Edna Yenser Gormley (1897-199o) painted by Julie Bruhns Kahle (Mrs. Marcel Kahle) (1858 – 1931
Watercolor on ivory in gold-toned metal frame with stamped and enamelled black foliate decoration
Sight: 3 1/2 x 2 1/2 in. (8.9 x 6.4 cm)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
My Grandmother was painted by Julie Kahle probably in 1919. I was told about this painting by my aunt and mother, who learned of it from my Grandmother. My aunt had gone to the Met shortly before or after my grandmother died and got a black and white version of the work. I was given a copy of it.
I was told it was done when she was still in her late teens, and since she was born in 1897, she was 20 in 1917, 22 in 1919. Either my Aunt and Mother were incorrect or the Met is, or maybe both as they say she was 23 to 27. Evidence that I have suggests it was done in the late 1910’s.The date of the painting is said by the Met to be 1920-24, and suggests uncertainty. I have lots of photos of my Grandmother and 24-27 maybe too old for when the painting was done. She had had two kids by then . He third child, my mother, was born in 1925. So the photographic evidence suggests the painting had to be done around 1920 or earlier. possibly as early as 1918 when my Grandmother was 21.. She had her first baby in 1921, and her body changes after she gained weight. After 1921 she looks much older and heavier and the painting cannot have been done then.
The following photo shows the Yenser family, Thomas and Agnes (Nana) were my Grandmother’s parents, and my Grandmother is on the right, May, her sister, on the left.
Yenser Family:left to right. back row: May, Nana ( Agnes). Thomas. front row: Tom, Edna in front of father, and two unknown younger children.
I am guessing, based on what my mother told me, that this is in a town called Amityville, which was rural then. Grandma told me about the farms and the lack of electric lights and she remembered when there were no cars, only horses. The photo is somewhat damaged, but I suspect that my grandmother is about 16 or 17, and May a little younger. My grandmother’s thick hair is over her left eye, and the right eye is distorted somewhat by the photographic process of that time.
My Great Grandfather, Thomas Yenser, was a publisher, and worked for the Long Island Railroad, among other things, and his main book, Who’s Who in Colored America is to be found in may libraries around the country, usually in the reference section. It is an unusual book for a “white man” to write, as Tom said himself, in one of the documents saved in the W.E.B. Du Bois documents at Harvard states. This books was pursued with a rare and admirable passion and an open mind. I will show that Edna was very much his daughter. The immediate question is, did Kahle grasp this and thus who my Grandmother really was?
As I said, the Kahle painting cannot have been done in 1920 1924 as the Met claims because my grandmother was having babies then and her appearance changed quite a lot, which is typical after having a baby.The photo above has to be from 1918-20 or earlier, because she does not look to have had any babies yet. She is somewhere between 19 and 22, fit as a fiddle, happy, and full of intelligence and life. Did Kahle see her youth and beauty? Yes. She did capture something of the bloom of her beauty, if not her freedom. She got something of the lovely and thick wild hair, which has come up again on my son’s head. I love this photo, she is so full of life as well as a certain pride in herself.
When I compare the thes pictures above, we can see here that Kahle got the nose exactly right and the thick hair, as well as the wide face and forehead.
If we compare it to an even earlier photo it is even more accurate. Here I flipped the portrait over horizontally and show it with the earlier photo to show her lips and hair and how it is nearly exact with the photo, even though the photo is much less exact and rather damaged with noise and blurry. The earlier photo can be seen in its entirety above.
Julie Kahle’s husband, Marcel, died in 1909 and she appears to have taken up painting in 1918, when she was 60. So she probably did the painting of my grandmother between 1918 and 1920. 1919 is a good geuss. The portrait is somewhat fictional, as Grandma was not really a “girl” then, but a 21-22 year old woman. Kahle saw herself as an aristocrat and traveled in some upper crust circles, which included people like Cecilia Beaux, who evidently met Kahle at a New York class given by Elizabeth Cady Stanton ( an artist named after the famous suffragist). This art class was composed mostly of women, some of them very wealthy. one source says that “wealthy dilettantes such as Mrs. Jay Gould, Mrs. Kingdon Gould, and Mrs. Newell Tilton, who arrived for their art lessons in chauffeur-driven limousines.” Gould of course was one of the Robber Barons, who like today’s wealthy, take from the poor and give to themselves.
