Historical Artists | Visual Arts

Flowers and Feuds: The Utah Arts Council’s Early Years, Part II

“Prayer” by George Henry Taggart

Though united in the creation and development of a state organization to promote the visual arts in Utah at the turn of the twentieth century, the artists in the state were not immune to the type of personal jealousies and aesthetic rivalries one would expect from a small and struggling creative community at a place where means were meager and at a time when modernism was disrupting traditional standards of taste. Beginning in 1902, these rivalries caused a series of factional struggles that were unleashed before the public, pitted the artists against each other in the courts and spurred legislative threats to the organization they had created.

THE MENZEL AFFAIR

Paul Menzel

The first signs of a problem in Utah’s art world were announced in the pages of the Salt Lake Herald on January 16, 1902: “The storm clouds of division and contention have cast their somber hues over the local art horizon, and from present indications a factional upheaval in the ranks of the local knights of the brush and palette is about to precipitate itself, if, in fact it has not already done so.” Troubles started the month at the Utah Art Institute’s third annual exhibition. Held at the Social Hall in Salt Lake, the exhibit had attracted a record 500 submissions, the increased quantity of entries likely prompted by the announcement of a prize for student work. About 200 paintings and 100 miscellaneous items were selected for the exhibit. The purchase prizes went to George Henry Taggart’s “Prayer” and H.L.A. Culmer’s watercolor “Cloundlands.” A new award, a bronze medal for the best work regardless of price or provenance, went to Edwin Evans’ “Harvest in France” of which Taggart said “no painter in the world could excel it, so perfect is the artist’s delineation of its subject.” The work of Paul Menzel, a German portrait painter recently relocated to Utah, also attracted a good deal of attention, not all of it positive.

An example of Paul Menzel’s miniatures.

Menzel’s collection of miniature portraits were rendered in such fine detail that members of the art community began whispering about the authenticity of the works, some declaring them to be retouched photographs rather than original paintings. The controversy came to the attention of the Herald when an “authoritative source” told the paper that these whisperings erupted into “radical differences of opinion” at a meeting of the Society of Utah Artists on January 15, 1902.

The publication of the article prompted Menzel, who hoped to continue receiving commissions from Utah’s wealthy patrons, to have his works examined by Taggart. Taggart, a French-trained artist who, for health reasons, had also recently located in Utah, was already esteemed as a portrait painter and was a member of the Art Institute’s governing board. In its follow-up article on January 17, the Herald reported that Taggart believed the works to be genuine. The paper then suggested two of the possible whisperers: Mary Teasdel and Alice Merrill Horne, both on the Institute’s board of governors. Teasdel, the paper noted, “is a local miniature painter of considerable note . . . and it was stated upon good authority that there was considerable friendly rivalry occasioned by Menzel’s and Miss Teasdel’s exhibition [at the Institute exhibit].” Horne and Teasdel both denied that they said the works were photographs (such a direct public accusation in a time famous for its libel suits would have been risky for either) but did say the works had the appearance of being photographic. Since the Art Institute only exhibited original works, Horne explained, the exhibition committee had asked Menzel if the works were genuine and when he replied in the affirmative had submitted them to the exhibit. In response to the Herald’s inquiries, Horne turned the matter from a question of authenticity to a question of aesthetics. “Menzel may work for the photographic effect,” said Mrs. Horne, “but that effect lacks the artistic, and as it is the artistic for which we work the pictures which present it must necessarily be considered the best.” A source, named only as “a well known artist” but likely Culmer, suggested more was at work than a matter of aesthetic differences: “Of course Menzel, being a stranger and coming here with such work as he does, would naturally arouse the jealousy of artists not so accomplished as his work would seem to show him to be, and this spirit may play a part in the present affair.”

In March, Menzel issue was laid to rest when examples of his miniatures were shown to experts in New York and declared authentic. Though the predicted storm had fizzled into a passing shower, it was the first barometric indication that the Institute was in for stormy weather.

