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Too Many Philosophers

July 2024
5min read

When Winifred Smith Rieber confidently agreed to paint a group portrait of America’s five pre-eminent philosophers, she had no idea it would be all but impossible even to get them to stay in the same room with one another.

Mother was off again, this time to New England to paint the Harvard philosophy department—all five of its members, and on a single canvas. Mother had known the Harvard philosophers before, but only slightly, when my father had studied under them during his graduate years. The thought that five such different men as William James, George Herbert Palmer, Josiah Royce, Hugo Münsterberg, and George Santayana—who, in the first decade of the century, had created the golden age of philosophy at Harvard—might not sit serenely within one frame never occurred to her.

Born in the raw mining town of Carson City, Nevada, in 1872, the daughter of an itinerant photographer, my mother, Winifred Smith Rieber, had had a long climb to become a well-known portraitist, one whose subjects included John Dewey, Franz Boaz, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Mann. Painting the Harvard philosophy department held no terrors for her.

She confidently designed a pleasing composition—arranging the five men as she would objects for a still life, prepared the big canvas, and set out for New England, confident of success. As soon as she faced the actual situation, however, she wrote us from Cambridge, “I’ve arrived, and I feel like Alice in Wonderland, only my wonderland is a gray, forbidding, intellectual New England, filled with too many philosophers.”

In a makeshift campus studio arranged for her in Emerson Hall, she blocked in her preliminary sketch on the big canvas, and waited for her sitters to come.

All five arrived at once. In they swept—an overwhelming crimson flood of academic robes. They examined her sketch coldly. None of them liked it.

Josiah Royce was the first to rebel. Highly sensitive about his appearance, he said he’d be damned if he was going to occupy the focal point of the painting. He was stormy; he was obstinate. “Don’t pay any attention to Royce,” my mother remembered William James whispering to her. “He always goes off half-cocked like this, at first. You’ll get used to it.”  But James had his own objections. He didn’t want to be painted in profile. One eye, he claimed, carried less authority than two, and so put him at a disadvantage. Mr. Palmer, a short man, preferred to be portrayed standing instead of sitting. His protest was gracious, but equally final.

Then Hugo Münsterberg began to rumble. Because of his height and bulk, she had put him at the rear of the group. “Mrs. Rieber!” he exclaimed. “You have misunderstood my personality.” Towering over her, arms folded across his chest, and chin thrust forward, eyes huge and defiant behind his thick glasses, he announced that he had a positive personality. Raising an imperious forefinger, he indicated where he should sit: center front. Mother hastily sketched in both professor and chair at the place he had chosen.

During the mutiny, Santayana was the only noncombatant. He sat apart, nonchalant and amused. Now and then he tossed in a word as a ringmaster might crack a whip to stir up the performers. But from the start it was obvious that he did not wish to be included in the group at all. Finally he rose. “Whatever metaphysical egotism may assert,” he said, “one cannot vote to be created,” and left the room.

This left four philosophers. It also left mother’s composition in ruins. Dominating the ruins sat Hugo Münsterberg. How, she wondered, could she rescue her picture from complete disaster? Then she knew. Early the next morning, she hurried to Emerson Hall, picked up her paint rag, and with three strokes removed the discordant note, leaving only the chair in which the burly professor had wished to sit. Three philosophers remained. Mother started work. Things went smoothly. Royce cooled down; James accepted the profile amiably, saying he could probably see farther and straighter with one eye than Royce could with two. Palmer got to stand.

William James was the first to pose. A fragile man, lightly bearded, James had a charming smile, a tranquil manner, an affable friendliness, and a flower pulled through his lapel. His clothes looked as if they had come freshly pressed from the cleaner; and his mind seemed to have blown in on a storm.

But he was an easy man to paint. Perhaps realizing that an artist works best with the mind turned off, he made no demands on her attention.

Not so Josiah Royce, who posed next. When he entered mother’s studio for his first sitting, he said, “Why, hello,” as if surprised at his own arrival. Reluctantly, he climbed up on the model stand for the embarrassing ordeal of having what he called “poor ugly me” examined in detail. He was a small but impressive man with a large, tousled head, pale blue eyes beneath a protruding brow. He wore a rumpled suit which had once been gray, but now was green from age and frequent cleanings.

For a few minutes he sat stiff and ill at ease. Then, forgetting himself, he exchanged embarrassment for the livelier pastime of metaphysical acrobatics. James had warned Mother that Royce would want to probe her mind. Royce, he had said, had a mania for it. James was right.

“I’ve thought a lot,” he said, “about that multiple, tenuous, vagrant something philosophers call personality. But I never knew how an artist went about transforming it into paint on canvas. What, exactly, do you think as you first start your painting?” he asked. Mother, who couldn’t work and be probed at the same time, answered dizzily, “I’m painting, not thinking.”

This didn’t quiet Royce. He was immediately off into another line of questioning. Finally, mother had to ask him please to keep his mouth closed: she couldn’t paint something that was always in motion, could she? He snapped his lips together, arranged his face into a rigid mask of discomfort, and the painting began.

When the posing was over, Royce relaxed and took out his cigar. This cigar was apparently the big event of his day. He made a ceremony of it, smoking slowly and with concentrated enjoyment. When the stub grew too short to hold, he spiked it on the point of his knife for a last pull. While he smoked, he seemed to forget “poor ugly me”; mother said his face lit up with its own unique and inner beauty.

George Herbert Palmer was the last of the triumvirate to come for his sitting and was the easiest to paint. It was a joy to be with him. Santayana said of Mr. Palmer that he was the only member of their department who had learned the art of eloquent simplicity.

Mother knew Mr. Palmer better than the others, having once painted a portrait of his wife, Alice Freeman Palmer, Wellesley’s first president, who had died tragically young. While he sat posing, he liked to talk about her and to recite some of the poems she had written to him. He knew them all by heart. A mere stem of a man with huge bristling eyebrows and a monstrous mustache covering most of the lower part of his face, Mr. Palmer was not a romantic-looking person. To mother it seemed incongruous to hear these words of young love pouring through the gray blanket of hair on his lip. Recited Mr. Palmer: “In the splendor/ Deep and tender/  Hushed I meet you/ Touch and greet you/ Oh my best!”

On and on went Mr. Palmer’s musical voice, winding its sweetness through Emerson Hall. He forgot mother. He forgot the portrait. He was back in the spring with the girl he had loved. This little old man behind his huge eyebrows and mustache had known—to use his own phrase—“the profusion of exultant life.”

At last the painting was finished. But mother wasn’t satisfied with it. The space where Santayana should have stood bothered her; so did Münsterberg’s empty chair. A chair with no one sitting in it didn’t make sense, she thought. She painted it out. This left a vacant spot. She painted it back again. In and out went Münsterberg’s chair. At last it was time to deliver the painting to Harvard. Back went the chair once more, and there it remains.

The portrait of James, Royce, and Palmer still hangs in Emerson Hall. With them are the phantoms of Santayana and Münsterberg, who really belonged in the group.

“I was too young when I knew these men,” mother wrote me years later. “Blessings touch us so lightly that before we can even name them they are gone. It has made me mindful of the present. Each day I look about me and ask myself what riches am I missing that I may later sorrow to have lost?”

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