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.