Ever been hooked by an idea, person or place? Something that just infinitely fascinates or possibly even obsesses you?
While that pretty well summarizes my love of Indianapolis history, there is an artist who has captivated my attention since 2004: Virginia Keep Clark.
I can’t go without acknowledging the 140th anniversary of her birthday today. I’ve been retracing in her footsteps since coming across her name on the 1900 census, as the next door neighbor to my long-time former home in Herron-Morton Place. She’s taken me all over the United States and abroad in search of her stories and many connections: New York, California, Maryland, Minnesota and Madrid to name a few. And she’s changed how I look at the world–especially as relates to art.
Strolling through the IMA in Indianapolis or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I find connections to Virginia through her many friends and associations from the art world. One of her closest life-long friends, Lucy Taggart is usually found on one of the walls of our Indianapolis Museum of Art. I haven’t seen this one
displayed recently, but love it nonetheless. Incidentally, Lucy’s father, Thomas Taggart was once mayor of Indianapolis and considered the father of Indy’s park system. Without him, there may not have been a Riverside Park, for example.
While not currently on display, the IMA also has a couple of Virginia’s pieces of art. This one
is my favorite.
Born in New Orleans in 1878, but raised from age four in Indianapolis, she married a Chicago native and lived in Evanston, Chicago proper, Oyster Bay, Long Island, midtown Manhattan, Mackall, Maryland, New Hampshire, Winter Park, Florida and summers in Nassau–the lady got around.
Virginia illustrated a series of children’s books– the “Live Dolls” books– written by Josephine Scribner Gates and published by Indianapolis’ Bobbs-Merrill Company between 1901-1911.
She illustrated and contributed to a few other books, including “decorations” for An Old Sweetheart of Mine by James Whitcomb Riley and illustrated by Howard Chandler Christy, but primarily she was a portraitist throughout her life. She traveled the Eastern seaboard with some frequency, and made a few trips to Haiti and the Bahamas. “Gin” as friends and family called her, was especially gifted in rendering children.
Virginia studied at the Art Students League in New York City and with Howard Pyle in Philadelphia at the Drexel Institute, as well as with William Merritt Chase, and short stints with Cecilia Beaux on the east coast and Joaquin Sorolla for a summer in Spain. Her work showed alongside Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and other well-known artists of the era.
Teaching was another key thread throughout her life– but not as much as her desire to learn and improve. She was constantly striving to enhance her skills. Virginia excited the imagination of children not merely through her illustrations, but as of the first five teachers at the John Herron Art Institute, teaching children’s classes. In her sixties, she helped convalescing WWII soldiers in Winter Park, Florida where she provided all the supplies and instruction for beginning painting.
Virginia’s friends included Arthur B. Davies, Charles Prendergast and Maurice Prendergast, Walt Kuhn, Edna Woolman Chase (former editor-in-chief of VOGUE Magazine and credited with inventing the concept of runway fashion shows), Franklin Remington (one time mayor of Centre Island, Oyster Bay, Long Island) and a host of other luminaries of the art world.
In Indianapolis, a VKC portrait of Elizabeth Harrison hangs at the President Benjamin Harrison Home. In Chicago, her portrait of Mrs. James Ward Thorne hangs at the end of the Miniatures Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. She also created portraits (yet to be located) of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (as in Mrs. Wallis Simpson and the former King Edward VIII who abdicated the crown for love) during a summer in Nassau. Famed murdered multimillionaire Sir Harry Oakes and his wife Lady Oakes also had portraits composed by Virginia, presumably also whilst in Nassau. The list goes on…
This doesn’t even scratch the surface of her fascinating life, but I just couldn’t let the day pass without acknowledging her day. Happy Birthday, Gin.
I always appreciate getting tips or finding Virginia related connections, so please comment or contact me if you know anything about Virginia Keep Clark. I’m also on the lookout for her artwork.
Anyone else want to share their obsession? Something you collect? A ritual you don’t miss?