Poster Girl

Model with Lily, 1897

Model with Lily, 1897

Last week I received an unusual email from a baseball fan who will go unnamed here. It provides me with an excuse to share with you one of my (regrettably) all-too-many non-sports interests: nineteenth-century graphic art, from antebellum engravings and lithographs to Art Nouveau posters. From the email: ” My wife and I are avid fans of vintage posters, and Ethel Reed is one of our favorite artists. Some years ago, when Reed’s personal history was still more unknown than it is now, I was looking online for whatever I could find — and was stunned when I found material by a ‘John Thorn.’ I didn’t imagine it could possibly be ‘the same you’ who writes the baseball books, but I readily saw that indeed they’re both you.”

Yep. My long-dead loves include not only Ethel Reed but also Annette Kellermann, Evelyn Nesbit, and Mary Astor. But back to Miss Reed, about whom I wrote the following for the Woodstock Times ten years ago this month:

Some years ago when I wrote regularly for this paper on art, I devoted two successive columns to Edmonia Lewis, a sculptress, as they called her back in the day, of mixed Negro and American Indian breed … again as they used to say. She was a fantastic character with a propensity for self-invention, so not all the strange stories about her could be corroborated as fact, but what did it matter, if her art were fine? Born near Albany, New York on the Fourth of July 1844, according to her passport application, she lived on a reservation as a child, was educated at Oberlin, and came to fame in Boston during the Civil War. Her sculpture was at first of indifferent quality, the critics wrote, but there was to be said for it the splendid novelty of brown hands on white marble. (For those interested to learn more about her, see the two-parter “Inventing Edmonia Lewis” at: http://goo.gl/2wCsRc and http://goo.gl/U5ngWQ.)

Her supporters sent her to Rome in 1865 to advance her art, which she did: her crowning achievement, Cleopatra,was exhibited to acclaim at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. By the turn of the century the vogue for neoclassical sculpture had waned, and Lewis ended her days in Europe. No one knows precisely where or when. I came across a census listing for her from 1901, locating her at 154 Store Street in London, near Bloomsbury, where she worked at home as an “artist/modeller.” Scholar Marilyn Richardson placed her back in Rome by decade’s end, but there the trail appeared to vanish [until recently, when Ms. Richardson’s research confirmed Edmonia Lewis’s burial at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, in London, in 1907]. All along for Edmonia Lewis, the life and the art had competed for public attention; at the end both receded from view.

Edmonia Lewis

Edmonia Lewis

The same could be said, almost eerily, of another Boston girl who made good, poster artist Ethel Reed, in whom I have taken a frankly obsessive interest lately since winning one of her posters in an internet auction. Like Lewis, she was a natural, a phenomenon — essentially self-taught, with only a smattering of formal instruction. Her meteoric burst of fame in the mid-1890s was followed by a failed romance, flight to Europe in mid-1896, disappearance from the published record after 1898, when she was only 24, and an end to her visible career.

Prowling on Project Wombat, an online discussion list for difficult reference questions, I came across scholar Donna Halper’s discovery of a 1901 census listing in London for an Ethel Reed residing at 106 Grosvenor Road in Pimlico with four-month-old son Anthony and servant Mary Gay, but no husband. Her occupation was recorded as “Artist (Painter)” with “Sculpt.” overwritten.

Could these two Boston émigrée artists have known about each other’s presence? Could they have chatted over tea, or absinthe? We will never know, but Google Maps made clear that, at least in mid-1901, Lewis and Reed lived only 3.1 miles apart. This is the stuff of which novels are made, I am thinking.

Ethel Reed was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on March 13, 1874 to photographer Edgar Eugene Reed and wife Elizabeth Mary. They moved to Amherst sometime before 1880. Ethel’s precocious artistic talents were recognized at age 12 when she entered a crayon work at the Essex County Agricultural Society Fair and was awarded a 50-cent “gratuity.” In this year she had begun some schooling with Laura Coombs Hills (1859-1952), whose attraction to Ethel dated back to a sketch of her executed six years before. Coombs went on to paint a miniature on ivory of Ethel as one of “Seven Pretty Girls of Newburyport,” shown at the Boston Water Color Club in December 1893.

