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Artist of the Week: Lilla Cabot Perry

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Lilla Cabot Perry (shown in this self portrait) was one of the most prolific and influential Impressionists in american history. She was highly respected in the artistic community, studied under Monet, and traveled the world, later blending Eastern artistic styles with her own. Her vocal praise for the Impressionist style and her success helped pave the way for other female painters of her time.

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Josephine Baker

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Ah, Josephine Baker, icon of the 1920’s. Her name brings to mind her famous banana dance, singing, the breaking down of segregation, and covert WWII missions.

Wait…no? Just the dancing? Hold onto your butts, things are about to get awesome.

Josephine was born Freda Josephine McDonald, an illegitimate black child in St. Louis. Her childhood was rough to say the least. Her parents did the best they did as singers and actors, often bringing her onstage for the finale as an infant. However, her parent’s weren’t successful enough to keep the young Josephine from digging through the trash for food. She worked as a maid, being abused several times, even having her hands burned for putting too much soap in the wash.

As if that wasn’t traumatic enough, Josephine then witnessed the St. Louis racial riots. See, a black man was accused of raping a white girl and, in keeping the the times, white people rallied against black men everywhere. Within a few hours of the beginning of the riot, over 50 black men lay dead. The experience would forever haunt Josephine and mark her morals from then on.

She began performing in vaudeville as the comedic clumsy chorus girl; the girl on the end of the line who, throughout the performance, can’t quite get the steps. Yet in the encore she would reappear dancing better than everyone else. At thirteen she was married for the first time to a Pullman Porter but, as you can imagine, the marriage was unhappy and short-lived. She married again, this time to Willie Baker. Though the marriage was equally unhappy and short lived, she decided to keep his last name, becoming forever known as Josephine Baker.

Though she had many fans in the USA including Earnest Hemingway, Josephine felt she’d achieved all she could in America as a young black woman at that time. In 1925 she left for France which would grow to be the country she loved most. There, she was ‘exotic’, not ‘trashy’. She was celebrated for her risqué dance numbers, appearing on one occasion entirely nude, clad in just a pink flamingo feather. It was also here that she rose to stardom, cultivating not only her dance, but also her lovely soprano voice. She married a frenchman and renounced her American citizenship. When WWII broke out Josephine initially retreated to her chateau. There she met Jaque A., a member of the French resistance. He admired her patriotism and invited her to work in counter espionage. She accepted and wowed all with her courage. She attended parties all over Europe, gathering information on German activities without raising suspicion. In addition to donating her home, vehicles, and money she offered members of the resistance shelter in her band. She smuggled them across boarders, using her fame to her advantage. Secret messages were hidden in her sheet music.

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During the occupation of France, Josephine left for Morocco, stating that she was in poor health. In fact, it was to further aid the French Resistance by running missions to Spain. She pinned notes containing the information inside her underwear, knowing that her fame would likely prevent a strip search. It was at this time she suffered several miscarriages and her internal damage was so severe she was forced to undergo a hysterectomy, which became infected. Many thought she would die.

Throughout her career with the military, she performed for troops. That is, she performed on one condition; her audiences must not be segregated. She had so much pull as a star, that her condition was honored. She was responsible for one of the first integrations of the French military. She also allowed civilians to attend her performances free of charge. Her fan base spanned the races and classes because of this; Josephine’s deeply ingrained sense of equality.

For her efforts in the war, she received the  Croix de guerre and the Rosette de la Résistance. She was even given the honorary title of Lieutenant by General Charles de Gaulle.

After the war she returned to her Chateau, and to the stage. Now predominately a singer, she impressed audiences with her daring performances. Once she appeared as Queen Mary, singing Ave Maria behind a stained glass window. Having pushed the boundaries of society in one way, she figured she could push them in the other. Soon, she was offered a gig at a swanky night club in Miami. She refused, stating she would not perform for a segregated audience. Such was her star power, the nightclub agreed, and the show was a sell out. She went on to tour the United States, always to un segregated audiences.

