Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on November 8, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Peyton Wright Gallery. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the catalogue please contact Peyton Wright Gallery through either this phone number or website:
(above: Imogene Robinson Morrell (1837-1908), The First Battle of the Puritans, 1874, oil on canvas, 70 x 86 inches, Courtesy Peyton Wright Gallery)
Imogene Robinson Morrell (1837-1908)
by David Sellin
"Two large paintings illustrating incidents in the early history of this country, the work of Imogene Robinson Morrell, and executed in Paris, are now on exhibition at the National Academy of Design," the New York Evening Post reported on February 29, 1876. "These Pictures Possess value in an artistic sense, as the work of an earnest woman, in addition to their interest as historical works. One subject, and the most spirited, is entitled 'The First Battle of the Puritans,' in illustration of the scene as described by Longfellow in his poem of 'The Courtship of Miles Standish.' Press reviews from its recent showing in Boston enliven the accompanying catalogue with descriptions of the incident depicted: 'The chief, suspicious of the whites, demands gunpowder, which Standish, fearing his treachery, refuses him. The chief then taunts him with being a "little man, only fit for being a companion of women at their work." The insult acted as a match to the hidden gunpowder in the redoubtable little captain's breast, and forgetting that he and his people had come to these wilds in the name of the Prince of Peace, he draws his knife and lays the stalwart chieftain low among the flowers.'"
"The great Puritan, Miles Standish," the Evening Post critic continues, "is standing in the foreground, listening to the words of Hobomok, the white man's friend, while at his feet lie the dead chief Pecksuot, and the Sachem Wattawamat, tearing the greensward in the agony of death. In the background the Indians have discharged their last arrows, and the smoke of battle from the Puritan guns partly hides the sturdy colonists from sight. In the shade of the Forest, some distance from the contending forces, are the skin tents of the tribe. Longfellow describes the cannon which the Puritan captain is supposed to have had with him as follows:
In the drawing of the figures of Standish and the chief at his side, and the dead and dying savages, there is a fine display of artistic power, and the grouping of the figures is masterly. As in the companion picture the utmost care has been taken in the finish, and the painting shows a solidity of treatment and a mastery of a higher standard in art than is often attained by a female artist. In color the works are exceedingly brilliant."
From New York, The First Battle of the Puritans went to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Both paintings, the other representing Washington Welcoming the Provision Trains (the General and his staff at camp near Newburgh, New York) were submitted, not to the Women's Pavilion, but to the Art Department and were well received by the all male jury for exhibition in Memorial Hall and its vast annex. The Hanging Committee placed the First Battle of the Puritans on the line in Gallery C -- the Saloon of Honor -- among what were considered by the Hanging Committee to be the most important American submissions. She was one of only a half dozen women in that gallery, one of the others being her friend of many years, Elizabeth Jane Gardner. Morrell's painting was awarded a medal.
Margaret Imogene Robinson was born in 1828 in Attleboro, Massachusetts, daughter of Otis and Sarah Dean Robinson, according to a passport application issued under oath in 1864, giving her age as 37 (Oct. 1837 is given as birth date in census of 1900). Her own art training began at age sixteen in Newark, New Jersey, continuing in New York City, after which she taught art in Charlestown and Auburndale, Mass. Between 1856 and 1858 she was in Düsseldorf, Germany, studying with Adolf Schroedter and Camphausen. She could not have escaped familiarity with Emanuel Leutze and his American coterie, or his influence and that of his own friend and master, Friederich Lessing. The stamp of both of these masters is strong in the principal group of figures in The First Battle of the Puritans. Like Leutze, however, she apparently did not submit to the rigorous perspective drawing and solid geometry required of regular students in the Academy curriculum.
