The Lady with the Pen
The Saturday before Christmas 1868, Eliza Greatorex (1819–97) held her last reception of the year in her “pleasant studio” in the Dodworth Building, No. 212 Fifth Avenue.1 At these gatherings, attendees enjoyed the unique opportunity to meet the artist and see her art displayed in her workspace. This evening, fifteen pen-and-ink drawings hung as an ensemble, “and they represent, for the most part, old and picturesque churches and buildings in the suburbs of New York that will soon be swept away, if they have not already disappeared.” Among them was Taking away the Church of the Puritans, Union Square, which viewers could have recognized from recent coverage in the press. Located at Union Square and Fifteenth Street, the church had been built in 1846–47 by James Renwick, Jr., one of the country’s leading architects. Its minister, Rev. George B. Cheever, made it famous for his fierce onslaughts upon slavery, delivered from its pulpit, which he published in books such as God, Against Slavery.2 It was also the site of the first post-war Women’s Rights Convention, May 19, 1866. Yet by June 1868, The New York Times reported that “workmen are busy removing the famous Church of the Puritans, in order to make room for a costly and imposing structure for Tiffany & Co.”3
Some of those who passed through her studio that evening surely asked questions about the rationale behind the drawings. Like most projects, its beginnings were difficult to pinpoint precisely, but probably the experience of watching the city change slowly before her eyes crystallized in the destruction of a single, favorite building. The loss of the Church of the Puritans was a terrible waste; the building was only twenty years old and already held an important place in the history of American architecture. But for the daughter of a Methodist minister, the ravaging of a church to make way for a palace of commerce was especially disturbing. In a last-ditch effort to salvage something of the historic edifice, materials were numbered and reused to construct the Fifty-Third Street Baptist Church.4 Greatorex drew it “in the process of removal,” when it “assumed the most picturesque appearance,” as she explained. The key to her interpretation lay in her chosen perspective, “seen through the trees of the park in Union Square,” when “it reminded one of the ruins of an English abbey.”5 Framing her view with foliage, she transformed present into past and drawing into an act of visual preservation.
Along with subject matter, technique was also at issue. Greatorex had featured a sequence of pen-and-ink drawings at the Dodworth reception when the majority of her colleagues were displaying salon-worthy paintings. This was a risky move. Painting was the medium where artists proved their mastery. She was only just being recognized as a pioneering woman painter, and here she was stepping away from that to showcase her drawings, which in the artistic hierarchy were long deemed inferior. Throughout the history of art, they had been used as a form of shorthand or preliminary study, or associated with the lady amateur. That attitude began to change slowly in the early decades of the nineteenth century, during what Peter Marzio has termed the “Art Crusade,” when the English-speaking world witnessed a flood of drawing manuals. These were instruction books intended primarily for the general public, through which “promoters sought to build an artist democracy of citizen artists: a nation of draftsmen.” The efforts of popular American authors Rembrandt Peale, John Gadsby Chapman and others were buttressed by the publication of John Ruskin’s influential Elements of Drawing (1857), which recommended a course of drawing directly from nature. These endeavors assured a populace educated in the rudiments of drawing and an appreciation of their mastery.6
Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, drawing saw only limited application as an independent form of pictorial representation. This depended on another shift in the art world: the elevation of the artist’s study or first impression of nature as the endpoint of artistic production. The taste for the immediate and fragmentary led to the display and collecting of artist’s sketches, an emphasis on plein-air printmaking by James McNeill Whistler and others during the etching revival, and the rise of French Impressionism. By the Centennial, a new age of graphic arts was dawning. Exhibitions began to be devoted to works in black and white, watercolor and sketch clubs proliferated, and there was a growing market for works on paper. Greatorex was in the vanguard of those artists who aimed to convince audiences of the merits of drawing, to invert the conventional privileging of painting over drawing. She seemed to be succeeding, as a critic for The Aldine soon recognized: “We know of nothing better … than the pen-drawings of Mrs. Eliza Greatorex, who may be said to have introduced this particular branch of the limner’s art among us. Her drawings are a revelation of what a skillful hand can accomplish in black and white.”7 Her work represents a complex synthesis of measurement, mobility and memory.
