Last February, I wrote a blog about the Villa d’Alesia, a small street of artists’ studios in the 14th arrondissement. In my research, I came across a photograph of Henri Matisse taken by Brassaï in 1939. The title was “Matisse dessinant un nu couché dans l’atelier que lui avait prêté Mrs. Mary Callery à la Villa d’Alesia.” (Matisse drawing a nude in the studio lent to him by Mrs. Mary Callery in the Villa d’Alesia).
The photograph shows Matisse in a smock that looks like a doctor’s labcoat, sitting in a chair, drawing a female model posing in the nude.
I think the studio was the one shown below, a photo that appeared in the earlier blog.
Who was this Mrs. Callery who lent studios to artists? I found a Wikipedia entry for Mary Callery (1903-1977) that described her as “an American artist known for her Modern and Abstract Expressionist sculpture.” The entry listed numerous solo exhibitions, several group exhibitions, and many institutions that owned her pieces, from the Museum of Modern Art to the Eastland Shopping Centre in Detroit. It was a useful assemblage of facts as far as it went, but it told me next to nothing about who she was.* I decided to do a little digging on my own.
This was not a job for Google. Mary Callery had the misfortune to die in the 1970s, and that means that she was pre-Internet, but many of the likely sources of information would be still under copyright, or the kind of things that have never been digitized. You can find more information from the 1890s than from the 1970s online, it seems.
So I started with the New York Times online archives. I love this resource; it is a treasure trove of detail. One of the first things I found was a short notice from May 1934, titled “To Be Wed in Paris Today.” It began, “Mrs. Dawson Callery announced tonight that her daughter, Mrs. Mary Callery Coudert of New York City would be married in Paris tomorrow to Carlo Frua Dangeli of Milan.”
That one sentence told me a lot. It included the names of both of Mary’s husbands and her mother. It put her in Paris in the 1930s. And it implied that her family was of sufficient consequence that her marriage plans were considered of interest to the readers of the New York Times.
With the name “Coudert” to add to the mix, I found a longer article, dated April 1930. It had three subtitles under the main title, “Mrs. F.R. Coudert Jr. Off to Seek Divorce.” Then “Incompatibility Is Given as Ground as Wife of Lawyer Sails for Paris,” followed by “Her Plan a Surprise.” And finally, “She Had Actively Aided Husband in Race for District Attorney—To Have Art Studio in France.” The headline writer was apparently too excited by this event to make do with a single heading.
The article mentioned the marriage breakdown between her and her Republican lawyer husband, “a member of one of New York’s distinguished families.” She had apparently sailed to France without telling anyone other than immediate family, leaving “her 5-year-old daughter with Mrs. Frederic R. Coudert Sr.” In between details of her first marriage and her husband’s political ambitions, the article writer added one further note: “Mrs. Coudert has long been interested in art and is desirous of developing her artistic talents, especially in sculpture, according to her friends…She plans eventually to have a studio in Paris, it is said.” That was all.
Finally, I found her 1977 obituary. Whereas the anonymous writer of 1930 had described her as “interested in art,” this article explained that Mary, the daughter of a wealthy Pittsburgh family, had been “encouraged to pursue an interest in art from the age of 12, when she constructed a bear cub out of clay… She later attended the Art Students League in New York City, where she studied under Edward McCartan. In 1930, she continued her studies in Paris under Jacques Loutchansky.” A small example of her art, with her trademark attenuated figures, is shown below.
What a difference a few decades can make. In 1930 she is a faithless wife, abandoning husband and child for an mere “interest” in art; by the time of her death, she is a serious artist who has followed a clear program of study, with no mention of what was involved in moving to Paris. The obituary listed her most important shows and noted specific artworks, and only briefly mentioned her marriages at the end (the second one lasted only two years). It tactfully omitted the names of those with whom she was believed to have had affairs, such as Mies van der Rohe.
Apparently, at the time of her death in Paris she was an artist with a considerable reputation. She had received important commissions – including one for the United States pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958, another for the proscenium arch in the Metropolitan Opera House (Lincoln Center) in New York in 1966. The one shown below was created for a New York school; the theme was the fables of La Fontaine and Mary Callery designed it so that children could climb on it (safety requirements being what they are, this is no longer permitted).
But four more decades have passed and her reputation has changed yet again. Her works are not on display in the cultural institutions that own them, as far as I can determine (if anyone reading this is in New York and can check Lincoln Center for me, I would like to know if her piece is still there). There remain only some public art installations in office buildings or outdoors. Although she is considered one of the Abstract Expressionists, a recent retrospective of these artists by the Museum of Modern Art, which we saw when it came to Toronto, does not include a single mention of her.
What she is remembered for now is not her work, but her collection. She amassed an enormous body of modern art, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Fernand Leger, Alexander Calder, Salvador Dali, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Man Ray and many others. It has been sold off and dispersed, but one catalogue from a Christie’s sale in 2009 indicates its range.