After returning from Germany, Imogene Robinson taught at Lasell Seminary in Auburndale, Mass, where one of the students was Elizabeth Jane Gardner. By summer of 1858 Robinson and Gardner were teaching together in Worcester at the School of Design and Fine Arts. "The Misses M. Imogene Robinson and Elizabeth J. Gardner are Principals, aided by an able corps of assistants in teaching Instrumental. and vocal music, the ancient and modern languages, mathematics and Natural Sciences," according to the Boston Transcript, 24 August, 1858. "In addition to testimonials she received from [Schroedter and Camphausen] Miss Robinson has, what some people deem even better than these, to wit, the products of her own skill and handiwork, which so richly adorn the halls, tables, show-cases, of the rooms where the lessons are given, and the portfolios of the Academy. Her specimens of drawings of flowers and fruits are really elegant and beautiful," Flower painting, a staple of female seminary subject matter, was apparently brought to high art by Miss Robinson through her study in Germany, where the still life in the wild, out in Nature, was a specialty.
That she also was a figure painter, and inclined to.the Düsseldorf sort of historical painting practiced by Lessing and Camphausen and Leutze, is indicated by a brief notice in the Boston Transcript of 25 June, 1863, under Historical Painting: "The large historical painting, entitled 'Sunday Among the Pilgrims,' now on exhibition at studio 18 Montgomery House, is attracting, as we learn, deserved attention. It is the work of two young ladies (Misses M. I. Robinson and E. J. Gardner) one of whom has been favored with large opportunities of study abroad. Those who have visited the exhibition speak of the painting in terms of high commendation. A faithful study of the early Pilgrim history, especially of the characteristics of the persons identified with the Plymouth colony, has prepared these young ladies for a work in which they have certainly achieved success. We advise our friends who are interested in art to look at this certainly remarkable work." Within the year the Worcester school closed, and on the first of May, 1864, Robinson applied for a passport, witnessed by Elizabeth Gardner. A resident of Boston, age 36, Robinson, was described: height 5' 2"; grey eyes; light hair and complexion; high forehead; medium nose; long face and chin. They took off for Paris, where they spent the next eleven years together, Robinson studying briefly with Thomas Couture and with Francais, and Gardner with Merle, and later with Bouguereau, with whom she formed a liaison and would many. The Boston Transcript of 31 May, 1870, listed their common studio address as 2 rue Carnot, although Imogene Robinson had married Col. Abram Morrell in 1869, and alerted readers in October that they could view at the De Vries galleries in Boston "two elegant novelties in figure pieces by Mrs. Morrell and Miss Gardner in Paris for a gentleman in this vicinity. These specimens of American art really call for more than a passing notice, being fresh from the easels of two ladies recently from our midst whose merits as colorists have placed them among the favored of American artists of the Parisian School of Fine Arts." Morrell's David Before Saul is described as "a powerfully drawn piece, having several figures, the posing of which are telling evidence of the maker's gift." "School" here must refer to the mainstream, since ladies were not admitted to the Ecole des Beaux Arts.
Most American artists vacated Paris in 1870 for the duration of the Prussian occupation, Commune and siege, but the two friends remained throughout. Writing home to the Boston Daily Evening Transcript on the first of July: 1871, J. Wells "Champ" Champney reported on the ravages of war: "In the neighborhood of the Luxembourg Gardens are a large number of studios. A powder magazine in the Garden was blown up by the Communists and the explosion did irreparable damage to many of the buildings in the vicinity. Two of our compatriots, Mrs. Morrell and Miss Gardner, were amongst the heaviest losers. ... By a providential chance they escaped with but few scratches, though their studio is a mass of ruins."
On 26 February, 1872, a correspondent writing on art in Europe for the New York Post visited Paris: "Mrs. Morrell and Miss Gardner, two American ladies who occupy a studio together in Paris, are at present engaged upon large and important pictures. Mrs. Morrell has upon the easel a canvas eight feet by nine which represents the 'First Battle of the Pilgrims,' as described by Longfellow. ... Both pictures are highly spoken of by the Paris critics." Nearly two years later Boston's Daily Evening Transcript (9 December, 1873) reported that Elizabeth Gardner was in Paris working on a painting entitled Corinne. and that Mrs. Morrell, "also of this city, has returned from Vienna and taken a studio in Paris for the winter." (This was the year of the International Exposition of Vienna.) That the two Bostonians continued to work together is shown by a report in the New York Evening Post of 3 March, 1874: "Mrs. Morrell and Miss Gardner, two American artists in Paris, are meeting with great success in the practice of their profession. At a recent art reception at their residence, 73 rue Notre-Dame des Champs, among the guests present were Mr. and Mrs. Washburn, General Read, General Torbert, Mr. And Mrs. Stewart and Mr. And Mrs. Stebbins." Their residence was immediately adjacent to that of Adolph-William Bouguereau, who was beginning his courses at the Academie Julian. The First Battle of the Puritans was completed in this year, when Imogene Morrell signed and dated a small replica, presently in a Paris Gallery. She was also completing her large picture of Washington Receiving the Provision Trains for which, on seeing it in their studio, the dealer Goupil is said to have offered 10,000 francs for the rights to engraving "hoping to have it as a companion piece to Leutze's Crossing the Delaware." (Evening Transcript 9 Jan 1876) Goupil had bought the latter some twenty years earlier in Düsseldorf to put on tour in America and reproduce by engraving. So, now Mrs. Morrell was in a class with the great master of her student days in Germany, but she would bring both of her paintings for exhibition in America herself.
