Stay by Me, Roses:
The Life of American Artist Alice Archer Sewall James, 1870-1955
by Alice Blackmer Skinner
Alice Archer Sewall James—known affectionately as “Archie”—lived a life that most women of her time could only dream about. Educated from a young age and encouraged by her family to express herself in all forms of art, she grew into an irrepressible woman who never stopped looking for ways to pass her experience on to others.
This study traces Archie’s life from her Ohio childhood to her teenage years spent traveling in Europe, to her challenging marriage to John H. James. In later years—like the roses in the title poem—Archie reemerged as an artist and teacher, inspiring a new generation of painters at Urbana University.
While Archie’s Swedenborgian heritage gave structure and meaning to her life, it was her inner creative drive that truly touched others. Stay by Me, Roses opens a window on the life and times of a unique nineteenth-century woman.
Alice Blackmer Skinner graduated from Radcliffe College with a degree in psychology in 1945; received a master’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota in 1951, and in 1977 earned a PhD in psychology from Harvard with a study on the life patterns of college-educated women. She was the editor of Rooted in Spirit: A Harvest of Women’s Wisdom and served on the board of directors at the Swedenborg Foundation for thirty-eight years including ten years as president of the board. She lived in St. George, Maine.
Order Stay by Me, Roses today.
Excerpt from Chapter 12, Stay by Me, Roses:
When the muse of painting returned, Archie began with portraits. She deplored the absence of artistic attention to depicting the human body as a reflection of the divine. In a lecture on modern art, she commented:
The loss of this sociable servant to the world, Fine Art, is patently tested by the things it no longer does for us. First of all, the human smile. In what art is it seen today? It used to be seen all over the face of the earth in its earliest reports of the faces of men: smiles that beamed as much from forehead as from mouth and lay like sunshine in form itself without the wrinkle of a lip or cheek. It comforted where it was looked at. It seemed to be God . . . Next to the smile we may note the loss of varieties of affection and understanding, the play of thought and love on the face.
From 1928 until 1938 Archie concentrated on portraits, often asking family members or friends to pose for her. Many were willing, and even flattered, to do so and agreed to have their portraits exhibited in order to help Archie attract commissions. She selected frames for these portraits, usually paid for by the subject, who paid whatever was possible for the portrait itself.
Archie took pains in arranging the composition of her portraits. Sometimes the pose seemed awkward to her subject—Perry Martin remembers, “My little finger kept going to sleep”—but the artist’s judgment prevailed. Archie usually chose what women and children were to wear. As Marian May Clarke recounts, “She had me bring my ‘ball gowns’ and decided when she saw them which one to have me wear.” And Louise Orth says, “The only suitable dress I had at the time was black velvet, so she used a blue scarf for my lap, to lighten it.” Sometimes the pose or clothing seemed alien to an individual’s self-image, with the result that the sitter might feel unfamiliar with the person portrayed. Some feel that Archie idealized her subjects, overemphasizing the angelic aspects of their personalities.
Through portraits, Archie could depict the expression of the spiritual she saw in her subjects and thus release more of that spiritual element into the natural world. Sometimes she made it explicit, as in the portrait of Elise Campbell, portrayed as “listening to the inner voices of groups of heavenly children who float around her caressingly,” their presence emphasized by the knitting which lies untended on her lap. As Archie defined her mission in more spiritual terms, she tended to dramatize the spiritual and draw attention to it in her portraits.
In practical terms, Archie was good at doing portraits and people were willing to pay for them, which generated much needed money. Bob Nicol, who was a student in her college art classes, appraises her early portraits—especially those done in 1929 of her husband and his sister Margaret—as excellent drawing, noting that later she used pastels and became “almost careless” about drawing. As Nicol comments, “She got more into color as she went along, probably as a reaction to the horror of her life.”
As instructor of art at Urbana Junior College between 1930 and 1934, Archie taught drawing by having her student depict the shapes of shadows on plaster casts of Greek statues. Nicol describes this method, which she used throughout her teaching career:
The class was set up in a little room . . . the only one available with a north light. Three or four drawing boards were ordered and I believe Mr. Moots [the custodian] made the easels. Some casts were ordered of various Greek sculptures—a full-size head of Praxiteles’ Hermes and one of Minerva, a small full-length of the same Hermes, and one of Michelangelo’s Slave, plus a Nike. . . . The drawing was done entirely with the point (either in black conte crayon, the more usual, or charcoal stick) and only in vertical lines, the varying weight of which alone conveyed value . . . The purpose of this was to develop sensitivity of touch and coordination of eye and hand. It is an old technique, and she used it herself with the portraits she did at that time although she dispensed with the discipline unnecessary to her of the perfectly straight lines, and used rubbed tones as well. Mrs. James was totally exacting as a teacher just as she was in her own work. Drawing had to be accurate and every subtle value had to be expressed, the whole blending together with no small area being allowed to ‘jump out.’ Implicit in all this of course was the art of `seeing,’ not only with regard to the subtleties of light and shade but what was conveyed by them of spiritual values inherent in the original sculpture, which she emphasized constantly by comments on Greek and Swedenborgian philosophy . . . To her the Greek mythology was an elaborate system of correspondences and totally monotheistic, the various gods, goddesses and minor deities being aspects of the Divine. So you can see that to her this idea went far beyond the traditional English reverence for the classical culture to a point where it had a living meaning expressing the deepest spiritual truths . . . And so the careful scrutiny and drawing of the casts, enforced as it was by informal lectures on the intellectuality of the eye and the power of ultimates with insights into the carefully reasoned aspects of Greek art and architecture with the aid of many photos. The
casts were moved about to show the effects of the play of varying light on the surfaces, and one always had to bear in mind the personalities and correspondences of Hermes et al. and wherein these were revealed by the sculptor. It was quite an education, I must say, and thoroughly unique.