TEXTBOOK TANGLE
In the spring of 1902, a few months after the Menzel incident, another dispute further highlighted factions in Utah’s art world. In 1898, after a four year struggle, Horne, Evans and Harwood had successfully defeated the teaching of the Augsburg system of drawing in the public schools. Four years later, members of the state school board were once again considering introducing a textbook on drawing in the public schools, and two Eastern publishing houses, one advocating the Augsburg system and the other the Prang, were canvassing the school authorities. A recommendation on the issue requested of The Art Institute was referred to its lectureship committee. Horne, herself a schoolteacher, had long campaigned against the idea of copying models from textbooks and championed the development of direct teaching of natural talents (a process, that would require the schools to employ the state’s artists as instructors). Before an official recommendation could be made by the Art Institute’s lectureship committee on the question of the textbooks, Horne’s opinions on the matter were published in the Herald, which also reported that Horne’s feelings were seconded by her fellow artists: “George Henry Taggart, Edwin Evans, Miss Teasdel, J.T. Harwood, H.L.A. Culmer and other well known local artists concur in Mrs. Horne’s views, and will bend their energies to keep text books on art out of the public schools.”

Not all artists agreed, however. That day, Culmer, President of the Intitute, wrote the Herald: “It seems to have been stated by Mrs. Horne that the artists are a unit in their concurrence with her views, and my name, among others, is used in support of them. To this I beg to object.” He continued by saying that “Mrs. Horne has repeatedly tried to get me to state my views on the subject” but that he had refused on the grounds that it would be inappropriate to speak before the lectureship committee had come to its decision. Culmer’s letter bristled with condescension, a fact not lost on Horne, who given the opportunity to write a reply before both letters were published the following day did so with vigor and invective. Citing her experience as a teacher in the matter and her prestige as founder of the Art Institute she replied with a generous dose of sarcasm: “As to my importuning Mr. Culmer so very many times for his opinion on systems, etc,., that is really quite ridiculous. While Mr. Culmer’s vote would be one in seven, his option might not be so important one way or the other. He would have no weight as an instructor in art nor teacher of drawing, and his experience in art work is somewhat limited compared to the other artists on the board.”

“Mother and Child” by Mary Teasdel

That Culmer was likely the unnamed source in the Menzel incident may help explain the caustic tone of these letters. Whether this epistolary interchange was the beginning of a mutual antipathy or merely the manifestation of an ongoing struggle, the unfriendly feelings between the two appears to have continued for years. Ultimately, the lectureship committee could not come to a consensus. The only thing they could decide on unanimously was that the Augsburg system was “pernicious and unfit for use in the public schools of the state.” Mary Teasdel, who was an instructor in the Salt Lake school system, voiced the opinion of the majority of the lectureship committee when she suggested that no system should be adopted. Culmer, though, came out publicly in favor of the Prang system, which was eventually adopted by the school authorities. Culmer’s promotion of the Prang system may have had nothing to do with it, but the following day the Institute’s governing board voted him out of his position as president. Mary Teasdel took his place, W.E. Ware became vice president, Edna Wells Sloan (who had been appointed by the governor when Elizabeth McCune resigned) the treasurer and Horne the secretary.

That fall the annual exhibition was held at the Brigham Young Academy in Provo. It appears that Culmer, who was usually exhibited a number of works in the annual exhibition, did not exhibit. Mary Teasdel, on the other hand, swept the purchase prizes, her “Mother and Child” winning the $300 prize for oil paintings and the $50 prize for watercolor going to her “Fairy Tales.” As had happened in 1900, the collection was supplemented by an additional purchase when the lifetime memberships of Mr. and Mrs. David Keith allowed the Institute to purchase Taggart’s “The Harvesters.”John Hafen’s “Forest Solitude,” depicting a small clearing in an evergreen forest, won the Medal of Honor.

 

Taggart’s “The Harvesters”

THE TEMPEST
The storms seemed to have dissipated during the 1902 exhibit, but they reappeared in violent force the next year. The announcement at the beginning of the year that the Art Institute’s annual exhibition would be held in the spring rather than the latter part of the year was just the first of a number of irregularities that would make that year a test for the young organization and reveal the faultlines beneath the surface cooperation of Utah’s art world.

When a newly built annex to the Latter-day Saints’ college was offered to the institute as an exhibition venue free of charge, the governing board decided to hold an exhibit there in March while the legislature was still in session. Weeks before the opening of the exhibition, Gov. Wells appointed new members to the board. Culmer, Horne and Teasdel each had a year left in their term. George Ottinger was appointed to take the vacancy created by J.T. Harwood’s departure to Paris the previous fall. W.E.Ware and Taggart, whose terms had expired, were replaced by Alan L. Lovey, an illustrator for the Herald, and S.T. Whitaker, a photographer from Ogden, both of whom were to serve for four years. These last three were chosen by the Institute to be the awarding committee for the upcoming exhibition.

