Poet and author Molly Peacock has spent eight years researching the life of Mary Hiester Reid, a 19th-century American painter who, at 31, married Canadian artist George Agnew Reid, a fellow student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The result is Flower Diary: In Which Mary Hiester Reid Paints, Travels, Marries and Opens a Door, a speculative biography that follows Reid from Philadelphia to Paris, Madrid, Toronto and a summer artists’ colony in the Catskill Mountains to determine how she juggled her career and the household of her more famous husband. Peacock previously wrote The Paper Garden, an alternative biography of the English botanical artist Mary Delaney, and discovered Reid when she was shown A Study in Greys, a 1913 image of two flower jugs and a pewter plate that echoes the famed tonalism of the American painter James McNeill Whistler. In that painting, as in Reid’s private life, a threesome becomes a theme.
How did you discover Mary Hiester Reid?
After I wrote The Paper Garden I wanted to do something in North America. I started to research North American botanical artists and I wasn’t getting enough material. I was asked to speak at the Art Gallery of Ontario on a single painting. I said, ‘Well, have you got any 19th-century women flower painters?’ They led me to A Study in Greys. It’s a gorgeous and subtle thing. And it’s so triangulated, these three groups of flowers, these three objects. I started to do the research and I was in.
Why did you decide to include information about your own marriage [to Michael Groden, the University of Western Ontario English professor and James Joyce scholar, who died last April]?
I love footstep biographies. I tried to follow her footsteps in all the places that she was, and I thought, but she was there with her husband, why not try to take my husband? I’m a poet and I’m trained as a poet, but I learned my scholarship from researching and writing biographies. And I was married to a scholar, a significant scholar. I asked the poet’s questions, but he asked the scholar’s questions. So I said, ‘Why don’t you come with me?’ I wasn’t intending necessarily to put that in, but I realized that there was a hidden dialogue, and if I brought it to light there would be greater texture and there would be more depth.
There is a movement to reclaim female artists of the past but there were so few. What’s your theory about why there weren’t more?
In entering her world, I entered a world of sexism that I remembered as a child. I was brought back into an atmosphere where women were constantly made fun of and constantly degraded. And the idea of having ambition was so outré. There’s [humourist] Stephen Leacock saying, ‘If women get the vote, we won’t have Christmas any more. They won’t make us Christmas.’ It’s a miracle any woman painted anything at all. And then when you see someone painting so determinedly with such quality, you really have to investigate that. Do I think every single woman artist we turn up from the past is going to bowl us over? Many male artists from the past don’t necessarily bowl us over either. It’s not a question of ranking people. It’s a question of understanding that there was a lot going on and that we didn’t know about it.
She spent her whole life flying under the radar. I think of her as a stealth feminist. She must have been convinced that if she went louder than a whisper, the hugeness of her ambition was going to be called into question. It was a lot more important to make art than to make waves.
We aren’t ranking the artists, but nonetheless, I was left with the impression that perhaps she was the greater talent than her husband. George Reid is a large figure in Canadian art history but her tonalist stuff … She had more modernism in her.
I think the power of her work is both in its emotion and its technique. For me, art that is memorable and profound has passionate virtuosity. She’s got the passion, the emotion and the fabulous technique. The paintings are alive.
The Reids were childless but we don’t know if they were using birth control or simply infertile: How do you balance the research on that?
My sense is that if she had children, she might have stopped painting altogether. Do I know whether that was the choice? I do not. But I’m interested enough to poke around. What were women doing? You could buy these little pessaries if you looked in the newspaper, these ‘ladies items.’ And there were instruction manuals to teach men the withdrawal method.
My sense is that they were a very sensuous couple. In the anatomy classes that Thomas Eakins taught [at the Pennsylvania Academy] the models were often ravaged bodies, you were looking on the street for models. In order for the women students to look at a youthful, healthy body, they would have to model for each other, not in a classroom, but privately. Imagine being dressed from your ankles to your chin and then suddenly taking off your clothes, and you’re young. What a sensuous atmosphere was created, and that’s the atmosphere they met in.
You also speculate that George Reid might have had a relationship with Mary Evelyn Wrinch, his former student who would become his second wife after Mary Hiester’s death from a heart condition. What led you there?
He married her eight months after Mary died. And the second thing is that Marion Long, the Canadian painter, witnessed a conversation between Mary Hiester and Mary Evelyn Wrinch.
Mary [Hiester] said: ‘George will be needing a wife and I think it should be you.’ So that was the seed of it.
And I think that architecture speaks. The fact is when he built his house in Wychwood Park [a suburban enclave now inside Toronto] with side-by-side studios, he never expected his wife not to paint. They were always painting together, they were a unit. But right next door, he builds a house for their student, who has been studying with them since she was 18. She’s in her 40s.
I don’t know if you have an actual ménage à trois, but you have established the distinct atmosphere of a ménage à trois. In the newspapers of the day, it’ll say, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Reid and Miss Wrinch attended this art opening …’ It seemed absolutely accepted that the three of them were together. If I were writing a novel, of course, they would have been together, or I would even have teased out a relationship between the two women.
You anticipate my next question: Why not write a novel?
I thought about it, but I’m not a novelist, I’m a poet and I love real life. People’s lives endlessly fascinate me; I’m just chewing on the actual reality.
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