Thursday, June 2, 2011

Maria J.C. a'Becket - Rediscovering an American Original

A wild, expressionistic seascape by 19th century Maine landscapist Maria a'Becket. In the 1890s, very few American artists (and even fewer "women painters") dared to wield such thick, gestural chunks of paint. 
On a breezy spring day in 2006, I was poking around among contemporary and 19th century landscape paintings at the Banks Gallery in Portsmouth, NH, when the above painting slapped me to attention.

Had to be contemporary, at least mid 20th century, with abstract-expressionist paint-handling like that, right? Stunned, I learned that not only was the painting created by a forgotten 19th century artist, but that the artist was a woman, someone born in Maine who called herself Maria J. C. a'Becket, a nom de plume absent from the recent scholarship on the history of women in the arts, and of course missing from standard art history textbooks, even those mentioning female contemporaries like Gertrude Fiske, Cecilia Beaux, or Maria Cassatt.

It turns out that, despite an apparently prolific output, a bit more than two dozen of a'Becket's paintings are accounted for. One is in the possession of the Portland Museum of Art, and two are held by the Maine Historical Society. Other than a few more in storage at a number of small museums, the rest reside in private collections, periodically popping up to change hands at auction. How could this be?
A river landscape with overhanging trees by Maria J. C. a'Becket, c. 1890
My encounter with the mystery of Maria a'Becket began a semi-obsessed four-year investigation to recover the life and work of an unjustly forgotten 19th century painter. The trail led from Portland and Bar Harbor, Maine to Boston, New York, and St. Augustine, Florida, where I dug through yellowed newspaper articles and exhibition catalogues, microfilmed letters, diaries, and periodicals, searched the correspondence of millionaire art collectors, and combed out-of-print memoirs, histories, and long-defunct art magazines. The existence, as I learned more, of a celebrated and spirited, female avant-garde artist contradicted a lot of what I'd been taught about the official "story" of American art history!

Every few months I'd uncover another long-buried reference to “Maria J.C. a’ Becket,” and it was often something larger than life: wild flights at the easel with a visionary’s fervor outside during a thunderstorm, shooting off hunting rifles or starting an artist's colony in the Wild West, sketching among moonlit pines in Florida or in fishing villages in Normandy and meeting millionaires in mountain crags in North Carolina, obtaining a private audience with the Pope in Rome, having solo shows in Boston and on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, holding forth with Vanderbilt and other financial barons, navigating rapids in a birchbark canoe. How could such an interesting, successful artist have completely vanished from history? I put together what pieces of the puzzle I could find in an article published in the current issue of the scholarly journal Maine History. At least a semblance of her remarkable life and work are back on record!

C. 1879, signed "M. Becket"
So who was Maria a'Becket?
A'Becket was the daughter of a Portland drug store owner and amateur landscapist Charles E. Beckett who died as a result of a fire that devastated the city in 1866. She was born Maria Graves Beckett in Portland, Maine, on July 7, 1839. A'Becket established a highly successful professional career painting landscapes in a Barbizon-Impressionist variant all her own. She died of heart disease in New York on September 7, 1904. Lacking any heirs or living relatives to champion her memory, her name dropped out of currency (but she was once so well-known that the New York Times included her in a special New Year’s Day feature on “Famous Women Whose Careers Ended in 1904”).

It seems she blazed her own trail at a time when women who wanted to be artists faced a major uphill climb. From Who Was Who in American Art, I learned early on that A'Becket had studied with heavyweights Homer Dodge Martin, William Morris Hunt, and in France with pre-Impressionist innovator Charles Daubigny. From biographical clips in a Florida newspaper, I learned that during the 1880s she shared a small cabin in rural Virginia with a younger female athlete-turned-artist named Bertha Von Hillern, whom she'd met in Hunt's classes in Boston. The two lived and painted in this rural "American Barbizon" setting for nearly a decade, until a'Becket took a studio in the famous Tenth Street studio building in New York.
Landscape by Maria a'Becket in the collection of Maine's Portland Museum of Art.
The caliber of her growing exhibition opportunities and the positive news articles I was finding argued that by then she'd established herself as a successful landscape artist with a popular, distinctive style. Society writers noted her brilliant conversation, unusual independence, and quirky and original painting style. A new digitization that appeared on Google Books revealed that the avant-garde American art critic Sadikichi Hartmann had recognized A'Becket as “a peculiar phenomenon in our art” with a “frail build” and “the vigorous touch of a man." Hartmann wrote that she had “rendered some of the wildest and grandest scenes of the ocean," and described her thus:

"in moods of religious ecstasy, with so intense an energy as to raise blisters at her finger‑tips, [she] paints impressionistic sketches which would have gained her a reputation in Europe long ago.  After having associated with men like Homer Martin, W.M. Hunt, and Daubigny, she invented a pallet‑knife style of her own, in which she slaps on pure colours in a wild improvisatore fashion....She seldom exhibits, but various art lovers and critics have been attracted by her work." (A History of American Art, vol. 1, Boston, L.C. Page & Co., 1909, p. 105). 

A call to the Flagler Art Museum in St. Augustine, Florida, which holds one of her paintings in its collection, revealed that during the 1890s, A'Becket became a sought-after artist-in-residence at St. Augustine's Flagler Hotel (alongside Martin Johnson Heade) and summered in high-society resort spots in Bar Harbor and Newport, RI. Ship manifests prove that she revisited Europe. Her work is listed in exhibit catalogs for most of the major venues for professional American painters of the time, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the American Art Union, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the National Academy of Design. New York Times articles tracked her appearances in exhibitions that also included George Inness, Ralph Albert Blakelock, Homer Dodge Martin, Frederick William, Dwight Tryon, Alexander Wyant, Francis W. Kost, Abbot Thayer, Albert Pinkham Ryder, and John Francis Murphy at venues like the woman‑ and Tonalist‑friendly Lotos Club of New York.
It took me a while to pin down, but I think her mature work absorbs and personalizes the Barbizon style, infusing it with a rapid, sketch-like line, an exuberant individual sense of color, and vigorous paint-handling inspired by French Impressionism.  

A colorful marsh sunset by Maria a'Becket
A'Becket’s “shimmery” semi‑abstract marine works in particular prefigure abstract expressionism in their decentralized “all‑over” broken‑color composition, their engagement with the active gesture, and their foregrounding of the medium itself through unblended color and surface impasto.
A seascape by a'Becket employing impasto and broken color to achieve a scintillating, jewel-like surface. Few painters of the time so successfully set the surface of their works in motion.
But what now seems most “peculiar” in considering Beckett’s achievement is not so much her work but how early she created it, how successful she became, and against what odds. During the 1860s, '70s and '80s, few women ventured outside of the accepted genres and mainstream styles of the day. 
Gloucester marine by a'Becket
She was an original. Seeking out the most radical masters, living three‑quarters of the year for nearly a decade in nature, she rejected her peers’ prevalent aesthetic theories and artistic trends, and became one of the first American painters to wholeheartedly adopt the entire raft of what were then quite radical techniques associated with the European avant‑garde And for all this she was rewarded with fame during her lifetime and, unfortunately, obscurity after her death.  

Two great books that have done much to reconstruct the lives and careers of other nineteenth-century women who were artists are Kirstin Swinth's Painting Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern American Art, 1870-1930 (University of North Carolina Press, 2001) and Erica Hirschler's A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston 1870-1940 (MFA Publications, August 15, 2001).