When we scrutinize images of celebrities, what are we looking for? Proof that they're happier than we are? Or the opposite - that, in spite of everything, they're just as prone to bad moods and misfortunes?
A new exhibition of portraits at Amherst College's Mead Art Museum
juxtaposes the celebrated Lindbergh couple, who suffered the kidnapping and murder of their young son, with another early 20th-century figure whose tragic story drew a flurry of public interest and media attention: socialite Lorna Mallinson Bowen.
Charles Lindbergh was the biggest celebrity of his day. In 1927 "Lucky Lindy" flew the first solo flight across the Atlantic. Later that year, as the guest of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, he fell in love with the ambassador's 21-year-old daughter, Anne Morrow. They married in 1929, and seemed to have it all: money, achievements, great connections. They were America's royal couple.
But in 1932 the Lindberghs' 20-month-old son was kidnapped from his crib at the family's home in New Jersey. His body was found months later, buried just a few miles away. The public's interest in the kidnapping, sensationalized in the media, was insatiable.
A year after his transatlantic flight, in April 1928, at the Park Avenue address where Lindbergh happened to be staying, 28-year-old heiress Lorna Bowen jumped to her death from her parents' 12th-story apartment. Until then, Bowen, too, seemed to have it all: as a young newlywed from a wealthy family, she had a 17-month-old daughter and, as newspapers reported after her death, "everything to live for." But she'd married for love, not money, against her parents' objections, and had been locked in a bitter feud with them ever since.
These intersecting personal tragedies are part of the Mead's just-opened exhibition, An Unblemished Mirror of Truth: Kyohei Inukai, Robert Brackman, and Portraits of American Tragedy, which runs until August 24. The show brings together the Mead's portraits of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, painted by Robert Brackman (1898-1980), and two portraits by Kyohei Inukai (1886-1954), on loan from the John and Miyoko Unno Davey Collection, as well as a photographic reproduction of his portrait of Bowen.
The show was put together by Bradley Bailey, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Postdoctoral Curatorial Teaching Fellow in Japanese Prints at the Mead. Bailey said he was fascinated not only by the tabloid-style treatments of these personal tragedies, but by the "parallel lives" of the two painters in the show: "Both were foreign-born, immigrated to the United States in their youth, and went on to become successful painters." Inukai came to the United States from Japan, and Brackman from Ukraine.
Bailey pointed out some key differences between the two painters. "Brackman has become famous, as an American painter associated with the Ashcan School, while Inukai has been largely forgotten - though this is now changing."
"And their artistic practices diverged significantly," Bradley said. "While Inukai was primarily a society portraitist, whose clientele included the elite of New York City, Brackman was known for his still-lifes and female nudes. He made only a few portraits a year."
Bailey also saw parallels between the two tragic female figures in the portraits. "I am fascinated at how Lorna Bowen and Anne Morrow Lindbergh were 'mirrors' of each other in a sense: one famous for flying, one for falling; one for the baby she lost, one for the baby she left behind; but both for being glamorous and beautiful. They were also both writers, Anne, an essayist, and Lorna, a budding poet."
Brackman painted the Lindberghs at the height of their fame - 11 years after the Spirit of St. Louis crossed the Atlantic and six years after the kidnapping and murder of their son. To sit for the painter without attracting reporters and cameras, the couple paid secret visits to Brackman's New York studio.
Despite the passage of time between the kidnapping and sitting for Brackman, grief is still apparent in the portrait of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. "Her inward-turning, self-supporting pose suggests a psychic wound," said Elizabeth E. Barker, director of the Mead. "In contrast, her husband appears confident and expansive, meeting the viewer's eye as he puts on his glove, evidently preparing to leave."
The Lindbergh portraits were displayed publicly at the Macbeth Gallery in New York in 1938, and traveled to Paris that same year for the Exhibition of American Art 1609-1938, assembled by the Museum of Modern Art. The Lindberghs gave the paintings to the Mead in 1954. (Anne's father, Dwight Whitney Morrow, graduated from Amherst in 1895, and the Morrows kept close ties to the college.)
Bailey dates Bowen's portrait to the year 1927, based on her visible wedding ring and the timing of her move to Washington Square Park, almost next door to Inukai's studio. The Mead show includes a photograph of the portrait made from a negative in the Davey Collection. Until recently the portrait's whereabouts were unknown, Bailey said. While putting together the exhibition, he was thrilled to discover the painting in a private collection in Texas.
Bailey has plans for a large-scale exhibition of Inukai's works, which would be the first-ever retrospective of the artist's paintings. While the Davey Collection contains over a dozen examples of his work, most of the artist's paintings are still held in private collections and are known only from photographic records, taken as inventories of Inukai's studio.
"The portraits, even in black-and-white photographic reproduction, are beguiling examples of the last gasps of New York's Gilded Age, of a city - and a society - in transition. They are truly extraordinary, each a 'uniquely American product,' as Inukai would later describe himself."
Bowen's death, said Bailey, "which so fascinated the tabloids, must have affected Inukai deeply, because of the many known inventory photographs Inukai had taken (now in the photographic archives of the Smithsonian), this negative was the only one he kept for himself, . . . to remember her as he saw her."
After Bowen's death, Inukai enjoyed many years as a successful portrait artist. But his career was ruined in 1941, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. With fear of the Japanese - what was called the "Yellow Peril" - rampant in the country, Inukai was professionally ostracized. From 1941 until his death in 1954, his longtime mistress, Dorothy Hampton, continued to sit for him. His 1932 portrait of her, The Javanese Coat, from the Davey Collection, is included in the Mead's exhibition.
The Mead exhibition is the first public display of The Javanese Coat and Inukai's self-portrait Myself, also on loan from the Davey Collection, since 1933.