In October of 1854, the Bostonian painter Frederick Dickinson Williams invited nineteen of his friends to his studio for an evening of fine food and artistic appreciation. Enjoying each other’s conviviality and camaraderie, the group resolved to found an organization where both established and aspiring artists could exhibit their work to an appreciative public. Essentially a supper club, they originally met and ate in the Tremont Temple or else in the members’ studios along Tremont Row. An article from Antiques and the Arts Online quotes one founding member, Samuel Lancaster Gerry:
“This happy state of things [was] partly due to the fact that social gatherings have been cemented by caterers and good suppers, the palette and the palate seem to thrive together: the one is not with out the other.” 1
This delicious sentiment was carried one step further when the group declared, as their objective, “to foster a taste for high art.”
Composed primarily of self-taught artists native to or settled within the local region, the Club’s first exhibitions attracted such positive attention in the region that prominent New Yorkers like John Frederick Kensett, Asher Brown Durand, Frederic Edwin Church and even the eminent John Casilear deigned to attend and show their work. One respectable arts magazine, The Crayon, was prompted to report:
“We recognize … in the establishment of the [Boston] Art Club, a marked and healthy growth of art feeling in Boston, and an institution of great importance to the interests of the profession.”2
The following year, rooms and a gallery were secured in a house on Bedford Street. A vaunted lecture series, commenced in January 1857, failed to bring in sufficient attendance to cover some $300 in lecturers’ fees, but then-popular thespian and less-popular abolitionist Francis Anne “Fanny” Kemble served up a benefit reading of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in order to recover the loss. Bringing with her her portfolio of oil sketches and drawings, she was granted an honorary membership – honorary, because females were barred from actual membership until well into the twentieth century. Shortly thereafter, thirteen paintings were stolen from the Club’s private rooms, never to be returned despite vociferous pledges of restitution.
The Civil War caused an hiatus in the Art Club’s activities, as many of Boston’s most promising creative souls left for the more fertile fields of New York, where their merit had begun to gain some recognition, or else boldly marched southward to ply their talents as artist-reporters, war correspondents, cannon fodder and carrion, generally in that order. The Bedford location was abandoned in favour of the recently constructed Studio Building on Tremont and Bromfield. Exhibitions ceased after 1863 and only a single meeting was recorded in 1866. In 1869, however, a wealthy classical scholar who had spent much of the previous three decades studying painting beyond the range of Confederate artillery in Rome and Paris, Charles Callahan Perkins, returned to Boston with a dream of reviving the Art Club and transforming the city into a new Athens.
A bow-front brick townhouse at 64 Boylston Street, next door to the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, was engaged as quarters for the Club, and in 1871 a petition to incorporate was signed by Perkins, under whose able presidency they opened their first annual exhibition. A grand gallery was built at the rear of the townhouse and what began as an informal supper gathering became a refined gentlemen’s club boasting of dining rooms, reading rooms, a large and varied library and an ever-increasing collection of paintings. The annual exhibition grew into a biannual juried event, and on the first Saturday of every month an informal meeting was convened, where a “substantial supper” was served “not without the accompaniment of succulent punches.” 3
A decade of expansion followed wherein numerous solo showings were added to the biannual events, and the conviviality of the monthly meetings bestowed upon the Bostonian art scene a regional – even national – reputation for amiable heartiness. Many local business leaders joined the club, vastly increasing the market for professional artists as well as raising the quality of the feasts and other entertainments. The vision Perkins had of creating an intellectually enlightened environment where artists could be brought together with their potential patrons was becoming a reality. By the time he announced his retirement in 1881, membership had swollen to almost six hundred and it had already been decided the previous year that a permanent clubhouse needed to be built. A site at 150 Newbury Street, near the intersection of Darmouth in the recently filled Back Bay, was selected and a national contest for architects was held to determine the design of the new structure. William Ralph Emerson, cousin of the immanent Transcendentalist thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson and already recognized for his neo-classical Post Office and Courthouse in Portland, Maine, submitted the winning plan which would prefigure his later, more famous, “Shingle Style” inns and houses.