But it was not to last. One night she and her friends went to have dinner at the Stork Club. She ordered food and a bottle of wine, but when neither came in an hour, she left in a fury. She ran into a reporter, and later filed a complaint on the Stork Club, dropping the reporter’s name as he was a fan of hers, but did nothing to aid her. The reporter turned against her, claiming she was a communist at the hight of the communist witch hunt in the USA. She deported from the country broken hearted.

It was then that Josephine set out to prove once and for all that anyone of any race could get along. She adopted 12 children of various races and embarked on a mission to raise them together, calling them The Rainbow Tribe. But there was a problem. Though Josephine still earned top dollar in her performances, the expenses of this experiments were enormous. She did what she could by performing, but she had no head for money and the debts mounted up. Some of the wealthy donated, which helped to keep her head above water. It was around this time she suffered several strokes and a heart attack. After all of this, she was subjected to another blow. She lost ownership of her chateau. She collapsed on the steps as she said goodbye, and had to be rushed to the hospital. Finally she moved to Monaco, and the Rainbow Tribe grew up, but with a price. To pay for her efforts, Josephine would perform until the day she died. She ended her career with four sell out shows at Carnegie Hall before finally singing of her life on stage in Paris. Her performance was universally praised, but she would lot live to enjoy it. That night, she suffered a stroke and sunk into a coma. She died, and was given a 21 gun salute state funeral.

Artist of the Week ~ Enid Yandell

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Enid Yandell was an American sculptor who’s works can still be seen adorning parks today, including possibly her most famous work, Statue of Pan, which resides in Cherokee Park, Louisville. She largely abandoned sculpting after the first world war broke out. She chose to devote her time to volunteering in the red cross in Europe and helping orphaned French children. When she retired to the USA, she was elected as director of the Bureau of Communications for the American Red Cross in New York.

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Clara Schumann

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Born on 13 September, 1819, Clara was no stranger to music. Her mother was a famous singer, and though she stayed with her father after her parents divorce, music was always present in her life. She received music lessons for one hour each day, and practiced an additional two hours after that. She began performing at age 8, and it was during one of these performances she met Robert Schumann, then 17, who admired her skill so much he quit law school in order to learn under her father. He moved into her house when she was 11, and when she was 18, he proposed and she accepted. Clara’s father disapproved. His daughter was already a respected musician, and despite seven years of instruction Robert was, well, not. Her father didn’t want her to “throw herself away on a penniless composer.” Elopement was more difficult in Germany those days and the two had to sue Clara’s father in order for a judge to approve of their marriage. Their tactic worked. They were wed, and began their lives together.

The Clara became famous in the artistic scene. Her husband, somewhat less so. Clara was a mainly a concert pianist. Robert encouraged her to propose, and he himself was mainly a composer. Unfortunately, the quality of his compositions has been debated by critics, both then and now. Robert was also prone to mental instability and in 1854 he attempted suicide by throwing himself into the Rhrine. He was rescued by fisherman, but insisted that he be committed to an asylum. He was granted his wish and remained in the asylum and remained there until he died. During this time neither his wife nor their 8 children were allowed to visit him. During that time, Clara composed regularly and performed, but performance had become a literal pain for her. She suffered from arthritis and underwent multiple homeopathic treatments for it.

Despite her success, after her husband’s death, She, like Mary Shelley, devoted her life to brining his works recognition. She suffered a stroke in 1896, and was subsequently rendered deaf and confined to a wheelchair. It’s odd then, that on her deathbed she demanded her grandson play her husband’s major romance in F-sharp. It would be the last song she ever heard. She died on May 20, 1896.

Mary Shelley

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Mary Shelley was born into a family of free thinkers in 1797, a time of intellectual renaissance. Her father, William Godwin, was a highly respected philosopher, one of many who preached free love and equality in the early 1800’s. His book about justice was vital to the British Radicals. Not long after France had begun it’s revolution, the many Brits started hankering for their own. It was a time of great political unrest. Her father, however, wasn’t the only famous mind in her family. Mary was named after her mother, the renowned Mary Wolstoncraft, considered the mother of feminism and a visionary in women’s rights. Her mother would shape her future, but not just through her teachings. When Mary gave birth to her daughter, she was described as being too weak to feed the howling infant. Her placenta had broken apart and become infected, resulting in puerperal fever, one of the most common causes of women’s death in her time. She died a few days later, and the knowledge that her mother had died for her would forever haunt Mary Shelly.

