FEATURE — Fall 2009


Mary Fairchild: Washington University’s Forgotten Impressionist

In the late 19th century, the University’s first female faculty member, Mary Fairchild (MacMonnies Low), left St. Louis for Paris on scholarship. Though
she is oft forgotten today, she made an indelible artistic mark on both continents during her lifetime.

by Candace O’Connor

“I wonder how many remember Mary Fairchild,” mused Edmund H. Wuerpel, director of the School of Fine Arts, in a 1929 Washingtonian article, “who early in her art student’s career gave evidence of the talent she later so splendidly developed?”

Decades later, we could ask the same question about this bold, brilliant woman artist, among the most successful of the late 19th and early 20th century. An outstanding student at the University, and its first woman faculty member, she later settled in the French artists’ colony of Giverny, where she painted luminous portraits and landscapes in the Impressionist genre, winning major commissions and awards. Along the way, she married first one artist and then another—both of whom are better known today than she is.

(Image: School of Fine Arts Records, University Archives, Washington University Libraries)

“For 25 years, Mary Fairchild played a leading role among the hordes of American woman art students who flocked to Paris to study,” says E. Adina Gordon, a Fairchild expert, who is working on a catalogue raisonnée of her work. “At the peak of her career, in the decade after the turn of the century, newspapers and journals praised her independence and dedication to a life in art.”

Today, her paintings are owned by museums, including the Sheldon Swope in Terre Haute, Indiana; the National Academy in New York City; and the Musée Vernon in France, while collectors quietly snap them up for thousands of dollars. Among her most famous is a sumptuous portrait of her small daughter, Berthe, carrying a lacy parasol amid a bower of flowers; at a 2004 auction, it sold for $186,700.

Her background
Born in 1858 in New Haven, Connecticut, Mary Louise Fairchild moved to St. Louis as a young child with her parents: Sidney, chief operator at the Western Union Telegraph Company, and Mary Augusta, a painter of miniatures. She earned teaching credentials and taught in an area school unhappily for several years but in 1879 took a dramatic step: She became a student at the School of Fine Arts, recently upgraded to a full department of the University, though it did not yet offer a degree.

In those years, the School was located on the University’s increasingly shabby downtown campus at 17th and Washington. But in 1880, it acquired a grand new home when Wayman Crow built the St. Louis Museum of Fine Arts at 19th and Locust in memory of his only son. Its director, and Fairchild’s mentor, was Halsey C. Ives, who had joined the faculty with slender credentials but went on to develop an international reputation as an art promoter and impresario.

(Image: School of Fine Arts Records, University Archives, Washington University Libraries)

As a student, Fairchild was exemplary, winning the Wayman Crow medal in 1880 as the best drawing student for that year. She became a frequent contributor to the bimonthly student publication, Palette Scrapings (see illustrations), which students illustrated with original sketches. And she was something of a rebel, protesting that women should be allowed to draw nude models, just as men were, and convincing the School to change its policy.

In 1882, Ives appointed her an “assistant in elementary work”—the first woman on the University faculty. She held the post until 1885 when Ives, who had spotted her genius, made an offer that changed her life. He managed to create a scholarship in her honor so that she could spend three years studying in Paris—a necessary experience for a budding artist. There was just one catch: If she married, she would forfeit the money.

Paris and Giverny
Now 27, she hurried off to Paris to study at the Académie Julian and took extra classes with such masters as Auguste Carolus-Duran, teacher of John Singer Sargent. In class, she began adopting the bright, sunlit, radiant style of her professors; awed by exhibitors at the Paris Salon, she was particularly drawn to decorative art. She also immersed herself in portraiture, painting a lovely study of art agent Sara Y. Hallowell that was shown in the 1886 Salon.

In those days, says Mary Smart in her biography, Flight with Fame: The Life and Art of Frederick MacMonnies, Fairchild was bewitching, with a “radiant vitality and fashionable hourglass figure … wide brown eyes, dark hair, and an olive complexion.” Also captivating was her independent streak; she was not easily intimidated and not cowed by convention.

