Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer

Speaking of women of parts, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer lived for 25 years right around the corner from Church of the Ascension, one short block down Fifth Avenue from Minnie Jones, at 9 West 10th Street. The house was built in 1847, but sometime in the 20th century was remodeled in such a way that none of its original character remains, nor, we presume, any of its character from the years when Mrs. Van Rensselaer lived there.

9 West 10th Street
(Photo by Kate Leonova, with the permission of PropertyShark.)

Mariana Griswold was born in New York City on February 25, 1851. She was two months younger than Mary Cadwalader Rawle of Philadelphia. Mariana died, at 9 West 10th Street, on January 20, 1934, a year and nine months before Minnie. They had similarly patrician backgrounds. Mariana's father was George Griswold, of one of the prosperous South Street mercantile families that was involved in the China trade and that once dominated New York society. He was also an early member of the Republican Party. His parents, and Mariana's mother's parents, the Alleys, lived on Washington Square North in the very years--the 1840s--Henry James describes in Washington Square.

As a girl, Mariana visited the Newport house of her father's brother, J.N.A. Griswold, who moved to Newport in 1863 and in that year built a house designed by Richard Morris Hunt. The Griswold house, on Bellevue Avenue, is one of the most delightful houses in Newport. Though we associate Hunt with the splendiferous "cottages" of the 1890s, like The Breakers, the Griswold house belongs--like the Joneses' Pencraig--to an earlier, more rustic Newport, when the houses really were more cottage-like. That said, the English half-timbered style of the Griswold house was actually something Hunt brought back with him from the École des Beaux-Arts. In France, Hunt had lived through a period of Anglomania, which included a vogue for English-style seaside cottages. J.N.A. Griswold died in 1909, leaving an estate of $25 million (Washington Post, September 24, 1909).

Richard Morris Hunt, J.N.A. Griswold House, Newport, R.I., 1863.
Hermione Lee, in her biography of Edith Wharton, writes:
Wharton's thinking about American taste was anticipated by another influential, pioneering upper-class American woman, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer. She belonged to Wharton's social group: a distant relation of Walter Berry's by her marriage to Schuyler van [sic] Rensselaer, a close friend of Minnie Jones and of one of Wharton's publishers, Richard [Watson] Gilder (who had a farmhouse at Tyringham, near The Mount, where Van Rensselaer was often a guest).
Mariana was educated at home (and what at-home educations these girls received!) until she was 17, when she went with her family to live in Dresden. The Griswolds' last New York residence before their move abroad was 91 Fifth Avenue, at 17th Street, in a house no longer standing, a block south of the home (no longer standing) of August Belmont, on whom Edith Wharton modeled Julius Beaufort at whose home the ballroom scene near the beginning of The Age of Innocence takes place. The Griswolds remained in Dresden for five years. That means that Mariana's time in Europe, and her time in Germany, overlapped with that of the Joneses'. (The Joneses were in Europe from 1866 to 1872; Mariana Griswold from 1868 to 1873. The Joneses, who were in the Black Forest in 1870 when the Franco-Prussian War broke out, did not go to Dresden during this time.) Americans lived abroad in those years both because they wished to see the world (this was, Edith wrote in A Backward Glance, especially true of New Yorkers, significantly less true of New Englanders), and because it was cheaper (always a consideration to those living on carefully husbanded hereditary fortunes, or whose hereditary businesses met untimely ends, as when the Griswolds' shipping business declined after the Civil War). Dresden was, at this time, a popular expatriate resort, so it's not unusual to find the Griswolds camping out there. A young American whose time in Dresden overlapped with Mariana's was John Singer Sargent, who was five years younger than she, and it is probable that in the tight expatriate community they knew each other there or at least knew of each other. (Half a century earlier, Washington Irving lived in Dresden. Edith Wharton's parents went to Dresden on their European trip of 1847-48, and Edith herself would visit the Saxon city and its art treasures in 1913 with Bernard Berenson as her guide.) In fact, Mariana's father remained in Dresden until his death in 1884. It was in Germany that Mariana married the mining engineer Schuyler Van Rensselaer, a direct descendant of the Albany patroons, in 1873. (He had gone to Saxony to study at the Mining Academy of Freiburg.) Mariana and Schuyler then lived in New Brunswick, New Jersey, until his death in 1884. They had one child, a son, George, who died, from tuberculosis, in 1894, while a student at Harvard. (Father, son, and mother are all buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.)