On November 9, 1875, the Daily Evening Transcript announced that "Mrs. Imogene Robinson Morrell, who left Boston about fifteen years ago to study art in Paris and other European capitols, has recently returned, bringing with her two large historical paintings illustrating events in our national history." Two weeks later it reported: "The sensation of the week in art circles has been the exhibition of two grand historical paintings by Mrs. Imogene Robinson Morrell, at Amory Hall, 503 Washington Street. "The subjects of the pictures are intensely American ... both striking and effective, and are destined to excite much interest. The execution is a great enigma to artists and critics, being of such singular unevenness in quality. The remarkable thing is that figures and features of the pictures done with great power and success are in close juxtaposition with figures and patches whose crudeness and weakness are undeniable. There are some slips also in the historical details that are inconsistent with the strength of conception displayed in the general design, and similar criticism is made regarding the composition. Altogether the pictures are a peculiarly interesting study, and cause much talk." Several weeks later (7 Dec 1875) the same journal reported that her "grand historical paintings in Amory Hall attract many visitors and elicit much interesting criticism There are points of surpassing merit in both ... superb pieces of drawing and 'texture' [in] the figures of Miles Standish and the dead Indian in the 'First Battle of the Puritans,' while the general effect of each picture is splendid and attractive, impressing the beholder at first sight. The strange inequalities of execution in both canvasses, however, still cause comment and speculation."
One viewer, stung by overhearing an old artist commenting that it was "well enough for a woman," submitted that the paintings had not met with the criticism they deserved. "It is by no means hard to write down a painting by startling hints of assistance rendered in the task of execution; or to say, as has been said of some of the old artists, that one man did the foreground, another the background, whilst a third put in the figures! And yet some of these very paintings adorn the most celebrated galleries and have been purchased for enormous sums. An attempt has been made to cast such absurd reflection upon Mrs. Morrell's two great pictures, and this without a shadow of reason or justice.... When we take into review how much Mrs. Morrell has attempted on a certain size of canvas it is remarkable how much she has achieved; and the longer one lingers before her works the more he is struck with the conception and the achievement.... 'The First Battle of the Pilgrims'... gives us Myles Standish in the centre, with an Indian interpreter by his side, while in the background are wigwams with women and children, and in the foreground two noble Indians in the agony of death. The whole subject must have been most difficult of execution, and drew hard upon the imagination of the artist, but she has nobly done a very noble work. The foreshortening of those dying men is admirable; the whole drawing is excellent -- the figures both graceful and manly. Death has come to them, but gained no proud victory over the fallen braves. Of the two pictures, this is the most startling in its effects, and ought to be long studied to feel the full power of the artist." (Daily Evening Transcript, 8 Jan 1876). In February, the paintings went on exhibition in New York at the National Academy of Design, where their reception has been noted above, and to Philadelphia and the great Centennial Fair, where she was awarded honors.
