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No. 17 Katherine Dudley


“Yes,” said Matisse, carefully going through a series of pastels of the Southwest by Katharine Dudley, “I think that if I went to New Mexico I could pick out every spot you have painted.” But, hesitating and with a twinkle in he eye, “Is the sun always eclipsed in New Mexico?” Then he turned to her still life paintings. “But don’t you like fruit, Miss Dudley?” he asked. “Well, this is an apple but there’s no bite in it. It might as well by a toy apple, made of cloth.”


Katharine Dudley considers that afternoon she spent with Matisse in Nice the most valuable in her life. Gertrude Stein had given her a litter of introduction — with a Gertrude Stein grin, for she and Matisse were at outs for the time being. She told Miss Dudley so, but they both decided to risk it.


Miss Dudley and her sister climbed to Matisse’s magnificent studio, high up in an otherwise squalid quarter of Nice. Matisse himself answered the bell, peeping with cold gray eyes out from a narrow slit of the doorway. To a gruff, “What do you want?” Katharine Dudley handed the bearded ogre Gertrude Stein’s letter. Matisse opened it suspiciously, read it through, and then grinned. He and Gertrude Stein might be at outs, but who could resist her wit? The grin broke the ice and paved the way for not only the one, but several sessions between the French master and the adoring American.


On the other side of the world, in the vast recesses of China, Katharine Dudley was studying painting with an Oriental master, rigidly bound by centuries of discipline in his art. Miss Dudley was “news” in that section of the world — she was the first white woman since the 18th century who had undertaken to learn Chinese painting, really, on the grounds and from a Chinese master. Her father was Dr. E.C. Dudley, one of the most noted of Chicago and American surgeons. On a tour of the world for pleasure, the Rockefeller Foundation halted him by cable in China and asked him to conduct an investigation that extended over a period of a year. This was the year (about 1923) Katharine Dudley sat at the feet of the Chinese painter.


The Oriental didn’t pay much attention to what she put on the canvas, but he taught her to use her wrists gracefully. That is the way curves are born on canvas (he said). Something similar occurs when the piano teacher pays no attention to the chords or discords the pupil is producing, but watches the hands and the fingers.


“And did you learn Chinese painting?”


No, she didn’t — it would take a lifetime. Every stroke the traditional Chinese painter makes has its origin in some letter. You must master the Chinese alphabet of thousands of characters and know their meanings and their shades before you can become a Chinese painter. So the old man told her.


Katharine Dudley had sent for a lot of her art books when she found she was to be in China for a year. She showed the reproductions to her master — Italian Renaissance, Dutch, Flemish, French, English. The old man was cold. But one day, she took him monographs illustrating Van Gogh and Matisse.


“Ah, there! Real artists?” he exclaimed, his eyes lighting up for the first time. She told Matisse at Nice. The Frenchman smiled again — pleased and flattered.


Katharine Dudley was born on Indiana Avenue at 16th Street. The date is a bit sacred but she remembers how they used to drive her father’s cows to pasture in the open fields at 39th Street. She was two sisters: Caroline, who is now Mrs. Joseph Delteil, wife of one of the newer literary geniuses of Paris; and Dorothy, who as Dorothy Dudley is author of a well-lauded book on Theodore Dreiser, and who as Dorothy Dudley Harvey is mother of Anne Harvey, 19, whom Matisse Brancusi and the late Pascin have “discovered” as a genius of paint.

Katharine Dudley grew to 16 or thereabouts under the watchful eye of her father and of an English governess who looked after the education of the three girls. Then William P. Henderson made his advent in Chicago with the daring gospel of a new era in “art” — with Whistler and Manet, the sensational rebels. Henderson succeeded in organizing classes of young ladies and young gentlemen among the intelligent and progressive rich, with Katharine, daughter of Dr. Dudley, among them. It was under tutelage of Henderson that Katharine Dudley painted “Elvira,” owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, bought in 1915 by Friends of American Art, and the portrait of her father which hangs as a memorial in his alma mater, Dartmouth.


About the time of the outbreak of the European war, Henderson deserted Chicago for Santa Fe. Katharine Dudley was one of several of his pupils who continued to study with him from time to time, out there. It was in this period that she produced the pastels that Matisse, a few years later, thought must have been painted in the sun’s eclipse.


But presently, she was going east as well as west. She was painting in New York as well as Santa Fe and Chicago, with an occasional visit to Paris. She was seeing Paris largely through eyes instructed by Henderson. She saw all the Whistlers she could find, and the Manet's, and the Spanish forerunners of Manet. She heard of the portrait Whistler had made of Theodore Duret, biographer and firm friend of Manet, and ablest defender of the “Impressionists.” She wrote Duret a note, asking if she might see the portrait. Duret invited her up to this studio, which seemed to her “the seventh heave.” On this visit to Paris, too, she copied a Velasquez in the Louvre.


But fate was nursing a thunderbolt to hurl at the disciple of Henderson. Her sister Caroline, whose chief hobby was drama, interested some Parisian showmen in importing an American Negro troupe to the French capital. Caroline gathered unknowns from the Harlem cabarets. Katharine Dudley designed the costumes. Dorothy Dudley painted the scenery. The show opened in Paris — and an obscure cabaret entertainer instantly made history, Josephine Baker.


Among the highly interested in the venture — eve though idly — was Jules Pascin. He was a Bulgarian Jew who had been in Paris at the outbreak of the war in 1914. Unable to enlist in the French army, and unwilling to fight against Paris, Pascin came to New York accompanied by an artist friend, Hermine David. Shortly after they landed, they went to city hall and were married. They made themselves imperfectly understood — their license reads “Julia Pascin” and “Herman David.” Pascin took out citizenship papers and, until his suicide in 1930, insisted he was “American,” spending his time in New York as well as Paris, with numerous restless wanderings.


Pascin and Katharine Dudley became friends. After Josephine Baker and her troupe got across, Miss Dudley came back to New York and opened a studio of her own in 14th Street — one of those spacious floors in that quarter. When Pascin made his next visit to America, he insisted on painting in Katharine Dudley’s studio. He had his own studio in Brooklyn — “But you can’t paint nudes in Brooklyn,” he told her. Pascin, by now, was rich and successful and very generous. He disrupted the “model market” in the 14th Street district. He paid the girls heavily, and off-times he would make them pose all night — his restless nature driving him at times to frenzies of work.

It was in watching Pascin that Katharine Dudley forgot Henderson and Henderson’s gods, Whistler and Manet. She became a “modern,” finding eventually even the eclipsed sun and apples with a bite. Caroline’s Negro actresses suggested new models, and Miss Dudley’s Harlem types are among her most successful creations.


The next year, Katharine Dudley decided to go to France to live, and she has been in Paris and its environs ever since, except for painting excursions into Morocco, Mexico, and, as at present, the United States. One summer she and her sisters and their mother took a medieval chateau near Cannes, where they were neighbors to Picabia and Brancusi. It was this summer that Anne Harvey began to develop what these artists and Pascin and Matisse decided was “genius.”


Katharine Dudley was one of the several friends of Pascin who knocked at his studio door the morning of his suicide, received no answer, and went away. He was dead inside, with his wrists slashed and hanging to the knob of the very door at which she knocked.

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