Monday, April 10, 2017

MMM Revealed! Kate Freeman Clark

The famous impressionist is Kate Freeman Clark! The following essay provides a general overview of Clark's life and times, and we use this material to train our tour guides. If you're interested in learning more about how the history relates to Kate Freeman Clark's work, be sure to contact our Education Curator, Emily McCaulley, and schedule your tour today! Some of the artwork in this post is NOT currently on display at the Museum. Head over to the Kate Freeman Clark Gallery and Marshall County History Museum to see and learn even more about this fascinating artist.

Kate Freeman Clark was born in 1875 in Holly Springs. Her early years were split between Holly Springs, and Vicksburg, where her father Edward Clark practiced law. The family was wealthy and well connected to the Mississippi power structure at the time and lived comfortable lives. Close to LQC Lamar, Mr. Clark became the Assistant Secretary of the Interior at Lamar’s request. Clark intended to move with him to Washington D.C.; however, tragedy struck and Mr. Clark died the day after his successful confirmation hearing in Congress.

Cary Freeman Clark, Kate’s mother, was very close to her mother Mama Kate, and decided to move back into the family home, Freeman Place, in Holly Springs. The family often traveled to visit friends and family around the country, staying in hotels and boarding houses along the way. Kate’s early education was inconsistent, but she loved to read and dreamed of becoming an author.

Case of correspondence on loan from the Marshal County History Museum in Holly Springs
When Kate was of age, Cary enrolled her daughter in the Gardner Institute, a New York City finishing school. An average student, Kate was still drawn to writing, but soon switched her attention to art and planned on enrolling in the Art Students League after she graduated in the spring. While a “league girl,” she met William Merritt Chase, a famous American impressionist and eventual mentor who had a deep influence on Kate’s development as an artist.

From the summer of 1896-1902, Chase led a summer art school at Shinnecock on Long Island in New York. The Shinnecock School of Art produced many famous students and focused on “plein air” painting. Kate enjoyed Chase’s instruction so much, that she enrolled every summer for six consecutive years. Even after Kate stopped taking classes from Chase, she remained enamored with his work and loyal to his ideas of how art should be made.

My First Shinnecock Sky
During the early 1900’s Kate continued to take classes. This is very strange, considering that she had already achieved a high level of technical proficiency and was being shown in galleries around New York and the country, but still, she continued to enroll, even as she enjoyed a measure of success well beyond that of a beginner student.

While Kate was enjoying a moment, her mentor, Chase, was fading from prominence as tastes in the broader art world shifted. The rise of the modernists and their focus on gritty realism displaced people’s desire for the well-done still lives and impressionist masterpieces that had seemed revolutionary twenty years before. The conflict came to a head at the Armory Show in 1913 in New York when it excluded Chase and other impressionists, and instead focused on highlighting the achievements of American realists and radical European artists.

Some pieces in the collection indicate Kate may have started to flirt with modernism, such as this watercolor of the New York City skyline. Unfortunately, she stopped creating and moved back to Holly Springs just as the new movement was taking off. 
Chase continued to stand against modernism up until his death in 1916, but it forever shifted the art world away from his style and continued to diminish his importance. Chase’s death was the first blow of many that would eventually lead Kate to stop painting altogether.

At the onset of World War I, Mama Kate’s health began a long, slow, and painful decline that had a tremendous impact on Cary and Kate. During this time, Kate became the primary caregiver, which left little time for painting. By the time Mama Kate died in 1919, Kate was desperate to move back to Holly Springs; however, her mother refused, most likely due to her own ill health.

Portrait of Cary Clark and Kate
Kate had slid into a deep depression and was not producing any work. Many friends tried to encourage her to paint as a means to chase the blues away, but her mother’s death in 1922 was the final straw.

Alone in the world, Kate decided to take her Southern friends’ advice, and moved home to Freeman Place in Holly Springs. She packed all of her paintings into a New York warehouse, and headed back to Mississippi to assume the society role her grandmother had occupied and some argue Kate was destined for in the first place.

Despite being very close to Mississippi, there is little indication she ever created here. There are only two suspected pieces, Worker in a Mississippi Grove being one of them. 
Kate filled her role in the Holly Springs community comfortably, but she did not forsake her artistic tendencies altogether. While renovating the damaged, abandoned family home, she added a studio on the second floor positioned to get the best light. She continued to correspond with art friends in New York and gave lectures to community groups on the importance of art. She even taught a few students, but she never returned to large-scale painting, having closed that chapter of her life when she moved home from New York.

While Kate lectured about art and many people in Holly Springs knew she’d spent time in New York, they never really knew the extent of her prowess or involvement in the art world. Cruelly, her eyesight began to suffer into the late forties and the town forgot her just as the art world had. By the time she passed away in 1957, most people around town only knew her as a crazy, cat lady recluse living in a dilapidated mansion, not as a prolific painter or even as her mid-life society lady.

Kate's still life flowers deeply impressed her mentor William Merritt Chase
Kate may have been completely forgotten by history if she had not made express provisions in her will to prevent it! When her will was executed, she had left her entire collection, her house and belongings, and sixty thousand dollars to the town of Holly Springs to build a gallery and museum in her memory. As a truck pulled up in front of the Bank of Holly Springs and movers began to off load the over 1000 pieces she had placed in storage, the town began to have an inkling of the incredible talent who had lived unnoticed in their midst.

Over the last 30 years, interest in Clark’s work has grown slowly, but is gaining steam. Her work is now sought after by discerning collectors, and Carolyn J. Brown’s book The Artist’s Sketch: A Biography of a Painter Kate Freeman Clark is a tremendous achievement that captures the most important and defining features of Clark’s life. We’re happy to collaborate with the City of Holly Springs, Marshall County History Museum, and Kate Freeman Clark Gallery to reintroduce Kate Freeman Clark back to her proper place in the art cannon.

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