And here is something curious. In many of the documents associated with her collection, including gallery records, she is listed as “Mrs. Meric Callery.” It sounds like Mary, but it is a man’s name. The twice-divorced Mary seems to have used a name that makes her sound like someone’s wife (back when women were often known only by the name of their husbands). Perhaps the name started as a mistake, something that some official wrote down in error, assuming that since she was calling herself “Mrs.,” the first name had to be a man’s.
In the decades since her death, it seems that Meric Callery the collector has overshadowed Mary Callery the sculptor. If she is remembered at all, it seems, it is as a wealthy patron of the arts. Her second husband shares this reputation, and although their marriage ended in 1936, she emerged with the wherewithal to continue collecting art.
The artists all seemed to know her. Picasso drew a picture of the back of her head (shown above). Man Ray both photographed her and sketched her (that is his photo portrait of her and his surrealist sketch shown above). Alexander Calder made her a brooch featuring her initials. She bought artworks, made introductions, encouraged those she knew to offer commissions.
How seriously did they take her as an artist in her own right? Impossible to tell. How good was her art, really? I like it, but I’m not a critic. What happened to turn Mary Callery the artist into “Mrs. Meric Callery” the wealthy benefactress?
I have many questions (and a growing file of research findings about her life), but it would take a professional to tell me why her art is now largely forgotten. If you happen to know an art historian or art critic, do please ask on my behalf.
Text by Philippa Campsie
*Some of the biographical details now contained in the Wikipedia entry are those that I have contributed, but it is still pretty bare bones.
Fascinating story as always. I admire the way that you are attempting to bring back to life a whole host of Parisian ghosts that have been overlooked by posterity, and of course your impressive research!
Interesting history about a little-known, yet talented female artist. I am on a similar quest, to find details about American Margaret Pomfret who was a talented painter of hard-edge abstraction. Good luck with your research.
Mary Callery was and is not a “little-known, yet talented female artist.” Mary Callery was one of the prominent sculptors of the post World War II era. Unfortunately the public knowledge is strongly swayed by promotions and simplicity that appeal to uneducated comprehension. Her work is illustrated in a number of books including: http://www.amazon.com/American-Abstract-Expressionism-1950s-Illustrated/dp/0967799414/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1416671413&sr=8-1&keywords=Marika+Herskovic pages 71, 72. Very best regards, Marika
This is truly interesting! I had never before heard of this lady.
I spent a couple years researching Paula Modersohn Becker for a screenplay, the German Expressionist artist who lived in Paris in 1906 – after leaving her husband, successful artist Otto Modersohn, to “pursue her art.” Otto’s first wife had died, leaving him with a little girl. Paula left her, too. There were a lot of other reasons for leaving the artists’ colony Worpswede, which will be revealed (I hope) in my movie in the not too distant future, however, my guess is Mizz Callery was a simple “victim” of the very common misogyny most males of the 20th century exhibited. Women were either artists’ muses, models, whores, lovers, wives, secretaries, entertainment directors, progeny-bearers, or food procurers. NEVER artists themselves! This only a man could do. At least during the early 1900s, it was assumed women were capable merely of handicrafts – i.e., carrying out the original artistic designs of men – and not “made” for making original art of their own. If Mizz C was bold enough to leave a couple of husbands AND a child, she was undoubtedly doomed socially and probably NOT taken seriously as an artist, merely considered a dilettant-dabbler. Since she seems to have had the financial resources to collect art, no doubt she was very popular among (male) artists seeking to make sales. I have to admit I wouldn’t have been above wishing to curry favor if I’d had to survive on my art in those days! Women’s history is unfortunately full of similar stories. Thank you for sharing this!
Just look at Corbusier’s dismissal of Charlotte Perriand: “We don’t embroider cushions here.” (https://parisianfields.wordpress.com/2011/07/03/the-invisible-woman/) Just thinking about it, I get so steamed that my glasses fog up! And she was the one with the real talent, if you ask me.
Mary Callery was a highly regarded sculptor.
Books about or including Mary Callery:
Mary Callery: [Exhibition] March 14-April 2, 1950
Mary Callery (Author) amazon.com
MARY CALLERY, SCULPTURE [Hardcover]
Philip R. and Christian Zervos, Text Adams (Author) amazon.com
American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s: An Illustrated Survey With Artists’ Statements, Artwork, and Biographies [Hardcover]
Marika Herskovic (Author, Editor) pp.:70-73 amazon.com
It is true that she like many other very important artists was left behind by the market oriented, commercial trend in art. This does not mean that her work will disappear for ever. Great even good art able to survive.
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Hi there. This is really fascinating. I came across it, and your excellent website, whilst doing some preliminary research for my phd in creative writing which will take the form of a novel (fiction) based around Mary Callery’s life. There is a real dearth of information about her on the web, as you have also found.
Thought you might be interested to know that Mary appears to be buried in northern Spain, in Dali’s town of Cadaques. My mum stumbled across a rudimentary cross tacked underneath a tree in a tiny cemetery there with the name Mary on it. When she looked, there was a plaque lying beneath it which simply said; Mary Callery, born 1903 died 1977. She was a friend of Dali but no idea why she ended up being buried there.
This led us to do some further research and hence she has become the subject of my novel. Would be interested to know if you’ve come across anything else since this blog?
Best wishes and congratulations on a superb site.
