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An eye on the modern century : the selected letters of Henry McBride /
edited by Steven Watson & Catherine Morris.
New Haven, Conn. : Yale University Press, c2000.
x, 372 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.
0300083262 (cloth : alk. paper)
More Details
New Haven, Conn. : Yale University Press, c2000.
0300083262 (cloth : alk. paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One


A Biographical Sketch

Conventional wisdom suggests that literary and artistic lives reach their climax before the onset of middle age; creativity is associated with youthful ardor and the "discovery" of oneself. The life of Henry McBride refutes this popular formulation--as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that American lives have no second acts. In the case of McBride, we know his first forty-five years as only a sketchy prelude to his professional life. Perhaps McBride's first act was simply long delayed. On the eve of the Armory Show of 1913--the epochal moment when modern art came to America--he appears as a fully formed art critic. From then until the early 1950s, when he stopped writing in his late eighties, McBride changed remarkably little in either voice or taste. In the process, he countered his own belief that it becomes difficult, after the age of forty, to embrace the spirit of the coming generation.


Henry McBride was born on July 25, 1867, the youngest of five children, to John McBride of Philadelphia and Sarah (née Pugh) McBride of Embreeville, Pennsylvania. Both parents were Quakers. McBride's four siblings were much older, and by the time he reached adolescence, they were already married and settled in their own families. A key event of McBride's adolescence was the death of his mother, when he was fifteen years old. Unable to cope singlehandedly with the responsibility for his son, John McBride sent Henry to the Brintons' Boarding House in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Feeling that his immediate family had deserted him, McBride never again enjoyed a close relationship with them. No known letters to or from any member of his immediate family exist--they didn't write, or McBride didn't save them, and even references to family members occur only rarely. But the move to the Quaker-run residence remained a pleasant memory. It was structured and warm, and he so enjoyed some of the food (corn cut from the cob with sour cream, steamed blackberry pudding with lemon sauce) that he later considered writing an essay about those years that would be called "The Joys of Penury." At the boardinghouse he came under the guidance of a fellow lodger, a distressed gentlewoman, who had lived in France and experienced court life. She taught him manners and instilled in him the desire to see Europe.

    McBride, tall and athletic, was a local tennis champion. As his letters attest, he remained avidly interested in tennis, boxing, walking, and swimming, and he showed an early aptitude for drawing. The earliest photographs of McBride show an erect, attractive, personally immaculate, and slightly dandyish figure.

    Around the age of eighteen, McBride began what might be called his first art and writing job: while he kept the books at the nursery owned by George Achelis in West Chester, he also wrote and illustrated the firm's seed catalogs. He continued working at the nursery for about four years, always saving money to study art. Self-sufficiency and economy were traits McBride adopted early on, and they remained core values throughout his life.

    In 1889, having accumulated two hundred dollars, he moved to New York and enrolled at the Artists and Artisans Institute, studying under John Ward Stimson. The institute, at 140 West 23d Street, was highly respected for its practical studio art training. It was, according to the New York Times , "the most promising Art School in the country, established on the broadest and most scientific basis." The Dry Goods Economist called it "the most hopeful institute of its kind now in sight." Stimson, an aristocrat who was also a progressive, had studied art in Italy, Belgium, Holland, and England. He vituperated against the Royal Academy and the National Academy, hated John Singer Sargent, promoted the traditions of Ruskin and Morris, and insisted upon the important connection between art and life. This combination of aristocratic background, advanced aesthetics, and social consciousness provided a personal model for McBride, whose pencil sketches occasionally appear in his letters and journals. Most are travel sketches done on the spot, and they support Stimson's evaluation in 1892 that "McBride drew carefully, correctly and rapidly." That succinct description applied not only to his drawings but to his later writing about art. In the 1890s and into the early twentieth century, when McBride's ambitions were focused on draftsmanship and becoming an artist, rather than a writer, his drawings display the competence and talent of a promising and dutiful student. The sketches that survive exhibit the more socially advanced training provided by Stimson, with illustrative qualities reminiscent of the Left Bank cabaret periodical Le Chat Noir . McBride's drawings tend toward a light quality of caricature that was highly popular at the turn of the century.