I don’t like the White Fox fur in the painting because it is a symbol of the upper classes. Killing rare animals and wearing them was what they liked to do to show their abilities at conspicuous consumption, and domination of nature and the uses of arbitrary power through wealth. That was not my Grandmother really. My grandmother did like fur, as did most women in those days. But not much. The only fur I know she had were inherited by my mother. They were a couple of worn out and faded minks, partly moth eaten, which were supposed to be worn around the neck. These odd things still had their heads on and the heads had a sort of tense spring in them which enabled them to clip to one another by their mouths to their tails and were worn that way around the neck. They lived in the closet, as it were, and were sometimes played with by us kids. But I never recall my mother wearing them. So my grandmother probably did not think much, one way or the other, about being decked out in a white fox fur. At 21 what did she know? She was open to life and experimenting, and tried many things in those days, modeling obviously being one of them. She was her father’s daughter, an explorer of sorts, and a man willing to question dominant ideologies. She sang onstage and went to beaches and soon, having children, she embarked on the biggest adventure of them all. So the Fox is not really about Edna so much as it shows Kahle trying to create a fiction of her as a young aristocrat.
Was Grandma an aristocrat? Sometimes she acted like one, a little, or rather she had a certain pride that could be mistaken for aristocratic. She was very smart, and one of her children did well at Yale and the other was Summa Cum Laude at Wellesley. In old age, when she was in her 90’s, she fantasized to me out loud that she was the daughter of an English Prince.But she had dementia by then and it was clearly a fantasy born of that illness. Such a fantasy may have been born when she was in her early 20’s when Prince Edward of Wales visited New York around 1918. But she was really a very intelligent democrat and a woman who loved knowing things.
As this picture by Cecilia Beaux of Kahle shows, Kahle had pretensions to being a wealthy artist of fine miniatures, which generally meant pictures of rich people.
Julie Bruhns Kahle (Mrs. Marcel Kahle), c.1925-26 (oil on canvas) by Beaux, Cecilia (1855-1942); 113.3×84.4 cm;
The genre of portrait miniatures, like the more expensive genre of large Estate portraits, goes back to at least the Elizabethan period as a way for the rich to share likenesses of themselves. It was an upper crust way of carry a loved one in a locket or a small painting in one’s room. They also made for a magnifying ancestor worship, not unlike in Confucian China, where illustrious ancestors were held up as part of family status. Hanging huge portraits on stairwells in large mansions on english and American estates became a hallmark of aristocratic families seeking to show their pedigree as elites. Having little miniatures was more down to earth but often shared to same purpose.
Little miniatures were an aristocratic pastime because they were expensive and did not explore lower classes until fairly recently. Kahle’s painting is actually a picture of a middle class young woman whose father was a radical writer and publisher. This puts my Grandmother in a somewhat outsider class. Kahle is showing my Grandmother as she was, but hiding her behind that white fox fur. Kahle is still evoking the aristocratic tradition. This says much more about Kahle than about my Grandmother.
But the model she chose was anything but an aristocrat. The coat she wears is decidedly middle class as in the wicker chiar she sits in. So it appears that Kahle was trying to upgrade my Grandmother’s class to show off something she was not. but at the same time, perhaps unconsciously, she leaves her dressed in an ordinary coat. Did Grandma have this sort of nouveau rich attitude?. I never noticed that in her at all. But then is this why she downgraded her to girl rather than woman.? Why create a fiction when the real person is so much more interesting?
