An intimate look at the life and struggles of a young artist
Endure: The Diaries of Charles Walter Stetson, edited by Mary Armfield Hill. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 373 pp. $34.95. Charles Walter Stetson was an American painter of the late 19th century who became noted as a strong colorist. His diary chronicles the life of a struggling young artist for whom money was a persistent problem, compounded by the burden of caring for aging and poor parents. The title of the book derives from Stetson's unflagging persistence in the pursuit of his goal of becoming a fine painter.
That would seem to be enough challenge for one lifetime, but Stetson had the misfortune of falling in love with Charlotte Perkins.
No two people could have been more poorly matched. Stetson, because of his financially deprived background, clung to the conservative Victorian dogma that a woman's God-given place was at the hearth caring for her family. Perkins was later to become a leading theorist of the feminist movement.
The diary has two main threads running through it: his monumental struggle to maintain and develop a creative way of life as a painter, and the excruciatingly difficult relationship between Charlotte and himself. The account covers the seven years of their courtship and marriage, which ended in divorce.
The book is amazingly timely. Charlotte, swinging between ecstatic joy in her love for Charles and depression at the potential loss of identity and career, ultimately could not survive within Stetson's narrow Victorian ethos.
The painter is a sensitive and insightful writer and depicts the conflict in an intimate way, pulling the reader right into the vortex of the turbulent romance. One is at once fascinated at his honesty and repelled at the pain that both of these good people suffer at each other's hands.
One other facet of the book is also extremely interesting. Rarely have we had such a clear personal depiction of what one goes through to become an artist in a society not overly appreciative of the arts. Stetson tells us of his struggles with his craft, his battles with poverty, his dealings with fellow artists, models, and patrons. It is a world we don't often come across in such vivid, intimate terms.
Charles and Charlotte went on to remarry and fulfill their destinies with others. Stetson married Charlotte's best friend, a totally supportive woman, and painted in California and, finally, Italy. Charlotte Perkins Gilman carried out her pioneering work in the feminist movement.
The reader of these diaries cannot help but become personally involved with Charles and Charlotte. They become friends of the reader, two vivid personalities one is not likely to soon forget.