The new clubhouse helped to attract not only national but international attention to the Club, further fulfilling Perkins’s dream. By 1884 the Club boasted a membership of almost nine hundred, with non-artists outnumbering actual artists at a ratio of eight to one, thus providing a wide audience and potentially lucrative market for new works. Such famous names as Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Edmund Henry Garrett, Robert Henri and Maurice Prendergast graced its gallery walls and dining room tables; in 1886 a 138-piece one-man show by the eminent and flamboyant New Yorker William Merritt Chase was mounted and garnered enthusiastic reviews. Chase, who had studied extensively in Munich and less extensively in Venice, paved the way for a new wave of European influence at the Club, as young European-trained artists like Frank Weston Benson, Edmund Charles Tarbell and Joseph Rodefer deCamp treated Boston to its first tastes of Impressionism.
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the working artists of Boston began to react to the growing disequilibrium within the Art Club’s membership. Many felt that the business community was crowding out purely aesthetic concerns, and complained that inferior work had been given too prominent of a place at showings and exhibitions while pieces of superior quality were relegated to less visible positions in the gallery. Seeking less heavily mediated outlets, they formed rival groups too numerous to mention, but were still dependent upon their parent group for exhibition space and patronage; many artists usually maintained simultaneous membership status in the Boston Art Club as well as the other organizations. Perkins himself was a founding member of the St. Botolph Club, modeling it after New York’s much-vaunted Century Club. Recruiting many of his former association’s most prominent members and hijacking many of its best works for his new club’s exhibitions, he presented St. Botolph as the very cream of Boston society, letters and art, establishing it as the Boston Art Club’s main rival when its inaugural showing was declared “the most brilliant collection of paintings ever gathered here…”4
Perkins’s departure from the Club left a leadership comprised entirely of businessmen, who, over the course of the turn of the century, proceeded to reshape the club to suit their taste – or, according to some, lack thereof. The large juried shows that had garnered such praise in the Club’s early days became sporadic, no longer considered the major social event of the season, and were gradually replaced by smaller members’ shows and one-artist exhibitions. The picture gallery, likewise, was subdivided into smaller sections around 1910, probably in order to make space for the new dining rooms and, for some reason, bedrooms, known to have been added in that year. (Ladies would not be allowed membership for nearly another quarter of a century, and even then were only to use the public entrance and visit only specified clubhouse rooms.) Making matters worse, membership fees, which stood at around US$60 when the new clubhouse opened, would rise to over US$800 by the middle of the decade. “The main intent of the club now,” writes N. A. Jarzombek of the Vose Galleries, “was to accommodate the comforts of its gentlemen members.”5 The Boston Art Club had begun to enter into a decline.
Even the arrival of Charles Hovey Pepper, an established proponent of modernism who exhibited at the notorious Armory Show, failed to turn the tide. In fact, it might be said that Pepper contributed to the aforesaid decline by placing his friends Charles Sydney Hopkinson and Harley Manlius Perkins on the Exhibitions Committee, of which he became Director in 1917, as part of an attempt to forcibly introduce abstractionism, cubism, expressionism and other unwelcome modernist ideological elements into the conservative atmosphere of the Club. Finding the reduced space of the clubhouse galleries ideal for the watercolours favoured by many young, aspiring, and therefore often impoverished, modernists, Pepper launched the New England Artists’ Series in 1918. Though applauded by critics, the Series failed to appeal the tastes of the general public, with one reviewer going so far as to state, “It is the rottenest show I ever saw in Boston.” 6
This prestigious group had fostered the careers of – and brought profitable public attention to – a number of luminaries in the field of the arts, whose names are still known and revered by collectors and appreciators to this day, names such as Childe Hassam, Marcus A. Waterman, Theodore Wendel, Laura Coombs Hills and Dawson Dawson-Watson. Heavily invested upon a bourgeois traditionalism that confined itself to classical subject matter and an overwrought naturalistic style characterized by highly mannered techniques, its directors failed to assess the impact of the rising tide of ever-proliferating modernist movements within the artistic world. Artists whose work was considered suitable by the Club’s directors had grown older and either ceased to produce or else turned their efforts toward more experimental studies, while younger artists tended toward the abstractions of modernism and so rarely gained much notice from the organization. Thus the Boston Art Club ceased to act a cultural landmark for the state of Massachusetts and became more of a quaint footnote in the financial reports of elderly heiresses who served as its primary market. Into this rather effete sphere came a superbly talented painter of the realist school whose name is most notable for its complete absence from all public record of the Club’s activities: Richard Upton Pickman.
