No. 93 Yvonne Pryor
“I was unimpressed by the Impressionists,” Mrs. Pryor told me, which was her reason for sticking to her job of designing textiles and jewelry while Chicago’s most eminent painters were painting after the fashion of the 1893 Columbian Exposition art display. These painters were intent, like the French “open-airists” on “poetic atmosphere,” the mists very often hiding the structural form of the scenery around which they clung. Incidentally, that very often camouflaged slovenly workmanship.
But Yvonne Pryor awoke with something of a jolt when she saw an exhibition of French and Continental “modernism.” Here were structures boldly displayed for themselves, without grace of shimmery sunlight and shadow. Here was something a mathematical mind could grasp and revel in.
For her mind is mathematical and yet curiously feminine. As Yvonne Le Duc, a young girl from New Orleans, graduating from the Kenwood Institute, she took the examination in mathematics for entrance to Yale. Not that she intended to go to Yale, but she wanted to prove to her classmates and to herself that a girl’s mind was as good as a boy’s. Her grade on the examination paper bore out her theory.
Mrs. Pryor, while she has lived in Chicago most of her life and is well known in circles of the commercial designers, is a newcomer in the “fine arts” (whatever the distinction may be).
First painting of hers I remember was “Studio Stairs” in the first of the Woman’s Salon at the Findlay Galleries some three seasons ago.
“Studio Stairs” impressed the beholder as going up and up, high enough to reach to the top of the Wrigley Building. Yet actual count disclosed only 14 steps. How come?
“It’s the flight of steps to a former studio of mine further east on Ohio Street, “Mrs. Pryor explained to me the other afternoon in her more recent studio in the Tree Building. “On the evening after a long day’s work, they looked that high.”
A still earlier painting she showed me is “Shut Down.” It is an “abstraction,” without losing naturalistic aspects, of a factory closed by the Depression. Mrs. Pryor has managed to convey a feeling of futility on a monumental scale.
“Milltown,” leaning further to the abstract, interprets delightfully (to the mathematical mind) the essential soul of Pittsburgh.
Mrs. Pryor was born in Chicago by accident rather than design because she made her advent while her French-American parents of New Orleans were on a visit here. They took the infant back South, but returned when she was a little girl, and Chicago has since been her home.
After the public schools and Kenwood Institute, she entered the Art Institute of Chicago where she had already been a pupil in the Saturday classes. Decorative design filled her imagination rather than painting, for “painting” meant to her the vague lights and shadows of “impressionism.” She liked better substantial things she could grasp, like jewelry and textiles.
She interrupted her studies at the Art Institute to go to Paris, where she studied for a time in the Drawing Schools of the City of Paris, and later in the Beaux-Arts, still pursuing her decorative designs and adding architectural drawing.
Returning to Chicago, she finished at the Art Institute as a distinguished pupil, to be taken into the studio of her principal instructor, Louis J. Millet. Millet, a friend of the architect Sullivan, had come to Chicago at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair and had established or, at any rate, developed the department of decorating design at the Art Institute. In his studio apart from the Institute school, he was doing decoration in many important buildings in Chicago and throughout the country, specializing in stained glass. Miss Le Duc got here some training in modern designing of stained glass, as well as in all the more usual branches of the interior decorating profession.
After leaving Millet’s studio, she went on her own as a freelance designer of textiles and of jewelry, eventually specializing in textiles, in which she still is engaged. Her designs are in demand nationwide and some of the textiles she dyes with her own hands are exquisite. Her work necessitated a course in chemistry and, with her keen intelligence and lively imagination, she made some organic and valuable research in dyes and dye pastes, becoming an expert for a time in the dye laboratories of a large textile establishment.
Though he formal training in mathematics stopped at Kenwood, she has educated herself by avid reading and experimenting in line and form to an astonishing degree.
She is the only artist I have ever met, except Archipenko, who can discuss intelligently the “Fourth Dimension” — I have suggested that mathematical fairly land to most abstractions I have met, only to draw vague shakes of the head and rapid retreat to firmer grounds.
“Do you know,” asked Mrs. Pryor, her black, languid eyes suddenly sparking, “that ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is supposed to have the key to the ‘Fourth Dimension’?”
I didn’t know, but when I go home tonight I’m going to look up the passage about Alice going through the mirror. Lewis Carroll, the author, I did know was a profound mathematician.
While the shimmery “poetry” of the “Impressionists” among the painters fails to intrigue Mrs. Pryor, the mysticism of the mathematicians has for her a compelling fascination. So had it for Aristotle, Dante, Milton, Edgar Allan Poe — so has it for Picasso and the really intelligent “cubists.”
A recreation of hers is working out the mathematical skeletons she believes hidden in every great work of art.
Tiepolo is static and uninspiring because he built in squares. El Greco is stimulating because his structures are sharp-pointed triangles, intimately interlocked.
She has a lot of sympathy for the ancient philosophers who worked out mathematical formulas for creation and for God. And she can take down from the shelf translations from the Greek and cite chapter and verse, lamenting she can’t read the original.
The mathematical is fundamental in life, she believes. Through the long ages since unremembered beginnings of things, human beings have lived in intimate touch with landscapes. Human nature, therefore, by the process of evolution, is in harmony with certain aspects of nature. Mrs. Pryor believes that there are certain “forms,” in consequence, that have a universal appeal. She spends long hours figuring them out, and utilizes her discoveries in her work — in both her textile designs and her paint. She has found a modern philosopher as mentor and guide, Matilda C. Ghyka, who writes in French and whose drawings in “Essay on Rhythm” makes me wish I could read French as fluently as Mrs. Pryor would like to read Greek.
“Rhythm and Music” is one of Ghyka’s chapters, which reminds me that I forgot to say that Yvonne Le Duc was cut out, by her parents, for a concert violinist. But her memory for notes and bars wasn’t accurate enough.
Twenty-five years ago — they celebrated this last winter their silve4r wedding — Yvonne Le Duc married Willis S. Pryor, a businessman wholly in sympathy with her art aims.
Besides the studio in the Tree Building, they have a unique house at the edge of the Indiana dunes, just south of Gary. (There were dunes art pioneers even before Frank Dudley.) The house, Mrs. Pryor considers her masterpiece.
While not as imposing as the Capitol Building (now, alas, a wreck), it has an interior steel construction like any skyscraper. Outwardly, it is of formed zinc that never tarnishes. It is set exactly north and south by the compass, giving Mrs. Pryor a 100 per cent north light through a great sheet of glass when she comes to establish a studio there. Everything is planned as “truly functional,” said Mrs. Pryor, with a grimace at the jargon. Heat and cold are regulated. There are two stories. “And it broke us,” said Mrs. Pryor with another grimace.