Painting is sensate, intended to convey the look of a place via form and color. Fine art painting had to accommodate the specifics of place to an idealized notion of what and how a picture should look, to balance the real and the ideal. Drawing, by contrast, is more particular, and in a sense more conceptual. When Greatorex sat before her motif and sketched its contours in ink on paper, she was engaged in a form of surveying. The act of drawing is a way of measuring of space. She repeatedly referred to the challenges of finding the compelling subject, positioning herself optimally before the motif and getting it right. She would return to the site repeatedly to compare her drawing to the reality before her. She was translating a world perceived in volume and color into an image done in black and white contours. She obviously found it liberating, as she continued her pen-and-ink drawing for the next eight years, which led into her participation in the etching revival thereafter.
The word pen is thought to derive from the Latin penna, meaning a feather or plume. Steel pens had been in widespread use since 1825, when Joseph Gillott in Britain manufactured them by machine. But like many artists, Greatorex still preferred the quill pen. Perhaps this was partly in deference to tradition, but it was also a matter of practicality. Illustrator Walter Crane observed in the late 1920s: “though one occasionally meets with a good steel pen, I have found it too often fails one just when it is sufficiently worn to the right degree of flexibility. One returns to the quill, which can be cut to suit the particular requirements of one’s work.”8 As an artist, Eliza could achieve a range of tonal effects with her quill pen, from the broad, vigorous treatment of foreground foliage to the fine lines that defined the architecture of the middle distance. But it was also the instrument of the surveyor and the explorer, who deployed it to describe far away and exotic locales, from the polar North to the tropical South. And as she recognized, New Yorkers found their city’s past as distant and exotic as the remotest geography. Utilizing the old-fashioned implements of quill pen and ink, she became a time traveler, intent on capturing the decaying sites before they were completely obliterated. Once she committed to this new practice, she was rarely without pen and paper. Visiting her brother Adam Pratt in Washington, D.C., they enjoyed a private tour of the Corcoran Gallery from William Corcoran, who was so struck by his visitor’s habitual sketching that he dubbed her “the lady with the pen.”9
In Spring 1869, Greatorex was elected an Associate of the National Academy of Design, the only living female so honored. Subsequently she arranged with Ferdinand Thomas Lee Boyle to paint the requisite diploma portrait. Although Boyle painted the likeness, his sitter surely dictated how she wanted to be presented. Her attire is simple, even severe: a dark, loose-fitting dress with long sleeves and a trim lace collar. She is shown standing in half-length and holding her pen in her right hand, which folds over her left, and rests both on a leather-bound portfolio presumably containing drawings done with the pen. She stands before us, a grey-haired woman of fifty with no pretense of vanity, but with an intensity of passion and vocation. The white quills catch the light, and call attention to the fact that she has replaced the traditional artist’s attribute, the paintbrush, with an ink pen. She emphasizes its function as both personal emblem and symbol of power in the feminist arsenal, used not only for drawing but also for writing: the arena in which women had historically asserted themselves. Eliza had contemplated a career in letters before she settled on the visual arts, and combined studio arts with writing, including book publications on Germany and Colorado, as well as New York.
