Art from the Archives: Berkshires Revisited

In this new series, we’re going to take an unsystematic look at some of the drawings of our collection, with commentary ranging from contemporary letters or journal entries that place the drawings in context, to the free association musings of your friendly “Artchivist.” Our aim is to bring some of these delightful and fascinating visual records to light and share another dimension of the site’s rich collections. For the complete collection, check out this page.

For this post we turn again to work from the Berkshires, but this time the year is 1839 and Fanny and Mary are becoming more independent. We’ll look at just one drawing for this post. It is a curious little piece and poses some interesting questions; in the next post we’ll look at two more drawings from 1839 which are more traditional, and will help frame this one.

Stockbridge, 1839

In 1839, Fanny and her sister Mary rented a house in Stockbridge from the end of June until the beginning of October, just before Fanny’s twenty-second birthday. That summer the two young women delighted in their independence, creating their own home and welcoming their circle of friends. They called their house “Yale Manor” after their landlords, and decorated it in a casual style. Fanny convinced her father to purchase a property in Stockbridge by the “ox-bow” of the Housatonic River and derived much pleasure from visiting this property, writing to her friend Emmeline about its “happy accidents of trees, rocks—views &c…” saying, “I cannot tell you my dear how happy I am here…”

Fanny also expressed relief to Emmeline at being away from the complexities of Boston’s social scene. Being away from one social scene however, did not preclude a social life in Stockbridge. It was, in fact, intensely social, with parties, many beaux, much poetry being read and written, visitors arriving and departing, informal musical and theatrical productions, and expeditions to the various natural attractions. And, of course, Fanny sketched. On July 5th she wrote her brother Tom:

“I pity you in dull Boston; here we are as merry as crickets- & as full of occupation as ants. Jewett will be here tonight or tomorrow….I am fierce for sketching now….”

Ice Glen

Ice Glen was then and remains today, a wild place in Stockbridge, so called because of its plunging ravines and overhanging rocks that sheltered snow deep into the summer. In 1839 Fanny went there several times with her sister, Mary, and others. It was an example of the unruliness of Nature in a landscape that was becoming increasingly cultivated. On June 16th Fanny described it to Emmeline:

Tuesday-Yesterday-we accomplished our mission to the Ice-Glen…. All the beaux including the awkward Mackintosh were put in requisition & a famous scrambling we had over the chaotic masses of rock & trees piled up there as if this wild ravine were the lumber-room of the world. Shawls tied round waists & parasols borne like quivers assisted the picturesque effects which every figure had in such a locale. Mary tried to creep thro’ a hole in a huge rock & seemed inclined to end her days there like the frog – till the gentlemen’s officious assistance being scolded off – she screwed up her courage to emerge. If you ever read Miss S.’s [Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s] “N. England tale” this pass is finely described. With Mr Fields’ good aid I perched myself like crazy Bet on the summit of an enormous rock – so Salvator Rosa like were the surroundings with our party sprawling hither & thither – as if down in a well. After furnishing a first-rate meal to swarms of mosquitoes we emerged to a magnificent view of hill & valley & vowed the next time to furnish ourselves with food & not solely these piquante insects.

Six weeks later Fanny described another visit to her cousin Jewett:

“We lionized Mr. Franklin Dexter thro’ the Ice Glen Monday, -who being an artist & a man of taste admired properly that petrified battle….Our complexions…& dress presented on returning the usual motley wear of soil and mosquitoe’s malice. They beset one, like so many harpies, on taking a few sketches.”

Fanny’s description to Emmeline of the expedition to Ice Glen is one of independence and full engagement with the physical demands of the place. The women remove their shawls and carry their parasols like quivers. Mary scolds off the gentlemen’s assistance, Fanny perches on the summit of an enormous rock out of a desire to be one with her surroundings and in imitation of crazy Bet, a character from Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s A New England Tale. Her description of the day’s events shows her reveling in the unconventionality of that bleak and demanding place, and the picturesqueness it engendered. Passing through Ice Glen was an adventure!

