Loveletters and their art detail two artists early beginnings
Vyto Starinskas / Staff Photo
Betsy Eldredge with her parent's paintings and words at the art gallery in Springfield.
A Love Story in Paintings and Letters
Showing at the Miller Art Center July 12 through October 8
9 Elm Hill, Springfield
Thursdays 6-8 p.m.
Fridays through July & August 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Saturdays 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Or by appointment at 802-885-4826
By SUSAN SMALLHEER
SPRINGFIELD — When Betsy Eldredge started cleaning out the attic in her 1790 home two winters ago,she came across a family and artistic treasure.
Eldredge, the youngest daughter of artists Stuart and Marion Schumann Eldredge, found two separate bundles — one tied with white ribbon, containing letters in her father’s small handwriting, and one tied with pink silk ribbon, containing letters in her mother’s more rounded script.
They were the love letters the yet-to-be-married struggling artists sent to each other during the summers of 1931, 1932 and 1933, when Stuart was visiting family back in South Bend, Indiana, or at an artist’s colony in New York, and Marion was living with her parents on Long Island.
The letters chronicle a courtship and the encouragement two young artists gave each other as they fell in love. The writings form the core of an exhibit now showing at the Miller Art Center in Springfield through Oct. 8.
“A Love Story in Paintings and Letters,” developed over 18 months by Betsy Eldredge, includes more than 100 oil paintings, watercolors, pastels, ink sketches, full drawings, pencil studies and even small sculptures from the young couple. It also features excerpts from love letters in which they exchanged tips, encouraged each other’s special talents and described their latest work — sometimes writing to each other twice a day.
Betsy’s parents had met as art students in New York City in the early 1930s, both of them students of Kimon Nicolaides, a well known art teacher and author of “The Natural Way to Draw,” a book still widely used by art students.
Their letters were full of sketches the two artists made to illustrate their work, and at times included tender messages between the sweethearts.
“Here is a treasure chest full of love, kisses and all good things. There wasn’t enough room for me, I’m extra. Love, Marion,” she wrote, drawing a small chest in the middle of her letter.
Stuart, who went on to become the more well-known artist, with a specialty in watercolors, confessed he had trouble painting with oils; Marion, watercolors.
“Unfortunately the canvases I had stretched were rather small for the extensive thing I had set up, and I had a terrible time trying to get a composition,” she wrote. “One can get so awkward after a spell of inactivity. I can’t seem to work small. Here you see all the junk – white pitcher, vinegar jug, basket of onions, bread board, etc on a check blue and yellow cloth.”
Stuart wrote to her in June 1932: “I love your still life. It’s a beautiful composition and pattern, I’d like to be doing it myself. I wish you were here to teach me to paint. You always get the essential forms of things you draw so easily that I want to see you paint landscape. So far I can’t paint trees to save me. They just turn out to be so much unpleasant paint.”
At the time Stuart was at the Tiffany Foundation in Oyster Bay, Long Island, a retreat for artists who were under a lot of pressure to produce.
Marion and Stuart loved painting from nature, and both made sharp observations of the natural world, both in their letters and on paper or canvas.
One letter from Stuart described a walking stick, the insect variety.
“Darling, last night I caught a handsome adult male walking stick and drew him and then put him in with the Mrs. Sometime this morning they went into an embrace and at 10 o’clock tonight they were still in it. He has claspers like ice tongs so I suppose she couldn’t get away if she wanted to. He wears grey and white striped knickers on his second and third legs and green socks and a green shirt. She wears a modest green turning to brown dress all over, Love Stu.”
In September 1933, Stuart wrote: “I almost forgot to write to you tonight. I’ve been engrossed in painting on the threshing scene since 8 o’clock except for a few minutes. I’m learning a lot about greens working under ordinary artificial light and from imagination. At least they look luscious now. Maybe tomorrow they will look dull. The three permanent greens with yellow ochre, cadmium, umbers, raw sienna and brown ochre for variations give you all sorts of rich warm greens.”