Abram Morrell had maintained a Washington, D.C., address at 908 F Street N.W., as recorded 1872 and 1875. By Spring of 1875 the artist, herself, had been in Washington, as noted in the Art and Artists column of Boston's Daily Evening Transcript (16 Apr 1875, quoting The Washington Republican):
In 1876 the Morrell address is listed at 1109 F Street N.W., and it was not long before the artist became a fixture in the art life of Washington. A correspondent to the Newark Daily Advertiser (23 April 1878), where Imogene had first studied art, concluded an account of her tour of the capital with the observation that "The lady artists of Washington are a delightful feature of its society, and their receptions are gatherings of both social and intellectual brilliancy. Mrs. Imogene Robinson Morrell is noted for her immense and beautiful historical paintings ... . These pictures were painted in Paris, where the brave artist remained faithful to her work -- through. all the horrors of the siege of the Commune, though she bears marks today of that terrible time." Charles Fairman, Curator of the U.S. Capitol and author of a definitive compendium of its art collections, mentions that "During her earlier residence in Washington her studio teas, at which large numbers attended, were among the features of the art life of Washington."
Marked for sale by the artist at the Centennial, the two companion pictures apparently accompanied her to Washington, but if she had hopes for acquisition or commission from the Congress they were in vain. By this time the fever for historical paintings for the decoration of the U. S. Capitol Extension was past, although there was always demand for official portraiture, and she is represented with portraits in the U.S. Capitol and Treasury collections.
Since the year of her marriage in 1869 through 1879, when she was widowed, according to her biography in Who Was Who in American Art, her work received "rave reviews" in Washington. In 1879 Mrs. Morrell founded the National Academy of Fine Arts in Washington and was its Director for a decade.
We know that after her return from Düsseldorf she was proficient in painting floral still life and decorative work. Even before embarking for France she had exhibited a large historical painting in Boston, Sunday Among the Pilgrims, executed in collaboration with Elizabeth Gardner, and before the Franco-Prussian war they each painted in their Paris studio "elegant novelties in figure pieces . . . for the drawing room of a gentleman" of the Boston area. Clemment & Hutton mention her in 1878 as a painter of portrait, genre, and historical pictures, still signing her work with her maiden name, Imogene Robinson -- at some point she had dropped Margaret. There may be a considerable body of work other than portraiture to be found, but in 1896 she lost a great body of her work in a disastrous warehouse fire.
The First Battle of the Puritans survived, although why this major work remained unsigned remains enigmatic. It was acquired without provenance in 1968 from New York antique dealers Sloan & Roman by Hirschl & Adler Gallery, whose records show that the only notation then on the back before lining and conservation read: #1137 Fischer Sale May 9-11. 1968. Preliminary search of international auction sales has turned up no relevant auction house or sale by that name or on that date. Initially catalogued as American School by Hirschl & Adler, they sold it as such through Sloan & Co. in Washington. D.C. in 1980, where the successful bidder acquired it before placing it with the present owner. In between, it had briefly acquired an attribution to the little known American painter Dennis Malone Carter, at SP-B, NY, sale #4076 1978, lot 752, but critical comparison to the body of that artist's known work renders that attribution irrelevant).
Obvious relationships to historical paintings by Emanuel Leutze and his master, Friederich Lessing, pointed to a painter of Düsseldorf training, but one who never became enthralled by the rigorous preliminary program of perspective and mechanical drawing at the Academy there, and one with a wider exposure to Venetian color --- a strong case for the authorship of Leutze, himself. But questions of attribution were recently mooted by the appearance on the French art market of a small replica in oils of The First Battle of the Puritans (41" x 50 1/2"), signed and dated by Imogene Robinson Morrell, 1874. Given Goupil's interest in publishing an engraving of her Washington Welcoming the Supply Train, it seems possible that this small replica was intended for a similar project. In any event, the appearance of the signed replica led to a body of material relating to the artist, including that incorporated in this study. Since there is no evident cropping or eradication of any signature from the large exhibition picture, she apparently omitted any signature from the large exhibition picture. She was not shy about exhibiting and calling attention to her work. She would not have submitted it to the jury of the Art Department of the Philadelphia Centennial, had she not regard it finished. On the other hand, could she have omitted a signature in order to be judged on an equal footing with other contenders, overwhelmingly male, by the men on the jury?
