Frank Duveneck & Elizabeth Boott Duveneck: An American Romance



The following essay was written in 1995-96 by Carol M. Osborne for the catalogue of the Frank Duveneck & Elizabeth Boott Duveneck exhibition held at Owen Gallery, New York, from February 12 through March 23, 1996.


Lizzie Boott's marriage to the celebrated painter Frank Duveneck was a cause of speculation for so long that in 1886, when she finally took the plunge after nearly five years of living continents apart, it came as a big surprise to everyone, perhaps even to herself. Born in Boston in 1846, the artist Elizabeth Otis Lyman Boott, always known as Lizzie, had been brought up in Italy by a widowed father devoted to the well-being of his only child. Though Francis Boott was a great admirer of Duveneck's talent, the man himself did not fit the bill: Duveneck was a penniless German-American Catholic, two years younger than Lizzie, whose people ran a beer garden in Covington, Kentucky.

And it wasn't simply the difference in their social circles, Boott feared that the painter was after his daughter's money, and, more important, he hated to see anybody come between himself and Lizzie. The Bootts's closest friends worried about what would happen to him in such a coupling and predicted disaster for the marriage. We know much of this from the many letters the novelist Henry James wrote to both Lizzie, her father, and their mutual acquaintances. James took an affectionate and protective interest in Lizzie's happiness - and her father's. Duveneck's friends, on the other hand, wanted whatever Frank wanted - they were all crazy about him. Some even hoped that the marriage would get him back on track during a frustrating period; he was inclined to be lazy and they thought Lizzie would save him. But she was an artist, too; she had her own career to think about. And so it went back and forth until finally a month before Lizzie's fortieth birthday, the wedding took place in Paris with both bride and groom signing the certificate, "artiste, peintre."

Speculation about: the marriage continued. Early on, after Lizzie's untimely death, some held Frank responsible for the tragedy. While Henry James rationalized that Lizzie was spared the disappointments her husband's easy laxities would bring, art historians have conjectured that her death seriously affected Duveneck's artistic output. More recently, the Bootts have been faulted for the psychological stress on the bohemian Duveneck of having to meet the social demands of marrying "up." Although Boott unquestionably wanted Duveneck to triumph in the great art center of Paris, her ambition was for his paintings; his social status meant little to her. Still others have blamed the French-trained Boott for Duveneck's dramatic switch from the dark realism of his celebrated Munich style to the sunny patios of the Paris Salon. Alternatively, feminist critics have cited Boott as yet one more example of a female art student whose career was compromised by infatuation with a painter-teacher.

A serious painter intent on a professional career, Boott had already studied for several years with the William Morris Hunt class for women in Boston and with Thomas Couture outside Paris when she (and her father) spent a summer of study with Duveneck in Munich. Then thirty-three, with both exhibitions and portrait commissions to her credit, Boott worked in landscape, genre, and still life, and showed special facility in watercolor. Henry James called her attention to Duveneck's talent with his noteworthy review of the first Boston show in The Nation (June 1875) citing the "discovery of an unsuspected man of genius." The Bootts bought one of Duveneck's portraits from the exhibition, though they did not meet the painter for another three years.

Then at the height of his reputation as one of the most promising artists in America, Duveneck was also a teacher of enormous popularity. Students and colleagues alike respected him for his easygoing authority and painterly skill just as they loved him for his jokes and good nature, Boott liked him from the start: "He is the frankest, kindest-hearted of mortals," she wrote from Munich to painter friends in Boston, "and the least likely to make his way in the world." With the idea of having him teach a class of women artists - instruction of a sort that was just then coming into vogue - she encouraged him to move to Florence, where she and her father made their home. She also hoped to drum up portrait commissions for him among her rich friends. Inviting members of the Hunt painting class to come abroad, she wrote that with Duveneck's instruction they would have "endless freedom." It was wonderful, she said, to watch him "sling the paint."

This was a time when American artists were flocking abroad. When Duveneck took Boott up on her invitation, in the fall of 1879, after nearly a decade in Munich, more than a dozen of his painter friends came with him. Thus it was that a villa on a hilltop above Florence became a magnet for a lively group of male and female art students. The villa was the Villa Castellani, now the Villa Mercede, at Bellosguardo, designed in the 15th century by a follower of Michelangelo and owned in the 19th by a Boston family, who rented out to friends the spacious apartments that surrounded the villa's arcaded center court. The Bootts had lived there off and on for most of Lizzie's life. And that was where she partied with this sudden flood of young American friends. (Their painting studios were located in the Palazzo Mugnone along the Arno.) It was not long before she and Duveneck became romantically involved; by Christmas 1880, they were thinking of marriage. But little more than a year later, the engagement was off and they had gone their separate ways.