Likenesses of female painters such as Louise-ÉlizabethVigée-Lebrun, Lilly Martin Spencer and Mary Cassatt look fashionable and feminine by contrast with hers, which in its severity bears closer analogy to male artists. In Nicolas Poussin’s well-known self-portrait of 1650, he appears in a dark robe and rests his right hand on a sketchbook, a demeanor she may well have known and emulated. But given Eliza’s recent conversion to drawing, it is not impossible to imagine that she also had the great graphic artist Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Erasmus of Rotterdam (1526) on her mind as she determined her pose and props. The position of her body echoes his in its angle to the picture plane, tilt of the chin and prominence of the pen. Erasmus deeply admired Dürer, whose drawing he praised: “And is it not more wonderful to accomplish without the blandishment of colors what Apelles accomplished with their aid?”10 Reinventing herself as a graphic artist, she naturally revered the man whom Erasmus eulogized as its greatest practitioner. It is fitting, too, that while hers is a painted portrait, in keeping with the requirements of the Academy, she is delineated almost entirely in black and white. Once the portrait was complete, Greatorex gave it to the NAD, where it hung in the Summer 1870 exhibition.11 Then she and her children boarded the U.S.S. Hammonia bound for Germany, where they took up residence in Dürer’s hometown of Nuremberg, where she made pen-and-ink drawings of the sites associated with his life.12
It had been Greatorex’s habit every summer to leave the city with her children and stay with her sister upstate at Cornwall, to sketch in oils along the Hudson and into the Highlands. She adopted the practices of the Hudson River men, making preparatory studies for paintings she would elaborate during the winter months in her studio. In the mid-1860s, she began to apply the same methods to the urban environment. Instead of heading for the country, she remained in the city and set out every day from her residence on Twenty-Third Street to survey the island, with one campaign focusing on lower Manhattan from the Battery to Union Square. She also ventured to the northern neighborhood known as Bloomingdale, where Boss Tweed’s men were destroying the remnants of the old Dutch way of life to make way for the extension of Broadway. Her predilection for exploring on foot was nurtured in youth when she accompanied her father, a preacher on the Methodist circuit in rural Ireland. Through the hot summer of 1868, “she made the tour of the old places on the upper part of the island,” New York’s Evening Post reported, where she “produced at the end of the season a series of sketches, among which are the following: The Old Village Church at Bloomingdale (now in the process of demolition); the Bloomingdale Stage Inn, built in 1792."13
The journalist also found her equipment noteworthy and described her “taking her pen, inkhorn, and table into the open fields."14 She had replaced her portable painting equipment—sketchbox, easel, canvas, umbrella and an assortment of pigments—with pen, ink and paper. Admittedly, she required some kind of portable stool and tablet, but the change in medium gave her greater mobility and speed of execution, and thus radically altered her perspective on her subjects. She never abandoned painting, but consciously shifted her emphasis to the language of drawing. She was training herself to think like an expeditionary draftsperson: on the move, and viewing the world in black and white.
Also in the Spring of 1869, she began exploring the neighborhood now known as the Upper East Side, from about Seventieth to East Ninetieth Street east of Fifth Avenue. By then, it was already in transition from rural to urban, especially evident in the enclave of merchants and businessmen in the village of Yorkville. But Eliza preferred the island’s periphery, where on the quiet banks of the East River, the secluded country seats of venerable New Yorkers still survived: that of John Jacob Astor, Gracie Mansion, and the Riker and Lawrence Houses.15 Employing the graphic grid she had fashioned in her depiction of the Church of the Puritans, she maintained a building as the focal point of each drawing. The homes are carefully distinguished by their architectural styles and surrounding terrain, although she often exaggerated their proximity to the river, complete with sailboats floating offshore. A perusal of her entire oeuvre demonstrates that, no matter what pains she took to trek to a remote homestead or church and draw it on site, she unfailingly placed it behind a vegetal curtain.
In her work, this visual motif of the single stand of trees—positioned between the picture’s edge and the architectural motif in the middle distance—functions as a kind of time portal. Looking through the trees, her viewer is transported metaphorically from the modernized present to a pre-technological past, to a time when her crumbling structures throbbed with life. The conceit of the ancient tree as a symbol of an earlier, idealized time is a staple of American nature writing, which appears in the work of William Bartram, Henry David Thoreau and William Cullen Bryant. But crafting it as a visual marker between past and present—and using it to call attention to the need for preservation—more closely parallels the writing of her female contemporary Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813–94). In 1850, four years before the appearance of Thoreau’s Walden, Cooper published Rural Hours, her popular journal documenting the cyclical changes of the natural world she observed in upstate New York.16 Daughter of novelist James Fenimore Cooper, she was, as Vera Norwood recognized, “the first American woman to gain a popular readership as a nature writer."17 Having trafficked between the Old and New World, and between urban and upstate New York, both women were attentive to the increasingly rapid pace of modern life, its detrimental effects on nature and its erasure of historic architecture. As Greatorex drew these soon-to-be lost buildings, Cooper was writing a new preface to the 1868 edition of her book. Regarding a cluster of old-growth trees, she ponders history from their perspective. “This aspect of the wood,” she wrote, “tells its own history,” and argues that the trees ought to be saved as witness to the New World prior to European colonization.18 Looking back in time through this arboreal curtain, Greatorex—like Cooper—conserved the past through art, and fulfilled the preservationist function thought in their day to be province of woman.
