A Celebration of Women Writers

"Life of Artists." by Miss Katherine M. Cohen (1859-1914).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 428-431.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 428] 



Having been an art student for some years, and with the sincere hope of continuing to be one all my life, perhaps a few words about them and the life they lead may be of interest to you.

We know they are generally considered as "Bohemian," and their changeableness and apparent evasion of what are called " the real responsibilities of life" must certainly be very trying to orthodox minds who are bewildered at the sixteen different moods they may be found in in the course of the day; but if you will think for a moment of the pictures you admire most, you will find that they are those which show the most thorough sympathy between the artist and the work he is doing. A work of art is best defined as "a corner of creation as seen through a temperament," and it will readily be seen that the more sensitive and easily impressed the temperament, the finer the work it will be able to do. In Paris, to be an art student is to have but one aim and one purpose–to do good work and use your time to the best advantage; to have even your washerwoman and concierge or door keeper take the profoundest interest in the fate of your salon picture or statue; to have no hesitation in wearing your clothes of the year before last until there is not a shred of them left, so that you may have money to pay your model for posing or buy old brasses and draperies for "still life" studies; to go to concerts where you are inspired by the finest of music, in seats which would here be known as the "peanut gallery" and which cost a mere song, and yet to be judged and received among people according to the value of the work you are doing, even if your shoe-buttons are pinned on (as I have known them to be). Each artist in Paris has, as a rule, a day to receive his or her friends, but, except in rare cases, this is done in the most informal manner; your acquaintances dropping in after their day's work and taking their cup of Russian tea with a real satisfaction often left out of more elaborate entertainments. I have been at feasts where ice-cream was partaken of in modeling tools, in lieu of spoons, the members of which feasts are now making a name and fame for themselves in the world. You may have to walk long distances to save expense and live by the light of one candle, but you will be pretty sure to have a piano upon which you and your musical friends will have weekly feasts, and to which you will often find a flute, guitar, violin or beautiful voice added, and where future prima-donnas and soloists will give you of their best in the grateful certainty of having their efforts understood and appreciated. [Page 429] 

You will rise at half-past six on Monday morning, and breakfast at seven, so that you may be at the great school belonging to Julian or Colarossi or Delacluse before eight, and so get your choice of a seat for the week, late comers having to take what is left. At twelve, having worked four hours from the living model, you will go to a queer little restaurant, the outside of which gives you a shudder, but which serves you a fairly good meal, and where you meet the other students. You will spend the afternoon either in painting or modeling in your own studio or in going to the Louvre or Luxembourg galleries; or, if it is spring, at the salons, and you can either take your work to a great artist and get his criticism upon it, or, if it is sculpture, he will come to your little studio, and glorify it with his presence, and say enough in ten minutes to make you wish you had ten pairs of hands and five heads, as one set is not nearly enough for you. In the summer you will go with other students into Brittany or Holland, or where you will, and study outdoors–by the sea or in the country–and have wonderful adventures. You will return to the city in the fall, full of new enthusiasm, and feeling more than ever the value of continual study from the fine living models, who pose so much better than the peasants and country people, who do not see why you can not take their pictures in three seconds, as if you were a Kodac. Let us go into some of the studios of last winter and see some of their workings. You are all familiar with the MacMonnies Fountain in front of the Administration Building, * and as I had the pleasure of watching its progress during several stages of the work, a few words in regard to it may not be amiss.

The sculptor, though still a young man, has worked very hard for years. When he received the commission of this fountain, he expressed his first idea with regard to its general arrangement by making a tiny sketch model in clay. This was followed by clay figures made carefully from life, and sometimes under difficulties; for instance, the model who was posing swayed constantly out of the proper position, being too indolent or careless to remain in it. The sculptor calmly went to work and made a wonderful trapeze arrangement of ropes, so that arms and legs were held in position, and where that was not sufficient, added a sharp point or two near the knee and elbow, to give a warning prick, and remind the sitter of his or her duty to keep still.

You doubtless all know that the fine decorations on the north end of the interior of this Woman's Building that we are in was made by Mrs. MacMonnies, the wife of the sculptor. I also saw this when its author was working upon it from a scaffold so high over my head that I did not at first know she was in the great studio.

Their studios are a constant resort of artists and students of all sorts, as they are young and sympathetic and remember their own student days and the immense benefit that such meeting-grounds are to artistic natures. A little way off is a street called "the street of the mill of butter," and through a little iron grating we enter a court and ring a bell. The answer to it is a door opening and a figure appearing with hands covered with clay. It is that of Douglas Tilden, the deaf and dumb sculptor from California, an excellent artist as you may easily see by his works: "The Base-Ball Man" and "Indian Bear hunt " in the Fine Arts Building. We conversed with him in writing and we look with interest on his statue at which he is now working. It is called "A Wounded Foot-Ball Player," and is a group of three figures full of life and expression. His little den upstairs, furnished as a sitting-room, is strewn with manuscript, and we learned that it is a magazine story. Another sculptor that I met in Paris is Miss Matthews, who has only one arm, and yet, who has managed to do better work than some of the fraternity who have all their members. I think such instances should convince all Philistines that artists, if they be truly such, may be bereft of almost anything except their heads and yet succeed in their work, for the spirit of a true artist can never be wholly suppressed.