Of fine breeding, his pedigree included some of the most prominent names in Salem, Massachusetts, as well as Providence, Rhode Island. Foremost among his antecedents, Nathaniel Pickman of Bristol, England, settled in Salem along with John Upton, who became a landowner in 1639. Of the former line, by way of Colonel Nehemiah Derby who perished in 1719, and Richard Derby, the ship-owner and merchant who built Derby’s Wharf in Salem, came the noted explorer Nathaniel Pickman Derby, whose Arkham-based foundation would later finance Miskatonic University’s expedition to Antarctica. The latter produced Professor Winslow Upton, who headed the astronomical department of Brown University in Providence and ably acted as director for its Ladd Observatory. Among Pickman’s contemporary cousins may be counted the Providence Uptons and the celebrated poet Edward Pickman Derby. (We shall ignore, for the moment, the supposed Ashkenazic origin of the name “Pickman,” from the Yiddish root pikn, meaning “to eat” and so denoting “a big eater or a glutton.”7)
The arrival of such a visibly skilled artist whose work made extensive use of recognizably Bostonian locales might have contributed to an increase in the Art Club’s fading cultural prestige, but if so history does not appear to contain mention of such. Newspapers of the era yield a resurgence of publicly announced exhibitions, contests and shows, but this is almost entirely the work of Pepper and his gang of modernists known as “The Five”: Perkins, Hopkinson, John Goss, Charles Gordon Cutler and Marion Monks Chase, upstarts who had broken from the Boston Society of Water Color Painters to form the New Society of Watercolor Painters. Detailed accounts of these events, when not mired in the controversies of modernism, concern themselves with obsessively self-serving observations of potential rivalries, feuds, dalliances and flirtations, both staged and covert, occurring amongst the wealthiest of the attendees. Pickman’s name finds some purchase, however, in a few surviving notices of awards and special mentions, although he does not seem to have been a favorite of the club’s unofficial backroom director Joseph Emes Minot or his cronies Lionel G. Bosworth and Dr. August Athanasius Reid.
Then, beginning in 1926, the name of Richard Upton Pickman disappears abruptly from the record – save for one exception noted below. Memoirs and diaries from some of the Club’s most socially active members seem to contain hints of a vaguely defined scandal. Toward the end of her richly interesting life, the renowned art collector, philanthropist and patron of the arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner (a.k.a. “Isabella of Boston,” “Donna Isabella,” “Belle” and “Mrs. Jack,” after her husband John Lowell “Jack” Gardner, grandson of distinguished Salem shipowner Joseph Peabody), felt it necessary to instruct young ladies involving themselves in the art scene about handling themselves with regard to the all-male society of the Boston Art Club. Already notorious for her eccentric style – she is reported to have incited a riot in 1912 when she arrived at a very formal Boston Symphony concert sporting a white headband emblazoned with the motto “Oh, you Red Sox” – Donna Isabella had long been considered the grand dama of the Bostonian cultural scene. Convening in her palatial home gallery at Fenway Court, she warned her naïve listeners of the social ensnarements employed by unscrupulous men, and of the depredations that they might exert upon any inexperienced young women that may wander into their traps. The textile magnate Bosworth emerges from these conversations as an object of particular concern; purporting to be an amateur artist himself, he would invite innocent young ladies to “appreciate his etchings,” then, having lured them to his private room, would force himself upon them in a most callous and brutish fashion. When the course of the conversation turned to the subject of Pickman, however, even the voluble and outspoken Isabella of Boston became reticent to speak. “Under no circumstances must you ever agree to look at that man’s etchings,” she said at last. “But, why, Belle? What will he do?” rejoined her youthful audience. With an inward shudder, Donna Isabella replied, “My dear, he will show you his etchings.”
Only a close study of the Boston Art Club’s rolls reveals that his name was actually stricken from membership. Recovered correspondence between the three men named previously discloses a growing dislike of Pickman on their part, and a desire to see him not only cut from the Club but ostracized from high society altogether. Bosworth claimed to have, traceding a reference he found in The Wonders of the Invisible World, and discovered that Pickman’s great-great-great-great grandmother had been hanged as a witch on Gallows Hill, her execution observed by none other than that most venerable tome’s author, the renowned minister and pamphleteer Cotton Mather. 8 When confronted with this finding before the assembled club members, the painter made neither excuse, apology nor denial for this most unseemly ancestor, but defended her in a mounting tirade that credited an inherited sensitivity to the otherworldly and supernatural for his artistic insight and creative drive.
