They Knew What They Liked

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In his later work, Hovenden turned to themes taken from Negro plantation life and genre subjects drawn from aspects of the home and fireside of the ordinary American. He also painted elaborate historical compositions in the life-size salon tradition, such as the incident from the Battle of Gettysburg entitled In the Hands of the Enemy and The Last Moments of John Brown. This latter canvas was suggested by Whittier’s poem based upon the legend that Captain Brown, on the way to the gallows, kissed a Negro baby. Although Hovenden’s treatment of The Last Moments is somewhat unreliable as history, it hit off graphically the old agitator’s place in the national imagination.

Today, Thomas Hovenden is remembered chiefly for the fluent, sincere, and carefully painted Breaking Home Ties. He would undoubtedly have developed further his bent for narrative pictures with social interest and deepened his insight as a recorder of men and manners, but for his sudden and tragic death. On August 11, 1895, at an unguarded railroad grade crossing not far from his studio, the artist was struck by an engine. He had gallantly leaped in front of the train to save a little girl. Both artist and child were killed. Ironically, Thomas Hovenden was at the time the leading spirit in an effort to obtain adequate protection at the crossing: his own untimely end was as charged with pathos as any incident he ever set down on canvas.

SEPTEMBER MORN

It was early May in 1913, with a shy touch of New York spring in the air, when a bulky man with short legs, divided whiskers, and uncompromising eyes, sauntered along West Forty-sixth Street. At Number 13 he paused in front of the building occupied by Braun & Company, art dealers. He stared, looked again in disbelief, then froze. In the window was displayed a print of a picture entitled Matinée de Setembre by Paul Chabas. The subject was a demure but undraped young woman. Rather self consciously, she inched her way into the chilly shallows of a lake.

Anthony Comstock, reformer, professional enemy of sin, and secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, arched his back, marched into the art store, and flashed his badge.

“Take her out at once,” Comstock ordered the clerk, “the picture of the girl without any clothes on.”

Out of the uproar that ensued arose the most heated controversy over nudity, art, and morals which had engaged the attention of the American public since Hiram Powers exhibited his statue Greek Slave in 1843—a scandal or a flag of freedom, as one viewed it, for this was at a time when Edward Everett in Boston was draping his copy of the Apollo Belvedere.

Comstock had clashed with the art world before. He had, for instance, seized 117 photographs of the masterpieces of Bouguereau and others who had won distinction in France, as “lewd French art.” He had tackled another art form in trying to banish the voluptuous dancer, Little Egypt, from the midway at Chicago. On that occasion the reformer had undertaken to demonstrate the iniquities of the danse du ventre for a fascinated New York World reporter who said later, “The performance was interesting, but not libidinous.”

And so it was with these accomplishments behind him that Comstock told the clerk in the New York art shop, “There’s too little morning and too much maid.” The abashed Braun employee got the picture hook and hauled Miss Morn out of the window.

When the manager of the gallery returned from lunch he promptly put September Morn right back where she had been. The picture hit the front pages of the nation’s press, adorned calendars, and became the toast of barbershop art critics. Framed copies appeared upon the walls of countless homes. Comstock never returned to West Forty-sixth Street, probably because he knew that the picture was not actionable. There were other reverberations. The Civic Purity League of Watertown, New York, found that dozens of copies were appearing in the windows of local business houses and told the mayor to get busy. “Bathhouse John” Coughlin, Chicago alderman, announced that September Morn could not be publicly displayed in Chicago. The Post Office ruled that postcards bearing the likeness of the blonde French model could not be sent through the mails.

The newspapers ragged Comstock unmercifully for going to war against Chabas’ nymph, who was generally regarded as being just about the most modest young lady who ever hung her clothes on a hickory limb.

The judges of the First District Appellate Court said in ruling on the case which arrayed the Chicago police against art, “The picture is not indecent, although that may not be said of much of the exploiting to which it has been subjected.” Pirates flooded the country with reproductions, and the picture became the subject of vaudeville routines. The girl appeared on candy boxes, cigar bands, even watch fobs. Tin Pan Alley knocked out a Matin (sic) de Septembre waltz for the pianoforte. William Hammerstein announced that he would reproduce Chabas’ composition in “living picture form” for the opening of Hammerstein’s Roof Garden in New York, come June.