ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 4 John Storrs
Rodin lay dead, swathed in white monk’s cloth. His friends were gathered weeping around. M. Benedict, closest of them; former curator of the Luxembourg and now director of the Rodin Museum, turned to young John Storrs, American. “You sketch the master,” he said, choking. “You were his favorite pupil.” Renoir was making a sketch, too. But the old painter’s rheumatic fingers were stiffening in the cold of the death chamber. He had to abandon the drawing that was ultimately to have been a painting.
John Storrs started to work. M. Benedict and the others gathered close, peering over his shoulder. “If you please,” pleaded John Storrs, “leave me alone with the dead for twenty minutes.” They quietly withdrew. Storrs made his drawing, later converting it into a lithograph. The first impression hangs now in the Rodin Museum.
This was in 1917. Four years earlier, when John Storrs had been studying in his atelier for a year, Rodin bade him, “Get out, go your own way now! I authorize you to say you are my pupil.” It was a rare distinction; the master was not in the habit of proclaiming his students.
Rodin and his young friend kept in touch. Storrs helped him arrange the Rodin Museum, along with M. Benedict. Mrs. Storrs, novelist and (at 20) front-page correspondent for the Paris Temps, has huge notebooks of John Storrs’ conversations with Rodin. They are to appear in print some day when Mr. and Mrs. Storrs collaborate on a joint autobiography. She was DeVille Chabrol of Orleans. She wrote for Le Temps in 1920 impressions of her first visit to America. She signed them “Marc Debrol.” Among the people impressed was President Butler of Columbia University. He wrote “M. Debrol” inviting “him” to a visiting professorship at Columbia.
John Storrs and DeVille Chabro met in 1912. He was visiting her at her Orleans home when war broke out in 1914. They decided to get married immediately after the first battle of the Marne and to go into hospital service together. They spent the greater part of their war years thus. On America’s Thanksgiving Day (sympathetic bells chime in France), just after the armistice, their daughter Monique made her infant debut.
John Storrs was born in Chicago in 1885, where 23rd Street cuts Indiana Avenue. The home of his father, D.W. Storrs, architect, was condemned shortly after, to let a streetcar track be laid, and the family moved to Normal Park. D.W. Storrs had run second in a contest for plans for Chicago’s second city hall—plenty of honor but no money. So he decided to go in for real estate, and laid out what is still known as the D.W. Storrs addition. He donated four square blocks to the city for educational purposes, and the Chicago Normal School stands there.
John Storrs’ mother was a Canadian from Kingston, Ont. She was an expert ice skater in the Thousand Islands region—skated away many days with paper and water colors and returned home with vivid sketches of lakes, mountains and pine trees under her arm. The mother of D.W. Storrs (John’s grandmother) likewise was a water colorist, Goshen, Mass. She painted Castellatext ruins and cloud effects around distant hills. She was born in 1812. Some day John Storrs is going to have a show of water colors of three generations of the Storrs artists, including himself.
During the 1893 World’s Fair, John Storrs went daily with his mother to the Fine Arts Building. She had brought him a tutor from Tennessee, Miss Blanche McManus. Miss McManus painted a mural for the Woman’s Building at the Columbian fair, in charge of Mrs. Potter Palmer. From Miss McManus, John Storrs and his sister Mary (now Mrs. Mary Andersen) got their first lessons in drawing.
John Dewey, now renowned as a philosopher, took charge of the school on the Storrs lot. John Storrs and Mary were among the first specimens for his famous experiments with children. He taught them “how to see.”
John Storrs continued to “see” in high school and to use his hands. He took all the drawing that was taught, and the carpentering and the manual training. “You got through on your eyes and your hands,” his favorite professor told him on graduating. “You might have used your brains a little more.”
His father wanted to send him to the University of Michigan. John begged, instead, a year in Europe, in Berlin with his sister, professional pianist and just then studying voice. In Berlin they moved in the musical set that was illuminated by Maud Allan, the brilliant Anglo-American dancer, and Geraldine Farrar. John took vocal lessons, too, but was scared out of them by the promise of his professor to make him an opera singer. He took up sculpture.
After Berlin, he traveled through Spain, Constantinople, Greece, Italy, and Egypt. Then his father recalled him to make a real estate man out of him. It didn’t work. John Storrs cluttered his rent account books with drawings and attended Art Institute classes at night. His father gave up in despair, sent him to Art Institute classes full time, then to Boston, Philadelphia, and Paris. After a year at Julien’s, Storrs entered the atelier of Rodin.
In 1915, Storrs came to America in charge of Rodin’s exhibition at the San Francisco World’s Fair. He showed some of his own things there. He had been flattered almost to the point of fainting in the Paris Salon of 1013 when a marble head of his mother had been set beside Rodin’s entry.
Storrs’ modest contribution to the San Francisco exposition was little noticed, but in 1919 he created a sensation in New York at the Folsom Gallery on 57th Street with the first “modern” sculpture to be shown in quantity in America. A terra cotta “Madonna,” scarcely ten inches high, set in the gallery’s window, green and black striped, done in angles and planes but recognizable as a woman, blocked traffic. Storrs was condemned by the newspapers: morbidly “red” conscious, as a “dangerous artist.”
The late George Porter saw the show and persuaded the Arts Club to bring it to Chicago. Thus the blue-blooded aristocrat (one of the ancestral Storrs gave the plat on which Dartmouth College stands) came back to his home town as a branded “red.” The New York sensation was duplicated here.
Since then, the fame of Storrs has spread in Chicago where his “Ceres” stands atop the Board of Trade building, and where his colossal figure of “Science” was observed by the millions who attended A Century of Progress and strolled southward along the Avenue of Flags; in New York, where the Societe Anonyme took him up and make a hero of him; and in Paris where he moves in the high exclusive circles of “moderns.”
Under his father’s will, he has to spend eight months of each year in America and hold American citizenship. The other four months he and Mrs. Storrs are back in Paris and London.
One of their hobbies is the modern ballet. They have never missed a premiere. They tell, amused, how Picasso appeared in a sweater in 1917 at the first performance in Paris of his “Parade.” But by the time of his opera “Trisolde,” he had blossomed into full dress suit.
Storrs resisted for seven years the will of his father and stayed in France. During those years, he made his living as a collector and salesman of antique sculpture. He unearthed in private collections in rural France some of the choicest pieces of twelfth and thirteenth century stone work know to present-day connoisseurs. Then he quit being a tradesman and entered into his inheritance.