Friday, June 24, 2011

The Secret Self-Portrait of Lilian Hale

Black-Eyed Susans

"There is a real sadness to her work," someone commented after viewing some of Lilian Wescott Hale's paintings. It is true...not only a certain sadness but a feeling of isolation. Thus I was particularly interested when the subject of Lilian's coldness came up in her daughter Nancy's biography, The Life in the Studio:

"After my mother died, I felt I should go through my mother's drawings; there had been inquiries from would-be purchasers. I needed to see which, if any, I felt ready to part with. In addition to drawings glassed and framed with cards from old exhibitions still pasted to the backing, there were big black French portfolios full of drawings, some of which I hadn't seen for years and years, many only partly finished. As I drew out each sheet of Strathmore board, propped it against a chair, and viewed it, all the pictures seemed to have taken on a curious new dimension that at first baffled me.

Here was the shed behind our house in Dedham. Tortuous black branches on which a few black berries cling are shown in relation to its slanting, white-laden roof, the whole vignetted on the white paper so that the scene seems drowned in winter. Here was the house across the road seen from the windows of our upstairs hall. Upon the boughs of the hemlock on the front lawn, bent down by snow, snow is still falling; but inside the window, in the foreground, blossoms of a bowl of freesias are touched faintly with sanguine chalk, giving a sense at once of inwardness and of warmth. Next came the profile of a little Irish girl my mother used often as a model: tiptilted, naive, sharp black against the strong light from the window where she is sitting.

Spring Morning, 1908

What seemed so new? Looking at the old, familiar scenes and faces made me long for something, but it wasn't the past. It was something here in the pictures themselves. What I was discovering, throughout the long series of drawings, was a likeness: a self-portrait that my mother had not the least awareness she was making.

The unconscious revelation about herself that I began to take in as I viewed my mother's drawings right after her death had to do with the choice of subjects - those little girls, like flowers; those interiors, snug, sheltering, unpeopled; and everywhere those repeatedly pictured, exquisite falls of snow. It was all true, especially the snow.

On Christmas Day in the Morning, 1924

Coldness was puzzling, coming from that tall, beautiful, glowing creature who enchanted all who met her in warm moods. She was a loving mother, an adoring wife, yet all my life I had known the change that could take place in her and, as a child, I would be stricken with fear. It was as if she had gone away and forgotten me. She wasn't merely thinking about something else; she had ceased to feel my presence.

She herself never would admit she was cold. 'No I'm not!' she'd protest. 'I was being very cordial!" I used to talk it over with my Aunt Nancy. 'I know," my aunt said. 'Lily's always been that way, even when she was little. Your grandmother was deeply hurt when she asked Lily whom she loved best and Lily said Annie Langer...Of course, the reason for that,' Aunt Nancy said, hastening as ever to absolve her sister of blame, 'was that your grandmother was utterly prostrated during the years Lily was little, so it fell to Annie to take the care of her. Lily was actually the most sensitive of us all.'"

Lilian had grown up in the shadow of the gray cloud that hovered over her family. It was not a happy situation. Her nine year old sister, Dolly, had died while visiting relatives. Her mother was often "prostrated." Her father had been deeply hurt in business and had become an invalid with his daughters helping to care for him. In their minds, the idea of suffering was looked upon approvingly; it deserved high praise in that Victorian household. "'So-and-so is a great sufferer,' Grandmother would announce approvingly, and even my mother looked respectful.'

Boy by the Ocean

In the core of anguish, ice. Out of ice, art - starting up again like perpetually blooming roses from an old, winter grave. The private, interior world in which my mother hid was at the same time just what, in her pictures, she set forth for display.

Coldness was not a moral question in my mother, neither good nor bad. It was more the basis for survival." *

*The Life in the Studio by Nancy Hale . Little, Brown and Company, 1957

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