Only serious art students would be willing to spend a year, much less two years, drawing plaster casts, even if the classes were spiced with lectures and visual aids. But there were such students in Urbana, some of whom continued to study with Archie for many years. As Nicol emphasizes, there was more than technique involved in Archie’s teaching. She espoused a system, a philosophy, that transcended the act of drawing and included both the personal experience of seeing and the spiritual significance of the object depicted. Thus students were taught a spiritual-intellectual aesthetic that requires genuine thought and feeling as well as technical skill. Archie expected her students to demonstrate their comprehension of the spiritual basis of art, and formulated examination questions for her Spiritual Life of Art class in a form that echoed the catechism to drive the theory home.
Archie insisted that students master drawing before they were permitted to begin painting. By the fall of 1932 she considered two students in her college classes, Bob Nicol and Irene Smucker, ready to learn to paint and set up classes for them in her own home. Nicol studied painting full-time for two years and provides more insight into Archie’s approach to art:
[Mrs. James’s] philosophies of art got a good airing during this period. Some of them are more or less intrinsic and therefore difficult to explain. For example she went to some lengths to explain, with the aid of photographs, generally, what constituted the difference between sentimentality and genuineness in art, the gradations of expressed feeling, etc. She had a kind of scale of values in that regard, based entirely on Swedenborg. You could say in fine that the relative greatness (or futility) of a given painting or work of art (any art) depended on the quality of the emotion it expresses. Religious art was the Highest Use to which painting could be put, but here the genuineness of the emotion was the most difficult to express. She greatly admired Fra Angelico and many of the earlier pre-Renaissance painters like Giotto and Cimabue. Raphael she admired and had me study his compositions, but she felt that the later masters were often led astray by their own great skill, and lost, or I should say frequently lost, that early purity of feeling. Rembrandt made it right up near the top someplace, but you can see that Rubens, although she rhapsodized about his techniques, wouldn’t come too high on the ultimate scale of values. I’m just throwing in a few random samples to try to give you an idea of how she thought. She classified not only artists but whole ages and eras of art in this manner. In fact it is possibly a lot easier to apply such standards to the expressions of a school or an era than to an individual, and probably a lot more valid. For instance she made a considerable point of contrasting the noble serenity of the Periclean Age with the more tortured expressions of the immensely skillful Hellenic masters who followed soon afterwards. The various categories of painting also came under this scale: religious art, as I have said, was the highest expressions, then genre and portraiture, which embody the human factor; then landscape and still life. But of course the qualities of dignity, nobility of outlook, quality and excellence of execution could enter into all of these things and raise them to a high level. Abstracts were not considered, and Impressionism did not seem to impress her.
Nicol’s description of Archie’s philosophy of art shows that she had worked out a very specific and intellectual approach to drawing and painting. Although she found it impossible to practice her craft for the long period when her eyes were in poor condition (from 1905 to 1928), she must have been reading and thinking, forging a rationale for the discipline she would take up again. She may have lacked a formal education, but she had learned well how to question, to formulate thoughts, to build a systematic philosophy. There is no doubt that Howard Helmick and Frank Sewall contributed to Archie’s philosophical position, but in order to teach with such a profound impact that it remained clear to her students fifty years later, Archie must have imposed her own order on input gathered from other sources. The long years of struggle for health and the capacity to work had borne fruit.
Archie’s teaching extended beyond drawing and painting. At Urbana Junior College she taught ancient Greek drama. In addition, she offered doctrinal classes to the Swedenborgian students at the college. She prepared carefully for her classes and developed diagrams and charts to aid students’ understanding Classes were small and Archie’s interest in her students was personalized. She had definite opinions about what they should and should not do in all aspects of their lives and did not hesitate to express them. Bob Nicol reports:
[Mrs. James gave] weekly lectures on Swedenborg in the evenings . . . These were really chalk talks with illustrations, diagrams and outlines. She was a clear and concise talker . . . Her approach to Swedenborg was rather cosmic and undertook to summarize the broad concepts of the Swedenborgian philosophy . . . all outlined 1, 2, 3, and diagrammed wherever possible. I personally found it very valuable as my exposure to Swedenborg up to that time had been piecemeal and uncoordinated. However when she got into the specifics of personal conduct, particularly in relation to conjugal love, the general reception was somewhat qualified. Mrs. James had no conception of the truth that . . . there are no absolutes, and her approach here was uncompromisingly idealistic. Having heard that there were `goings on’ at [the girl’s dormitory] (very, very tame ones, I assure you) she gave pointed lectures on the correspondence and use of the sense of touch. And one time when she had a severe attack of hives and was confined to bed she called over her whole class one evening and told them with a sense of joy and triumph that she had been permitted this trial of temptation to touch herself in order to resist for all of them the lust of touching. . . . Nunnish? Victorian? A little bit of both, perhaps.
Still, the students respected Archie enough to continue to attend her classes, which were non-credit and voluntary. They treasured what they learned from her, even though they sometimes ignored or made fun of certain of her prescriptions. Archie was imaginative about helping her art students to learn.
For Archie; being an artist was a way of life, a system of thinking and a discipline that provided an external authority permitting her to escape the prescriptions and confines of the James household. As a teacher she could relate to people outside of the family, in a situation that she could shape according to her own ideals. Teaching gave her a chance to clarify and communicate her own values, and even to try to shape the lives of the next generation, and thus liberated her from restrictive aspects of the family situation.