No. 41 Maude Phelps Hutchins
It was nice for young ladies of fashion in her girlhood circles on Long Island to paint and draw. So Maude Phelps Hutchins has no traditional background of stern family objections thrown into her way of following her instincts to be an artist. Painting or drawing was one of the “accomplishments,” like playing the piano and doing needlework (as distinguished from sewing).
Now that she is the wife of the youthful president of the University of Chicago, who has seen to it that the paths she has trod along the ways of art continue to be bordered with the same species of primroses, Maude Phelps Hutchins gets panicky when she thinks about her poverty in the matter of frustrations. Not only has she had to face no family objections, but she has never had to starve in a garret, nor to pour ice water from a cracked pitcher for her morning ablutions, nor to choose between buying a pound of modelers’ clay or a joint of meat.
But she has had to face something worse — the suspicion of being a dilettante. Women in her own circles are proud of “dear Maude” as being a little above themselves in art accomplishment, helping to elevate by that much the whole level of her “caste.” The artists “from the people” — well, you know how they are apt to feel and to talk if you ever have had occasion to associate with “the people,” whether in art, letters, politics, or working in a factory.
And worst of it, Mrs. Hutchins gets cold chills when she tries to figure out at just what point she left off being “an accomplished young lady” and started being “a serious artist.” There is no definite break in her psychological chain as she looks back, no welding of a new and stronger single link.
These combined elements of panic make her do eccentric things. She won’t give away even one of her little sketches to anybody, no matter how close a friend, for fear of being mistaken by that friend and the friend’s friends — and herself — for a “dilettante.” No wedding present, no Christmas present from her studio. She will pay cheerfully several times the price of one of her drawings for a present. But when it comes to that drawing or a piece of her sculpture, sell she must.
Also, she racks her brain constantly for theories to explain what she is doing. She can’t afford to “play with art” for the joy of playing. She tried it once; and her “Diagrammatics” got her into some such trouble as her husband experiences when he so forgets himself as to make genial, humanly humorous remarks in discussing the affair of the University of Chicago. Art is necessarily a serious matter with her, as education is with him, as life was with Byron:
I tell you, living is a serious matter,
And so for God’s sake hock and soda water?
The “Diagrammatics” episode transpired in 1932. Mrs. Hutchins was called upon by one of her clubs to do her bit in the general advance of their culture. She could have told them of the joys o a sculptor on first beholding the marbles of Phidias; or she could have regaled them, equally acceptably, with picture postcards of her travels.
Instead, unfortunately, she chose to show them some outline drawings of nude figures she had made, reminiscent (to the initiated) of Flaxman, though in a manner of her own. They were spontaneous sketches that had come out of her “subconscious,” as she “idled” with a drawing pencil, akin to the sketches many of us make by way of keeping our hands busy when holding a prolonged conversation over the telephone or “entertaining” at our desk a bore. Only Mrs. Hutchins’ sketches were expert.
It wouldn’t have been so bad to show the sketches and let them speak for themselves, but she chose to expound on them in an address generated in something the same manner — a fantastic piecing together of words and phrases with the luminosity of a page of Joyce’s Ulysses of or Gertrude Stein — only, Mrs. Hutchins insists, they were better than poor Gertrude’s.
The “lecture” seemed to go very well. It was not until days or weeks later that she heard reverberations — the club had been “spoofed.” And people resent being “spoofed” in words they don’t understand.
“Diagrammatics,” after a while, became a book, with literary embellishments by Prof. Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago.
“An artist,” said Mrs. Hutchins in her introduction, “needs to explain himself because of his imperfect medium. That is why Mr. Adler will follow. He will imperfectly translate my medium into his and when he has failed I shall imperfectly present his language into line. It will signify nothing and be of no consequence.”
“Mrs. Hutchins, being an artist,” countered Prof. Adler, “has tried to explain nothing, and has succeeded. … These pieces of prose must be read by a mind devoid of memory and imagination; they contain nothing which is significant or sensible.”
As in the case of her club, where the substance of the book was first revealed, some people got sore. Others laughed. A few had an inkling of what it was all about — the same few who accept Picasso’s composition of packing boxes as a portrait of his father.
