Wilhelmina Weber-Furlong: pioneering American modernist painter

After nearly a century of neglect, her work is on show in a new exhibition in Dublin

Wilhelmina Weber Furlong, Still life, New York c1915-1921

Wilhelmina Weber Furlong, Still life, New York c1915-1921

 

The exhibition Wilhelmina Weber Furlong, 2019 (her life, her art, her legacy), is a concise introduction to an artist largely and undeservedly forgotten in standard histories of 20th-century American art. Throughout her life, Weber Furlong was actively and closely involved in the development of modernism in the United States, leaving a network of traces and connections that endures residually, a network that has been exhaustively researched and clarified by her great-grandnephew, Clint Weber.

He points to another factor in her relative obscurity. As he sees it: “While she was alive, she tended to devote herself to promoting the work of her partner, Tomas Furlong, even though I feel she knew he was not a great artist. She was devoted to him.”

Weber grew up with an awareness of his great-grandaunt’s legacy. “It was instilled into me by my father.” His father impressed on him the importance of making her work better known. More, as he points out, he grew up with her paintings stacked under his bed (under all the family beds, in fact, and in boxes and portfolios, plus a briefcase full of documents, photographs and correspondence). When Weber retired, he decided it was time to address the question of those paintings. From about 2012 it has been a full-time pursuit. He did not anticipate that the project would take over and, he says, entirely change his life, as it has done.

Wilhelmina Weber Furlong in Paris, c1898
Wilhelmina Weber Furlong in Paris, c1898

Early years

Weber Furlong was born into a wealthy family in St Louis, Missouri in 1878. Her artistic talent was noted at an early age and as she grew into her teens she resolved to be an artist. With her parents’ backing she embarked on a long apprenticeship, studying at the Art Students League in Manhattan, then the St Louis Academy of Fine Arts, then Pennsylvania, then New York again. Trips to Paris presaged a longer stay there in the early years of the 20th century. It was a time of transition. While the schools still adhered to a realist regime, art had fragmented into multiple possibilities.

Weber Furlong mixed in progressive circles and, while still making representational paintings in watercolour, she was clearly absorbing a great deal and open to change. In 1906 she opted for a radical change of scene. She often travelled with a cousin, Mina Meyer, and together they went to Mexico, setting up home in Mexico City. Weber Furlong gave language lessons (she spoke English, French, German and Spanish) and acted as an interpreter in a social circle close to the president. Buoyed by family money, she travelled extensively in the region. Again, she clearly observed and absorbed a lot and was very happy in Mexico.

For some years she coped with her drastically failing eyesight with typical equanimity, using a fixed rope to guide her to the creek to fetch water

At some point, Weber reckons in 1911 or 1912, she met Tomas Furlong in Mexico City. A man of multiple talents and evident charm, Furlong was working as an interpreter on behalf of his family’s security company. He too was from St Louis and they seem to have bonded instantly. As the political situation in Mexico became increasingly chaotic, violent and dangerous, especially for anyone associated with the old regime, the couple headed for New York.

There they set up a busy studio which was also a meeting place and gallery, The Yellow Shop, on Washington Square. It became a well-known modernist venue. They taught, and worked energetically. Weber Furlong was consistently active in advocating for women’s right to equal treatment in the art world.

In 1921 her father funded the purchase of Golden Heart Farm at Bolton Landing, New York. In a sense it was a country retreat, with house, barns and several small cottages, but such a description is not quite fair or accurate. The couple were temperamentally industrious and not inclined to sit around doing nothing. The farm became a working retreat for many artists, chiefly those associated with various New York art schools. Conditions were quite primitive. Water was drawn from the creek, for example. Weber Furlong did the cooking and gardening, and looked after the animals.

Weber has meticulously traced the history of Golden Heart. Some visiting artists became close friends, including John Graham and Dorothy Dehner and her then partner, the sculptor David Smith, one of the key figures in American 20th-century art. Rockwell Kent, who lived in Ireland for some time (in Donegal), was another visitor, as was Alexander Calder and Thomas Hart Benton. Weber Furlong and Furlong split their time between Golden Heart and the city, until, out of the blue, he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1952.

Through much of the previous 20 years or so, the couple appear to have been quite short of money. Presumably the Wall Street crash had devastated the family fortune. Weber Furlong seems not to have actively marketed her work, though paintings did sell when potential buyers chanced to encounter them. Weber’s suggestion that rather than promoting herself she deferred to Furlong is entirely plausible. She lived until May 1962. For some years prior to that she had coped with her drastically failing eyesight with typical equanimity, using a fixed rope to guide her to the creek to fetch water, for example.

Paintings

Throughout her life – in Paris, Mexico City, New York and at Golden Heart Farm – she made paintings. When Weber set about cleaning, conserving and stretching her canvases, some questions arose. Not everything is dated and many canvases were painted on both sides or over-painted, reflecting perhaps a lack of funds. But the works, having been stored carefully for many decades away from direct light, are generally in very good condition. Then there is the issue of signature. Weber points out that his great-grandaunt was inclined to use differing versions of her name at different times. It could be an acronym, or just Weber, for example.

It’s difficult to date many pieces accurately and trace a reasonable chronology, though Weber has become astute at putting the clues together to pin down approximate times and locations. What is immediately apparent is the exceptional quality of the work. Weber Furlong clearly assimilated a great deal of what she was looking at in Paris and Mexico. She never struggled to imitate any approach or style but simply absorbed it into her own method. Her primary subject matter was still-life and she definitely looked carefully at Cezanne. Fauvism was centrally important, and she was vocal in her liking for Matisse. She also took on board elements of cubism but never became a cubist. Nor was she much taken with Mexican muralism, instead she was influenced by the country’s indigenous arts.

It’s refreshing that in her still-life paintings she is so fully herself. She organises a composition impressively, judges tone, colour and form perfectly, and never overdoes anything as, for example, the Irish post-impressionist Roderic O’Conor was inclined to do.

In his work on her legacy, Weber has gained valuable allies, including art historian James Kettlewell and Mona Blocker Garcia of the International Woman’s Foundation. Dubliner Martin DePorres Wright found himself so intrigued by the Weber Furlong that he became actively involved. Through his dogged research, Weber has more than lived up to a childhood promise to publicise the work of his great-grand aunt.

Wilhelmina Weber Furlong 2019 (her life, her art, her legacy) The Knight of Glin Exhibition Room, City Assembly House, 58 South William Street, Dublin August 1st–29th, weberfurlong.com

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