New York is a cannibal city. It consumes itself once a generation and regenerates anew. Destruction was especially rapacious after the Civil War, when commerce demanded the clearing of a thoroughfare passage from one end of the island to the other, and new fortunes desired Gilded Age mansions to replace the long-standing Dutch farmhouses. In the face of historical indifference, Greatorex was one of a small handful of artists who wanted her work to bear witness to this urban metamorphosis. But how can a single drawing or even a suite of works bear witness to such wholesale destruction? Greatorex had no such illusions about her works on paper. Her art was based on process, not product. The pen-and-ink drawings were one element in a network of materials that encompassed related landscape paintings, memory panels, exhibitions of related artifacts and a monumental published volume that complemented images with text.
From 1865 to 1875, Eliza amassed her pictorial inventory of the disappearing buildings while her sister Matilda Pratt Despard authored a narrative that animated them with the voices of past inhabitants, retrieved through material culture and oral history. When a structure was slated for demolition, Greatorex rushed to the site, armed with quill pen and ink, and drew it for posterity. She was selective, and eschewed renowned civic establishments in favor of containers of everyday life: homesteads, hospitals and churches. Often she removed a shingle from the building and painted a likeness of the lost building on it, creating what could be termed a “memory panel.” Aware that, by the time she started work, many significant buildings had already been lost, she searched archives for renderings by eighteenth-century artists, including Archibald Robertson, and copied them for inclusion in her book. She then published a folio volume consisting of illustrated essays on each site as Old New York: From the Battery to Bloomingdale (New York, 1875). She displayed all of these elements in one powerful summation in an alcove of the Woman’s Pavilion at the Centennial. Her drawings should be comprehended, then, as an integral part of this conceptual project, which ultimately served to measure not only the urban space but also the march of time through that space. Excavating the history of life in Old New York, the graphic arts of Eliza Greatorex functioned to chart human memories onto the space of the city.
1. This article is drawn from my forthcoming book Maeve’s Daughters: Eliza Pratt Greatorex and the Epic Story of the Art Women in the Age of Promise (publisher tba). “Fine Arts,” The Evening Post (Dec. 22, 1868), 2:3.
2. Rev. George B. Cheever, God Against Slavery and the Freedom and Duty of the Pulpit to Rebuke It, as a Sin against God (New York: Joseph Ladd, 1857).
3. “Growth of the Metropolis,” New York Times (June 15, 1868).
4. David W. Dunlap, From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 177.
5. Old New York: From the Battery to Bloomingdale. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1875), p. 72.
6. Peter C. Marzio, “The Art Crusade: An Analysis of American Drawing Manuals, 1820–1860,” Smithsonian Studies in History and Technology 34 (1976), provides useful background; quote, p. 70.
7. “Eliza Greatorex,” The Aldine 6, no. 2 (Feb. 1873), p. 48.
8. Walter Crane, quoted in Arthur L. Guptill, Drawing in Pen and Ink, ed., Henry C. Pitz (New York: Reinhold, 1961), p. 13.
9. Corcoran Gallery of Art Records, 1874. My thanks to the Corcoran staff and to personnel at A.S. Pratt and Sons, for putting me on the trail of the citation.
10. “Albrecht Dürer: Erasmus of Rotterdam (19.73.120),” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000, for quote.
11. NAD Summer 1870. Boyle, F.T.L. address: Brooklyn Institute. Cat. No. 538. Eliza Greatorex. Owned by NAD.
12. See my “Bavarian Beginnings of Eliza Greatorex,” American Artists in Munich: Artistic Migration and Cultural Exchange Processes, Christian Fuhrmeister, ed. (Berlin and Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2009), pp. 153–66.
13. “Fine Arts,” The Evening Pos, (Dec. 2, 1868), p. 2:2.
15. These appear in Old New York: 222, 218 and 153.
16. Susan Fenimore Cooper, Rural Hours (New York: George P. Putnam, 1850).
17. Vera Norwood, “Women’s Roles in Nature Study and of History of Environmental Protection,” OAH Magazine of History 10, no. 3 (Spring 1996), p. 12.
18. Rochelle Johnson, “James Fenimore Cooper, Susan Fenimore Cooper, and the Work on History,” paper presented at the 1999 Cooper Seminar (no. 12), SUNY Oneonta, on line at www.oneonta.edu/cooper/articles/suny/1999suny-johnson (consulted August 2012).