    McBride's move to New York opened new vistas, and Manhattan was the first of the foreign territories he mastered. He lived with fellow art students, and he became attracted to the details of New York's downtown street life. Working-class neighborhoods became a staple of his international travel letters and journals. McBride didn't hide his own attraction to the vivid life of New York's slum-ridden Lower East Side, but he bridled when told that depiction of the lower classes must inevitably be tragic. In 1941, when he was scolded by a reader named Hester Huntington for his insufficient appreciation of Reginald Marsh's depiction of the tragic slums, McBride replied with uncharacteristic edge, invoking his own roots: "Did you ever live in the slums, Miss Huntington? I have, and during the years of my association with the Educational Alliance in the East Side I heard more laughter and saw more gay faces in the streets than I did when I ventured uptown to see my conventional friends. It is for this reason that I try to prod my friend Reginald Marsh to a broader viewpoint, for to insist that the slums are invariably tragic is only to know the half of it. True tragedy as the great actor Edwin Booth once remarked can only be portrayed by artists who retain their sense of humor. Fine art is a matter of keeping the proportion."

    McBride's first article, "Backwoods Gardens," was published in November 1890 in American Garden Magazine . The twenty-three-year-old McBride was still rooted in the world of George Achelis's Nursery, and the article was illustrated with his own sketches. He carried the horticultural theme into his next published piece, "One Marigold Laughed at Another." The poem, published in the winter 1894 issue of Artist Artisan Quarterly , speaks in an anachronistic vocabulary but foreshadows the bittersweet note McBride, then a prematurely retrospective twenty-seven-year-old, was to master as he aged:

One marigold laughed at another--

"Thy coat has a tinge of brown,"

"And thine has a tear,

To-day I felt a cold wind,

To-night crisp crickets cry,

The morrow will bring us hard weather.

But what odds, eh? We've

Had some glad weather."

    McBride's other early writings suggest the twin interests that followed his horticultural phase: the Lower East Side and art. "The Lost Children of New York" was published in Harper's (January 1894), and in May 1901 Das Abend Blatt published a Yiddish translation of McBride's account of teaching on the Lower East Side. His first article about art, on the decorations and paintings of Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, appeared in The Art Interchange in 1894. "Two Paintings by Manet at the Metropolitan Museum" followed in the April 1901 Alliance Review , and "Technical Tendencies of Caricature" was published in 1904, with illustrations by McBride's Parisian friend Gustave Verbeck. The confluence of his interest in art and the Lower East Side appeared first in an article, "Art on the East Side," published by the Eastside Artist and Educational Alliance in 1895, and again in 1903, when the New York Mail Express published "Art and the East-Side Jew."

    Although McBride showed early success as a writer, he ceased publishing after 1904. At the age of twenty-six he had merited publication in a journal as reputable as Harper's and was paid the respectable fee of $25. But from the age of thirty-seven to the age of forty-five, McBride published nothing that is known (or at least nothing that he saved, as was later the wont of a man who collected all of the "clips" of his writing).


During the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, Henry McBride's life was dominated by teaching. With Stimson's help and encouragement, in 1896 McBride became an instructor of an "antiques class" at the Educational Alliance, teaching each Tuesday and Thursday from 10 to 12 A.M. The Educational Alliance was an institution formed in 1889 from three separate organizations, the Hebrew Free School Association, the Young Men's Hebrew Association, and the Aguilar Free Library. Described as a "curious mixture of night school, settlement house, day care center, gymnasium and public forum," the Alliance was housed in a large five-story building at 197 East Broadway. Its mission was to serve as "an agency of American acculturation." One of the Alliance's goals was to improve its students' "standards of taste." The Alliance initiated art programs in 1895, and the art school was housed within the walls of a large social service institution that also held classes in English, theater, and music. The students were primarily first-generation Jewish children of Eastern European immigrants. The influx of immigrant groups with their progressive social ideals reinforced a generally accepted notion in New York that America, at the end of the nineteenth century, was in the midst of a huge social upheaval. McBride began his tenure at the Alliance with an optimistic respect for his students' potential. McBride's early support and encouragement of the Jewish students at the Educational Alliance became overshadowed in his later life by a politically and emotionally charged anti-Semitism that finds its voice in the letters of the 1930s. McBride's distaste for communism and socialism fostered his anti-Semitism, which became more pronounced during the Depression and the events leading up to World War II.

    McBride accepted the job of instructing the students in drawing. In addition to the traditional curriculum of drawing from plaster casts, McBride added a life-drawing class to the curriculum. Drawing from the live model was to become a dominant practice in the following years. The art school grew under McBride, who added courses in industrial design and painting in 1902. In 1901 McBride organized the first exhibition of works by the Art School's own students. He also wrote articles on art and his own experiences traveling in Europe for the school's magazine, the Alliance Review . The aesthetic sense that McBride passed along to his pupils is reflected in his own illustrations from the period. McBride's educational goals can be said to reflect the priorities that were later elucidated in his criticism: nurturing creative talent that combined a technical ability with a mature and personal creative vision.

