An artist who Disappeared from history
As with many readers, occasionally a book will weave a spell on the imagination or reveal a world long obscured and forgotten. Those who grew up with Harry Potter or Tolkien understand the power of words to birth new worlds but this power lies in the realm of non-fiction as well. One such book is entitled, "The Devil in the White City, Murder, Magic & Madness at the Fair that Changed America" by Erik Larson. Published in 2002, Larson’s tells the story of America’s first serial killer against the backdrop of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, IL. In 1893.
The Columbian Exposition was the second World’s Fair hosted by the United States and occupied the nearly 700 acres of Chicago’s Washington and Jackson Parks. The Exposition became known as "The White City" from the white stonework and plaster of the buildings that reflected sunlight during the day and at night was bathed in the new electric lights powered by machines that sprung from the inventive mind of Nicholas Telsa. Opening on May 1, 1893 and closing six months later, this Fair attracted over 21 million visitors accounting for between 5 and 10 percent of the total population of the U.S.
There is a certain fascination with this period of history. The popularity of the late Victorian or early Edwardian period, (think 1885-1914), is evidenced by appeal of shows like Downtown Abbey, characters like Sherlock Holmes or icons such as Edison and Tesla. For all the negative of this time, few rights for women or minorities and the continued oppression of Native populations, there is a sense that this was a Golden Age of discovery and change before the curtain fell with the advent of the First World War.
So how influential was the 1893 Fair? Some of the influence would not be noticed until years later such as the demonstration of using alternating current, (AC) for lighting and power of the mammoth buildings on site. In 1892 the Westinghouse Corporation won the contract for powering the Fair against Edison’s General Electric Company who were the strongest supporters of utilizing direct current, (DC) instead. By the end of the Exposition, Westinghouse’s success allowed them to win the bid for work on the new hydroelectric project at Niagara Falls undertaken shortly after the Fair’s end. Another first dominated the site and became a symbol of the Exposition. To compete with the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower at the previous World’s Fair held in Paris, an engineer named Ferris completed the construction of an immense iron wheel for visitors to ride upon, an invention forever after known as the Ferris Wheel. Towering 264 feet above the nearby midway, the Ferris Wheel spun slowly as incredible figures of history walked beneath its shadow. President Grover Cleveland, author Mark Twain, inventors Edison and Tesla mingled with artists like Daniel Chester French whose sculpture at the Fair entitled "Republic" would later earn him the privilege of sculpting the seated Lincoln in the memorial on the Washington Mall. Admirers of the landscaping would be looking at the creative genius of Frederick Olmsted, the architect behind New York’s Central Park and the Greek/Roman Revival style of the buildings themselves would influence countless public buildings for generations to come.
One of the more unique aspects of the Columbian Exposition was the completion of a building to showcase the contributions and abilities of women. Simply called the Woman’s Building, the structure was to become the second smallest building in the White City encompassing a mere 2 acres of space. Built from a plan submitted by a female architect named Sophia Hayden and filled with both art and commerce created by women, the building became a focal point for those seeking equal rights in the years before women were allowed the right to vote. In keeping with the desire for the building to showcase the abilities of women, competitions were held for the decorative art to adorn the interior and exterior of the building. One of these competitions was announced on August 20, 1891 and read, in part, as follows:
The Board of lady Managers of the World’s Columbian Exposition invite designs for the sculpture work on the Woman’s Building and offer a public competition, open to female sculptors, under the following conditions:
Designs to be submitted in the form of miniature models or by original drawings in pencil, ink or water-color, accompanied by a typewritten description of the principal features of the design.
First, One group of figures in high relief, to fill the pediment over the main entrance.
Second, The group of statuary
standing free above the attic cornice, Three groups consist of a central
winged figure standing about ten feet high to the tips of the wings, and
supported by smaller sitting figures.
One artist to respond to this competition was a young sculptress from California named Alice Louise Rideout.
