Ed. Note: In a coup for the Smoketree School, we’ve discovered that Grace Hall Hemingway, mother of Ernest, painted scenes around the Imperial Valley, Death Valley and the Coachella Valley. Here her grandson, John E. Sanford, looks at Grace’s late-in-life painting career.
In Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway reveals himself to be as much an aficionado of painting as he had been of bullfighting and hunting. At least twenty painter’s names are sprinkled throughout the text from Bosch to Toulouse-Lautrec. It is no surprise that Thomas Hudson, the protagonist of Islands, is a painter.
Also a painter was Ernest’s mother, Grace Hall Hemingway. As a younger woman she was an operatic singer, a voice teacher and a composer. Then, at age 52, she took up painting. At that time, Ernest was age 25 and a recently published writer living in Paris with his wife (Hadley) and son (Bumby).
Just a year after Grace started painting; her husband wrote to Ernest and mentioned Grace’s art. Ernest replied on March 25, 1925, “I’m very glad Mother is painting. I would be awfully interested to see them. If she has any of them photographed I wish she would send me some of the reproductions.”
In February 1927, Ernest wrote to his mother, “Thank you very much for sending me the catalogue of the Marshall Field exhibit with the reproduction of your painting of the Blacksmith Shop in it. It looks very lovely and I should have liked to see the original.”
In September 1928, Grace gave a “Studio Tea” at the Hemingway family home at 600 North Kenilworth and had an Exhibition of Western Landscapes. The catalogue for that exhibit lists 42 paintings, most of which are Western scenes. Other locations mentioned are northern Michigan, Florida and North Carolina.
In The Hemingway Women, Bernice Kert writes that after Clarence Hemingway’s death in December 1928, Grace used the money from the sale of her paintings to pay the taxes on her Kenilworth home. In a frequently told story, the next year, at her son’s request, Grace sent Clarence’s suicide revolver to Ernest. The gun went in a carton that “contained a chocolate cake, some cookies, a book for Bumby and a roll of Grace’s two best canvases of desert scenes, whose safety was her greatest concern. (Italics added for emphasis.) She could not bear to think of losing the paintings and reminded Ernest of her dream that at least one find its way to a Paris salon.”
Recently, Grace’s youngest daughter, Carol Hemingway Gardner, wrote, “I remember when she (Grace) first joined the painting class. Her mother (Caroline Hancock Hall) had painted all her life, but Gracie was only interested in music the first part of her life. When my mother took an interest in something, she went all out. She spent hours copying paintings at the Art Institute in Chicago and many more hours at home. She really did nothing but paint after my father’s death. She also gave talks and played the piano, turning paintings into music.”
In an interview in the April 1937 issue of Artistry Magazine, Grace claimed to have painted over 600 pictures. Edna Sellroe, the author of the article, goes on to say, “The quality of her work has admitted her paintings to the Art Institute of Chicago, prominent galleries, and club exhibits, as well as a showing at the Century of Progress. In addition to this, Mrs. Hemingway has held “one man shows” under the auspices of the All-Illinois Society of Fine Arts, Austin, Oak Park and River Forest Art League and in exhibits at Tulsa, Oklahoma, Santa Fe, New Mexico and the larger cities of California, Kansas, Illinois and Michigan. In 1934 some of her pictures were exhibited in Paris, France.”
An art critic is quoted in the same article as saying, “The reason for Mrs. Hemingway’s universal appeal as a painter is, that she has the interpretation of the old masters combined with the technique of the moderns.” Unfortunately, the art critic (Adah Robinson) did not develop this theme and we are left to wonder if Grace’s paintings would fit in the category of Impressionistic painting – “a single instant of sensory experience” or in the more realistic mode that is traditionally the label applied to Winslow Homer.
In a 1949 newspaper interview, Grace explained how she got started in painting back in 1924. “She joined a painting class ‘just to be a good fellow because the group needed entry fees to bring a teacher from New York.’” The article goes on to say, “The instructor stopped at her easel the first day, studied her work and her gray hair, and expressed surprise she not discovered a bent for painting before. At 60 she learned to drive and headed West to paint the desert.”
Grace says, “I framed the picture in the front windshield, backing the car or maneuvering to left or right to get an artistic grouping of mountains in the background.” Then she goes on to say that she moved to the back seat with her canvas, brushes and easel, “I worked in comfort.”
What she didn’t say was that she was terrified of bugs and snakes, detested the bright sun and felt safer in the back seat of her car than out on the ground while she painted desert scenes. (The author’s recollections from childhood conversations with Marcelline Hemingway Sanford.)
In an article in the Hemingway Review, Margaret Booker states that in 1928 Grace traveled to the Southwest with her brother Leicester who drove her into the desert to paint landscapes. Her notes for an art talk on October 1928 ignore that trip but describe what modernist painters are trying to accomplish. Grace began, “Modernists hold that a picture, to be a great work of art, need not contain any recognizable objects, provided it gives the sensation of rhythmically balanced form in three dimensions, it will have accomplished all that the greatest masters of art have ever striven for.”