Mrs. Hutchins insists, in this year of 1935, that “Diagrammatics” was not a “spoof.” It was a serious adventure in “dialectics;” “amusing” in the sense of tossing ideas about, playing with them fantastically; “comic” in the Greek sense opposed to tragedy — “comic,” “a splendid state,” she defines it.
“If I should do a portrait of one of you,” Mrs. Hutchins told the clubwomen, “and you should find after posing correctly for some time that I had — arbitrarily and with an air of knowing what I was doing — placed your head in the corner and your feet in a vase, you would have an immediate illumination.”
Think of walking out into a Chicago night with that thought and going home with your stockbroker husband.
Maude Phelps McVeigh, leaving the home of her Long Island grandparents, who brought her up after her mother and father had died in her infancy, and marrying Robert Maynard Hutchins, secretary of Yale University, entered the Yale School of Fine Arts, electing to be a sculptor instead of a painter.
Why? Examining herself quickly, as is her wont, she replies, “Because I like to create something I can walk around!”
That she is quite serious as an artist and quite “professional” may be inferred from the fact she took the full five-year course.
At the finish, they bestowed on her the degree B.F.A. — “not that it means much,” she remarks, not yet cured of her dangerous habit of joking, but as long as they were giving such things out, I was glad to have one.”
She considers herself as being fortunate to have been a woman at Yale, for the School of Fine Arts, she remarks, has its eye constantly on the Prix de Rome, but it is an award that can be won only by the boys. So the girls are allowed to develop pretty much as they please.
In her own instance, she begged for one thing to be excused from working from casts, and permission was granted. Had she been a boy, Rome would have frowned on her with all the concentrated fierceness of all the Caesars.
But she believed then, as now, that casts are likely to stunt art resources of the sculptor. They are replicas of works that are “perfection.” The Greek masters modeled from life, chose the elements they wanted, and rejected the non-essentials. Their selection has been a sort of tyranny through the ages. Contemporary and recent sculptor, after the art rebellion, have gone back to the model, selecting new beauties, consigning some of the old points into the “nonessentials” discard.
Her father was a McVeigh, of Irish ancestry remotely Scotch, and descended on his mother’s side from the Capt. Ratcliffe who commanded a ship that sailed into Jamestown in 1609.
“’The imbecile Capt. Ratcliffe’ Fiske the historian, a friend of my great aunt, called him,” comments Mrs. Hutchins. “Maybe so, but his descendants include Jonathan Edwards and me.” The McVeigh’s (or MacVeagh’s) settled in Maryland a little later.
Mrs. Hutchins’ mother was a Phelps, of a New England family that made their advent in Massachusetts in 1632. It was her Phelps grandparents who brought her up after her parents died.
“When I was 14 and visiting a great-aunt, I was late to luncheon,” Mrs. Hutchins relates, “and I said, ‘But I beat Sylvia at tennis.’ My aunt looked at me coldly and said, ‘We have never had an athlete in the family before.’ Three years ago, I sent a copy of ‘Diagrammatics’ to an elderly cousin. In a letter to me, he said, ‘We have never had an author in the family before.’”
Mrs. Hutchins is confident all the Phelpses who have gone before are peering through the pearly gates into her studio with stern frowns on their faces.
Maybe they are frowning at Dr. Hutchins, too, accused of being a “red” by Mrs. Dilling and by certain of the red-baiting journals.
Mrs. Hutchins’ idea of a “good time,” shared by her husband, is to go to their farm weekends, do their won cooking (he can cook, too), set out 300 flower bulbs. Or on a prolonged vacation — one summer, they spent bicycling in England, another boating in Sweden, living the life of recluses.
Mrs. Hutchins, as a matter of duty, visits the art galleries wherever she goes, but she prefers the smell of a bay or river in a small boat or the fragrance of country soil.
Of late, she is developing ambitions to be a painter. So far, she has been experimenting with tempera, not daring to break clean away from the materials of the sculptor.
Oil seems stiffer to her fingers than clay. But she’s hopeful.