The competition was surprisingly fierce with numerous entries from especially younger women who were making names for themselves in the burgeoning U. S. art world. On November 15, 1891, Jean Loughborough gathered the entries and took them to Charles Atwood at his office in the Construction Department for the upcoming Fair. There were seventeen entries total with almost every artist championed by one or more of the directors working on the Women’s Building.
Among the artists submitting works was Kühne Beveridge, who submitted a design of Goddesses sitting on a globe. Only seventeen, she would later go on to study with Rodin in Paris and receive an award for her work in the Paris Exposition of 1900. Another artist was Nellie Mears, who provided a model of woman with a winged eagle, a work that would later become a statue in the Wisconsin Building of the Chicago Fair and later be displayed in the Wisconsin State Capitol. Nellie’s nine-foot statue of temperance leader Frances Willard is the only sculpture of a woman by a woman in the Hall of Statuary in the nation’s capital. Enid Yandell also put forward a submission. Like Nellie Mears, Enid would later travel to Paris to study with Rodin and Frederick William MacMonnies, maintaining a studio there for a number of years.
Alice sent groups of models as a part of her submission that were to illustrate the self-sacrifice and intelligence of women. Only nineteen, Alice had powerful allies on her side including the U. S. Senator from California who wrote the following,
Will you kindly permit me to call your special attention to the three groups of "plaster models"executed and sent to the World’s Fair Commissioners for inspection by Miss Alice Rideout. Miss Rideout’s high character and genius have won for her many friends in California who have taken a special interest in the matter...
Three judges examined the works, Daniel Burnham, architect of Union Station and the famous Flatiron Building in New York, William Pretyman, a renowned British artist and designer, and F. M. Whitehouse, a Chicago art dealer and critic. After two weeks of consideration they announced their decision on December 4th with Alice Rideout’s work being selected, saying that her work was "far in advance of the remainder of those who submitted models."
Jean Loughborough and Enid Yandell along with a friend named Laura Hayes shared a room during the Chicago Fair's six month run. Their experiences formed the basis for a popular book from the time called "Three Girls in a Flat". You can listen to or download an audio recording of the book on LibriVox here or download a copy to read in PDF, EPUB or MOBI formats, (EPUB for Nooks, MOBI for Kindles).
To tell the story of Alice Rideout's life prior to winning the competition I will draw on an incredible book about the women involved in the Chicago World’s Fair. The book is titled, "The Fair Women, The Story of the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893" by Jeanne Madeline Weimann. Published back in 1981, it remains one of the best books on the subject and I would encourage anyone to read it. Here is what she relates about Alice and the days following the close of the competition;
Alice Rideout had been born in Marysville California, where she began in ealy childhood to dream of sculpting. Her Little friends made fun of her for "dabbling in the mud" and so Alice turned to woodcarving. She made a railway train out of old cotton spools that was the talk of the Broadway Grammar School. When she moved to San Francisco to attend high school, presumbably when she became Mr. Quinn's ward, her art teacher recommended her to the sculptor Rupert Schmid. It was arranged that she go to his studio in San Francisco to discuss becoming his pupil. Being a carefree teenager, and apparently disliking going anywhere by herself, Alice took her dog along. When she arrived at the studio, Mr. Schmid was not there. The dog became playful, and knocked over one of Mr. Schmid’s statues, smashing it to bits. Alice, never without hope, began to try to piece it together. Mr. Schmid entered his studio, and observing her deft movements, becme convinced of her sculptural abilities. He took her on as a pupil. There is no record of what happened to the dog.
She worked at Mr. Schmid’s studio every afternoon, spending her mornings at the high school and, after six months, at the San Francisco School of Design. By the time she entered the Board’s competition she had been studying sculpture for two years and was engaged on a bust of President Benjamin Harrison, doubtless through her political connections the President knew of the bust and was said to be quite pleased with it.
Miss Rideout was notified of her victory around the second week of December. The American Architect commented on it with satisfaction:
The New York Sun appears to be surprised that anything by a woman artist should have been good enough; but the female artists who try to gain appreciation by their brains and hands, and not by their curls, need not now fear to enter into competition with painters and sculptors of the other sex.
