relationship, where Day keeps very good company indeed, as good in his field as William Barton Rogers in his or Phillips Brooks in his. Writes Reed:
While Day and his Boston circle demonstrate Aestheticism’s . . . global reach, European cities continued to attract artists from around the world . . . [who] found in European cities communities of outsiders where artistic and sexual conformity overlapped . . . Images of lesbians in Paris night clubs appear as early as the fin-de-siecle drawings of by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso’s painting titled (after the name of a notorious nightclub) Le Moulin de la Galette.”
Notice that Day’s being an artist seems not incidental to even the sexuality discourse, and Day’s artistic achievement — photography — is only firstly about sexuality; it is, secondly at least, about race.
The extent of the achievement is clear in University of Pittsburgh historian Kirk Savage’s observation in “Race, Art and the Shaw Memorial” in Hope and Glory (Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2001) that the Black soldiers depicted in this arguably greatest of all America’s public sculptures have “a compelling presence” despite the sculptor’s well known racism. That memorial was unveiled in May of 1897. But a month earlier, in April of the same year in Copley Square, Day had exhibited Ebony and Ivory, one of his so-called Nubian series of African Americans at the first Arts and Crafts Exhibition held in America at Copley Hall.
This striking study of a black man holding a white statue (of a white Greek warrior), featured J. R. Carter, a professional model, but all the rest of the series, as Trevor Fairbrother points out, featured an anonymous African American man, who after donning curious headgear and loose robes, assumed stately poses. Contrary to the prevailing racist tendencies in the visual culture of the era, Day captured the strength, grace and thoughtfulness that he admired in the model. He also gave resonant, respectful titles to the imaginary figures in these pictures, including An Ethiopian Chief, Nubia, Menelik, etc. It is now known the model was J. Alexandre Skeete, an artist in his early twenties who had studied in Boston and abroad. He inspired five works by Day that he exhibited frequently at the turn of the century.”
I bring Skeete up again, this time in context, because of the agency Fairbrother imputes to the model: Fairbrother’s word is “inspired.”
In his Colonialism and Homosexuality (Routledge, 2002) Robert Aldrich, in the context of the smaller but still global discourse of European imperialism, notices that a “black man with a Greek statue implies rather heretically at that time, that black beauty could be classically beautiful,” but finds more significance in Day’s use of “African costumes for his black models,” remarking that “where European photographers traveled to the Mediterranean to find their primitive ideal of masculine beauty . . . Day found his models in the thriving black and immigrant neighborhoods of Boston. Like von Gloeden, Day forged long-standing relationships with the men who posed for him. . . . helping J. Alexandre Skeete, the Guyanan immigrant who modeled for An Ethiopian Chief establish his own artistic career. Day’s best known protege was Kahlil Gibran.”
Day’s patronage, though it did not as we’ve seen ensure Skeete’s worldy success (any more than did Sargent’s of McKeller), did ennoble in the highest and best sense, the more effectively because the ennobling too was very worldly. If it was grand enough, heroic enough, to be Atlas, he who upholds the world, it was not less so to be Menelik, Emperor of Ethiopia and namesake of the 10th century emperor and founder. Moreover, Patricia Fanning writes:
Although . . . Menelik may have alluded to ancient history, their modern relevance was obvious to many of Day’s contemporaries, including Alvin F. Sanborn, a social worker and Copeland and Day author who on seeing the Menelik print commented on the ‘ancient savagery, the later humiliation, and the present hopes of the black race.’ . . . In 1896, under the leadership of Menelek I I, Ethiopia successfully repulsed an Italian invasion. The first time a black army had evicted a white occupier.
It is possible to see Day’s work in this respect in a very broad continuum, and to cite wide-ranging repercussions. “Historically, Boston has been the breeding ground” and no wonder, “of Black nationalists and Pan Africanists,” William E Nelson Jr. writes in his Black Atlantic Politics (State University if New York, 2000) “among them W. E. B. DuBois, William Monroe Trotter, Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan,” while historian Pamela Sachant “ties these images [of black artist and model Skeete] to W. E. B. DuBois sense of a distinctive African consciousness.” Furthermore, in The Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora, it was in the wake of the Battle of Adwa that Harvard-trained Alain L. Locke admonished black artists in the U.S. to reclaim their legacy and embrace “the uniquely creative possibilities of their own racial history . . . .result[ing with others] in the artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance.”
Copley Square’s role in the history of photography, as recounted by the authors of Inspiring Reform (Wellesley College Museum, 1997) centers on the fact that “one of the earliest photographic associations in the country was the Boston Society of Amateur Photographers, founded in 1881. Renamed the Boston Camera Club in 1886, this organization became the first official camera club in the country . . . The first exhibition of the Boston Society of Amateur Photographers, with more than 700 prints, was held at MIT in November of 1883. This and subsequent annual exhibitions helped set the standard for photography across the country.” By 1885 the three leading societies — in Boston, New York and Philadelphia — sponsored annual national exhibitions.
In the 1880s Day’s Copley Square was a prep schooler’s square, he having been a student at the Chauncy Hall School on the corner of Dartmouth and Boylston Streets. Sufficient to say the future aesthete found the scene interesting enough. In 1882, the year before he graduated, Oscar Wilde was living diagonally across the street at the Hotel Vendome, his base during part of his American speaking tour. An admiring Day sought Wilde out in Boston to bask in his aesthetic gaze, as he would in London in 1889 and then in the 1890s when, indeed, Day, a huge fan of Aubrey Beardsley, very nearly sat for his portrait to the controversial British artist, who is [whom his?] partner beseeched Day to avoid if he could. It was also in the 1880s that Day and others at Chauncy Hall formed the Athenes Therapes or AT Club, high-profile enough that the study group (Homer, Virgil, Dante) attracted to its Monday evening meeting no less than George Santayana and Bernard Berenson. At decade’s end, moreover, Day signaled new directions when he joined the Boston Camera Club.
