Mary Fairchild Low & Women Artists During WWI

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Like their male peers, women artists depicted the atrocities of World War I, which was characterized by muddy land battles and stifling trench warfare, from a diversity of vantage points. Several of these iconic works were commissioned from the women directly by the Imperial War Museum in London, where many of them are still located. The British artist Olive Mudie-Cooke (1890-1925), for example, chose to recreate an intimate scene in her painting In an Ambulance (c. 1916), where a volunteer field nurse lights a cigarette for a wounded soldier [fig. 1]. In still a more unusual example, Anna Airy (1882-1964) captures a munitions factory in Glasgow run by women in her painting Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells of 1918 [fig. 2].

Across the pond, American artist Mary Fairchild Low (1858–1946) chose to focus on the Hudson River rather than the troops for her history painting of WWI, which she dated “January 20, 1919” [fig. 3]. A subtly historic moment, the painting captures the momentum after the 1916 passing of the Big Navy Act to grow the U.S. Navy, which President Woodrow Wilson claimed “ought to be incomparably the greatest […] in the world.”[1] While the U.S. had entered WWI belatedly, the ship building program was a forceful response visible in harbors throughout the eastern seaboard. By 1922 the U.S. Navy, if its progress hadn’t been curbed by the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22, would have surpassed the British Royal Navy in fortitude.

Significantly, Low’s painting of the Hudson River is dated after the “official” end of WWI, initiated by the Armistice of November 11 in 1918. Also framing Low’s eerily peaceful seascape, lit by a beatified yellow light, were the prolonged negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference and the persistent presence of American destroyers in the North Sea well into 1919. The red flags marking the hulls of several of the ships in Low’s painting index the literal “red flags” that appeared throughout the process towards peace as the Germans resisted President Wilson’s Fourteen Points Plan and its call for the withdrawal of German troops.

Low, who grew up in St. Louis, Missouri – a strategic location for the Union army during the Civil War due to its location on the Mississippi – may have had an affinity for historic American harbors.[2] In 1919, Low’s mind was clearly focused on the situation in Europe and its implications for American foreign policy. The weight of her war-themed portrayal of the American Fleet docked in the Hudson River, which was also memorialized on postcards, is delicately communicated through her characteristic impressionist style.[3] By 1924, however, Low had shed these dark undertones to return to the light and airy aspects of Impressionism, as seen in her painting of a picturesque day by the water in Children’s Regatta at Bronxville Lake [fig. 4].

Lizzie Frasco

[1] Woodrow Wilson, speech in St. Louis, February 3, 1916, in Arthur S. Link, David W. Hirst, John E. Little, et al., eds., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Princeton, NJ: 1966), vol. 36, p. 120.

[2] Low’s mentor at the School of Fine Arts in St. Louis, Halsey C. Ives, created a scholarship for her that sent her to Paris in 1885 to study at the Académie Julian with Auguste Carolus-Duran, who had taught John Singer Sargent.

[3] After living in Paris with her husband, sculptor Frederick MacMonnies, beginning 1885, a period during which she lived in Giverny, France not far from Claude Monet, Low divorced MacMonnies in 1908 and moved back to the U.S. with her new husband, muralist Will Low (1853–1932). After a decade of living as an expatriate in the Impressionist community in France, Low spent the rest of her career in an artist’s colony in Bronxville, New York.

Fig. 1 – Olive Mudie-Cooke, In an Ambulance, c. 1916, oil on canvas, Imperial War Museum, London.

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Fig. 2 – Anna Airy, Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells: Singer Manufacturing Company, Clydebank, Glasgow, 1918, oil on canvas, Imperial War Museum, London.

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Fig. 3 – Mary Fairchild Low, Ships in the Hudson River, January 20th, 1919, 1919, oil on canvas, Hawthorne Fine Art, New York City.

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Fig. 4 – Mary Fairchild Low, Children’s Regatta at Bronxville Lake, 1924, oil on board, Bronxville Historical Conservancy, Bronxville, NY.

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