Detailed descriptions of the picture and animated discussions regarding finish, when it was first exhibited in Boston, leave no doubt that ours is the painting in question, and assures that its present state is not basically altered from that at the time of its exhibition, beyond routine conservation. In the Düsseldorf tradition of history painting, for which Lessing and Leutze were the best known in America, the central group is posed with the effect of a tableau vivant, natural postures instantaneously frozen and surfaces brought to a high degree of finish. Quite apart from sheer size, the idea -- the significance of the event over anecdote --- separates history painting from genre painting. Imogene Robinson must have seen Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware when it was on tour, even before she went to Germany, and probably knew Leutze's Boston commission, The Storming of Teocalli, which he derived from Prescott's graphic descriptions in The Conquest of Mexico, executing it in Germany from pictorial and anthropological sources available to him there. In New York she also could have seen Lessing's great Martyrdom of Huss and the Huss at the Council of Constance as well as works by her future teachers, all available to her at Boker's Düsseldorf Gallery. That could account for her choice of Germany for study.
Leutze's Teocalli and The Founding of Maryland, as well as certain paintings by Lessing, such as his Hussite Preaching, are proof enough that Düsseldorf left a strong impression on Morrell in style and execution and choice of subject. Even before embarking for Germany she was occupied with Pilgrim history, and all of the Düsseldorf masters mentioned above strongly favored subject matter drawn. from Reformation and Puritan history.
Her picture also reflects immersion in French art movements of the time -- the "Parisian School of Fine Art" referred to is not the Beaux Arts, which had just undergone a major overhaul and only admitted a few Americans in 1864, and no women until the end of the century. Thomas Couture's Atelier was well known in Boston through Hunt, and the many students who had studied with him, and unlike many ateliers he accepted women for tutelage, but he was about to close his school. Whether she was a regular student or honored with occasional criticism has yet to be established. Couture's Tonalist methods were well known, his Decadence of the Romans was an example in the clear structure and application of color for all to see. Francais, mentioned as her teacher, is to me an unknown quantity, but academic instruction was generally based on the study of the nude. By ail accounts she was well acquainted with Bouguereau and Meissonier, in particular, and close contact with these academic artists may have served to strengthen Düsseldorf background. History painting there partially stemmed from admiration for the work of French academic artist Paul Delaroche.
The discrepancy in handling between foreground.and background that led to animated debates in Boston in 1875 is probably the result of the evolution of an artist discovering new ways to apply paint. Even the mast critical observers admitted that the apparent unevenness was not detrimental to overall effect in The First Battle of the Puritans. The attention is so focused on the strongly handled and clearly delineated central figures that the rest of the action is outside the viewer's focal plane. In color and brushwork in the collar and head of Miles Standish, and reflections in his armor, there is a hint of Couture's techniques, but it is in the background that one finds the introduction of Tonalist abandonment of contour in favor of broader patches of light applied against halftone, of line in favor of the meeting of edges. Compared to the main group, background figures seem roughed in, but it is in the artillery company that we see clearly the influence of a new method emerging. The pencil outlines are not under-drawing, but constitute a light re-enforcement of the sparely painted figures appearing through the smoke of a recent discharge.
As for subject, the First Battle of the Puritans belongs to a tradition of American history painting initiated by Benjamin West in his new Neo-classical Stately Mode, with The Death of General Wolf and Penn' s Treaty with the Indians, and John Vanderlyn's Murder of Jane McCrae. The real demand for subjects of national events of epochal significance, however, began with the completion of the old U.S. Capitol, around 1825, and gained new impetus with commencement of the Capitol Extension in 1850. Both campaigns produced in the Capitol rotunda large images of accommodation and conflict with the native American Indians, of the discovery and settlement of the New World, our Revolution and westward expansion. One of the most active competitors for a Congressional commission in the 1850's was Emanuel Leutze, whose Düsseldorf studio was open to all Americans during the years Imogene Robinson was there. She must have been disappointed at the failure of the Congress to acquire one of her large history subjects on bringing them to Washington.