Despite its being held in Salt Lake, the entries to that year’s exhibition were few. Only six months had passed since the previous exhibit, and a number of the bright lights of Utah painting were that year in Paris. The fourth annual exhibition opened on March 9 and halfway through its monthlong run the Herald returned to meteorological metaphors to describe the situation: “A storm cloud has appeared on the art horizon, and the indications are that there will be some cyclonic phenomena.” The awards committee, chaired by Ottinger, refused to award purchase prizes, claiming alternately that there were irregularities in the process of submissions, and that none of the works submitted merited being purchased by the state. Edwin Evans and John Fairbanks, the only two artists who had works in contention, objected and demanded the committee give the awards to one or the other.

The trouble was a matter both of process and personality. Barbs traded in the press as the dispute progressed revealed that no love was lost between what were apparently two factions in the local art world. One centered around the Paris-trained artists like Evans, Fairbanks and Teasdel, with Horne as their champion. The other faction had a less discernible unifying force, but consisted of many of the artists who had received the training more locally and were influenced by the American school of painting. Culmer was principal among these, but was joined by Ottinger, and likely Lovely. The animosities may not have been only between Culmer and Horne. Ottinger, who William Seifrit describes as a jealous man, was proud at having been one of the first to establish an art academy in Utah, but his influence had quickly waned, superseded by Harwood, as a private instructor, and Evans, whose position at the University since 1899 made hm increasingly influential. Evans was also a strong minded individual, of whom Horne said “he made strong friends and strong enemies.”

Whatever animosity existed was exacerbated by procedural questions. Most of the people in the state qualified to judge art were practicing artists themselves so it was inevitable that conflicts of interest should arise. The Institute’s bylaws attempted to protect against this — an artist submitting work for the purchase awards could not serve on the awards committee (which is probably why Whitaker and Lovey, who were not fine artists, were selected for the committee that year) — but as will be seen procedural kinks remained.

For the two prizes — $50 for a watercolor and $300 for an oil — the exhibition committee had only presented works by Evans and Fairbanks. Ottinger, though, claimed that two additional pictures, an oil by Willis A. Adams, and a watercolor by John Hafen, had been inappropriately omitted. He said he had been informed by members of the exhibition committee — Horne, Teasdel, Evans and Fairbanks — that the cards indicating the canvases were to be entered for the prize had been put on the back of the pictures and not seen by the committee.

Adams, a photographer by trade who had studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago, told the paper a slightly different story, intimating “that there was a scheme somewhere to let him out of the contest.” Adams had intended to enter his painting [title] for the $300 prize and had included the appropriate card. When he saw pictures much larger than his own marked for $300, he told Evans to change the price of his to $150 “supposing that the prize was awarded for merit and not according to the price of the picture.” Adams’ piece, however, was not entered for the prize. “I was told that the committee had not seen the entrance card on it. But Mr. Fairbanks of the committee told me that he read the card to the committee.” Because they were entering their own work, Evans and Fairbanks had no vote in the matter, leaving Horne and Teasdel to decide. “I am told that when I changed the price on my pictures the committee thought I did not want to enter for the prize.” What might have been considered a procedural snafu became an aesthetic battle, however. “Mrs. Horne told me afterward that she did not know I wanted to contest for the prize at all, but added that even had the committee known it the picture would not have been passed by them, because they did not consider it up to a standard that would entitle it to compete for the state prize.” Teasdel was also lukewarm about Adams’ piece, telling the Herald that “His art may be all right, but different people have different ideas about art, and I suppose they are entitled to stick by their opinions.”

Ottinger, offended that Adams’ work had been rejected on aesthetic terms, decided that if Adams piece wasn’t good enough for the prize neither were those by Fairbanks or Evans. President Teasdel became more animated when she heard this: “Well, there may be a question as to whether the committee is a competent judge of the value of a picture.” She then declined to comment further and said the matter should be referred to Attorney General M.A. Breeden, an opinion shared by Ottinger.

Breeden’s decision — that according to the organization’s bylaws an award must be given to one of the works that had been hung by the exhibition committee — did not settle the matter, however. Ottinger still refused to make an award. On April 7 a report in the Herlad unleashed a storm of aggression. The exhibition committee, it reported, had presented a letter to the Society of Utah Artists stating that the awards committee of the Institute were incompetent to judge the works. “There is one person [presumably Culmer] in the state whose purpose seems to be to create discord among the artists of Utah,” stated the letter. “The artists, however, do object to the action of the governing board in selecting as awarding judges persons who are not artists [Ottinger was by profession a fire chief] and are not qualified to perform the duties required in their positions.” Breeden’s opinion was submitted as were testimonials from other artists. Lorus Pratt, who had studied in Paris with Evans and Fairbanks, wrote a testimonial in their behalf, as did George Wesley Browning. Hafen had also studied in Paris with the artists and despite the fact that he was friends with Adams and according to Ottinger had had his own work unfairly dismissed, added his own testimonial, going so far as to say that the exhibition committee “ought to be mobbed out of town.”