    McBride felt that his students at the Alliance possessed a talent born of their roots in European culture. His pupils were, for the most part, poor young children from families struggling to establish a foothold in their adopted country, and simultaneously facing the prospect of becoming a part of a society that didn't make much room for the traditions and cultural mores of their native lands. Many of those students came of age artistically when the influence of European culture on the developing ideas of modernism in the United States was at its peak. A few of McBride's students later showed their art in the Armory Show and became subjects of their former teacher's essays: Jo Davidson, Jacob Epstein, Samuel Halpert, and Abraham Walkowitz.

    Looking back, McBride expressed affection for his teaching years on the Lower East Side. He probably identified with his ambitious students' desire for upward mobility through education, for by the early twentieth century he had notably educated himself and moved from rural Pennsylvania to New York and Europe. The warmly avuncular presence that became a trademark of his later relationships in the art world could be seen in his style at the Educational Alliance. After class, one former student recalled, McBride sometimes treated small groups to chocolate and cookies in the neighborhood.

    At the turn of the century McBride took a second job, as director of the State School of Industrial Art at Trenton, New Jersey, founded by John Stimson. For several years he divided his week between the two positions, while living at 53 West 25th Street. He was highly regarded in New Jersey, where the Trenton Gazette quoted his description of a summer trip to Europe, even featuring his photograph on the front page. It also reported on his appearance at the Art School's annual costume dance, where Professor McBride dressed as "a king, in a long white crepe garment decorated with gold and in immense crimson togs," and was followed faithfully by a soldier in orange and black.

    In contrast to the students at the Educational Alliance, who were virtually all children of European immigrants, McBride found his students in New Jersey to be aesthetically conservative. He ascribed this timidity to their tenuous connection to a European cultural tradition. McBride later told an interviewer that he decided then that Americans "faced terrible handicaps in approaching the life of art." He aspired to overcome those handicaps. He later wrote that if he had sufficient money to transform the milieu, "I know that I could guarantee an atmosphere in this country that would produce artists within ten years."

    To stimulate thinking, ideas, and friendship in Trenton, McBride tried to re-create the atmosphere of his friend Robertson Trowbridge's salon. He founded and participated in an organization called the Symposium, whose members gave presentations, which were followed by discussion.

    By the end of McBride's tenure as the director at the Trenton school, its reputation and enrollment had risen considerably; in his final year, for example, thirty-eight students had been added. The Gazette reported, perhaps hyperbolically, that the school was no longer a small establishment for the study of practical arts but an institution "which is recognized by the art educators in Philadelphia and New York and other large cities of the East and West of the first class, a recognition that is indeed gratifying to educational Trenton."

    From these two teaching experiences McBride seems to have taken away a sense that making truly important art that could be judged against its European peers was, at best, a difficult proposition in the United States. Or, as Lincoln Kirstein put it, "After five years he was driven to feel that, by and large, at this state in our historical development, although many Americans possessed talent, few had drive." At the close of his teaching career in Trenton, McBride turned his full attention toward his own study of the cultural influences of Europe. Ten years later, when modernism finally established a permanent foothold in this country, McBride's feelings about the viability of an important school of American modernism made an about-face.

    During the period of McBride's involvement with the Educational Alliance and the Trenton school of art, Robert Henri and his circle of friends were effecting radical changes in the production and exhibition of artwork, and also in its teaching. The Idea of an artist being of his own time and place was probably one of the earliest modern truths a man of McBride's generation would learn. The belief in the value of the experience of the common man, also touted by Henri, probably affected McBride's work at the Alliance and at the School of Industrial Arts. He interjected into this formula his firm belief in the right of every man to better himself through experience and education. In an article in the Alliance Review about his travels and studies in Europe, McBride strove to teach by example the value of self-education and the benefits to be gained from exposure to European culture. This lesson remained important to McBride and made regular appearances in his writing over the next fifty years. In some sense, the American public became, for McBride, those same pupils, and his mature writing style often reflects a teacher's voice and tone.

    By all apparent measures, McBride was a successful educator. But in December 1906, he fled this milieu, and his chief preoccupation over the next four years was his own re-creation through travel and writing. He later called it a "nervous breakdown," but said nothing more. What we know of the next five years is this: McBride traveled to Italy, Paris, and London with a companion named Walter Radcliff in 1906-7, and he became acquainted in 1909 with two detectives named Raymond and Reiter, and also a detective named Otto Nickli, who became a close friend. We do not know how he supported himself. Perhaps he was able to live on the money he had accumulated working two jobs.

