Sunday, April 3, 2011

Lilian Hale's Self-Portrait

Black-Eyed Susans

"There is a real sadness to her work," someone commented after viewing some of Lilian Wescott Hale's paintings. It is true. Thus I was particularly interested when the subject of Lilian's coldness came up in her daughter Nancy's biography, The Life in the Studio:

"After my mother died, I felt I should go through my mother's drawings; there had been inquiries from would-be purchasers. I needed to see which, if any, I felt ready to part with. In addition to drawings glassed and framed with cards from old exhibitions still pasted to the backing, there were big black French portfolios full of drawings, some of which I hadn't seen for years and years, many only partly finished. As I drew out each sheet of Strathmore board, propped it against a chair, and viewed it, all the pictures seemed to have taken on a curious new dimension that at first baffled me.

On Christmas Day in the Morning, 1924

Here was the shed behind our house in Dedham. Tortuous black branches on which a few black berries cling are shown in relation to its slanting, white-laden roof, the whole vignetted on the white paper so that the scene seems drowned in winter. Here was the house across the road seen from the windows of our upstairs hall. Upon the boughs of the hemlock on the front lawn, bent down by snow, snow is still falling; but inside the window, in the foreground, blossoms of a bowl of freesias are touched faintly with sanguine chalk, giving a sense at once of inwardness and of warmth. Next came the profile of a little Irish girl my mother used often as a model: tiptilted, naive, sharp black against the strong light from the window where she is sitting.

Spring Morning, 1908

What seemed so new? Looking at the old, familiar scenes and faces made me long for something, but it wasn't the past. It was something here in the pictures themselves. What I was discovering, throughout the long series of drawings, was a likeness: a self-portrait that my mother had not the least awareness she was making.

The unconscious revelation about herself that I began to take in as I viewed my mother's drawings right after her death had to do with the choice of subjects - those little girls, like flowers; those interiors, snug, sheltering, unpeopled; and everywhere those repeatedly pictured, exquisite falls of snow. It was all true, especially the snow.

Coldness was puzzling, coming from that tall, beautiful, glowing creature who enchanted all who met her in warm moods. She was a loving mother, an adoring wife, yet all my life I had known the change that could take place in her and, as a child, I would be stricken with fear. It was as if she had gone away and forgotten me. She wasn't merely thinking about something else; she had ceased to feel my presence.

She herself never would admit she was cold. 'No I'm not!' she'd protest. 'I was being very cordial!" I used to talk it over with my Aunt Nancy. 'I know," my aunt said. 'Lily's always been that way, even when she was little. Your grandmother was deeply hurt when she asked Lily whom she loved best and Lily said Annie Langer...Of course, the reason for that,' Aunt Nancy said, hastening as ever to absolve her sister of blame, 'was that your grandmother was utterly prostrated during the years Lily was little, so it fell to Annie to take the care of her. Lily was actually the most sensitive of us all.'"

Lilian had grown up in the shadow of the gray cloud that hovered over her family. It was not a happy situation. Her nine year old sister, Dolly, had died while visiting relatives. Her mother was often "prostrated." Her father had been deeply hurt in business and had become an invalid with his daughters helping to care for him. In their minds, the idea of suffering was looked upon approvingly; it deserved high praise in that Victorian household. "'So-and-so is a great sufferer,' Grandmother would announce approvingly, and even my mother looked respectful.'

Boy by the Ocean

In the core of anguish, ice. Out of ice, art - starting up again like perpetually blooming roses from an old, winter grave. The private, interior world in which my mother hid was at the same time just what, in her pictures, she set forth for display.

Coldness was not a moral question in my mother, neither good nor bad. It was more the basis for survival." *

*The Life in the Studio by Nancy Hale . Little, Brown and Company, 1957


  1. This is so achingly beautiful to me. I find that often times when artists aren't looking, they are expressing. Sometimes with realism I find that the mannered and forced subject matter that has been arranged in a way to express a particular feeling or thought, comes off a bit "on the nose", too obvious, sometimes silly. What I love about really good art is that the artist expresses him/herself without realizing it, and is sometimes not fully appreciated until the work is seen together in a series.

    I have always loved Nancy Hale's "Ziffy in bed", (it's often published in "vintage" children's poem books), and have always wondered about it. After having read this, I see the true picture, the story. I am so sad for Nancy Hale, and so glad at the same time.

    It's also worth noting that Norman Rockwell's son (I forget his name), also had a resentful relationship with his father since he was also used as a model.

  2. I think that the picture Nancy paints verbally in her mother's biography, is of a good relationship - although definitely not a warm and fuzzy kind of thing. I do think that at times Nancy felt alone, but she never mentions any harshness. After she grew up, she tried to do things to get her mother out of the house and in social settings. She was always proud of her (except for a couple of rebellious teenage years).They also took a lovely trip, a cruise, at the end of Lilian's life to Italy to visit art museums there. Lilian had more energy than she had had in a long time and enjoyed it immensely, but shortly after returning died on a visit to a relative in Minnesota.

  3. I think I'd like to read this book! :) It sounds really interesting. I am glad to hear that Nancy had a good relationship with her mother. I do still feel though that we artists sometimes forget how our passions eclipse those around us. I am so glad for her body of work and eternally inspired (Ziffy in bed has been a favorite painting of mine for at least 20 years now). The words of her daughter now make the story so much richer!
    Thank you so much for posting this series - I have really enjoyed it immensely!

  4. You may also find it interesting that the original title for "Ziffy in Bed" was "The Convalescent." The time spent in bed while ill is actually one of the minor themes in "The Life in the Studio" and was painted more than once by Lilian.

  5. Hi Linda,

    I really love your blog, your post are very informative.

    Best, Jason