Years later a man named Percy Bysshe Shelley would begin writing letters to her father. The revolutionary ideology was spreading and William Godwin was practically worshiped as the intellectual face of the would-be revolution. Percy Shelley was, for all intents and purposes, a fanboy bent on interacting with his idol, writing countless letters requesting friendship and even showing up to Godwin’s bookshop in hopes of seeing his senpai. Now, Godwin had read Shelley’s letters aloud to his family, for demonstration of his intellectual prowess or for a good laugh, we’re not sure. What is certain is that Mary knew of Shelley long before they ever actually met. When they did meet in Godwin’s bookshop she, just 16, fell in love.

Their relationship was rough from the start. Godwin, for all his preachings on free love, disapproved. His daughter was only 16, and there was another problem; Percy was already married. His was was pregnant with his first child, but whether Mary knew or cared, we don’t know. What we do know is that, one night in a fit of despair, the two made a suicide pact. Mary held a gun to her temple, but backed out at the last minute. Percy, slightly more serious, took an overdose of laudanum (a potent mixture of opiates), but survived. His survival inspired him to make the most of life – with Mary. They eloped in the dead of night, but they weren’t alone. Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister joined them. See, Percy was pretty sold on the idea of free love. So much so that he’s rumored to have intended to start a commune not unlike the hippies of the 60’s, with as many women as he could handle. Mary, though taught the same ideas as Percy, found sharing her man with her stepsister uncomfortable, and the relationships between all three would always be strained.

From birth, Mary heard stories of doctors attempting to bring back the dead. Medicine wasn’t the prestigious career it is today, and was generally regarded as being a shady practice. Medicine and science were still emerging from the dark ages. In ancient times, the most sought after goal of alchemy was to turn something not gold, into gold. In Mary’s time, the most sought after goal of medicine was to turn something not alive, into a living being once again. Shortly after arriving in Switzerland with Claire and Percy, Mary heard of Condrad Dippel, a man who was rumored to have stolen bodies from graves and injected them with substances supposed to bring them back to life. Condrad Dippel was supposedly born in Rocafor Franks castle, also known as Burg Frankenstein.

May became pregnant, but lost her first child shortly after she was born. Her daughter’s death hurt Mary deeply, and began a lifelong connection with the concepts of death and rebirth. Mary wrote once that she had dreamed her daughter was cold, yet they brought her near the fire and rubbed her vigorously and low, she returned to life! Yet upon waking, the darkness and heaviness would sink over Mary again. Shortly after, she gave birth to a son, William who would survive infancy. It was around this time the three romantics would take a trip up to a Lord Byron’s estate. Claire, pregnant with Percy’s child at the time, was enamored with Byron. They would read aloud to each other in the candlelight in the evenings, wine (and stronger substances) coursing through their veins. It was on one of those nights that it was suggested they come up with ghost stories. Mary took this light hearted suggestion quite seriously, wracking her brain for inspiration. It came to her when she had no control over it. After an intense nightmare Mary writes “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

She began what she thought would be a short story. As she wrote, a series of personal tragedies struck her. Just a few months after she put pen (or quill) to paper, her half sister, Fanny committed suicide, succeeding where Percy had failed, after overdosing on laudanum. After having had almost no contact with her beloved sister since her elopement, Mary was devastated, and it’s believed that this feeling of remorse and isolation inspired much of her novel. Yet hardship wasn’t through with the 19 year old Mary. Two months later, Percy’s wife committed suicide by throwing herself in a river, heavily pregnant with what was rumored to be Percy’s child. Just a few days later, Mary married Percy, and finally made peace with her own family.

