Thursday, December 25, 2008

Ethel Reed: Model with Lily, 1897

Poster Girl

From "Play's the Thing,"Woodstock Times,December 25, 2008:

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 was fine? Born near Albany 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.*

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 places her back in Rome by decade’s end, but there the trail vanishes. All along for Edmonia Lewis, the life and the art had competed for public attention; at the end both receded from view.

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 emigre 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.

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 Rene group, as the regal ruler himself, with Miss Alexander of Cambridge as King Rene’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 menage a 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.

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 Cheret 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.

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.”

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.


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.

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.


* For those interested to learn more, see “Inventing Edmonia Lewis” at:


--John Thorn