(Image: School of Fine Arts Records, University Archives, Washington University Libraries)

In their sixth-floor walk-up, she and her roommate entertained fellow art students—among them the charismatic sculptor Frederick MacMonnies (1863–1937), five years her junior. With her roommate about to marry, Fairchild made a daring offer to the impecunious MacMonnies: She would rent a small Montparnasse apartment with a studio, and he could live in the studio until he had some income.

Within three months, they were engaged, and they eloped the moment her scholarship expired. Meanwhile, Frederick MacMonnies had secured his first major commission: three gilded bronze angels for Saint Paul the Apostle Church in New York City. Over time, he won many more, among them a famous statue of Nathan Hale in New York’s City Hall Park and a sculpture group for the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Arch in Brooklyn, his hometown.

Mary MacMonnies also embarked on a period of productivity and success: actively exhibiting at the Paris Salon, winning bronze medals in 1889 and 1900 at the Paris Exposition Universelle. Altogether, said fellow artist Eleanor Greatorex in an 1893 profile, her portraits and genre paintings soon placed her “among the strongest and best-known American painters in Paris.”

She and Frederick shared a moment of glory at the 1893 Chicago Exposition. He received a career-changing commission: to create the majestic Columbian fountain that was the centerpiece of the fair. Thanks to a good word from Sara Hallowell, Mary also scored a coup when she was asked to paint a giant mural, Primitive Woman, for the rotunda of the Woman’s Building. A facing work, Modern Woman, would come from painter Mary Cassatt.

In Chicago, the couple was introduced to Mark Twain at a restaurant, and Mary Smart describes the scene. “Impishly, Mary MacMonnies held out her hand to Twain and said: ‘We are not strangers, are we? I am from Missouri, you know, and we met one day when I was a little girl playing with Tom Sawyer.’ ‘Of course, I knew you at once…,’ Twain responded, and his face crinkled in that capricious grin which everyone loved.”

Life changes
As their fortunes improved, Frederick and Mary were able to buy a home in Giverny, a budding artists’ colony established by Claude Monet. Eventually, they had three children: Berthe (1895), Marjorie (1897), and Ronald (1899), who died of meningitis two years later. But their lives increasingly diverged, as Frederick traveled to his Paris studio for large projects; he also had a long-running affair with another American, who bore his son. Meanwhile, muralist Will Low (1853–1932) had become smitten with Mary and spent time in Giverny, accompanied by his long-suffering wife.

In 1909, this situation came to a head when Frederick filed for divorce and Will’s wife died, generously urging him to “look after” Mary MacMonnies. He did just that, marrying her that same year. Two months later, they and her two daughters boarded a ship for the United States, where they settled happily in a Bronxville, New York, artists’ colony. Mary Low never saw Frederick MacMonnies again, and at Will’s urging even moved to expunge the MacMonnies name from her previous work.

But Mary had maintained her friendly contact with Halsey Ives and had exhibited at the 1904 World’s Fair, where he was chief of the Department of Art. Will also had five oil paintings at the Fair and became friends with Ives, keeping up a lively correspondence with him until Ives’ sudden death in 1911. In these letters, held by the Saint Louis Art Museum, Ives discusses possible commissions for Low and his wife and seeks ways to exhibit their work in a flagging market.

Until 1946, when they were sold at a Selkirk’s auction, the Saint Louis Art Museum held three of Mary Fairchild Low’s paintings, which she had presented to them in 1909: Gathering Apples, Five O’Clock Tea, and Gathering Flowers. All were exhibited in several shows, among them in 1918 and 1924. Her Primitive Woman mural also was shown at the museum in 1911 (“the artist betrays no consciousness of any limitation of sex,” said the catalogue, wonderingly), but today it is lost.

Toward the end of her life, Mary Fairchild Low painted lovely portraits, including one of Fanny Stevenson, widow of Will’s friend, the writer Robert Louis Stevenson. When she died in 1946, her New York Times obituary was titled, simply but fittingly: “Mrs. Mary F. Low, 88: Long Was An Artist.”

Candace O’Connor is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.

Request a copy of the Washington University in St. Louis magazine to see selected paintings by Mary Fairchild MacMonnies Low: wustlmageditor@wustl.edu.