Ethel Reed in 1880, Laura Coombs

Ethel Reed, 1880, Laura Coombs Hills

At this time Reed, age 19, was engaged in an unsuccessful pursuit of employ in New York City. But she soon returned to Boston, to which her family had repaired in 1890, and took on a studio of her own at 367 Boylston. She had been taking classes at the Cowles School of Art and exhibiting landscapes at the Boston Arts Students’ Association. Like many artistic souls of her generation, she was consumed with the romanticism of Keats, the exoticism of Omar Khayyam, and the formalism of Japanese art, as introduced to Boston by Harvard Professor Ernest Fenollosa.

It was during this period that her flamboyant personality was evidenced in costume balls, dance parties, pageants, and nonconformist life styles. Three months earlier, the Boston Journal (March 25, 1893) reported: “As the time for the artists’ festival approaches, society gets more and more excited over it. Young people who are born with the love of dressing up do not by any means have it all to themselves. Mr. Goodhue, the architect, is to head the King René group, as the regal ruler himself, with Miss Alexander of Cambridge as King René’s daughter; Ethel Reed, who danced so well at the pageant, as the Queen, and Mr. Herbert Copeland, Mr. Fred Day, and Mr. Abbott will be in the long train of courtiers…. Ralph Adams Cram is to be Pope Nicholas V., and will be surrounded by eighteen Cardinals.”

Several of the above-named revelers would be at the core of Bohemian Boston in the years to come. Reed would be involved in a ménage à trois with the architects Goodhue and Cram; would pose nude for the photographer Fred (Holland) Day; and would execute book designs and posters for Messrs. Copeland and Day, as well as publishers Lamson, Wolffe & Co., the Boston Herald, and others. She would become engaged to one of the Hub’s most eligible bachelors, artist Philip Hale—son of Edward Everett Hale, author of The Man without a Country—and then disengaged, fleeing to Europe in heartbreak and shame.

Girl in sheer drapery on leopard skin, in nature, reclining (Ethel Reed); photo by F. Holland Day

Girl in sheer drapery on leopard skin, in nature, reclining (Ethel Reed); photo by F. Holland Day

She had ridden the new wave: a fad of Orientalism, experiments in free love and hashish, and, crucially for the history of art in America, a craze for posters. The boom had begun in France two decades earlier, when Jules Chéret and others pioneered a new form of advertising, favoring images over text, and color over monochrome. The lines between art and commerce were blatantly blurred, and the streets of Paris became an art gallery for the common man: in the words of A. Hyatt Mayor, they were “pictures meant to be seen by people who did not mean to see them.” By the 1890s the posters became more prized than the products they advertised, and connoisseurs lined up to buy the lithographs not earmarked for the walls and kiosks of the city.

In America the first posters went primarily to advertise magazines and books. Edward Penfield heralded the new simplified, straightforward style in his posters for Harper’s in 1893. In May 1894 Will H. Bradley contributed a more sinuous style — influenced, no doubt, by England’s master of decadence, Aubrey Beardsley — to the cover of the Chap-Book.

Butterfly Thoughts

Butterfly Thoughts

Reed, meanwhile, was sending sentimental hackwork to magazines without much success. A syrupy vignette titled “Butterfly Thoughts” became her first published work when St. Nicholas magazine ran it in the June 1894 issue. In the winter of 1894-95 an unnamed friend came to Reed’s studio, saw a portrait she had painted, and suggested that she copy it to become a poster promoting the Boston Sunday Herald, with which he was associated. “You can see,” she told an interviewer in 1895 as she pointed to her painting, “that the reproduction flattened and quite spoiled the effect of the original.”

She missed the point, seemingly. It was precisely the flatness, the simplicity, the atonality, the graphic quality that made “Ladies Want It,” issued on February 24, 1895, a milestone. In that portrait and nearly all those of women that followed, a critic noted “a certain uniformity of type began to assert itself as I glanced from one to another, and it dawned upon me at last that the original of these studies was the artist herself. Later, when she confirmed my observation, I had the pleasure of congratulating her on her choice of a model.”

