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Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead's (1861-1955) Idealized Visions About Simple Living and Arts and Crafts
October 9 through December 5, 2004
(above: W. J. Jordan (Washington, D.C.), Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead with caged bird, c. 1876. Studio card silver gelatin photograph on studio card, 6 1/2 x 4 1/4 inches, Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Museum, Col. 209, 92x39.1140.46c [s7 b1 f3]. Courtesy, The Winterthur Library: Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera.)
Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead's (1861-1955) Idealized Visions About Simple Living and the Arts and Crafts will be on view at the Georgia Museum of Art from October 9 through December 5, 2004.
This exhibition explores the work and life of an American aesthete whose varied activities represent many of the tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement. In fact, Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead was in close communion with many originators of this movement, such as William Morris and John Ruskin, and she in turn fostered havens for artists in the United States with an emphasis on nature, beauty, and culture.
Documentary photographs by some of the era's most celebrated women photographers, Whitehead's work in various mediums as well as that from others of her milieu, and related documents demonstrate how the visual and aesthetic qualities of artistic living and the "simple" life evolved throughout Whitehead's lifetime. Her quest for a simple life led the young Victorian socialite to Oxford where she studied with social critic and professor John Ruskin and to Paris where she attended the Académie Julian. She continually sought a more rustic life. Greatly influenced by Ruskin, Whitehead and her husband Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead founded cultural havens in Montecito, California, and Woodstock, New York, for young artists while following their ideals about living in tune with nature and remaining active both physically and artistically. (right: Eva Watson-Schütze, Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead with lily in her hand, c. 1905. Platinum print, 8 1/2 x 4 inches [framed: 30 1/2 x 21 3/8 inches]. Collection of Bill Shea.)
Whitehead's desire to create and experience the interpenetration of life and art reflects the international avant-garde trend of Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, that dissolved the boundaries between "high" art and crafts. Her emphasis on nature and its benefits for humanity hearkens back to the American Transcendentalists. In the artistic communities she formed, a belief in "enlightened material restraint," working with one's hands and surrounding oneself with handcrafted arts in settings located close to the natural world, is prominent. Ultimately, these traits were considered morally uplifting and held the power to change society for the better. An extremely privileged woman, Whitehead and her husband's wealth made possible the realization of these self-contained and self-consciously stylized worlds.
Photographs and other works of art reveal the evolution of the visual qualities of her "simple" life over time, while her story more broadly informs our understanding of simple living among advocates of the Arts and Crafts movement as they fashioned a utopian community. Just as the Arts and Crafts movement broke down some of the divisions between "high" art and crafts, Whitehead sought to break down the barriers between art and life, thus her continual evolution in the search for beauty. In the end, her greatest artistic achievement was her life, and, as we study the records of it in this exhibition, the viewer gains insight into how he, too, might live "simply."
Generously sponsored by the W. Newton Morris Charitable Foundation and the Friends of the Museum, Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead's (1861-1955) Idealized Visions About Simple Living and the Arts and Crafts is organized by Heidi Nasstrom-Evans, University of Maryland at College Park, with in-house curator Ashley Callahan, Henry D. Green Center for the Study of the Decorative Arts, and is on view in the Martha and Eugene Odum Gallery of the Decorative Arts. (right: Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead, modern photograph of landscape sketch with tree, inscribed "Live In The Country With Faith. Byrdcliffe" from sketchbook, 1894-1903. Modern photograph of colored pencil on paper, 1 1/4 x 2 1/2 inches, Joseph Downs Collection, Winterthur Museum, Col. 209, 92x39.1546 [s1 b2 f17]. Courtesy, The Winterthur Library: Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera.)
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