I. New York City, April 26, 1964
INTERVIEW of ELIZABETH SPARHAWK-JONES (ESJ)
Conducted by RUTH GURIN (RG) for
Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones sat upright in her chair, waiting while the woman from the Smithsonian set up the tape recorder between them. At 79, the artist was about to give an interview about her life. Well, perhaps not about her life so much as the career spanning it. They may talk about her current show at the James Graham Gallery and the review in the new issue of Art News that called her works "poetic in nature," and her brushwork "turbulent and expressionistic." They would surely talk about her years studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art with its celebrated teachers, and of all her awards and perhaps about the small fortune commanded for her works then. Maybe too about being called "the find of the year" or "the girl assured of a golden future" by New York art critics at the turn of the century, or that one article that said her "talent rivaled the master himself", comparing her to her teacher, William Merritt Chase.
But they almost certainly wouldn't talk about what happened then, when it all stopped. Questions about the turbulence of her own life and its consequences would be left unasked, chances were. She'd never married so the discussion probably wouldn't touch anywhere near the subject of love. They wouldn't talk about loss though she'd nearly drowned from it. Nor would the conversation touch upon time spent locked away in darkened hospital rooms. Years taken, snatched while in the midst of what she'd thought was the crest of her fame as a painter. Nor would the young woman politely inquire how a damp red rambler rose poetically recalled the death of her beloved. For the best, perhaps, to stick solely to her life as a painter, one who survived — and survives.
Ruth Gurin, New York University curator and interviewer for Archives of American Art for about a year, didn't like to know too much about her subject before an interview. She always enjoyed the excitement when one thing led to something she didn't expect. (Her career would become something she called a chain of "fantastic coincidences.") In this case and many others, all she knew was she had to interview the artist (or curator, historian, or administrator) before they died.
Vivacious herself, she appreciated the sense of liveliness held within Sparhawk-Jones' eyes. As she made sure the recorder was properly placed — she had a habit of glancing down at it during an interview and needed it near to be less conspicuous — she recharged her thoughts about what was to come: Ask about their take on the art world and how it's changed for them, how they created it, who they knew, where they went to study, who influenced them, how did they find balance perhaps, and any other data she may wring out of them during their conversation. Her favorite word, she liked to say, was "why?"
They sat in the spacious, quiet lobby of the Hotel Allerton, a residential hotel on 57th and Lexington. They began slowly, talking about Sparhawk-Jones' lifelong appreciation of writers, and eventually the conversation turned to William Merritt Chase.
"Chase did a magnificent portrait of my father."
"Oh, yes," Sparhawk-Jones said, "Of course, at the time we might have had [Thomas] Eakins do it and it might have been a greater work but I had never heard of Eakins and Chase was teaching there and I knew him. So it was natural to ask him. And he made about 50 portraits that year in Philadelphia."
Known for bringing French Impressionism to America among other accomplishments, William Merritt Chase was one of the few artists influential in his own time, inspiring an entire generation of artists. When Sparhawk-Jones knew him, the painter had been a teacher longer than she'd been alive everywhere from Chicago to New York Art Student League and in his own school. Thomas Eakins, perhaps considered the best portrait painter of all time by most critics, was forced in 1886 to resign after allowing a mixed class of men and women to draw a completely nude male model.
"Was [Chase] a strong teacher?"
"I don't know that he was so strong but he was very decided in his likes and dislikes. He didn't like anything. The more advanced at the moment liked to imitate Whistler and get a little smoky and that he loathed — that he loathed — because he said they were working under a high north light and they couldn't be seeing anything that they were painting like that, you see. He was a realist, but so was Thomas Anshutz."
"Yes," Gurin agreed. An assistant to Eakins, an innovator who taught artists to study anatomy and closely observe the human body, Anshutz had continued his predecessor's teaching methods of drawing nude models and incorporating animal dissection into anatomy classes.
"What happened to the portrait of your father?"
"My sister has it. She has it hanging in her house. You can see it anytime you want to. In Baltimore. It's a little severe, a little aloof, but it's got his brushwork; the eyes are beautifully done. The eyes are beautifully done."
"I'm looking forward to seeing that. That ought to be marvelous. Did you look like him," Gurin asked.
"I don't think so," Sparhawk Jones paused. One may argue that in this moment she considered revealing the more powerful commonality between them. But then their pleasant conversation may have turned darker, toward subjects much less pleasant to recall.
"Perhaps," she continued, "more than like my mother."
"What did your father do?"
"He was a clergyman, and a very great preacher."
Between them, the recording machine spun on.
Excerpted from "Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones: The Artist Who Lived Twice" by Barbara Lehman Smith.