The portrait miniatures of Eulabee Dix - watercolor painter
Magazine Antiques, Nov, 1994 by Anne Sue Hirshorn
In the late nineteenth century, "suddenly, spontaneously, none knowing of the others, a small number of American painters...began to experiment with water-color on ivory, each one led to do so by an affinity with the peculiar, limited beauties of the medium."(1) Eulabee Dix was one such artist. Drawn to New York City, where this specialty was encouraged, Dix played a significant role in a lambent renaissance of the miniature that began about 1890 and continued through the 1930's on both sides of the Atlantic. Although her work was well received in her day and information about her has been available to scholars, it was not until her family donated a number of her paintings and papers to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 1989 that her own perspective on her era has come to light.(2)
Dix was born in Greenfield, Illinois, to Mary Bartholomew and Horace Wells Dix. In 1895 the family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dix, then seventeen, was in her second year at the School of Fine Arts at Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri. The school had been founder in 1879 by Halsey Cooley Ives (1847-1911), who had trained at the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) in London. He brought to Saint Louis the prevailing mode of combining the study of art with practical training(3)--a blurring of the line between fine and applied art that stemmed from the principles of John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Morris (1834-1896) as embodied in the English arts and crafts movement.
Dix worked from live models at the Saint Louis school and was awarded two medals for drawing. Her skill suggested that she might find employment as an illustrator for the expanding Grand Rapids furniture industry--a possibility she immediately rejected. In 1899 she moved to New York City, studying for one week at the school run by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). She left because of Chase's focus on oil painting and because she disliked his philosophy of color, which seemed to be based on random choice from an infinite palette. She then studied with William Whittemore (1860-1955), who taught classes in the miniature at the Art Students League between about 1900 and 1902. In January 1900 Dix contributed a miniature to the first exhibition of the American Society of 51 Miniature Painters, held at Knoedler Galleries in New York City.(4)
Insecure, inexperienced, and living frugally, Dix often wondered in her journal why she had chosen this uncertain path to independence. She kept a letter from her father encouraging her to come home folded in the journal in which she copied classroom critiques such as:
From Mr. Whittemore Careful of masses Careful of little niceties Careful of too much yellow. Be careful not to get darks in shadows too dark.(5)
One of Dix's mentors was Isaac A. Josephi, a founder of the American Society of Miniature Painters and its first president. He had studied in Paris with Leon Joseph Florentin Bonnat (1833-1922) and seems to have had an almost faultless sense of scale, for when his miniatures are enlarged, they offer no clue to their actual size. Josephi encouraged Dix's technical inventiveness but advised her not to paint the whole truth in a commissioned portrait. In her journal she noted:
From Mr. Josephi:
1. cover all the ivory with color
2. use color to model lights over greys in shadows
3. flatter! flatter! flatter! (be careful with spotty masses)
4. use different techniques for different textures.
Dix's early mastery of techniques is evident in her 1900 portrait of the model Dottie Cox, rendered in long, deft lines that effectively trace the irregular contours of the rim of the hat, which raffishly frames masses of auburn hair.(6) The figure is modeled in soft colors so that the pallor of the ivory interacts with the skin tones. The spirited Cox and the more subdued Ella Goin Rionda, another model, painted about 1904, evoke the New York of Robert Henri (1865-1929) and John Sloan (1871-1951), who typified the era.
The gallery system was then in its infancy, and prospective buyers would visit the studio, usually during informal receptions given weekly or monthly by the artist.(7) From 1902 until 1909 Dix lived and worked in a small, skylit studio on the fifteenth floor of the newer of the two Carnegie Hall Towers, built in 1896. Mrs. Louis Bell, an early patron, helped her improvise an "artistic"
environment by draping quasi-oriental hangings over a screen used to hide the bed. Dix's neighbors on the fifteenth floor were Frederick Stuart Church, an illustrator; Harriet Keith Fobes, a jeweler, and Theodora W. Thayer, a miniature painter whom Dix much admired.(8)
The sounds of the street filtered up through the open windows of her studio in summer--sounds comforting only at a distance. From the windows Dix saw the fabled mansions of Fifth Avenue, the world of her aspirations. She wrote:
My east windows looked over the mansions I longed to paint--the Vanderbilt house on the northwest corner of Fifth and Fifty-seventh, with the Oelrich and Whitney homes nearby. In summer all the mansions were locked and boarded, cats prowled in the streets.(9)
... 7 Written into Dix's journal is a draft of her invitation card to receptions in her Carnegie Hall studio. They were to be held on Fridays between two and four in the afternoon.
8 For this list of tenants I would like to thank Jill Vetter, assistant archivist, Carnegie Hall Archives, Carnegie Hall, New York City.
9 "Memoir," p. 41.
10 Interiors of these houses are illustrated in [George Sheldon], Artistic Houses (New York, 1883-1884), reprinted with additional text as The Opulent Interiors of the Gilded Age... (New York, 1987). For more about Ogden Codman see Ogden Codman and the Decoration of Houses, ed. Pauline C. Metcalf (Boston Athenaeum, Boston, 1988).
11 George Charles Williamson (1858-1942), Portrait Miniatures (London, 1897), p. 124.
12 Josephi declined an invitation to exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia because, he wrote, "I am going to a studio I have in London where I will remain until next summer" (Josephi, Isle of Jersey in the English Channel, to Margaretta Archambault, October 17, 1903, in Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C.).
13 Catalogue of Three Exhibitions: The Cities of Spain, water-colours by H. C. Brewer, The Land of the West, Water-colours by S. J. Lamorna Birch, Portrait Miniatures by Eulabee Dix (Fine Art Society, London, 1906). See also clippings from The Queen, December 22, 1906, and Lady's Pictorial..., February 10, 1906, all in the Dix Papers.
14 Whereabouts unknown.
15 Whereabouts unknown. It is unclear whether this represented Dix's friend the photographer Gertrude Kasebier or her daughter of the same name, then a young woman.
16 "Memoir," p. 45.
17 "Recollections," p. 54.
18 Dix wrote, "the Art Workers Club was near--organized by a group of prominent women for the benefit of artists and models--with beautiful old costumes for rent; these given by old families from their garret trunks" ("Recollections," p. 40).
19 Three other signed Kasebier photographs of Dix are in the Joan Gaines collection at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The earliest, of c. 1905, is illustrated in Barbara Michaels, Gertrude Kasebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs (New York, 1992), p. 122, Fig. 91.
20 "Portrait Miniatures by Miss Eulabee Dix," International Studio, vol. 40 (June 1910), p. 94.
22 Ibid., p. 97.
23 In the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
24 The painting, entitled Girl in Wedding Gown, is in the Museum of Nebraska Art, Kearney, Nebraska. Henri's other portrait of Dix, Lady in Black Velvet, Eulabee Dix Becker, is now in the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia.
25 Quoted in William Michael Murphy, Prodigal Father: The Life of John Butler Yeats, 1839-1922 (New York, 1957), p. 615.
ANNE SUE HIRSHORN has written and lectured frequently about American portrait miniatures and is the guest curator of the exhibition Eulabee Dix Portrait Miniatures: An American Renaissance.
COPYRIGHT 1994 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group