The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing…
Posted on September 30, 2016
“The prolongation of the house”, was how the avid gardener and writer Edith Wharton once described Italian gardens. In addition to her fiction, Edith created 7 homes for herself over the course of her career and wrote several non-fiction books regarding the subject of home. I recently re-read my favorite Edith Wharton novel–not her best maybe, or best known–The Custom of the Country. Undine Spragg is as beautiful and unscrupulous protagonist as they come, and the book still seems perfectly contemporary almost a century later. Still thinking about the novel, I was pleasantly surprised when another book by Ms. Wharton came across my desk.
Already enjoying some fame for her fiction, the publisher of Century magazine convinced her to to begin a series of articles titled Italian Villas and their Gardens that would go on to become a book of the same name first published in 1904 illustrated by Maxfield Parrish. She once said, “My visual sensibility must always have been too keen for middling pleasures.” So it is with Parrish’s lush illustrations for the book. Villa’s bathed in light by his hand become more than just representation.
I imagine that Parrish’s work on these illustrations for Villas influenced the amazing collaboration by Louis Tiffany and Parrish in the 1914-1915 mural Dream Garden in Philadelphia. Despite the success of the final piece, Tiffany and Parrish actually were quite contentious of one another and disparaged each others contributions to the project.
The work was commissioned by Cyrus Curtis, publisher of The Saturday Evening Post, for his new Philadelphia headquarters. Parrish was actually not his first choice, he had used him before and wanted something different, but a series artists he selected from Europe ended up dying before they began working on the mural. Feeling cursed, he was inspired about a collaboration when he saw the folding glass curtain Tiffany created for the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and he turned back to Parrish for the artwork.
Parrish initially studied two years of Architecture before turning to painting, and in his later years he decided he was tired of “girls on rocks” and painted mostly landscapes. Not as popular as his humanistic work, it is the romanticism of these houses in their landscapes I find so appealing.
While Parrish painted houses, Wharton created one of her own–The Mount in Lenox, MA. It was the only one of Wharton’s 7 houses that was built from the ground up, and her published ideas on architecture, landscaping and design cumulate in the Mount. Maybe this is why the Mount is advertised as “Edith Wharton’s home” and is today a cultural center and historic house museum. In fact, due to Edward Wharton’s physiological issues her long marriage was strained and she only lived at the Mount for roughly a decade.
When her marriage ultimately ended in divorce in 1913, she resettled to France. Her new residence in France was the villa Pavilion Colombes, near Saint Brice, Seine-et-Oise where she lived until her death.
When war broke out, Wharton was in Paris where she threw herself into relief work. She created a space for skilled women put out of work by the closing of workrooms, as well as feeding and housing 600 Belgian refugee orphans. France awarded her the Cross of the Legion of Honor and Belgium made her a Chevalier of the Order of Leopold, and at her memorial representatives of the French War Veterans Association of Saint Brice accompanied the coffin, honoring her war work for France.
She once said, “No children of my own age…were as close to me as the great voices that spoke to me from books. Whenever I try to recall my childhood it is in my father’s library that it comes to life…”
Her work can not be separated from the time in which she lived, just as the trappings of her life can not be separated from her work. Born into a world of society and privilege, she was able to write scathingly and truthfully about it from the inside. She also lived an extraordinary and interesting life breaking out of much the Victorian expectations that surrounded her. She created some of my favorite works of literature reflecting on class, expectations and freedom. I am the third generation Wharton fan in my family, she was a favorite author of both my grandmother and great-grandmother, and I hope not the last.
“The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing.” –Edith Wharton
Thank you Ms. Wharton–for yours.