As noted at the time of the Boston exhibition, her handling of texture and detail in the central group is masterful, "slips" in historical accuracy are forgiven. Anachronisms and anomalies are not unusual even among the most celebrated American history painters of the day, recreating Indian costume of another era from published sources and public and private collections of artifacts at hand. Leutze's splendid Aztec warrior meets the Spanish onslaught of Teocali wielding an Iroquois war-club. At Plymouth the skirmish is over. Blood stains neither the blade of Captain Standish nor buckskins of the fallen (only the dropped knife!). The settler has established himself firmly over the Indian in the new colony of Massachusetts. The foreground is strewn with implements and artifacts that identify their possessors, but which collectively would not have been borne by a war party at this place or time. The Chief, with bear claw necklace, and lying dead on his shield, has dropped not only a knife and spear, but a strung bow and quiver of arrows, as well as a large beaver skin pouch. The dying Sachem, squirrel skin tobacco or medicine pouch hanging from a belt still holding his knife, has dropped both a pipe and spear, and his moccasins are decorated in a fashion quite ahead of their time. All this combines with the wild flowers and flora to create a fine realistic still life as foreground interest, as well as contributing to narrative. The most conspicuous "slip" is in the tiger skins worn by both prostrate Indians, probably included to enhance their status as warriors, but her Indian tigers are from the wrong continent.
The Knox warehouse fire of 1896 wiped out more than one artist, one of them being Richard Norris Brooke, who had assembled work for a major retrospective; another was Imogene Robinson Morrell, who lost much of her life's work, more than two hundred paintings. "She was unfortunate in the loss of her pictures in the disastrous fire at the Knox storage rooms," according to Charles Fairman. "In her advanced years she was unable to teach or to find purchasers for her work, and was subjected to all of the discomforts of extreme poverty." The 1900 Census lists her as an artist, a widow with no children, living in an apartment at 714 19th Street and subletting to a Chemist named William C. Tilden. Reporting on the Washington art scene in 1908, The American Art News (28 Nov) told of the closing of the Corcoran Gallery for the installation of its second exhibition of American contemporary art, and of the removal of Greenough's great Olympian George Washington from Capitol grounds to the Smithsonian Castle, adding that "Mrs. Imogene Robinson Morrell, one of the famous portrait artists of her time, died Nov. 21 in a 'third story back' which she had occupied for eight months. ... During the last ten years of her life Mrs. Morrell had remained in seclusion." During these years she was supported by her old friend and colleague, Elizabeth Gardner Bouguereau.
The reappearance of First Battle of the Puritans and its recognition as the painting by Imogene Robinson Morrell that won honors at the Philadelphia Centennial should do much to restore the artist to her rightful place in the history of American art of the nineteenth century. She is remarkable for having studied in Düsseldorf in its heyday as a European art center, at a time when it was particularly important in the development of a galaxy of American artists -- Leutze, Whittredge, Johnson, Bierstadt, Woodville, Haseltine, Bingham, to mention a few -- all men. That she was a woman of broad culture is reflected in her Worcester School of Design and Academy of Fine Arts, with a faculty for English, French, German and Classical literature, and vocal and instrumental music, in addition to fine and applied arts. Students numbered over one hundred, including professional architects and designers as well as children. Many of their accomplishments were exhibited in the Worcester Mechanic's Association exhibition of 1857, along with a dozen of her own (for which she received several medals). Among these was an oil painting described as "The Indian Vesper, a very large landscape." Given the four landscapes by Albert Bierstadt also exhibited there, on loan by Imogene Robinson, it is reasonable to assume that it reflected German landscape tradition.
Again, she was in the vanguard of American art students to seek training in Paris, and along with Gardner and Cassatt was one of the few women among them, and apparently the only one of these to adhere to the tradition of grand history painting to which she had been introduced in Düsseldorf. Fellow Americans at the Beaux Arts, like Bridgman and Pearce, would paint large historical exhibition pictures for the Salon, generally from Ancient times and exotic places, but for her grand entry into American exhibitions she selected patriotic themes. For some reason her name does not appear among American exhibitors at any of the French Salons, although Gardner and Cassatt began exhibiting in 1868. Imogene Robinson Morrell made a grand entry onto the American art scene in 1875 with hex two large history paintings. Now one of these, First Battle of the Puritans, provides us with an encore, and henceforth she shall share the stage among her peers.
There is adequate information in the text to identify specific studies cited or quoted. For documents and sources, passport application and Census, and various news items, I am particularly indebted to the comprehensive file compiled by Merl M. Moore, Jr. and now in the library of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art / National Portrait Gallery -- D. S.
About the author
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