This was gratifying. There was however a snag in the arrangements which becme apparent almost immediately. On December 12, Mrs. Palmer wrote to John Quinn, in response to an inquiry from him about whether it was necessary for Alice to go to Chicago. The competition circular further had not said specifically that the work must be executed at the Fair, but it certainly had implied that. Mrs. Palmer wrote diplomatically that she would find out whether Miss Rideout's presence was neccesary. On January 6, 1892, Mrs. Palmer forwarded the following letter from Daniel Burnham to Miss Rideout:
Owing to the lmited time in which our work at Jackson Park must now be completed, it is of the utmost importance that the enlargement of our models should be commenced at once. I have conferred with Mrs. Palmer and it has been ageed that I write asking that you come to Chicago prepared for the execution of the work, at the very earliest day that it is convenient for you to do so. Will you kindly advise me when we may expect you.
Mrs. Palmer enclosed a note with letter saing she wished to impress on the young woman the importance which Mr. Burnham attached to her presence. Mrs. Palmer made it clear that she agreed with the Chief of Construction:
We feel that the work should be begun immediatly upon the large models in order that you may not be too much hurried in carrying your ideas to the artistic completion they merit.
A letter from Alice Rideout crossed in the mail. She was working on the bust of President Bejamin Harrison and was reluctant to leave San Francisco. Burnham wrote her again on January 14:
I wrote you sometime since, endeavoring to impress upon you the urgent necessity for your coming to Chicago at once for the execution of your work. I cannot request too strongly, that you make arrangements to be here at the earliest possible moment, at which time we will take up further, the questions contained in your last letter, January 8th.
This second request did not budge Miss Rideout, who was uncertain about travelling alone all the way to Chicago, and about what would happen to her when she got there. She wanted to know if she could do the sculpture in San Francisco. Burnham, in the midst of coping with the manifold problems of construction, took time out to write her a longer and more thoughtful letter.
We have yours of the 28th ultimo and do not see how you can possibly execute the work in question in San Francisco. I will, however, write you further after some investigation which I desire to make. There has been some question as to whether the models sent us by you were entirely your own work and it is due yourself that you be perfectly frank with us in this matter in every respect, informing me fully as to this point. Please understand that I feel a great delicacy in addressing you on this subject and only do so because it is but fair and just to yourself that such an impression should be removed. It is also right and proper that you place me in a position to deny this rumor. These assertions have not been confined to yourself alone, but the same assertions have been circulated concerning other young women who were in this competition. If you will come on to Chicago in four or five weeks you will find the weather not only good, but delightful. We will give you a studio upon the grounds in Jackson Park situated in a delightful locality, where you will be among the other sculptors, and you will, I am sure, enjoy greatly being with them. So many changes and adaptations must be made in your work before it can be exhibited that it does not seem at present possible for you to execute it in San Francisco in a manner satisfactory to Mrs. Palmer and others who have the right to criticize. I believe it would be better in every way for you to come here and surely your reputation can in no way suffer from your coming.
Even this kindly letter with its suggestion that Miss Rideout’s behavior was causing grave doubts to arise about her capabilities, did not get her out of California. She had her present work to get on with, and she was very nervous about her unchaperoned sojourn. On February 17, 1891, three months after the sculpture competition had closed, Burnham, whose patience was at times obviously inexhaustible, wrote Miss Rideout again:
I have yours of the 12th instant and realise now more fully than when last I wrote you the impossibility, at times, of making oneself understood. I myself, am an architect, trained all my life in art mat-ters and have, therefore, entire sympathy for your views; it will not, however, be possible for you to go on with your work in San Francisco. It is not that you are in any way doubted, for I know now that the work is yours and that you are entirely capable. This I have from San Francisco authorities, whose judgment I am compelled to respect. The designing will require modification and when you come here and look over the building, your ideas will change so materially that you will see and feel it is to your interest, first of all, to adapt the final work to the building and its surroundings. The Woman's building is up so that it can be seen and you can form very clear ideas about your work. As I wrote you before, we will surround you with the most pleasant conditions possible and you will have the active sympathy of many noble sculptors who are at work upon their buildings. I wish to make your work successful and will do anything in my power to help you. I hope you will now feel, therefore, that it is better to trust my judgment than your own, not only for yourself, but for the work here. I have in San Francisco two friends versed in art matters, both of whom are quite near and dear to me. To them you should go and inquire as to the treatment you will receive here. I make this suggestion because you are young and a woman and have been so little absent from your home.