A secondary covert attack against Pickman was launched by Dr. Reid, a comparative pathologist attached to Boston’s Museum of Natural History in a consulting position. His writings concerning evolutionary theory, building upon the back and ground breaking work of Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon and Henri de Boulainvilliers, are largely ignored today as an embarrassingly erroneous side-track of biological science, but were – and still are – circulated extensively among groups that have historically shown a marked racist bias. (Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that, despite decades of public ridiculeand professional dismissal, the work of A. A. Reid, M. D. continues to act as a major unacknowledged influence upon those whose policies shape the world at large. Reid’s Evolution and Devolution Among Higher Primates was found alongside the works of Arthur de Gobineau, Georges Vacher de Lapouge, Johann Gottfried Herder and Sir Francis Galton in the private libraries of Nazi doctors and high-ranking Klansmen alike, and his comprehensive 16-volume study Atavism was a favorite of many contemporary eugenists and still surfaces among heavily guarded cliques that inhabit the governing bodies of the American Medical Agency, the American Psychiatric Agency, the Council for Disease Control and the Federal Emergency Management Association.) In speculating upon the psychology that lay beneath Pickman’s dark moody compositions and decadently morbid subjects, Dr. Reid suggested with increasing frequency that the painter was suffering from mental degeneration caused by some form of evolutionary reversion.
Not as crudely confrontational as Bosworth, the doctor never spoke of this to Pickman directly, and was especially careful to avoid any intimation that this condition could have been inherited, probably for fear of offending some of New England’s oldest and most influential families by hinting at the possibility of miscegenation. He did, however, share his theories with the Club’s board of directors and over time his remarks became increasingly personal. He noted, with a degree of personal disgust, that Pickman’s rather pale complexion, in an era where pallor was still treated as a trait appropriate – even attractive – to artists and æsthetes, seemed at odds with the painter’s somewhat corpulent build and the energy displayed in both his work and its presentation (although this would seem consistent with the theories of John Hunter, Benjamin Rush and Samuel Stanhope Smith, all of whom had some influence upon the doctor’s thinking).
One incident appears to have especially shaken the doctor, minor though it may be. A Clubsman in fine standing, Stephen Thorne Eliot, put to Pickman the proverbial inquiry that is inevitably put to all artists, namely, the source of his inspiration. “Wherever in thunder do you get such ideas and visions?” one diarist records him as saying, and then goes on to describe Pickman’s only response – a rolling peal of boisterous laughter that unnerved everyone present. Dr. Reid apparently took this occasion to observe the painter’s teeth, and his subsequent correspondence is rife with gruesome speculations regarding Pickman’s dietary practices, citing Christoph Meiners’s graphic references to cannibalistic and necrophagous practices among primitive peoples.
Amidst this mounting climate of hidden disgust and covert rumor-mongering, it is Richard Pickman himself who put the final nail in his social coffin. Art Club records for August 20, 1925 (long since destroyed), note that Pickman unveiled a newly completed canvas that he had entitled Ghoul Feeding. None of the accounts from contemporary attendees bother to offer any specific description of the piece itself, but make a point of relating the nearly unanimous repulsion that it engendered. The only remark contained in the Club record indicates that it was summarily deemed “unsuitable for public or private exhibition.” It was immediately afterward that Minot permanently excised the name of Richard Upton Pickman from the rolls of the Boston Art Club.
Thereafter, Pickman was ostracized from high society, shunned by polite company so completely that no other mention of him – save for one – can be found in contemporary sources. The only Club member to maintain contact with the painter was Geoffrey Thurber, a graduate student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (now the Tufts School of the Museum of Fine Arts). Thurber’s artistic tastes were not so stifled as the rest of the Club, and he harbored a sincere admiration for the painter’s talent and vision. Planning to compose a monograph upon the subject of “weird art,” he continued to call upon Pickman at the latter’s Newbury Street studio and accompanied him on several nocturnal excursions where the two would seek out Boston’s most inspiring architectural and antiquarian scenes while discoursing on art, history and other matters of common interest. Eventually Pickman even consented to allow Thurber to visit a secret studio that he kept at the North End, renting it surreptitiously under the name of “Peters.” Some time later, Thurber would narrate that visit to Eliot, who had recently returned from some travels and was unaware of the changes in the Art Club’s membership; an account that has survived, albeit in a fictionalized form, in one of the cheaply produced “pulp” periodicals of the day. It is this story which forms the basis for Pickman’s notoriety in the current millennium.
