Wedded to Art

Carolyn Choate was married to attorney and ambassador Joe Choate, but she wore a wedding band engraved “Wedded to Art.”  Right on, sister!

But her art forays seemed to be subsumed, like so many other women artists, by the rigors of her daily life.  Now, let us not be confused.  Although she and her husband started out fairly modestly, with his lion-like courtroom successes, they soon amassed enough money to buy this cottage in the Berkshires.  Naumkeag is the Native American word for the town where Salem, MA is now, the home territory for Choates, before making it large in Manhattan.

See the turret?  That makes for some weird and funny spaces inside this mish-mosh-styledimages house (Norman and Colonial Revival and New England Shingle), albeit one designed by McKim, Mead, and White in 1886.  I particularly like the round closet fitted inside the turret.

You can probably just make out the round corner, by its lonesome, in the corner of this parlor.  Weird and funny.  No sense of Carolyn in this masculine world, except for a charcoal drawing hung near her studio and a botanical watercolor upstairs.  Both quite facile and lovely.

While summering at Naumkeag, Carolyn hired a tutor for her children for eight hours of art instruction daily.  Really.  She didn’t want them to get lazy.  Admittedly, a music lesson and some swimming might have gotten thrown in there, too.

Meanwhile, was Carolyn making art, too?  Somehow, the house guide, who slipped me beyond roped-off areas and up back stairs to the servant’s quarters and into Carolyn’s studio, doubted it.

After all, Carolyn used their fortune for other kinds of good.  She started Barnard, since girls were excluded from college education, and then Teacher’s College.  She was one of the founders of the Met Museum in the 1870s, giving a priceless Impressionist collection to the new institution.  She amassed books to form New York Public Library.  She was pretty busy making a great city out of ramshackle, post-Civil War New York.

Screen Shot 2014-07-19 at 8.17.26 PMAnd Carolyn didn’t stop there.  Maybe she wasn’t making art, but she was instrumental in its promotion.  She worked with her friend John Singer Sargent to put on art fairs.  Sargent made charcoal drawings of Joe Choate and their daughter Mabel in 1911.

As remarkable as she was, try looking Carolyn up, and you won’t find much, except a mention on Joe’s Wikipedia page.  The fate of so many outstanding women.  Of course, not Emily Dickinson, who in her quiet way was also wedded to her art.

Emily at about 16, daguerreotype

Emily at about 16, daguerreotype

But did you realize she only published a few poems during her lifetime, mostly in the local paper and most of those as Anonymous?  Only after her death were her poems assembled and published, and not until those first editors took the capital letters out of the middle of her phrases and corrected her spelling.  They picked words they liked when Dickinson had still been unsure which to use.  I think today, we would consider such editing disrespectful.

Entrance to the front of the Emily Dickinson MuseumOne of the juicy stories told on the tour at her house, where she lived most of her life and wrote virtually all of her poems, concerns that first set of publications.  Her brother Ned lived in the house right next door, a wedding present from their father intended to keep his son close.  Edward and Susan seemed happy enough, although he apparently loved her, while she “loved him well enough to marry him.”  Get the picture?

Susan was one of Emily’s friends from the Amherst Academy, a prep school for Amherst College, both of which were started by Dickinson’s grandfather.  Like the Choates, the Dickinsons put their money into broader education, including for girls.  And it was that money that afforded Dickinson the ability to live the life she did–never marrying, becoming increasingly reclusive, and living in comfort.

Dickinson sent Susan many of her poems, which Susan kept, and only later did the poet start to make copies of poems that might have been written on the back of a chocolate wrapper or any scrap of paper, compiling them into her own little fascicles, or booklets.  Living basically as a recluse in the Amherst house, not even venturing next door to visit family, she penned some 2000 poems.

Dickinson children Emily on left, Ned, Lavinia on right Otis Bullard, c1840

Dickinson children
Emily on left, Ned, Lavinia on right
Otis Bullard, c1840

After Dickinson’s death, Susan attempted to get the poems published.  After two years, when she didn’t have success, Emily’s sister Lavinia (also unmarried, who stayed in the same family house with Emily and at one point, 11 cats–no I’m not kidding). gave the poems to Mabel Loomis Todd.  Todd was well connected and had started the Amherst Historical Society and Amherst Women’s Club.  She, along with Dickinson’s long-time friend, and sometime critic, Thomas Higginson were the editors who amended the poems and got them published, four years after the Dickinson’s death in 1886.  The poetry was an instant success, and Dickinson became posthumously famous.

Behind this official story, is a bit of drama.  That first publication did not include the poems Emily wrote to Susan, who kept them locked away until her own death.  Then Susan’s daughter Martha, a writer of potboilers, took over care and publishing of Emily’s works.  So why did Susan hoard away these poems, when the rest were published?

Turns out, Mabel Loomis Todd was having a long-term affair with Susan’s husband, Emily’s and Lavinia’s brother, Edward.  Oh my.  So the family split.  Lavinia had taken the poems to Todd and sided with her brother, wishing for his happiness.  Susan’s and Ned’s children sided with their mother.  Sigh.  Family dynamics are never dull, are they?

As with so much, Emily remains a mystery on the subject.

Amherst mural with Emily Dickinson framed by trees

Amherst mural with Emily Dickinson framed by trees

Regardless, like Carolyn Choate with her paintings, Emily Dickinson created for her own pleasure.  They were contemporaries, one living in more freewheeling New York, the other in more staid New England.  But both had a loud voice, and both would make long-lasting creations–Choate’s very public works, Emily’s very private ruminations brought out into the sunlight.

We are the beneficiaries.


In Emily’s words,

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away


I would only add the ‘frigate of art’ and nod at both these women, so wedded to their art which bring us so much pleasure today.

Courtney at Emily Dickinson's grave Buried with her family, as she lived her life Remembered by many, including us, leaving stones, pennies, shells, pencils, notes, and even a book

Courtney at Emily Dickinson’s grave
Buried with her family, as she lived her life
Remembered by many, including us, leaving stones, pennies, shells, pencils, notes, and even a book

One thought on “Wedded to Art

  1. Oh so very very interesting. the role of women in the history of our world is so complex when they break away form tradition. Even Emily in her quiet way was a trend setter.
    when a young first year art student Carnegie Tech when asked to write our memoirs, my New england bred prof told me my writing reminded him of Emily Dickenson. so of course I had to find out who she was. Did any of us really know this private woman? her words are so precise about the the mystery of her life.
    Thanks again Rena.

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