From the time of her husband's death, Mariana lived in New York City. She had begun writing art criticism in 1876, when she was 25. From 1876 to 1887 she wrote for American Architect and Building News. By the end of the century she was writing regularly on art, architecture, and landscape gardening. She wrote for many years for Richard Watson Gilder's Century. In 1888, she began writing for Garden and Forest, published by Charles Sprague Sargent's Arnold Arboretum. Also in 1888, her still-cited book Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works was published. It was, by any measure, the most significant monograph on an American architect that had ever been written, and the most significant monograph on an architect ever written by an American. (Richardson had died in 1886.)

As though 1888 was not already momentous enough, in that year Mariana's friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens fashioned a low-relief bronze portrait in profile, 21 inches high, of Mariana. (In 1923 she sent the original to Harvard's Fogg Museum. She had given a later casting to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1917.)

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, portrait of Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, 1888.

In 1892, English Cathedrals came out, based on a series of articles she had written over a period of several years for the Century.

Charles Scribner's Sons, in the year--1893--that they moved into their new building, designed by Ernest Flagg, on Fifth Avenue between 21st and 22nd Streets, published Mariana's Art Out-of-Doors: Hints on Good Taste in Gardening, a book in its way as important as that other Scribner's title of four years later, The Decoration of Houses. When Mrs. Van Rensselaer cites "breadth, repose, simplicity, and fitness" as the aims to be sought in landscape design, she sounds very much like Codman and Wharton.

(The cover of the original 1893 edition of Art Out-of-Doors was designed by another woman of parts, Margaret Armstrong, who in addition to being an influential book designer was a famed botanical illustrator, expert on wildflowers, and biographer of Fanny Kemble. She was also the daughter of the stained glass artist and mosaicist D. Maitland Armstrong, and grew up in a house, still standing, at 58 West 10th Street. Life in that highly cultured, eccentric household is recounted in the charming memoir Those Days [1963] by Margaret's brother, Hamilton Fish Armstrong, editor of Foreign Affairs.)

Mariana had so much in common with Edith Wharton: the old-money background, the at-home education, the European sojourn, the marriage to a man from a socially prominent family, and even many friends. Yet Mariana seems not to have endured Edith's "wilderness years," those many years between her promising youth and her arrival as a writer. Mariana established herself in the public prints at a much younger age than Edith did, and seems to have done so in a fairly untroubled way--none of the hand-wringing about how this was not what she was brought up to do. Surely there were family differences that affected this, and differences between Schuyler Van Rensselaer and Teddy Wharton that affected this. In many respects, Mariana seems temperamentally closer to Minnie Jones than to Edith, as for example in Mariana's and Minnie's vigorous work on behalf of social causes.

It has been said that Mariana never, in her remaining forty years, recovered from the death of her son, who was also her close companion. In any event, it was right around this time that her attention moved away from art and architecture. In the late nineties she threw herelf into settlement house work (she headed the women's auxiliary and taught a course on Egyptian archaeology at University Settlement on Rivington Street) and public-school advocacy. She also wrote fiction: In 1897 Scribner's published her story collection One Man Who Was Content in the same year that they published The Decoration of Houses. Intriguingly, she also got caught up in the suffrage movement--but as an anti-suffragist (a topic for another time). Then, after the turn of the century, she began working on her two-volume History of the City of New York in the Seventeenth Century, published in 1909.

Like the Richardson monograph, the History was a pioneering work that is still consulted today. It was right at the time of the publication of the History that she moved to 9 West 10th Street. Her dear friend Richard Watson Gilder spent his final illness and died under Mariana's roof, as he had taken ill just as his family was moving house and he needed to be in a more settled environment. In 1910, largely because of the History, Columbia awarded her an honorary doctorate, just as, thirteen years later, Yale would confer an honorary doctorate upon Edith Wharton.