The next day an angry Culmer, “boiling over with indignation” entered the fray. Contrary to what had been reported, he said, the letter from the exhibition committee had never been read at the meeting of the Society of Utah Artists, of which Culmer was the Secretary. “Those back of it wouldn’t have dared produced it in open meeting.” Instead the letter had been produced in what the Herald described as a “little holdover session, conducted on the quiet. And it was participated in, it is claimed, by a certain clique—namely the exhibition committee of the institute.”

“If these people are dissatisfied with the action of the judges and don’t think they are competent critics of art,” Culmer argued, “why didn’t they raise a voice when these men were nominated by the position? Instead, though, one of the signers of that statement seconded the nomination of Messrs. Lovey, Ottinger and Whitaker [presumably Horne] and every one of the them voted for the nominees.”

Since Ottinger continued to refuse to award the prize, Evans and Fairbanks threatened to sue, but Ottinger said they were bluffing. “I told them that the committee had been discharged, and if they expected to have the court recognize a suit they would have to sue the institute, which would necessitate bringing the action against the president, Miss Mary Teasel. This would of course be equivalent to whipping themselves around a stump and the idea didn’t seem to suit them.”

Ottinger rejoined that there was indeed “one man in the state who is striving to create discord among the artists. That is true, but that man [Evans] is among the ranks on their side. . . The awarding committee has the true interest of art at heart and we want to place it upon a plane where it will command respect and support from the people of the state.”

The summer passed without developments in the courts. Adams must have received some satisfaction when he won the $100 prize for best painting (Forest Brook) and the prize for best charcoal piece, at the State Fair in October. Whether to ease the lawsuit or because she was tired of the struggles, Teasdel resigned from the board and was replaced by L.A. Ramsey, recently returned from study in Europe. This change in personnel likely made possible what happened next. The governing board, with Ottinger as president, announced that a new annual exhibition would be held at the Commercial Club, of which Culmer was a member, beginning November 23. Judges would be named from each of the three major newspapers: The Deseret News, The Salt Lake Tribune and the Salt Lake Herald. The exhibition committee would exist of the governing board and the Institute reserved the right not to make an award if the “best picture exhibited is considered by the judges to be of insufficient worth.”

Evans and Fairbanks went to court to block the exhibition and force the Institute to give an award based on the March exhibit. The defendants, in the person of Ottinger, claimed the following. First they denied the authenticity of the annual exhibit, which they say was inappropriately convened. Secondly Evans and Fairbanks had no right to act as an exhibition committee since they themselves were submitting work. The exhibition committee had not admitted a third picture (by Adams), and had failed to make a report on the matter as requested by the awards committee. The defendants contended they had not made an award because not had authority to do so, and of the pictures that were submitted “none was worthy to receive the prize within the spirit or the letter of the act creating the art institute.” They concluded by arguing that the November exhibit was not a “second” exhibit because the first was not valid.

While the two factions fought in court, the second exhibition went on, minus, apparently, the Paris clique. The exhibitors thought worthy of mention by the Hearld were Ottinger, Adams, Mrs. Wegnick and Miss Edith McGuire. Two works by Culmer, “Shadows and Sunshine” and “The Grand Canyon of the Colorado” rose to the top in the judges minds and the latter was eventually chosen for the state prize.

Evans and Fairbanks’ case made its way through the courts until a decision dismissing the suit was made at the end of January 1904. The American faction seemed to have one the day and now controlled the Institute’s governing board. All did not turn out as well as it first seemed however. Culmer’s “The Grand Canyon of the Colorado” was exhibited at the St. Louise Fair that summer (Utah’s exhibit chaired by S.T. Whitaker) but eventually the controversy forced the state to return Culmer’s painting (which then found a home in the prestigious collection of Col. Holmes).

During the controversy, the Herald said, “Those interested in the Institute are hoping that the present difficulty will result in legislation that will clear up such points and prevent such difficulties in the future.” Legislation did arise, but rather than reforming the Institute it threatened to get rid of it altogether.

 

The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.

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