He then gave her the names of two men, one of whom was a minister. Even after this, however, Miss Rideout remained in San Francisco. Mr Burnham had now tried his all. Finally, on March 28, Mrs. Palmer wrote a crisp letter, referring again to doubts about Miss Rideout’s actual talents, which Mr Burnham had assured the young woman, on February 17, had been laid to rest.
Mr Burnham and I both realize that you feel timid about leaving your master, but both feel that it is essential that you should cut loose from him, more particularly as numerous letters have been received making intimations that you owe a great deal to his work on the sketch models. We feel that it is only justice to you that you should come here and do your work, and that the suggestions you will get from these gifted men now working in Chicago, will be far more valuable to you than any you may receive from your master, as these men are all more or less known to fame. You can understand that neither Mr Burnham nor the Board of Lady Managers can take the chance of your finishing something in California which might not be acceptable. If you were working here where it could be seen from day to day, any little changes that seem necessary could be suggested. I realise your timidity but urge you strongly to come and sign your contracts.
At about the same time Mrs Palmer wrote a letter to Mrs Reed of Maryland, who was a member of the Board's Art Committee, that made it clear that everyone's patience with Alice was at an end.
... our intercourse with Miss Rideout is not satisfactory. She wishes to remain in San Francisco under the influence of her instructor and [Mr Burnham] wants her in Chicago. It may be the contract will not be given to her.
Mrs. Palmer apparently achieved what Mr Burnham could not. Three weeks after this letter, Alice Rideout arrived in Chicago and signed her contract for $8,200. On April 17, 1892 she took her models to the Jackson Park studio. She told the press that to carry out her work "to the highest degree of perfection with artistic finish from start to finish from life models" would cost $2,500 for each group of figures and $3,200 for the pediment.
She too was a "picturesque" worker. Isabel McDougall reported in Leslie’s Weekly that she was touched "by the sight of a slight, dark-haired girl of nineteen, fresh from the San Francisco School of Art, working away, employing of necessity men for the heavier parts, but going over every detail herself." (the accompanying picture is of Alice in the studio at Jackson Park) The central winged figures were finally nearly twelve feet high. Her eventual work, the pediment of the building, depicted, as Maud Howe Elliott said, "woman's work in the various walks of life." Her winged groups, Mrs. Elliott says, were "in delightful contrast to the familiar and hackneyed types that serve to represent Virtue, Sacrifice, Charity and the other qualities which sculptors have personified, time out of mind, by large, heavy, dull-looking stone women." Mrs. Elliott comments also that the Fair sculpture in general deserved a more lasting form than it had at the Fair. Indeed, it took Miss Rideout longer to come to the Fair than it did to execute her sculpture, and it is a tribute to the patience of the Chief of Construction and the determination of the President of the Board of Lady Managers, that she ever executed it at all. The San Francisco Call reflected the pride of her city in the young sculptor:
Miss Rideout is very girlish and
unassuming. Perhaps her unconsciousness of her own ability is one of her
greatest charms. There is no doubt as to her possessing this ability ... Her
energy, combined with her youth, which leaves her so many years in which to
study her work, will no doubt make this name a great one before another
twenty years have passed over her head.
But Alice Rideout disappeared from history after the Fair.
ends Ms. Weimann’s story of Alice Rideout and the beginning of mine.