Friends as Viewers and Patrons of the Visual Arts, 1800-1900
Certainly Friends condemned anything that smacked of what they called “vain and needless things” that were “calculated more to please a vain and wanton mind, than for real usefulness,” to quote the advices of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in 1806. Yet it is significant that while “going to stage-plays, horse-races, music, dancing, or any other such vain sports and pastimes” brought disownment, or loss of membership, painting, or visiting art galleries, never did. The arts had their critics, to be sure, like the Philadelphia Friend who in 1820 who blasted “those schools where they painted picters and darned beadwork, and all that kind of thing.” But there is abundant evidence that Friends in good standing, indeed, Friends of weight and position in the Society, saw it acceptable to be artists, to visit galleries and museums, and to have works of art in their homes.
Quaker artists were relatively few, but then so were Quakers, and so were artists. Quaker parents doubtless had reservations about children trying to make a living from art, but this was probably for practical rather than moral reasons. Certainly by the 1850s one finds Friends in good standing attending schools of art and design, or, as in the case of New York Friend Julia McClintock, teaching in them. This point of view was nicely summed up by Long Island Friend Mary R. Post in 1849, describing a visit to an aunt’s home in writing to another relative. “She showed us her paintings. They were neatly done and are prettily framed. She said your girls will learn drawing . . . I said they must become more perfect in the more common and necessary acquirements first. I would like you to study it sometime if you have any turn for it.” And in their homes, paintings were welcome. A good example is Joel Brown, a Virginia Friend who had moved to the backwoods of Champaign County, Ohio, not far from Marcus Mote’s birthplace, writing to relatives in 1839. His wife wanted his sister “to fetch a portion of her painting out with her” when she came to visit. “We want something nice to decorate our cabins.” It says something that when Margaretta Walton, a recorded minister from Fallowfield, Pennsylvania, was not well enough to attend meeting on a Sunday morning in June 1862, she instead spent it drawing.
Perhaps most interesting is a detailed travel journal kept by Philadelphia Friend Joseph Sansom during a visit to Europe in 1801. The Quaker standing of Joseph and his wife Beulah was impeccable—both were weighty Friends. Yet the account they left of their travels through Italy might have been the work of an Episcopalian connoisseur. In Bologna, for example, they toured the cathedral, noting: “It was once adorned with the exquisite paintings of the Lombard School Bologna having been the birthplace of the Carrachi Domenichino and other eminent painters who adorned their native city with many of their admirable productions.” In Florence, they found “a great deal of taste,” admiring the works of Cimabue and Donatello and the “masterpiece in bronze the Perseus of Benvenuto Cellini.” And while the Sansoms were staunchly anti-Catholic, mocking “absurdities, such as antiquated pictures of the Virgin . . . together with elegant representations of incongruous miracles such as . . . the palpable conversion of the consecrated wafer into a shoulder of mutton performed by Gregory the Great,” even they were moved by “the charm of proportion and the effect of ornament” when they visited St. Peter’s in Rome. They admired “the innumerable monuments of art with which the Church abounds in painting and sculpture,” listing works by Raphael, Michelangelo, Canova, and other old masters. At another Roman church, San Luigi de Francise, they were awed by “figures of justice and charity . . . sublimely beautiful. . . . the colours of these charming frescoes seem endowed with indelible vividity.”
By the mid-nineteenth century, as art galleries and traveling exhibitions became more common in American cities, Friends apparently patronized them without fear of censure from their meetings. William Eyre’s standing as an elder of the Cherry Street Meeting in Philadelphia did not stop him from going to the Academy of Fine Arts in January 1849 and spending “an hour or two viewing the various paintings and statuary.” A year later, Sarah A. Dugdale, the daughter and granddaughter of recorded ministers in Ohio, on a visit to Philadelphia, “stopped at the Art Union and saw some splendid paintings of all descriptions, some landscapes that I should love to be the possessor of had good fallen into my lap.” It says something that Benjamin Hallowell, a schoolmaster and one of the weightiest Friends in Baltimore Yearly Meeting, had no qualms about taking his students to see a “panorama of Mammoth Cave and Niagara Falls” In 1849. One of them wrote that: “I sat by Benjamin; he told me he would walk 20 miles to see it; and had no idea that scenes could be represented so accurately.”
Friends did have their limits, and they invariably drew the line at anything that might be of an “immoral tendency.” When Mary Williams was in Boston in 1846 and saw Hiram Powers’s sculpture, “The Greek Slave,” a female nude, she judged it “a fine piece of art but I think not one to be exhibited in public.” In 1882, when the Orthodox Philadelphia Yearly Meeting issued an “Address on Some Growing Evils of the Day, Especially Demoralizing Literature and Art,” it did not condemn art out of hand. But in the arts it saw far too much “in keeping with modes of life and a code of morals utterly at variance with the pure teachings of the gospel . . . forgetting that no cover of artistic excellence or stamp of classical reputation counts for anything in the Divine sight as an excuse for that which prompts unholy thoughts.” It singled out the growing tendency to ornament public buildings with “undraped figures.” In 1891, the Philadelphia Friend, a journal whose theological outlook mirrored Marcus Mote’s, praised a group of Philadelphia women who protested against the exhibition of nudes at the Academy of Fine Arts. The editors concluded that “all pure minded people” would “rigorously” avoid such exhibitions.
By the last years of Marcus Mote’s life in the 1890s, Friends were, with a few exceptions, comfortable with visual art as a part of their lives. As one Friend wrote in 1891, “In our homes we delight to surround ourselves with the beautiful things of art, the creations of the skill and handicraft of the artisan.” Indeed, Swarthmore College professor Jesse H. Holmes, definitely not a Quaker traditionalist, complained in 1894 that too many Friends “now devote their time to becoming second or third rate artists and musicians.” The Philadelphia Friends’ Intelligencer summed up the stance of most Friends well in 1897. Friends “have ceased to regard the Fine Arts as tabooed by a virtuous rule,” it concluded. But there were limits. “Art devoid of an ethical quality has no right in a public gallery, or anywhere outside a museum collection. Art which accompanies and supports the merely animal in humanity has no claim to favor.” Ultimately, the value of art was an aid to good living: “Art . . . is beautiful when it is good, when it serves the good purpose. Art that offends ethics is rotten at the core.”