Fraught with tensions of manners, money, and class, Lizzie and Frank's relationship could not fail to interest Henry James, a frequent visitor to the Bootts's Italian home. In literary guise, Lizzie and her father, together with others in their Bcllosguardo circle of Anglo-Americans friends, often appear in James's fiction. In The Portrait of a Lady (1881), a portion of which was written while the novelist lived nearby in the Villa Brichieri, James used the Villa Castellani imaginatively as the home of Gilbert Osmond and his obedient daughter, Pansy. James's fiction aside, however, Lizzie Boott found her own way of reconciling parent and lover, though her situation as a serious artist, determined to paint professionally, was beset by conflicting loyalties throughout her years with Duveneck.

Making a life in art was Lizzie's passion. And her father's as well. A minor composer of some distinction, Francis Boott loved opera, theater, and painting - all the arts he had found lacking in Boston at mid-century. He had moved to Italy with his year-old daughter after the death of an infant son and a tubercular young wife. Having graduated from Harvard in 1831 (where music wasn't taught), Francis Boott, who never remarried, was in his forties when he began to study musical composition at the Florentine Academy. Soon his chamber music was being performed in Rome in the opulent setting of the Palazzo Barberini, where the sculptor William Wetmore Story, an old Boston friend, resided. Francis Boott was better known in the States, however, for setting to music the poetry of other friends from home, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell, among others.

Francis Boott's most absorbing interest, however, was the education of his daughter, whose talent as an artist he fostered in every possible way. She, too, had an ear for music; like other girls of her class and time, she played the piano well and had a good voice. That she also spoke Italian and French fluently, and knew German was also in keeping with the model for a Victorian jeune fille. When Lizzie was nine or ten, Francis Boott engaged as her first drawing teacher Giorgio Mignaty, a Greek-born history painter associated with James Jackson Jarves in forming the collection of early Renaissance painting that Jarves sold to Yale in 1871. Drawings of both Mignaty and Jarves appear in the sketchbooks of Lizzie's girlhood, where her skill with pencil, pen and ink was developed.

So promising were the portraits and genre sketches of her adolescence that when the Bootts returned to America after the end of the Civil War, Lizzie joined the class for women artists that William Morris Hunt was just introducing in Boston. Then a quiet, serious girl in her early twenties, Boott warmed to the friendship of these ambitious women, the majority of whom were unmarried and, like herself, of independent means. Over the next fifteen years, the strong sense of professional camaraderie among these talented women became Boott's strongest draw to America. (The Bootts could never decide whether to live at home or abroad. After their return to the Continent in 1871, they made two other lengthy visits to Boston, from 1873 to 1875 and from 1881 to 1885.)

During the visit of the 1860s, Lizzie and her father also came to know the James family. Ties to the novelist and his brother William, the philosopher, were particularly close. As for Duveneck, James always admired the painter's work. When he finally met him in Lizzie's Florentine studio, years after the Boston show, he was impressed all over again by its strength and brilliance. To his friend Charles Eliot Norton, then teaching the history of art at Harvard, he wrote that Duveneck was "the most highly developed phenomenon in the way of a painter that the U. S. A. [had] given birth to." He couldn't understand why Duveneck had not made more of a reputation "unless it be that he has apparently an almost slovenly modesty and want of pretension." But James sided with Francis Boott and predicted disaster for "the admirable, the infinitely civilized" Lizzie in marriage with "the brawling illiterate" Duveneck, a man with whom, James said, he was unable to carry on a conversation for more than two minutes.

Her father's disapproval of Duveneck was not Boott's only concern. Holding back at first from an open alliance, she watched a bold woman friend lavish attention on the handsome painter. In Florence, Gertrude Blood joined Lizzie and several others to make up a special club, the Charcoal Club, for evening get-togethers with Duveneck, John White Alexander, whose portrait Duveneck painted that year, Louis Ritter and others from the Munich days. They sketched and sang and had a good time. With Boott at the piano, Ritter played the violin. Duveneck was everybody's favorite, as much at case with women as with men. The escapades and broad humor of his bierstude days, made all the more comical by the mixture of German and English he habitually spoke, were legendary with the group. As eager as Boott to further Duveneck's career, Gertrude Blood promoted his etchings, commissioned him to paint her portrait, and invited him to visit her and her family in Britain. (The following year, however, she married Lord Colin Campbell and soon became embroiled in a salacious divorce case.)

In conflict with her father and unable to decide what to do, abruptly in the spring of 1881, on her thirty-fifth birthday, Lizzie Boott took off for Spain with three women friends from the Hunt class. This first absence of any length from her father was probably encouraged by one of them, her old Boston friend Annie Dixwell, who was a staunch believer in women's independence as well as an enthusiastic Hispanophile. Spain attracted many American artists around this time, largely because of interest in the realism of Velázquez. Like Eakins, Cassatt, Sargent, and others before them, Boott and Dixwell copied Velázquez at the Prado and toured Valencia, Seville and Granada to see the paintings of Goya, Murillo, Ribera, Ribalta and Zurbarán.

When Lizzie rejoined her father they returned to Boston and set up housekeeping near Lizzie's birthplace on Beacon Hill not far from the James's family home on Mount Vernon Street, Soon after, she and Dixwell held a joint show at J. Eastman Chase's Gallery. Images of the Alhambra and other scenes of Spain and Italy were among Boott's thirty-one oils and thirteen watercolors. Duveneck, too, was in Boston, painting portraits commissioned by friends of the Bootts, among them a study of the senior Henry James. But soon signs of conflict surfaced: Lizzie was seriously ill for several months with a special nurse in attendance, a sign, Frank later said, that her health was seriously affected by the break up of their engagement. In November, he returned to Italy. While Boott remained in Boston, Duveneck divided his time between Venice and Florence for most of the next four years. The Joseph Pennells, his companions in the Piazza San Marco, said he was squandering his talent on loafing and that only marriage would save him.

Meanwhile, having recovered her health and with marriage plans out of mind, Boott applied herself to her work with a vengeance: American Water Color Society, Boston Art Club, National Academy of Design, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Philadelphia Society of Artists were all on the exhibition record for 1883. At the Society of American Artists, a painting of roses was singled out for praise by Clarence Cook, a leading New York critic. Boott treated the subject again in a small elegiac panel for her friend Alice James, whose father died that year. In 1884 Boott's one-person show at Boston's Doll and Richards Gallery was widely reviewed and a portrait of a child, exhibited later that year in New York, Little Lady Blanche, elicited high praise. With these successes in mind, the Bootts resolved to return to the Continent, to live in Paris, the art center where many of Lizzie's painter friends had settled. Annie Dixwell accompanied them, and soon the two artists were painting from the nude model in the women's classes at the Academy Julian, essential training not previously available to them.

It wasn't long before Boott and Duveneck were seeing one another again. Frank had spent most of the intervening time in Venice and out of this difficult period had come the large oil painting Water Carriers, Venice, 1884, for which he worked up many preparatory studies, among them The Grand Canal, with Santa Maria della Salute in the background. In the finished painting, handsome women walk along this balustrade carrying their water buckets home, but in the background the emphasis falls to the left on the church of San Giorgio. Venetian monuments were familiar to Duveneck from visits over more than ten years. But the treatment was new. The preparatory sketches, the sun-drenched atmosphere and the picturesque subject matter suggest that Duveneck was thinking of the Paris Salon, For years Boott had been urging him to exhibit there.

In the fall of 1885, he moved to Paris, and not long after Lizzie Boott announced their engagement. "This has been a long affair," she wrote to an old friend in Boston, "lasting for years. The thing was given up entirely at one time, but on meeting again we find the old feeling is not dead, and we are going to make up life together as we did not like it very well apart." Her father would continue to live with them - "most happily," she hoped. She had every intention of remaining active as a painter. At the Salon of 1886, Boott exhibited two paintings, one a still life, the other a portrait of her father in a white suit seated on a green lawn.

On Thursday morning the 25th of March, 1886, Boott and Duveneck were married by a civil magistrate in the Bootts's apartment just off the Champs-Elysées at No. 14 Rue Tilsit. In the fashion of the day, the bride wore dark brown. And the groom borrowed a hundred dollars to cover the expense of the ceremony. The day before, Francis Boott presented Duveneck with a legal paper to sign, relinquishing any claim to Lizzie's estate should she predecease him. He also had his lawyers transfer her estate to him as trustee, a not uncommon practice for a Victorian father determined to protect the assets of a rich daughter.

After a month-long wedding trip, the newlyweds rejoined Francis Boott at the Villa Castellani, and the two painters set to work in space converted to a studio. Lizzie was painting a large canvas of a barefoot peasant mother seated on an ancient wall with swaddled infant and young child, a grouping not unlike the modern Madonnas of Bouguereau. Frank was blocking out a painting of Columbus before the Council of Salamanca. The modello, or life-size sketch, went onto the wall of the big studio, where it remained for more than fifty years, though the painting itself was never completed.

He was happier painting out-of-doors in the podere that stretched below the terrace of the Castellani. Boott's gardener grew grapes there and the fruit trees were heavy with apricots and peaches in the warm Italian sun. Golden light saturates the atmosphere of Duveneck's genre paintings dating from the two halcyon seasons he spent at Bellosguardo with his wife, Italian Girl with a Rake, Siesta, On a Garden Wall, among them. Boott had always disliked the dark realism of his Munich portraits and now, undoubtedly encouraged by her taste for Salon painting, Duveneck too, spun out sunny peasant women in the picturesque costume of the region. Occasionally, husband and wife painted from the same model.

Autumn continued golden in the Florentine hills, and Lizzie, who was expecting a baby in December, felt extraordinarily well. As winter approached, she moved with her husband and father from their hilltop villa to No.9 Via Garibaldi, near the American Embassy in the Cascine section of Florence, where her son was born on December 18th. When the baby was five months old, Francis Boott rescinded the prenuptial financial arrangement and having come to see his son-in-law for the good fellow that he was, restored Lizzie's estate for her "sole and separate use and enjoyment."

Soon Parisian plans were underway. Early in 1888, they all returned to the apartment on the Rue Tilsit where Lizzie and Frank had been married. Frank immediately joined forces with old friends from the Munich days, Louis Ritter, Julius Rolshoven, the baby's godfather, and Theodore Wendel, to paint in an academy. But for Lizzie, a married woman with a baby and an elderly father, Paris was no longer a carefree center of artistic opportunity.

The baby was teething; the Italian wet nurse wanted to go home; she had trouble finding a baby doctor. As the entries in her account book show, Mrs. Duveneck led a busy life: candles and flowers and wine; models and maids; laundresses and dressmakers; cabs and buses and entrance fees to the Louvre.

Yet she was soon able to write to Henry James that despite what they all suffered from Baby, she had taken up watercolors again. Now she decided to submit to the Salon jury a large finished watercolor of the Villa Castellani; and she began posing for a portrait Duveneck would enter. For this she wore the same brown dress she had worn on her wedding day two years earlier. When it was finished in mid-March, she wrote that everybody who had seen it, including her father, was delighted with it. (The beautiful full-length portrait, now at the Cincinnati Art Museum, was exhibited at the Salon in 1888. Also in Cincinnati is Duveneck's noble portrait of Francis Boott from the Salon of 1881.) But Lizzie said it had taken a lot of Frank's time and a lot of hers, too; she was feeling tired and overworked for she was "always much occupied with the baby." March days that year were full of snow; winter had rarely seemed so severe. On the Sunday the Salon jury voted, Lizzie came down with a chill. Soon it was pneumonia and four days later, she died.

Since Francis Boott decreed that the baby was to be brought up with the family of Lizzie's mother's young half-brother and his wife in Waltham, Massachusetts, Duveneck began spending summers in the art colony at Gloucester, forty miles away, in order to be near his little son. One summer, Lizzie had painted with the Hunt class in the Annisquam section of the picturesque seaside community. Occasionally, Duveneck brought the boy there with him on summer visits. (But little Francis Boott Duveneck never saw his father's home in Covington, Kentucky, until he was a young man and his grandfather had died.) With their light-drenched Impressionism, the richly colored landscapes of Duveneck's Gloucester summers are the most important of his late works.

Also during the 1890s, he began teaching special classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum, eventually joining the regular faculty of the Art Academy in 1900. And he traveled back and forth from the Continent to the United States in some what desultory fashion, his life eased by his wife's inheritance. In Cincinnati, he painted nudes; in Madrid, he copied Velázquez. In Venice, he worked on a painting of fishermen. But when Henry James stopped to see him there, he was unrewarded "with the sight of a single stroke of his brush." He wrote to his old friend Francis Boott that Duveneck showed him nothing - "save the beauties of Chioggia and his robust and pleasant self."

James was on his way to Florence where he could indeed see Duveneck's most admired achievement of the early 1890s: the bronze sculptural monument he made for Lizzie's grave in the Cemetery of the Laurels, a recumbent tomb effigy with a palm branch placed along the length of the draped and seemingly weightless body. With its braided crown, the queenly head and regal robes suggested to those who had known Lizzie "the quiet serenity and strength" she had always shown. Francis Boott so admired the personification of his beloved daughter that he asked Duveneck to make a marble version to be shown in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts where Lizzie's little boy and her many friends might see it.

In a letter to Francis Boott, Henry James wrote of the memorial: "One sees, in its place and its ambiente, what a meaning and eloquence the whole thing has - and one is touched to tears by this particular example which comes home to one so - of the jolly great truth that it is art alone that triumphs over fate."


Biographical information on the author:

Carol M. Osborne was previously a curator at the Stanford Museum of Art where she wrote additional material on Frank Duveneck and Elizabeth Boott Duveneck. She also wrote "Lizzie Boott at Bellosguardo," in The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920, Irma B. Jaffe, ed. New York: Fordham University Press and Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1992. Ms. Osborne currently lives nearby San Francisco , California.


Selected articles mentioning Frank Duveneck (1848-1919) or Elizabeth Boott Duveneck (1846-1888) from this magazine:

More resources on the Internet for Frank Duveneck or Elizabeth Boott Duveneck:

Ms. Osborne's essay is courtesy of the Owen Gallery, 19 East 75th Street, New York, New York and the author.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.