ILLINOIS HISTORICAL ART PROJECT
No. 56 Sister Mary Stanisia
When the Stehll Brothers, a famous art firm of Zurich, desired an original conception of the Sacred Heart for reproduction in color and circulation throughout the world, they passed over the religious painters of Europe and commissioned for the work Sister Stanisia, a Chicago nun of the school Sisters of Notre Dame, instructor in art at the Academy of Our Lady, Throop and 95th Streets, Longwood.
Sister Stanisia is perhaps the most widely known of woman painters throughout the Catholic world, in the United States and Europe. She became internationally established when she exhibited four paintings at the religious art show in connection with the Eucharistic Congress in Chicago in 1925 — a painting of the “Little Flower,” a portrait of Bishop J.F. Noll of Fort Wayne, and two Madonna’s. Commissions began coming to her immediately for altar pieces, devotional works, portraits, and murals.
An early portrait of Cardinal Mundelein was hung in the St. George High School, Evanston, and a later one exhibited in 1935 at the Davis store was commissioned for the College of Cardinals, Washington. Murals and paintings of hers are in the Cathedral, St. Paul, Minn.; Adrian College, Michigan; Mount Mary College, Milwaukee (where she also conducts classes in painting); St. Joseph’s Hospital; St. Margaret’s Church; and Holy Cross Church, Chicago.
But Sister Stanisia has not confined herself strictly to religious painting.
A portrait of Gov. Horner was seen by multitudes in the Hall of States at A Century of Progress, and after the close of the Fair was sent to the Hall of Nations at Asbury Park, N.J. A portrait of Mayor Kelly was unveiled with ceremonies at the Illinois Host House in July of the second summer of the Fair. During the engagement of “The First Legion,” drama of the Jesuits, in Chicago, she painted Whitford Kane, who for several years was a member of the stock company at the Goodman Theater, and who, in the Jesuit drama, was a churchman of high rank in a rival order, wisecracking at the Jesuits.
Recital of her worldly honors is against the expressed wishes of Sister Stanisia who is devoted first to her religious duties and afterward to her brushes and paints. While she will talk freely, pleasantly, and even with flashes of humor about her art and her art alms, when it comes to personal matters, she sidesteps her interviewers. It becomes necessary to go to the “records,” chiefly newspaper clipping and exhibition catalogues, to learn the facts about her.
Fortunately, from the outset of her career, so interesting has she been from the “news angle” — a painter of unusually fine talent developing in the sheltered circles of nun — that the records are fairly complete.
The world is entitled to them, to the way of thinking of a sympathetic heathen like myself. Fra Angelico lived a sequestered life, too, but the eager biographers have been as curious about him a about the worldly-minded Raphael.
Then there was that talented physician, the Greek St. Luke, somewhere between Apelles and El Greco. St Luke is reputed to have painted the Virgin from life, and tradition has it that the Madonna in S. Maria Maggior, Rome, is the picture. However, the orthodox writers admit that, even if St. Luke painted the Mother of Christ thus, this must be a copy, of one found in Palestine by the Empress Eudoxia and brought to Rome, which has since perished. St. Luke is believed to have been a painter of rustic scenery, too, as well as of portraits.
With examples like these in mind, let me continue the recital of few more facts in Sister Stanisia’s life.
She was born in Chicago May 4, 1888. Her talent developed early and was recognized in her girlhood by Prof. Zukotynski, a Polish count with a studio in Munich, who proceeded to give her instruction. He was one of Europe’s foremost painters of religious subjects. On his death, so great was the progress she had made, she was called upon to finish some of his works.
Returning to Chicago, she entered the school of the Sisters of Notre Dame. Friends who had watched the developing of her art talents called her move “an artistic suicide.”
However, as a nun, she continued her art studies, first at the Art Institute of Chicago, and later in New York. She studied portrait painting with Ralph Clarkson, landscape with Frank C. Peyraud, murals with John Norton, and sculpture with Albin Polasek. At Provincetown one summer, she studied with Hawthorne.
Though through all her career as student she aimed at devoting her life to religious painting, she did many secular studies, quite charming.
R.A. Lennon, a newspaper interviewer, on a visit to her studio at Longwood, tells how, hanging in company with a bishop and a chancellor, he saw on her wall “two large life studies of young girl models, painted with delicacy and charm, with a skillful treatment of soft color and a deft handling of light and shade.” These, Sister Stanisia will tell you hurriedly, she painted while studying at the Art Institute school She will not tell you that they took prizes — it is from others that you must gain this information – and then the sister will ask you not to mention it. In these two works, as in half a dozen similar and equally praiseworthy ones, there is a finished harmony of composition, an acute insight to character and a fine feeling for texture. This is particularly well shown in the detail of the clothing of the figures – in the brilliant sheen of shimmering silks and the lustrous softness of rich velvet.”
The feeling for texture stood Sister Stanisia in good stead when she painted Cardinal Mundelein in full regalia as Prince of the Church and she has not hesitated, following painting tradition, to clothe her Madonna’s richly, as befits the Queen of Heaven.
Following tradition, too, she doesn’t hesitate to use human models for her religious paintings. “An American Madonna,” a work that has called forth much favorable comment, had for model a girl of Chicago’s south side. Raphael used for his Sistine Madonna a beautiful Roman girl,” daughter of a baker.
“In my studio work,” Sister Stanisia told an interviewer, “I have received many commissions to paint pictures of Our Savior. And people still find Mary the most paintable of women.”
“Recently a lovely experience made me realize with strength and sincerity of faith. A voluntary model came to me, an extraordinarily beautiful girl – but completely blind. She sat for me through the changing poses required for fourteen murals. And frequently, as happens when one is doing religious subjects, we prayed aloud together, her sympathetic soul revealing itself in her expressive face. When we were painting Christ before Pilate, Christ crowned with thorns, Christ on the Cross, it was as if she lived through the reality of His anguish.
“One day I asked her ‘Have you ever prayed our Lord to restore your sight?’
“She shook her head. ‘Perhaps I don’t want my sight restored. It might destroy my inner vision. With that, I am content.”
“I wonder whether she was not one of the world’s great artists.”
A “somewhat different slant” at any rate on “bohemia!”
Just as she still does secular portraits, so Sister Stanisia devotes a part of her studio time to landscape. “Beverly Hills on a Rainy Day” was a pleasing impression carried away last summer by visitors to her big show at the Davis store.
In 1932, Sister Stanisia was awarded a silver medal in the international fair at Warsaw, capital city of the Poland where Count Zukolynski, her discoverer, originated.