This would lead to a brief period of happiness for Mary. She gave birth to a daughter, Clara, and finally published Frankenstein’s Monster. The novel was a hit, but Mary didn’t have time to relish in her success. Less than a year later, Clara died of dysentery. William contracted malaria and followed Clara out of life just 8 months later. Mary never recovered from her loss, growing more and more bitter towards Percy, who she felt had moved on too quickly. Nonetheless, she gave birth to another son, Percy Florence, who would be the only child to survive to adulthood and outlive his parents. One of the final blows to Mary’s psyche struck three years later. The unhappy couple had visited the gulf of Spezia, and Percy had decided to go for a sail. A sudden storm rolled in and drowned Percy less than a month before his 30th birthday. Mary was overcome with grief and guilt for having allowed her husband to sail. She would never be the same. Friends commented that she became cold and withdrawn, a far cry from the startlingly vivacious intellectual of her youth. She spent much of the rest of her life fighting not for her own recognition as an author, but for her husband’s. Were it not for her, much of his work would be lost in obscurity.

Artist of the Week, Edmonia Wildfire Lewis

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Edmonia Wildfire Lewis

Edmonia Wildfire Lewis was an african american / native american sculptor who rose to fame during the height of the american civil war. She was born to an afro-haitain father, and a mother who was of african and ojibwe decent. Though her parents would die early in her life, they and their heritage would forever influence Lewis’s works. She entered Oberlin College aged just 15, as it was one of the few places of higher educated to admit women of color. After college she traveled to Boston, and it was here she began her career as a sculptor specializing in portrait busts. Her favorite subjects were abolitionists, most notably the commander of a African American Civil War regiment from Massachusetts, Union Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. She eventually became successful enough to send herself to Rome where she honed her neoclassical technique. Her work was met with acclaim, and upon returning to the US, she was commissioned to sculpt the portrait of President Ulysses S. Grant, who marveled at her finished work.

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Sappho

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Born in the early 600s BC, Sappho entered life on the isle of Lesbos, which was the cultural center of Greece at the time. Though not much is known about her early life (or any details of her personal life, for that matter) one of the most common myths about this legendary woman is that she was exiled to Sicily for her political beliefs or homosexuality. The truth is that there is only a vague reference to her being sent to Sicily by her family when she was a child because of political unrest in lesbos at the time.

We’re also not sure when she first began writing her poetry, or when she first picked up her lyre

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but once she did she was met with universal acclaim. Her writings were more introspective and personal than that of other writers of the time, and was one of the first poets to write in the first person. She was so highly regarded that Plato commented that she would be considered the ‘tenth’ muse, and the poet Solon was so moved by one of her songs, he requested his friend teach it to him “Because I want to learn it and die.”

Sappho also wrote homoerotic poetry, and if you haven’t guessed already, she’s responsible for the word ‘lesbian’, though lesbian was not used to refer to a female homosexual until the 19th century. There’s much debate over whether Sappho was a lesbian herself, with many scholars advising against reading her poetry as autobiographical, there’s no questioning that much of it was about women.

“Some celebrate the beauty
of knights, or infantry,
or billowing flotillas
at battle on the sea.
Warfare has its glory,
but I place far above
these military splendors
the one thing that you love.

For proof of this contention
examine history:
we all remember Helen,
who left her family,
her child, and royal husband,
to take a stranger’s hand:
her beauty had no equal,
but bowed to love’s command.

As love then is the power
that none can disobey,
so too my thoughts must follow
my darling far away:
the sparkle of her laughter
would give me greater joy
than all the bronze-clad heroes”

The Suda (a 10th centruy encyclopedia) makes the claim that Sappho was married to a “very wealthy man called Cercylas, who traded from Andros”, which is probably false, as ‘Ceracylas from Andros’ translates to ‘Penis, from Man Island’. There’s also a legend which has Sappho committing suicide by throwing herself off a cliff because of an unrequited heterosexual love. However, there’s no evidence of this actually happening and many have speculated that the legend was invented to give dear Sappho a heterosexual identity.

Whatever her sexuality was, the lady-loving Sappho will forever be remembered (or, actually, mostly forgotten) as one of the greatest poets of all time.

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