Grandma was a small woman, only 4’11 or so. Was she using my Grandmother for another purpose? Is this why she did not put Grandma’s name on the picture? She was trying to make my Grandmother into an art historical person to impress her rich friends or painters like Beaux? Yet she captured her face shape and her nose perfectly, as well as her thick hair, though I am not sure the eyelids are quite right. Why would she do such a good portrait of a specific individual and then strip the individual of her name and identity?
It is clear that Cecilia Beaux had no intention of downgrading Kahle, as she dresses her in an expensive 1920’s robe, perhaps made of satin, rather than a painter’s smock, and surrounds her with Delft teaware and fancy wall paper.
The truth is that Kahle would have been shocked to discover that my Grandmother was actually the daughter of a Pennsylvania Dutch Quaker who was so influenced by the abolitionist movement and liberal thinking that he published Who’s Who in Colored America, with his own money, for about 1930 to 1945, or so. Her father was Thomas Yenser, a really brave man who did a marvelous thing over many years. Here is part of the circular letter that is in the W.E.B. Du Bois archive
Tom Yenser rode around the country with is son Tom, who is in the picture next to my Grandmother, above. He was looking for African Americans to add to his book. He says that he may “now knows more of the noted men and women or the Race than any other living person”. This is very likely true as in earlier years he rode around on trains meeting them that way, from town to town. This is an amazing man, who spent much of his own money to finance and publish a book trying to show the equality of colored people with whites. It is an early work of Affirmative Action. He did this for nearly 20 years, though many editions, I think 7, maybe 8. It ended up being his life’s work. It was unappreciated by many, but I once got a letter from Henry Louis Gates, praising the books and saying thanks. It is a book 40-50 years ahead of its time.
My Grandmother was a very liberal woman, also rather ahead of her time and favored things like a woman’s right to choose, gay rights, and many other things that probably would have made Kahle and her circle very upset.
So the painting of my grandmother is does indeed show my grandmother in a coat probably from 1918 or so, which was then popular as it combined a sort of World War I military coat style and Edwardian style. Kahle added the white fox to try to make my grandmother look like an aristocratic when actually she was not. She was the daughter of a radical thinker and activist who tried to change public opinion to help African Americans.
I think his books helped in this process. I am proud of them.
One of the last times I saw my Grandmother was at my mom’s house less than a year before she died, on Feb 10, 1990, nearly 93. She sat down at the piano and at the top of her lungs she belted out “over there, over there, the yanks are comin, the yanks are comin”, at the top of her lungs. She knew the entire song. She was so happy and so full of life. That is what I see when I look at the portrait. I do not see the girl in the white fox, I see the daughter of Thomas Yenser, full of fire and life. She was a smart, brave and hardy girl, mother of three children, who deserves to be honored in the Met, not for the white fox, but for who she was.
So in the last few years I did a painting called History. This work shows me and my kids as well as my wife and mother, and it the midst of it is a miniature of my grandmother, a smaller copy of the one Kahle did, showing her in a similar pose to Kahle, but without the white fox fur. The face is smaller than a postage stamp, only about a half inch high. The very tiny faces are very hard to do. But I did the best I could and I think this makes the history a little more accurate than it was. I am very proud of her, and her father, Thomas Yenser, and think they both deserve to be a part of history, so here I have put her again into the midst of it.
One question that I put at the end, even though I thought of it earlier. Am I doing here what the miniature or great stairwell portrait painters did in the past, trying to create a sort of ancestor worship. No. They were trying to justify great estates and hereditary lineages, dynasties and great personalities. There was an intimacy in some of the miniatures I like. however and that is in the one of my Grandmother too..The two relatives I discuss here, are different than the other side of my family, who were seeking extraordinary wealth, even if they never achieved it. My great Grandfather and Grandmother were not Confucian or English aristocrats. I am not either. I am trying to take away the elitist notion of class that Kahle tried to impose on my Grandmother. I knew her and she was not that. I care as much about the Arctic Fox, now threatened by global warming, as I do about these, people who have so touched my life. So I put a redone version of Kahle work in my painting, to show her in my own history, which is really and not the imaginary history Kahle cooked up.