The architectural historian David Gebhard edited a volume of Mrs. Van Rensselaer's writings, Accents as Well as Broad Effects: Writings on Architecture, Landscape, and the Environment, 1876-1925, published by the University of California Press in 1996. It includes an essay cited by Hermione Lee as an example of the mutually congenial aesthetic sensibilities of Van Rensselaer and Edith Wharton. Mariana wrote that the home of William Kissam Vanderbilt and his wife, Alva, on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, was "the most beautiful house in New York."

Richard Morris Hunt, William Kissam Vanderbilt House, 660 Fifth Avenue, 1878-82.

She was not alone. This is the house of which Charles Follen McKim once said, "I can sleep better knowing it's there." (I doubt he'd have felt the same about the site's current occupant, one of the 1,671 [according to Wikipedia] Zara stores in the world, although, to be fair, it is the one known as the "Fifth Avenue flagship store".) "We may," wrote Mrs. Van Rensselaer,
pick little faults in this building if we will. We may say--and the more we admire it the more apt we are to say, I think--that it would be better as a country than as a city house....We may feel...that since it is a city house its ornamentation is rather too profuse and delicate. But it is so skillfully applied and so charmingly executed; is so architectural in spite of its delicacy, that we have not the heart to wish it altered. Indeed, I think we may greatly rejoice in this sumptuous accumulation of beauty; for, while it is necessary that the virtues and possibilities of simplicity should be preached, it is well to be reminded occasionally that they are not the only virtues or the finest possibilities. It is well that we should see that the richest elaboration need not be ostentatious, much less vulgar; that lavish art may be as refined as modest art; that excess means wrong work, not always much work.
(Hermione Lee cites that passage.) Mrs. Van Rensselaer went on: "If we examine the decoration closely, moreover, we shall see how great an improvement we have made in manual skill. What would have been the use had Mr. Hunt designed such work even a dozen years ago? Can we think with tolerance of how it then have been translated into stone?" Indeed, even today the story of how New York got good at stone carving (hint: immigration had something to do with it) has yet to be told comprehensively.

Richard Morris Hunt, architect of the Vanderbilt house, carried the Loire Valley home in his luggage from the École des Beaux-Arts, just as he had brought home the seaside villas of Normandy when he designed J.N.A. Griswold's Newport house twenty years before.

And I love this: "Stucco is not intrinsically immoral. English stucco is bad because utterly hideous, while Venetian stucco was admirable because more beautiful than stone or marble. Surely it was as artistic as a wall where every brick may be counted in unmitigated sincerity of shape and color."

Like Edith Wharton's, Mrs. Van Rensselaer's was a completely modern sensibility. She sought the fresh, the unhackneyed, the colloquial, the uncluttered, the unupholstered, and valued suitability, breadth, and repose. But never did she confuse the simple for the simplistic, the reposeful for the dull, the elegant for the austere. She shared a sensibility with another great architecture critic of her time, Montgomery Schuyler (1843-1914). But dare I say that Mrs. Van Rensselaer's writings, though they did not seem as convincing as Schuyler's when read at the high tide of high modernism (at least not to Lewis Mumford and Henry-Russell Hitchcock), today feel more sound?

A new book by the the landscape historian Judith K. Major, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer: A Landscape Critic in the Gilded Age, is due in March 2013 from University of Virginia Press. This will be the first book ever about Mrs. Van Rensselaer. I will be reviewing it for Traditional Building magazine, and will point to the review when it appears. In addition, two very fine doctoral dissertations about Mrs. Van Rensselaer have been written, one by Cynthia Kinnard at Johns Hopkins in 1977, and one by Lois Dinnerstein at City University of New York in 1979. Most of what I know about Mrs. Van Rensselaer comes from these dissertations, which can be downloaded through the ProQuest service if you are lucky enough to have access to it. David Gebhard's introductory essay in Accents as Well as Broad Effects is long and excellent. Judith K. Major wrote the biography of Mrs. Van Rensselaer that appears at the indispensable Cultural Landscape Foundation web site.

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