Meanwhile, the Boston Art Club completed its decline. After a full decade of Pepper and his “Five”’s modernist antics, the Club directorship moved to terminate the entire Exhibition Committee, causing such a commotion that the Governor of Massachusetts himself, Alvan Tufts Fuller, found no recourse but to place himself on the new Exhibition Committee in order to keep order. One of his new appointees to the Committee, Hermann Dudley Murphy, issued the following pronouncement in 1928:
“For the past five or six years we have had an exploitation of modernist art at the club. You know what I mean, that crazy stuff…We believe the people are rather tired of this sort of thing.” 9
When the Club finally decided to admit women as full members in 1933, few of Boston’s female painters expressed interest. Marion Waitt Sloane (lit. Marian Parkhurst Webber Waitt Sloane) replied, “I’ll have to think it over,” while Marie Danforth Page rejoined, “I am already a member of many organizations…”10 Some ladies in the art world did come forward, however; in 1941 the Grace Horne Gallery moved in to take over the gallery and the first two floors of the clubhouse. Club members retreated to the upper floor for the remainder of the Club’s existence. Discorporation eventually came in 1950 when the Boston Art Club closed its doors without fanfare. The library and art collections were sold to the few remaining members and the clubhouse was put up for public auction, where it was purchased by The Muriel Snowdon International School. It remains a Public School to this day.
1. Antiques and the Arts Online, Nov 7, 2000; “The Boston Art Club” http://antiquesandthearts.com/wrappersstory.asp?file=2000-11-07__14-34-42.xml&page=&event=auctions.
2. Antiques and the Arts Online, op. cit.
3. “The Boston Art Club,” Art Journal n.s. 3 (March 1875): 95, quoted by Nancy Allyn Jarzombek of the Vose Galleries in “A Taste for High Art: Boston and the Boston Art Club, 1855-1950” http://www.antiquesandfineart.com/articles/article.cfm?request=312.
4. Greta, “Boston Correspondence,” The Art Amateur 3, no. 1 (June 1889): 6, quoted by Jarzombek, op. cit.
5. Jarzombek, op. cit.
6. F. W. Coburn, “In the World of Art,” Sunday Herald (December 5, 1920): sect. C, p. 6, quoted by Jarzombek, op. cit.
8. In point of actual fact, no such reference exists anywhere within Mather’s The Wonders of the Invisible World. Observations as Well Historical as Theological, upon the Nature, the Number, and the Operations of the Devils (London: John Dunton, 1693). A more thorough reconstruction of the researches underlying Bosworth’s accusation shall be found in the chapter entitled “Plate III: Scratchboard Study for ‘Gallows Hill’ ”.
9. “Ousts Modernists as Art Committee,” New York Times (September 8, 1928): 8, quoted by Jamborzek, op. cit.
10. “Women Coy of Art Club Move to Woo Them,” unidentified newspaper clipping, 1933. Gertrude Fiske papers, Vose Galleries of Boston, Artists’ Files, quoted by Jamborzek, op. cit.
[adapted from the introduction to Pickman Perspectives book i]
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Toward the end of her richly interesting life, the renowned art collector, philanthropist and patron of the arts, Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924; a.k.a. “Isabella of Boston,” “Donna Isabella,” “Belle” and “Mrs. Jack,” after her husband John Lowell “Jack” Gardner, grandson of distinguished Salem shipowner Joseph Peabody), felt it necessary to instruct young ladies involving themselves in the art scene about handling themselves with regard to the all-male society of the Boston Art Club. Already notorious for her eccentric style – she is reported to have incited a riot in 1912 when she arrived at a very formal Boston Symphony concert sporting a white headband emblazoned with the motto “Oh, you Red Sox” – Donna Isabella had long been considered the grand dama of the Bostonian cultural scene. Convening in her palatial home gallery at Fenway Court, she warned her naïve listeners of the social ensnarements employed by unscrupulous men, and of the depredations that they might exert upon any inexperienced young women that may wander into their traps. The textile magnate Bosworth emerges from these conversations as an object of particular concern; purporting to be an amateur artist himself, he would invite innocent young ladies to “appreciate his etchings,” then, having lured them to his private room, would force himself upon them in a most callous and brutish fashion. When the course of the conversation turned to the subject of Pickman, however, even the voluble and outspoken Isabella of Boston became reticent to speak. “Under no circumstances must you ever agree to look at that man’s etchings,” she said at last. “But, why, Belle? What will he do?” rejoined her youthful audience. With an inward shudder, Donna Isabella replied, “My dear, he will show you his etchings.”