For many years, the only way by which artists met each other was at their own studios, but now there are two clubs of American students, one for men and one for women, the latter growing out of the work of Mr. and Mrs. Newell who established it. It has [Page 430]  been greatly helped by Mrs. Whitelaw Reid, who is still continuing her interest in it. There is a reading-room and a piano, French classes and afternoon tea, a good light and fire, all immensely appreciated by many students who cheerfully do without such luxuries in their own rooms that they may have money to pay for their instruction.

The men's club gives a reception to its members and their lady friends once a month, and the walls are hung with their latest and best studies and sketches. There is music, and often dancing, and once there was a most interesting fancy dress ball, where the costumes were very artistic and where a picture frame was filled in turn by different sets of characters, making them long to produce them instantly in color. All through the spring, the one idea of the many thousand art students of Paris is the "Salon"–what they shall send and whether it will be accepted. The excitement begins toward the end of March, when all the painting in oil, water-color, enamels, porcelains and miniatures must be sent in to the great palace in the Champs d' Elysèe, each artist being allowed to send two works only. The sculptors are allowed until April 3, as their work takes longer than the painting. From that time your soul knows no peace until one of the two things happen–either you receive an envelope containing a slip of green paper which causes your heart to stand still and your spirit to descend into your boots, or else you hear nothing at all for weeks, and are in a condition of nervous excitement, and at last, perhaps two days before the varnishing day, May 1, there comes a knock at your studio door and an angel, in the form of a boy in uniform, appears with a square white envelope and a white slip of paper, saying that you are accepted, upon which you tip the boy magnificently to the amount of three cents (a larger tip would cause him to tell everyone that you had suddenly lost your senses), and can settle to nothing for the rest of the day because you are too happy and you know that the friends at home will be so proud and glad to hear of it.

On varnishing day you have the privilege, as an exhibitor, of taking in two friends–one before 12 o'clock, the other after. The average attendance, if the day is fine, is about forty thousand.

You see all the great artists and the originals of the portraits on the walls, very often walking about together; the costumes are often very beautiful, and the artist who has painted a fine picture is the hero of the hour.

When we arrive at the point that American art is better than anything we can get in Europe, then we shall stay at home to study, just as the French have done. They used to think that an artist's education could only be completed in Rome. When their own great masters arose they were only too glad to stay at home and study with them. We can all of us help the quick realization of this, if we encourage our boys and girls to cultivate their artistic tastes instead of scoffing at them as impractical and never likely to make them rich.

It is time that the rich man should cease to look upon the artist as a "poor devil" who can not earn an honest living, and bewail the fact, as I heard a man bewail it, that when he wanted a fine picture of his pet cow, that "the picture cost as much as the cow." It is well to think of the answer of Meissonier, the great French painter, in answer to a rich man who said: "But you want a large sum for the little album sketch, and it only took you five minutes." "True," said Meissonier, "but it took me forty years to learn how to do it in five minutes."

An artist's chief grief is that life is too short for him to accomplish what he wants to do even in his own special line of work, and this is equally true of woman, for talent knows no sex. There is another important consideration, and that is the lack here of studios with living rooms attached, at moderate rents. An artist comes back here from Paris with very little ready money, for he has his way still to make. He has had there a studio with a fine light and all necessary fittings, which he has been able to hire for three months at a time, at a very moderate rent, say fifty dollars for the three months; for six months, then, at an expense of one hundred dollars, he has kept his studio in town, with his sleeping and living room adjoining, as he wanted to work outdoors in the country the other six months. [Page 431] 

What does he find when he comes here, say in New York or Boston, or Philadelphia or San Francisco, or Chicago? He must take his studio by the year, and it costs a small fortune at that, and there are scarcely any living rooms, except in a very few instances.

We hope that some one will recognize this need of the coming artists, and put up studio buildings with small apartments or living rooms attached, and let them at a moderate rent.

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Miss Katherine M. Cohen was born March 18, 1859, in Philadelphia, Pa., of English ancestry. Henry Cohen of London and Matilda Samuel Cohen of Liverpool were her parents. She was educated by Ann Dickson of Scotland, at Chestnut Street Seminary; her art education was received at "Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts," Philadelphia, and "New York Art Students League," and in Paris. She has traveled through Europe. Her special work includes sculpture and painting in water-colors, her principal productions being bas-relief portraits, water-color busts, landscapes and figures. By profession she is an artist and her productions have been exhibited at art displays in New York, Philadelphia, the studios and salons of Paris, in the "Fine Arts Building" of Chicago, and at the World's Fair. In religions faith Miss Cohen is a Jewess. Her postoffice address is No. 2103 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pa.

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*Columbian Exposition.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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Celebration of Women Writers.
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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom