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Susan Ricker Knox (1874 - 1959)

By Deborah M. Child and Jane D. Kaufmann



On December of 1920 Susan Ricker Knox attended a Christmas program given by a group from the Metropolitan Opera for the immigrants in the detention room at Ellis Island. In the many races crowded together there she found a rich source of subject matter and produced a group of paintings of immigrants that became well-known and were widely exhibited. Their most important exhibition was in the Committee Room at the House of Representatives in Washington in 1921 while Congress was debating establishing quotas and restricting immigration to the United States. In an August 1923 article by Haryot Holt Dey in Art and Decoration, Knox speaks of painting the immigrants and of the emotions she saw "in the faces of the 'types' as they were regarded in Washington." She added, "of course, I had no idea of the use to which they [the paintings] would be put when I was making them, thirty-two pictures in all, and I am told that they have been a big factor in the decision of one of our country's greatest problems."[1]

Knox was born in Portsmouth in 1874 and died in 1959 in Concord (both in New Hampshire), where she had been residing with her nephew. She attended art school at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia from 1896 to 1899,[2] and later studied at the Cooper Union in New York City. Howard Pyle, Clifford Grayson and Douglas Volk are credited in the literature as her teachers, and she also made study trips to Europe. [3] By 1913 she had become a well-known portrait artist in New York City, admired for her depictions of children as well as adults. She had a winter studio at the National Arts Club, and a summer studio, a cottage which she designed herself, in York Harbor, Maine.

A keen, understanding and sympathetic observer of emotions and interactions, Knox was a realist, as well as a humanist. She often painted with strong color and a heavy impasto. In a 1933 interview she expressed her feeling about her art.[4] A portrait, she believed, was "an interpretation of personality...the goal to be obtained is the spirit of the sitter." In the same article she also spoke of her method of painting children, " my own case the presence of a third person is necessary. The painter, I feel, should be relieved of all visible effort and the child entertained so that he may enjoy the sittings and be rested rather than tired by them."

One such portrait, done in 1904, is the study of the two little boys done in charcoal and china white. This early work may have been what led her to the conclusion that the presence of another person was necessary to keep child subjects entertained during a sitting. The boys are beautifully dressed and posed, but from the expressions on their faces, it is evident that they did not want their picture done. This is possibly a study for an oil portrait, never realized, or at least not located at the present time.

While she had many commissions for child portraits, she was also known to hire her own models. Two paintings of a red-haired girl, The Open Window and In Lilac Time, are among these. The sitter was a resident of Kittery, Maine. Knox, always on the lookout for color, was impressed not only by the girl's beauty, but by her lovely red hair. In The Open Window, she provided the blue dress which reflected the color of the girl's eyes. The foliage outside the York Harbor studio window, painted in an impressionistic manner and palette, creates a sense of air movement which provided vivid contrast to the stillness of the sitter. The same girl was also posed outside beneath a garden umbrella for In Lilac Time. The colorful flowers on her hat and the lilacs in her basket complement the red of her hair in the sunlight.

Early in the 1920s Knox painted a portrait of two little sisters. Both favorite models of Knox and York Harbor residents, they were paid twenty-five cents an hour for sitting. Here Knox captures the sweetness and innocence of childhood. However, the locale and sitters of Japanese Tea Party, are unknown. It is a bright, happy, colorful painting of childhood done in a bold impressionistic manner, reminiscent of John Singer Sargent's Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose. [5]

Painting immigrants at Ellis Island was an entirely different experience for Knox. She had to paint rapidly and accurately, realistically yet impressionistically, with great sympathy and understanding of her subjects. Although waiting patiently, these people are tense, worried, anxious, and their faces and postures reflect this. The somberness of these paintings is relieved by bright spots of color, reds, blues, yellows, and greens in the immigrants clothing. The soft focus in which The Yugoslavs, The Sick Child is painted is typical of Knox's immigrant paintings. Perhaps to emphasize the subjects' dejection and the seriousness of their situation, Czechoslovakians, All Deported for Lack of Funds, is sharper and the palette darker.

In addition to painting immigrants at Ellis Island, Knox also captured the immigrants as they settled in the Lower East Side of New York, creating colorful paintings of street scenes and push-carts. She said, "I think art should concern itself with the conditions of the time in which the artists lives, especially when color is so rampant in the lives of these foreigners."[6]

She also did a series of paintings of elderly women in an old peoples' home in this area. East Side Gossips is one of these. The painting is somewhat dark. Knox was probably recreating the natural lighting of the room, enlivening it by the whites of the women's scarves, and the yellows, dark reds, greens, and blues in their clothing. Knox has painted them quickly, almost like a sketch, and has seen and caught a moment of intimacy among them. She is not making a critical statement only she responding to their circumstances.


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