Mary owned two houses in Cadaqués, and was a great friend of Marcel Duchamp. I know a very funny anecdote. She was coming ro Cadaqués in her car, with a couple of tapestries by Picasso. When she arrived to the frontier, a custom officer of the Guardia Civil asked what were the rolls on the backseat. She answered “Carpets”. The officer asked her to unroll them. She complied. The officer looked the supposed “carpets.” and exclaimed:: “How ugly! Ok, carry on”.
Hi Alberto – thanks so much for this! Very interested to know about the houses Callery owned in Cadaques – how come she ended up there? And why was she buried there when she died in Paris? Do you know much else about her? Best wishes, Lucie
Hi Alberto, just following up on this anecdote: Can you give me a reference, or tell me how you come to know this story? Many thanks, Jan
Wondering if the biography of Mary Callery was ever completed? I have a box of her collected letters from when she was a young girl and being courted by her first husband Frederic R. Coudert. A further aside about her sculpture at the Metropolitan Opera… when I went on a backstage tour years ago, the guide mentioned that there had been rumors that she might have received the commission due to a possible relation with the manager of the Met at the time (don’t know name). The guide also said they were afraid to take it down since they didn’t know how that might affect the acoustics…
As far as I know, Lucie is still at work on her Ph.D. project on Mary Callery. See: https://luciebrownlee.com/phd/ I sent her a separate note to alert her to your comment. She will be thrilled to hear of such a treasure trove of documents!
And thank you for finally, definitively answering my question about the opera house sculpture.
Do you mind my asking how you are related to Frederic Coudert? Just curious. Feel free to reply to email@example.com rather than posting publicly.
Thank you so much for the research and posting that you have done on Mary Callery. I have a piece of hers but it’s not a sculpture, it’s a “painting” or Lithograph?? It was given to me several years ago. It has the same figures as her sculptures and I really love it but I just didn’t know anything about it! The person who gave it to me has since passed away and so I can’t ask him about it. It’s been very difficult to get any information on this artist. Again, Thank you!
You will be interested to know that a biography of Mary is in the works, by Lucie Brownlee, who has also commented on this post. She and I met in December in Paris and visited some of the places where Mary lived and worked there. I had gathered quite a bit of information about Mary, because she fascinated me, but I did not know what to do with it, so I gave it to Lucie. She has now contacted Mary’s family in the United States, and will be visiting them this May to learn more and read some of Mary’s letters.
Thank you so very much for the link! The more I read about Mary Callery, the more I want to know! I discovered that my piece is her Sons of Glory Print 12 of 28. Haven’t a clue as to it’s value but it is so loved. It is dynamic, interesting and lively. Knowing her history and friendships with the great Arists of her day makes The piece I have even more special. Thanks so much for all of these nuggets of gold regarding Mary Callery!
Does anyone know where in France Mary Callery was living in 1975? I would love to hear from Lucie Brownlee.
Fascinating indeed. I am trying to trace Mary Callery’s studio in Huntington on Long Island – all leads welcome. Any idea, where and when the beautiful photograph of her in front of the fireplace was taken? Thanks…
I am not sure, but if you follow this link — http://luciebrownlee.com/phd/ — you may find someone who can help you. Meanwhile, I am curious to know how you became interested in Mary Callery and her studio.
My main interest is in a collage German-American architect Mies van der Rohe gave to Mary Callery (rumored to have had an affair with her), and the grapevine has it that he also designed the Huntington studio for her, or converted a barn including removing a roof truss that made the building almost collapse. I am hoping to trace more of that connection… Jan
I can tell you that the Mary Callery sculpture, quite good, remains installed atop the stage opening at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. That’s how I became interested in Mary Callery–looking at that sculpture over the years.
Dear Mr Silver,
I have been waiting a long time for someone to tell me this! (I have not had the opportunity to go to New York to see for myself.) I am delighted to hear that her work is still there. Thank you very much!
Happy to be of some help!
best, Ken Silver
Dear Mr Silver,
If you ever have the opportunity to photograph the installation, I would love to see what it looks like today. You may also be interested to learn that an English writer is currently working on a book about Mary Callery (http://luciebrownlee.com/phd/). She has done considerable research, and I very much look forward to learning more when her book is published.
I will try to remeber to take a picture on my phone next time I am at the Met.
Best to you,
FYI, the Mary Callery sculpture at the Metropiltan Opera in NYC is visible in the Wikipedia article below, just above the 4th photo of “the gold curtains in the auditorium”.
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As a child in NYC in the 1950’s and 60’s, I used to climb up and play on the Fables of La Fontaine sculpture, but only when the school was closed. It is installed high on a wall in a recessed area at the back entrance of the elementary school, where it does not get the prestige it deserves. The sculpture was never on the ground and we kids were never allowed to play on it. The school building itself broke the public school building mold. It was designed by the same architects who designed the United Nations building, and is greatly admired by architects as an excellent example of Modernist architecture. I always loved that Mary Callery sculpture, and always appreciated it as art.
Thank you so much for sharing your childhood memories of the Mary Callery sculpture. Is it still there? If not, do you know what happened to it?