Nine years later on August 24, 1937 on the island of Nantucket, Grace gave a lecture to an informal club called The Neighbors. The subject was Travel and Painting in the Great Southwest and she illustrated her talk with her own paintings. Her notes to that talk refer to her joy of traveling alone. (One wonders if her 1928 trip with her brother had been a total success.) Grace says, “But I hold a brief for driving alone, if you are a painter. That seat beside you holds your palette full of fresh paint, and your steering wheel makes a good easel.” In those lecture notes is a reference to leaving Chicago on November 1 and heading for Kansas City “in a deluge of rain and oh how I love driving in the rain. You feel so secure and safe in your little car, while the windshield wiper ticks off the miles.”
That trip took her on to Salina, Kansas for a short stop where she visited the home and studio of Berger Sandsen (Sven Birger Sandzen, 1871-1954), “a most unusual painter, who uses raw color, laid on in ridges and gets a thrilling effect. He is called ‘God’s gift to the paint manufacturers.’”
Her route took her to the dangerous Raton Pass just outside Trinidad, Colorado and on to Taos, New Mexico where she commented, “If you ask me, I think Taos is greatly over rated and commercialized to the last degree.” Nevertheless she enjoyed the artists there, painted several pictures and “stumbled on some story material for my son, Ernest.”
On the same trip she went on to Santa Fe, Gallup and then attended a Navajo Indian nine-day and night dancing ceremony of healing, stopped at Grand Canyon, Phoenix, the Imperial Valley of California and Death Valley “where it poured for three days and nights,” “the floor of the Valley was like a lake.” She comments about Nevada, “(they) never had prohibition. Paid off (the) Federal officers. Gambling runs wide open. It is …Uncle Sam’s naughty boy.”
Before heading home she “painted along the Coast, as far as Carmel and the cypress trees on the 17 Mile Drive.” She took the southern route home and “encountered two sandstorms in Texas, one of which was at night in Amarillo, Texas.” She ended her talk by saying, “It was a grand experience! I hope you will all do it some day.”
There is no mention by Grace in her interviews or in her lecture notes of her own painting heritage. Grace’s mother, Caroline Hancock Hall, was a fine painter. Among Caroline’s many works were her small oils, done on cardboard, of scenes in Iowa where she grew up and of Nantucket where she later summered, which lined the dining room walls of the Hemingway home in Oak Park. I have inherited one of those. I call it, “Stream in Dyersville.”
Before her death in 1951, I visited Grace several times at her home on Keystone Avenue in River Forest. My last visit was in about 1946 and I have strong memory of the house and studio filled to overflowing with her paintings. She was proud of them and they were hung two and three high on all the walls. They were almost like her babies and she hated to part with them. I never dreamed that one day I would go to many of the same places in the Southwest that she had painted nor would I own a small collection of her Michigan and Nantucket paintings.
Another significant omission is that Grace signed her paintings “Hall Hemingway” not Grace Hemingway or Grace Hall Hemingway. My mother told me that Grace used her maiden name “Hall” because she felt that women were discriminated against in the art world and by using a stronger first name, she would command a better price for her work. In my judgment, there was another reason.
Grace’s husband, Clarence Hemingway, had a younger sister with the same name, Grace Hemingway. That Grace Hemingway had already established herself as a nationally known lecturer and performer specializing in telling children’s classic stories in costume. By signing “Hall” as her first name, there could be no confusion about who was the painter in the Hemingway family. Like Ernest, Grace had a strong sense of her place in posterity.
At her death, Grace’s will provided that each of her children receive several paintings. Ernest was designated to receive three:”Sandy Shore,” “Cloudy Sky,” and “Shore Scene.” Each was valued at $20. (Grace’s will in Florida records.) Ernest’s second son, Patrick, recently told me that he recalled inheriting some of Grace’s paintings but in all of Patrick’s movings, they have disappeared.
In her lifetime, Grace did sell several of her paintings and also gave several to friends. During the depression she sold one for $500, which in today’s dollars would be $3-4,000. The grand-daughter of a close friend of Grace had one of Grace’s paintings appraised in the 1970’s and was told that if it were signed by Grace it would worth $10,000 to $15,000. However, when I asked Sotheby’s in 1998 to appraise my collection, I was told that there was no established market and therefore they could give no appraised value.
When I give talks juxtaposing text from Ernest with paintings by Grace, I do not mean to imply that there was any direct connection between his writing and her art. Rather, I feel there was a strong emotional connection between mother and son. Both shared an interest in the arts, in music, in travel and in the redeeming qualities of creative work. Both could be stubborn in the belief of their own opinions, filled with pride, vanity and self-importance.
Ernest’s famous definition of courage, “Grace under pressure,” brings to mind some words of his mother. She once wrote, “The haunting specter of fear must be gagged, tied and thrown out of our lives in order that we may climb the steps of creative work and accomplish what our souls yearn for. The only thing in life that gives real happiness is creative work because that is partnership with the Great Creator.”
Grace could equally well have been writing about her fear of failure as a painter in 1924, or the fear of living alone as a widow under the extreme financial distress that she faced after the suicide of her husband in 1928 or her fear of driving alone across the country in the late autumn of 1936. (Just imagine, she had to deal with narrow, poorly paved two-lane roads, a car without a radio, air-conditioning or windshield washers and she was a driver with no mechanical ability and no background of motor maintenance.) Grace was certainly under a lot of pressure but thanks, in part, to the generosity of Ernest and Pauline in setting up a trust fund for her, she overcame her fears and moved forward to a creative life through painting and lecturing.