Saturday, March 26, 2011

Introducing Lilian Wescott Hale

The Open Door

Those who have seen Lilian Westcott Hale's work in person are amazed by her unusual and delicate technique. Her mentor, Edmund Tarbell, exclaimed after seeing her drawings in the one-woman 1908 Boston show, “Your drawings are perfectly beautiful—as fine as anything could be. They belong with our old friends Leonardo, Holbein and Ingres, and are to me the finest modern drawings I have ever seen.” *

Seeing that I had posted several of her drawings, my teacher lent me The Life in the Studio by her daughter, Nancy Hale. It is a lovely book, an easy read that one can curl up with and enter into. It is within these pages that we are introduced to Lilian, the artist:

From the beginning, "her private world was not at any age the same as other girls'. At eighteeen it was not the dream of beaux and dances that, for example, her older sister's was. She thought boys were what she later learned from my father to call 'the least of God's mercies.'

She met my father [Philip Hale, artist/teacher/critic] in Boston, where she went to study art. He was seventeen years older than she, a painter with fifteen years of training in the Paris ateliers, and phenomenally learned in art and art history. He was the only man who ever attracted her; for what she had been dreaming of, even when she was a little girl, was art. Art was to her so important that beside it clothes, parties, flirtations, even the idea of marriage, were trivial.

When I myself began going to dances in Boston, my mother used to view my enthusiasm with a sort of incredulity. She shocked me once when I was about eighteen by saying of one of my friends, 'All she seems to want to do is get married and have children. It isn't serious!'

After their marriage, she lived at home in the two-hundred-year-old cottage backing up against the woods, to pursue her secret life all day alone [while her husband went to his teaching job].

Her mornings were for artwork. There were the sounds of the sharp, steady sawing of charcoal (sharpened to a needle point with a razor blade) up and down against the sheet of Strathmore board on my mother's easel as she worked on a snow scene from the windows of the front hall. There would come a pause in the sawing, and a faint rattle, while she rummaged around in the blue-edged box that French charcoal came in. A clack - she had dropped something on the floor. If it was charcoal, it fell with a small explosion. Then a scratchy, rubbing sound, which was the careful filing of the sides of her stick of charcoal against the board covered with fine sandpaper which had a handle to keep one's fingers clean. A pause. Then would recommence the sawing of the point drawn rhythmically up and down.

She sat beautifully erect, on a high stool, her right arm out at full length, holding the charcoal in its French brass holder. The charcoal would be moving slowly, tentatively, as though groping, along the page, as her face kept turning, alertly, from drawing to scene outside the windows; or the charcoal would all at once move decisively, in a long line that ran down the paper, nervous, elegant, intensely black.

Lilian Westcott Hale at Work

When my father got home from his Boston studio just before dinner at night, he would go at once to my mother's studio, on the north side of our house and see how her day's work had progressed.

"I need a crit!" she would cry, embracing him at the front door. My father would stand in the white-walled room backing away from the canvas on the big easel and coming up close again to indicate with his thumb something he felt needed fixing. He was heavyset, with a walrus mustache that half concealed his mouth. He had a way of letting his hand drop to his side with a hard slap after making such an indication. Since he carried loose kitchen matches in his pocket to light his pipe with, at least once, in his life class, a student had timidly said, 'Mr. Hale, there's smoke coming out of your pocket!'

My mother sat on her high painting stool, her chin propped on her fist, paying rapt attention. It had been just an ordinary room, until its whole north wall was replaced by windows with short sash curtains that enabled my mother to make innumerable adjustments in the exact degree of that essential to painting as she knew it - the light."**

to be continued...

* Philip Hale Papers, Box 53a, Folder 1444, SSC **The Life in the Studio by Nancy Hale, 1957 . Little, Brown & Co.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I have this book, but have yet to read it. I should get on this one soon.

    1. It is an easy read and fascinating. I think you'll like it!

  2. This is great! Thanks for the introduction to Lilian Hale. Love this and want to get the book.