    Among the unknown elements of McBride's biography are any facts about his sexual life. There is no unambiguous evidence of any romantic relationships with either women or men. In the years after McBride's death, several men who were themselves homosexual (Virgil Thomson, Charles Henri Ford, Philip Johnson) offered anecdotal evidence that McBride was gay. Each of them met McBride when the art critic was over sixty, and their observations concerned his sexual orientation rather than specific sexual behavior. Max Miltzlaff, a close friend and companion of McBride's from 1934 until his death, did not subscribe to the notion that McBride was homosexual. Although McBride has been described in print as "openly gay," the evidence suggests that it can be more accurately stated that he was openly not heterosexual.

    The fact that McBride left no direct evidence or allusions to any sexual experience says a great deal in itself, both about the privacy of the man and the privacy of the time. Because there are at least two instances of letters having been cut with a scissors, it is possible that sexual references have been censored. Based on a combination of hearsay, McBride's homosocial networks, and minor evidence within the letters, it is clear that McBride was attuned to masculine beauty and discussed the good looks of men he encountered more than he discussed female beauty. His close friends were mostly men, many of them homosexual, and several of the social milieus with which he was associated--the Stettheimer gatherings, the Gertrude Stein salon, the Askews' parties--were open to, and sometimes dominated by, homosexual men.


Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2000-11-13:
Whether the fare was Virgil Thomson's opera Four Saints in Three Acts, Picasso's or Marcel Duchamp's paintings or Gertrude Stein's prose, critic Henry McBride (1867-1962) was noted for his friendly, upbeat acceptance of modernist art, literature and music in such avant-garde periodicals as the Dial. McBride could make it all seem cozy and friendly, in part because he enjoyed friendships with many vital creators during his long lifetime. As a youngish tourist, McBride is not brilliant: "Botticelli is not so tremendous to me as he used to be." Starting a journalistic career in 1912 at 45, he approved heartily of modern artists like Juan Gris, but saved his case making for his criticism. At times, McBride seems to have been a rotten judge of character: he found the young Nelson Rockefeller "really a nice lad." In 40 years of letters to friend Malcolm MacAdam, he camps it up genteelly, probably coming the closest to his real-life intimate talking style, joshing for example about Thornton Wilder's being the "friend intim" of boxer Gene Tunney. McBride hints elsewhere at the amusingly gossipy personality he clamped down on in public and which did not stray, even in the letters, into intimate detail. (Editor Watson refers to McBride as "openly not heterosexual.") Students and less formal fans of modernism will want to check out this informal champion's quotidian, but they will find few of the kind of revelations that make for good hype. (Jan.) Forecast: If stores with solid selections of lesser-known modernist literature stock this book along with McBride's selected criticism, The Flow of Art (also from Yale), or with the recent Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America (Forecasts, Oct. 16) and Stravinsky's Lunch (Forecasts, Oct. 9), could attract a bigger audience than it otherwise might. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Choice on 2001-09-01:
An influential critic from 1913 to the 1950s, McBride corresponded with writers, artists, society figures, and collectors, including Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, and Georgia O'Keeffe. With the assistance of McBride's longtime companion, the editors bring insight to the introduction, selection, editing, and arrangement of the letters and to a biographical chapter on McBride and paragraph-length sketches on his friends. The index identifies major works of art and literature mentioned by McBride. Footnotes explain details. The illustrations are another commentary, contrasting McBride's own early traditional work as an illustrator with avant-garde portraits of McBride by the artists he championed. Though the editors name the libraries that contributed letters to the volume, they do not identify the owner of each letter (an inconvenience for scholars who need to see unedited originals). Instead, they take a broader approach to the material, naming the best collections and resources for further study. This highly recommended work supports research on art criticism and 20th-century culture. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. M. M. Doherty University of South Florida
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, November 2000
Choice, September 2001
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Bowker Data Service Summary
This collection of letters was written by Henry McBride, who became a towering figure in art criticism during a long career beginning in 1913. In the letters, McBride describes some of the events and personalities of 20th-century modernism.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Notes on the Text
Introduction: The Cultivation of Henry McBridep. 1
Henry McBride: A Biographical Sketchp. 17
Letters, 1894-1959p. 35
Art Criticism at the Beginning of McBride's Careerp. 81
Gertrude Steinp. 91
The Dialp. 122
The Stettheimer Sistersp. 136
Malcolm Macadamp. 145
Callicastep. 165
McBride's years at Creative Artp. 182
McBride and Four Saints in Three Actsp. 244
McBride Meets Max Miltzlaffp. 278
Changes in the 1950sp. 317
McBride's Collectionp. 327
Biographical Sketchesp. 341
Selected Bibliographyp. 357
Indexp. 361
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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