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In today’s world, it is more important than ever to have someone that is always in your corner of the ring, pushing you forward and supporting you. So, let us talk about moms. They not only fit this bill perfectly, but they do it with gusto and often elegance. Throughout much of infancy, toddlerhood, adolescence and even into young adulthood and beyond they put up with an incredible amount, and for the most part successfully retain the veneer of being unphased by even the worst of it. We are grateful for wonderful moms every day, but Mother’s Day is the one day of the year that we are especially sure to let them know. To celebrate, today’s post revisits an earlier one on Wayside Madonna, a beloved display of motherly affection painted by Edith Catlin Phelps and on exhibit in the Bowers’ Old Wing.
East of Edith
Edith Catlin Phelps was born on April 16, 1874 in New York City, New York. As a young woman Phelps studied painting under William Merritt Chase and Charles Webster Hawthorne, and traveled to Paris to attend classes at the Académie Julian. She apparently lived a life of luxury, marrying the wealthy architect Stowe Phelps and residing in both Manhattan and Connecticut. She was herself a mother, adopting and raising a young girl and having a child of her own sometime around 1911. Aside from a rather shocking 1927 incident in which she was attacked by another high society woman with a concealed light hatchet, Phelps appears to have been happy living on the east coast until the Great Depression, when she and her family picked up and moved out to Santa Barbara in California. Her paintings show a great deal of talent and news clippings from the time indicate that she may have had a sculpting career that has been largely forgotten.
Making a Scene
Wayside Madonna, the Bowers’ only painting by Phelps, was completed in 1939 and gifted to the museum by the artist in 1957. After a few short years in California, the artist’s style had already shifted to accommodate some of the larger trends in California regionalist painting which used social realism to capture moments from everyday life and frequently did so in rural settings. As a budding style of the early 1930s and major movement of the later decade, regionalist pieces such as this are portraits of American life, either populated or unpopulated, and in many cases illustrate the hardships that Americans faced during the Great Depression. Regionalism is also commonly referred to as American scene painting and was adopted by President Roosevelt and the government as the official art style of New Deal era projects. Much in the same way that muralism was to be a rallying flag for the arts of early 20th Century Mexico, regionalist painting was a vehicle for American people to take pride in their country.
Catlin’s Stark Painting
The style was a popular one, created by and for the people rather than the new and somewhat elitist abstract styles that were gripping cities like New York. Phelps’ entry into California scene is interesting as she was herself upper class, but all the same, Wayside Madonna incorporates elements of the regionalist formula well: people engaged in pleasant activities, in picturesque landscapes and a focus on a tableau which is unabashedly heartfelt. Representational works like this convey the artists’ messages with an aesthetic emphasis on volume, high contrast and strong contour. Here she shows a woman and baby in the style of the Madonna and Child, a popular religious image of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus.
Perfectly condensing the loving relationship between mother and child, devotional paintings of the Madonna were first popularized during the medieval period. Even the rustic background dates as far back as the 15th century, though certainly the white stuccoed walls and red tiles of the buildings could only be Californian. Phelps’ work was also part of a multi-century-long evolution of this subgenre of religious paining. California regionalism did not limit itself to depicting Anglo subjects, and as African American photographers like James Latimer Allen were capturing images such as the above of a black Madonna and Child, Edith Catlin Phelps cast a Latina sitter to embody Christianity’s most important female figure. Phelps’ Wayside Madonna is not only a great tribute to the multi-ethnic celebration of religious figures but a wonderful homage to motherhood. Happy Mother’s Day!
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
As usual Mark, this is a beautiful tribute to Mother's Day and to the Bowers Museum collection. I look forward each week to your blog that not only enriches our membership but enhances docent touring.
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