Is this what Fanny captures in her drawing?

Made on the outing with Fanny’s fellow artist, Mr. Franklin Dexter, this sketch appears unfinished, as though the mosquitoes had gotten the better of her. But she kept the drawing anyway. We see fallen trees, boulders, a figure, and a distant mountain. The trees are drawn with confidence, and the small figure—a woman seen from the back, possibly Mary—is nimbly portrayed. But Fanny seems to lose control of her idea somewhere in the middle of the composition and her attempt to create a deep space fails so it is hard to know what is important. Is it the rocks and trees? The small figure seen from the back? Is it her relationship to the landscape?

Fanny made a picture that disregarded pictorial conventions. Think back to those 1835 drawings with their lyrical, clear qualities: foreground, middleground, background, the eye led around and through the image, with resting places on a pond, a church steeple, a mountain-top. This drawing offers nothing like that. It is an awkward assembly of shapes and spaces with a small figure near the center. The broken and fallen trees create a kind of desolation. A large rock hangs dangerously above the figure. The distant mountain seems impossible to attain. Foreground and background are hard to separate, diagonals abound, and visual organization is chaotic. Our eye has no clear direction to take and is given no resting place.

The drawing probably parallels the experience of being in that landscape, so in some ways it is accurate. I think also, that the figure in this landscape is important, even if the drawing as a whole doesn’t make that clear. In the middle of all this chaos Fanny shows us a small woman, seen from the back. She looks downward and to her right, but at what, we do not know. Her appearance there is startling.

In Catharine Sedgwick’s A New-England Tale, the young Jane Elton, orphaned and being raised by a strict, unloving woman, is trying to find her place in the world and is helped by her encounters with a variety of characters. Crazy Bet, the character Fanny thought of when mounting the boulder, brought Jane into that “wild trackless region…through a pass…that none knows but the wild bird and the wild woman.” As they entered the ravine in the dark of night, crazy Bet admonished Jane to “follow me, and fear not” and in following, Jane was “inspired with almost supernatural courage.” While there, crazy Bet ascended to the top of an immense rock where “she looked like the wild genius of the savage scene, and she seemed to breathe its spirit…”

When Fanny scrambled among these rocks she had this passage in mind. Fanny admired and loved Catharine Sedgwick as a relative, a friend, and as a woman of intellect and spirit. Maybe in this drawing Fanny was searching for her own way to describe how a young woman might appear in the midst of the wildness, and maybe part of that “wildness” was deciding what direction her young life would take. Fanny was twenty-one, and of a marriageable age, but she was enjoying her growing intellect and freedom, and enjoying her developing skills and social confidence. Is it possible that in her expeditions to the Ice Glen Fanny was also exploring her own ideas of independence? And that, in this small sketch Fanny gives voice to an underlying question about what her life path would be, and about whether she would choose a conventional, or an unconventional, life? We do not know, but this drawing, incomplete though it is, offers a tantalizing glimpse of what she may have been thinking.

Sources

Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, LONG 19153, Ice-Glen, July 29th 1839. sketch by Frances Elizabeth Appleton.

Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, LONG 20257, Frances Elizabeth Appleton Longfellow Papers, 1825-1961, Series II. Correspondence, Letters from Frances Longfellow, 1839. See especially: FEAL to Emmeline Austin Wadsworth (EAW) 1839-06-16, 1839-07-07, and 1839-July; FEAL to Isaac Appleton Jewett (IAJ) 1839-07-30; and FEAL to TGA 1839-07-05.

Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, LONG 21599, Frances Elizabeth Appleton Longfellow journal, August through October, 1839.

Sedgwick, Catharine Maria, A New England Tale New York: E. Bliss & E. White, 1822, pp. 137-143. Accessed through Internet Archives: https://archive.org/stream/anewenglandtale01sedggoog#page/n152/mode/1up/search/Tree, 2017-03-02.