Ladies Want It

Ladies Want It

Ethel Reed was a striking woman, not exactly beautiful by the standards of today, and with a wide-eyed gaze that hints at madness. But in her day she was universally regarded as a dish. A writer in the Chap-Book offered: “Lamson and Wolffe’s first book was published on Washington’s birthday, ‘so timed to call attention to what we intended to make the keynote of the firm, healthy Americanism, as opposed to the general tendencies of the younger publishers toward imported realism.’ It naturally followed that the new firm should ‘discover’ Miss Ethel Reed: no healthy American would lose any time in discovering Miss Reed, if she were anywhere in sight.”

The Boston Daily Advertiser described her well in 1896:

Large, dark eyes, looking out under a wide, white brow; a rather broad, firm face, the skin clear, with what the French call a “fine pallor,” set in a mass of dull black hair above a strong neck; expressive features, the mouth begins sad; a supple figure, though sturdy withal, and of just medium height, neither tall nor short—that is Ethel Reed, the Boston girl of 21 [actually 22], whom critics have hailed as the greatest woman designer of that latest creation of modern art, the poster.

“I am governed by moods in my work,” she says, “and I cannot work when the mood is not on. It does not come at my bidding, and sometimes for a fortnight I can accomplish nothing. Then in a few hours I can dash off all that I wished to do in that fortnight.”

Fleeing Boston in the wake of being jilted by Philip Hale, she landed a position in London as the replacement for Aubrey Beardsley, who had been dismissed as editor of The Yellow Book. She commenced an affair in late 1897 with the writer Richard Le Gallienne while he was engaged to Julie Noiregard, the woman who would become his second wife.

And then she was done. A drawing of a girl with a cat appeared in the Studio Magazine of March 1898, a sad pierrot in The Sketch. Le Gallienne wrote a poem for her in 1910.

The Quest of the Golden Girl

The Quest of the Golden Girl

TO ONE WHO IS BLIND

I said I had forgotten her,

That I had put away

Our memories of Paradise

Until the Judgment Day;

That never more the laughing earth

Should see us hand in hand,

That I long since had shut the door

Of the old fairyland.

Then on a sudden came strange news

Upon the gossip wind

My love of those sweet years ago

Great God — my love was blind!

I said — the news must be a lie,

Cruel as are the years,

They could not be so merciless

To such great eyes as hers.

Little child of long ago,

God grant the news untrue!

Except for one strong selfish thought —

That I may come to you

And sit beside you in the dark,

And, as in Paradise

I gave you all my breaking heart,

Now bring to you — my eyes.

Yellow Book, January 1897

Yellow Book, January 1897

The special poignancy of Reed’s story deserved a better poem and less egotistical a poet. A. E. Housman will do:

And round that early-laurelled head

Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,

And find unwithered on its curls

The garland briefer than a girl’s.

Just a year after her work with The Yellow Book and a few other final projects, Reed disappeared entirely. Until recently, with United Kingdom’s unlocking in 2011 of its divorce records from the period 1902-1912, the story of the remaining years of her life, and even the date of her death were shrouded in mystery. William S. Peterson, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, published a fine biography of Reed in 2013, The Beautiful Poster Lady: A Life of Ethel Reed,  which revealed that the artist died in 1912 at the age of 38. In an interview, Peterson added that in her last decade Ethel Reed “had a succession of lovers, bore two children by them, and in 1903 married an English army officer, but the marriage fell apart immediately — on the honeymoon, no less. In her final years she sank into poverty and obscurity and died of an overdose of sleeping tablets in 1912. There is no simple answer as to why she was unable to relaunch her artistic career in London, but it is worth noting that she became an alcoholic, was addicted to several drugs (including opium), had an extraordinarily turbulent love life, and frequently complained of depression and poor health.”

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Interesting as always. There is a remote family connection with Annette Kellermann (in 1916, my then 26 year-old grandfather was in his second year of managing the year-old Fox Films motion picture processing laboratory when Ms. Kellermann’s arguably most notable movie was developed, processed, and distributed by the lab. I wonder if, without looking, you are aware of that particular film and why it was notable…(hint: neither the film nor Ms. Kellermann’s role in it was mentioned in the 1940s biopic in which Esther Williams played the lead.)

Sure, first nude scenes in a feature film: Daughter of the Gods, if memory serves. It did big box office.

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