Throughout the 1890s Day was based in old Boston, his studio and residence on Beacon Hill on Pinckney and then on River Street, his publishing firm on Cornhill, but even before he moved his studio to the southern fringes of the square to the newer Back Bay Bohemia, he was much involved there as his photographic interests waxed, especially after his “stunning debut at the 1895 London Salon” — I am quoting biographer Patricia J Fanning — where “a handful of photographs” in her words vaulted him to the forefront of of American pictorial photography.”
Dominated otherwise by a New Yorker, Alfred Stieglitz, the emerging art form presented Day with other issues, however, issues precipitated by the insecure and conniving Stieglitz, with whom ultimately Day simply refused to have relations, the New Yorker’s disdain for all things Bostonian the equal of Day’s for all things Manhattanish.
As ever, historically, Boston and New York were playing their accustomed roles as the (more or less threatening) alternative to each other in this as in every other field — one could write a book! — and here again Copley Square had its role to play. In 1899, Day proposed an American Association of American Photography, a Boston-based national photographic salon with gallery space in the Museum of Fine Arts, a coup Day was able to pull off because of his friend and ally Sarah Choate Sears, an artist and fellow photographer but also the wife of J. Montgomery Sears, Boston’s richest man. (Sears photographed Sargent in 1890, by the way, the year after he painted her, perhaps the closest Day and Sargent came to each other, moving as they did in close but different circles.)
Stieglitz managed to derail the idea, but, Day, unfazed, decided to organize what became the first major exhibition of American Pictorialist photography, and denied his Copley Square venue, took it to London and Paris instead, where he scored a huge success. According to Pamela Roberts in John Hannon’s Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography, [“Day’s] subject matter — naked black men and religious scenes — was unlike anything ever seen in photographic exhibitions in London before”.
Already at the Philadelphia Salon in 1899, he had exhibited perhaps the most striking of all his black images, The Ethiopian Chief, as the centerpiece of a triptych entitled Armageddon, of which Fanning writes:
The triptych immediately caused controversy . . . [In] Paris in 1901 Day informed a French critic that ‘the central figure represented the majesty and sternness of Justice,’ the left-hand figure stood for ‘Sin disquieted by punishment, the right depicted the tranquil sleep of the righteous man’. Traditionally it is Christ who separates the sinners from the righteous on Judgment Day, but in Day’s vision, Justice would be meted out by a black man.
It was a bold stroke, the sort of thing one expected from Unitarian Boston — why I call that universe of discourse the first American Modernism — and arguably it “made” Day as a Boston Brahmin. Certainly Barbara Michaels in her “New Light on F. Holland Day’s Photographs of African Americans” in History of Photography, was right to conclude Day’s triptych “turned conventional imagery and conventional wisdom on its head, particularly in largely segregated Jim Crow America.”
Day’s triptych, of course, was much braver than mine, which I have arranged more than a century later. He risked all in the day by daring to show, in Trevor Fairbrother’s words, “a black man with eyes half closed occupying the seat of power or judgment.”
Day’s was the original and more powerful Copley Square triptych.
Armageddon is another MFA treasure that continues to resonate; as recently as 2011 quietly sparking 21st-century repercussions, as Sandra Hines relates on the website of the University of Washington:
Robert Jonas went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts one day when he was in town for a conference, to see an exhibit of European art. But on the way out he stumbled into a photographic exhibit with an arresting image. The photographer — F. Holland Day — active in late 19th-century Boston–had brought an African American man to his studio, dressed him in what he imagined an African chief would wear, and, labeled the image, ‘Menelik’. Jonas, a University of Washington professor, recognized the name instantly. Menelik was the emperor of Ethiopia who in 1896 led his army to victory over Italy in the Battle of Adwa . . . ‘I was intrigued by the idea that a Bostonian, a European American, would want to do a portrait of Menelik . . . ‘It’s pretty obvious to me [Day] was thinking about the impact of the story on post-emancipation America. He was using the photo as a meditation on race relations in the U.S. On the way back to the hotel from the museum, Jonas found his mind racing, imagining a book on the subject.
The result was The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011). Though by no means the first volume on this battle, nor necessarily the most authoritative, Jonas’s book is the first to emphasize how the battle related generally to the American post-Emancipation scene, as opposed to just the African diaspora. Notice how Day’s work related the battle to the American post-Emancipation scene. It is also the first in which Day’s work with respect to race has seemed to trump his work with respect to sexuality, and because, as Jonas points out, Adwa and its consequences are now part of our global heritage, the effect is to re-cast Day’s role in this area from a transatlantic one to a truly global one.
Douglass Shand-Tucci is an historian of American art and architecture and Boston/New England studies. His most recent book is the second volume of his study of the architecture of Ralph Adams Cram (Univ.of Massachusetts Press, 2005) and he also teaches at the Boston Architectural College in the Masters degree program in Historic Preservation. He is the founder of the innovative new history site, Back Bay Historical | Boston CentricGlobal Studies, where his monthly longform blogs have become his principal publishing outlet.