From Sargent's studio to `her father's museum' to her own art
When Katharine Lane Weems was feted at the Boston Athenaeum the other day, we thought of rhinoceroses, elephants, dolphins -- sculptures that have long adorned our Boston and Cambridge scene. How the heiress became the sculptor is described in her recently published memoir, ``Odds Were Against Me,'' as told to Edward Weeks, who long edited the Atlantic Monthly within 10 or 12 blocks from this office. Here, in an essay for The Home Forum, Mr. Weeks tells of events leading up to those rhinos. IN the years leading up to World War I, the odds were against any woman sculptor. In the United States, two had overcome them: Malvina Hoffman and the versatile Anna Hyatt, as well known for her sculpture of animals as for her Joan of Arc, for which she had been decorated by the French government. And in Boston was a much younger aspirant, Katharine Lane, who would be ever grateful for the encouragement she was to receive from those two talented seniors.
She had many advantages. Her father, Gardiner Lane, one of the most creative partners in Lee, Higginson, the financiers, had made a fortune. For seven decisive years he had presided over the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and it was his initiative which moved the collection from crowded quarters in Copley Square to the new spacious building in the Fenway. When father and daughter spent Sunday afternoons at the museum and he attended to his correspondence, ``Kay,'' beginning at 10, had the run of the place. While her father busied himself with museum affairs, Kay was drawn to the Asiatic collection with its enormous Buddhas, her favorite being the romantic Kwan Yin.
Mr. Lane decided to commission John Singer Sargent to do a mural for the rotunda of the museum and in June 1914 went to London to discuss the project with the artist. Katharine accompanied him and sat listening to the conversation that took place in Sargent's studio, and her attention was such that the artist found himself appealing for her understanding as well as her father's.
``Wasn't that the first time you were ever in an artist's studio?'' her father asked as they departed.
``Well, I want to give you a present so you will remember it.''
What she asked for was a plaster cast skeleton of a horse, showing its muscles, which she had just seen in the window of a London art shop, and it was shipped to Boston.
What effect such exposure would have on Katharine her father would never know, as he died that autumn when she was only 16. But he had already made a significant demand -- that she keep a diary -- and as a start gave her a chunky, leather-bound volume with the date, lock, and key. It takes time for anyone to learn to commit herself on paper openly and succinctly at day's end. Kay's diaries now cover more than a half century, forming a chronicle to be placed in the Archives of American Art. Without them her book, ``Odds Were Against Me,'' would not be the vital, dedicated memoir that it is.
As a means of solace, Mrs. Lane suggested that Kay take drawing lessons at ``her father's museum.'' It was a good lead, for after the tedium of making charcoal drawings of plaster-cast Greek statues, she was admitted to the Museum School. Mr. Lane, in his last year, had commissioned a sculptor, Richard Recchia, to produce a bronze statue of Pan with his cymbals, and when the artist presented his statue to Mrs. Lane, he also brought with him a box of modeling clay for Katharine. By coincidence it was just the push she needed, and that autumn Kay entered the class in sculpture at the Museum School. She had never done any modeling and knew nothing of anatomy, but she was eager, quick to enjoy working from live models posing in the nude, and able to absorb criticism.
The most caustic of her teachers was Charles Grafly of the Philadelphia Academy of Art, who came up to Boston once a fortnight to criticize the work of the students at the Museum School. Grafly was generally regarded as the best teacher of sculpture in the country -- and the most severe. The good-natured Katharine rolled with his punches, but she recognized the accuracy of his comments and as she concentrated on animals Grafly spent more and more time at her stand.
At the outset she went regularly to the Boston Museum School and through the summer worked in her barn studio in Manchester, north of Boston, modeling bas-reliefs of her friends and animals which increasingly appealed, such as the frisky little kid that she spotted when she was passing through Revere and bought to model. In New York, she visited the studio shared by Anna Hyatt and Brenda Putnam, and when they invited her to bring her things and work along with them she received invaluable professional advice. In the spring she went up to the Bronx Zoo with Anna and received permission to work in an area roped off between the cages and the spectators. Her first subject was the massive rhino, ``Victoria,'' and if she became careless, Vicky would thrust her head through the bars and grab Kay's smock.