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As I read Maitland Armstrong’s words, I heard David McCullough’s voice as he narrated Ken Burn’s The Civil War.  Maitland Armstrong (1836-1918) did many things during his long life but I was particularly interested in his journey as painter and stained glass designer.  I’d first learned about him as part of my research into the artists involved with decorating Trinity Church.  Maitland’s name had surfaced as a friend and contemporary of John LaFarge.

I chanced upon his memoir, Day Before Yesterday: Reminiscences of a Varied Life, published posthumously in 1920.  It opens, “I was born on the 15th of April, 1836, at Danskammer on the Hudson, near Newburgh.” In it he writes with great affection for his family and especially his mother.  He describes her southern roots, how she would sometimes leave New York to winter in Charleston, South Carolina, and how she nurtured his interest in painting before her death in 1853.

I had planned to skim Armstrong’s memoir focusing on his friendships with people like John La Farge and Augustus St. Gaudens.  In the table of contents, there is a chapter, St. Gaudens and Others.  But there was also a chapter, The South Before the War.  What did this artist have to say about such a time and place?

Well, what he does is describe in great detail, by painting with words, life in the south on a small network of plantations and the neighboring environs.  Even with his blood ties to a number of the families, he reports with a northern perspective.  He enjoys the hunting and accepts the slavery.  He learns a new language about the poor whites known as crackers and the slave assigned to him, his little darky.

It was in 1853, perhaps after the death of his mother, that Armstrong and his brothers traveled to Charleston.  There, while he is staying with relatives, the Wilkins family, they drive to their plantation Kelvin Grove, where Armstrong describes there was “a nice little village of comfortable white cabins for the negroes. But there always was in evidence a driver, as he was called, who was a superior negro and carried a whip.

He visited several family relations while in the South, from the Wilkins to his cousins, the Screvens.

The detachment with which Armstrong is able to describe the scenes that took place around him in the south (and in a later chapter his description of turmoil in New York) make clear his compassion for others but also his upper class background that separated him from those others.

At the end of the chapter Armstrong describes how that period in the south was one of the most delightful times in his life.  No cares, no worries. He would receive a letter decades letter from a family member describing the loss of the plantations and the slaves, the occupation by Union troops, and the auctioning off of property to pay debts.

Armstrong would return to New York, attend the very best schools, and travel the world.  His life was truly varied serving as student and teacher in several different fields.  As a stained glass artist he would collaborate on masterpieces with his daughter, Helen Maitland Armstrong.  He would serve as a Consul General in Rome.  And near the end of his days, he decided to chronicle that life.

For anyone researching artists of a particular generation who ran in the same circles – La Farge, St. Gaudens, McKim, White, etc – this book could be an interesting resource. Armstrong describes personal vignettes of how these people interacted socially and appreciated each others work.  You could even completely ignore that chapter about the south.  But I think that chapter is important because, from a different source, it shines a light on life in the past … and it is that past that is the shaky foundation upon which we continue to try to build a brighter future in this country.

Nativity: Design for the Stickney Memorial Window, Faith Chapel, Jekyll Island, Georgia, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nativity: Design for the Stickney Memorial Window, Faith Chapel, Jekyll Island, Georgia, Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Sources/Additional Readings

Day Before Yesterday: Reminiscences of a Varied Life, 1920

Old Glass New Windows by Will H. Low, Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 4, 1888

Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Collection Online

Wikipedia — Maitland Armstrong

Year Books of the Architectural League of New York (late 1800s, early 1900s)

 

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