Two Eldredge portraits — Marion’s portrait of her Stuarrt, and Stuart’s portrait of Marion — start off the exhibit, and Betsy used the portraits as icons to identify the letter writers throughout the unusual, detailed exhibit.
Betsy Eldredge has been working on the exhibit for the last 18 months with help from her artist sister Mary, herself an artist, and last week was still putting the finishing touches on it. The display takes up three rooms and two hallways at the center in downtown Springfield.
Stuart Eldredge died at age 89 in 1992 and Marion Eldredge died just short of her 101st birthday in 2004. Much of their artwork had been distributed to their four daughters and family members.
Betsy Eldredge laughs about her ability to track down sketches more than 80 years old.
“My parents never threw anything away,” she said.
Some of the artwork was on the walls of her house, but a lot of it was in cardboard boxes in the attic.
Eldredge, who has a master’s degree in art history from the University of London, said a museum anthropology class at Dartmouth helped her organize and assemble the exhibit.
“They are the ones talking. They are the ones who had the complaints and the joys. I didn’t have to say anything. They said it all,” she said.
The couple’s exchanges began with a slightly formal tone in the summer of 1931, then gradually revealed their growing love and support for each other. Sometimes their correspondence had a touch of whimsy.
When Marion started signing her letters with a drawing of a bunny hug, Stuart sent her drawings of an imaginary machine that would make more and more bunny hugs.
When they needed encouragement to get over a thorny artistic patch, they sent each other drawings of a “kick in the pants.”
“Here is a whirlpool of love + kisses. All you have to do is jump in,” Marion wrote in the summer of 1932, including a drawing of a whirlpool.
“Your whirlpool was swell,” Stuart wrote back, with a small illustration of an Indiana wetland. “Here’s a marsh full of love from me. Wade right in.”
Boy meets girl
Marion, a graduate of Columbia University’s Women’s College, and Stuart, a graduate of Dartmouth College, had met at New York Art Student’s League in New York. He had an English degree and she a degree in costume illustration, eventually working for Bergdorf Goodman as a fashion illustrator.
But their daughter said it was Marion who won the praises of their art teacher, Nicolaides, who said she was the “most promising” of his students.
There is an interesting back-and-forth between the two sweethearts and art students about painting on canvas with oils, what paints to use, how best to scrape a canvas, and the difficulty of painting wilting flowers.
At some point in the letters, Marion writes to Stuart about making her trousseau, but Betsy says the letters never mention their engagement.
Stuart eventually wrote to his parents in Indiana just before Christmas 1933 from New York: “A big surprise for you, Marion and I are being married Christmas Day in the afternoon and then we’re getting on a train and coming out to see you. ... You’re probably amazed that we should go ahead with this when we’re not rich, but we thought we’d rather struggle along together than separately — after doing a bit of figuring...”
The couple, who married on Christmas Day 1933, bought their 1790 house on Parker Hill in Springfield in 1939, drawn by the desire to live in the country. They moved to Vermont full time in 1943 to raise their family of four daughters and support themselves as artists.
Marion largely put her art career on hold when they were married and started having children. Stuart, in line with the times, pursued his artistic career first in New York and later Vermont. He painted, took commercial commissions, taught, and did murals for both Springfield Hospital and the First National Bank. Those murals now are found in the Springfield Town Library’s children’s room and the Department of Labor on Main Street.
Both Eldredges exhibited annually at the Southern Vermont Art Center in Manchester, Betsy said, but her father gained a reputation as one of the region’s finest landscape and watercolorists as her mother focused on her children and home. Most of her work were still lifes of flowers.
In one gallery, which Betsy calls “The Sequel,” she has hung some of her parents’ later works.
“Mom could manage water color and Dad oils and egg tempera,” she said. “He had a fascination with trees.”
Betsy Eldredge was the only daughter to be born in Springfield and she and her husband, Denis Rydjeski, now live in the family home. She said her father left behind a wealth of framing materials that she put to good use for the show — including more than 100 art objects.
“There were boxes and boxes of drawings,” she said, in addition to the hundreds of letters.
Betsy said reading her parents’ love letters didn’t embarrass her in the least.
“I was fascinated,” she said.