Lady Meux

In the previous Museworthy post, commenters Bill and Chris added to my exhibition links by mentioning the new Dutch Paintings show at the Frick Collection, something I neglected to include in the post. Thanks guys! Forgetting Vermeer, the great master of the Dutch Golden Age, is a punishable offense in my opinion. I’ll go sit in the corner now 😆

Apart from special exhibitions, The Frick is home to one of the most impressive permanent art collections in the world. If you were to ask New Yorkers which of our magnificent museums they most adore, more than a few will claim the Frick as their favorite. The museum’s mansion building, located on Fifth Avenue at 70th Street on Manhattan’s upper east side, was the residence of steel magnate Henry Clay Frick.  Among the many treasures in the Frick’s possessions is James McNeill Whistler’s Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux, 1882. One glance at the alluring beauty, frank stare, and defiant posture of this woman and the viewer is compelled to learn more about her.

WhistlerMeux

The scenario is one we’ve heard before, and it’s almost as old as time itself. For some of us it never loses its intrigue and appeal: young woman of modest and/or sketchy background marries into a wealthy, prominent family, is not accepted in polite society, proceeds to stir things up despite being treated as an outsider and generally doesn’t give a crap what anyone thinks of her. Lady Meux was born Valerie Susan Langdon in 1847, daughter of a village butcher in the county of Devon. Little is known about her early years, only that she claimed to be an actress and worked as a barmaid and banjo-strumming music hall performer under the name Val Reece. The inevitable rumors of her possibly working as a prostitute swirled about. Fast forward to 1878 when she met, in a tavern or casino of some sort, Sir Henry Meux, 2nd Baronet, member of Parliament and heir to the Meux & Co. brewery fortune. Sparks flew, they married in haste, and the aristocratic circles of England now had an eccentric, strong-willed, violet-eyed interloper in their midst.

In the early 1880s, James Whistler was still recovering from his rancorous libel suit against John Ruskin, a trial which left the artist financially bankrupt. Lady Meux’s offer for some paid commissioned work  couldn’t have come at a better time for Whistler, so naturally he jumped at the chance. The Pink and Grey piece above is one of the works produced from their sessions. This one, Arrangement in Black, is another. It hangs in the Honolulu Museum of Art. Dripping in furs and diamonds, Lady Meux is unabashedly presenting herself as a socialite, as if to say “Yeah, I married into money. You got a problem with that?” . The butcher’s daughter from Devon strikes a pose. Work it girl 😉

WhistlerMeuxBlack

A third painting was created but was eventually destroyed by Whistler himself. We don’t know the specifics, but apparently he and Lady Meux exchanged testy words during a sitting. His prolonged, tedious demands got on her last nerve, she voiced her impatience, he didn’t appreciate her complaining, and the whole thing was called off. Whatever remained of the painting was obliterated at Whistler’s hands in disgust.

Being shunned by upper-crust Victorian society had zero effect on Lady Meux’s dogged pursuit of her interests. She was an avid collector of ancient Egyptian artifacts and rare Ethiopian manuscripts, owned thoroughbred racehorses, renovated the Meux’s estate at Hertfordshire, which included the installation of a roller rink, and is  believed to have been an incognito attendee at boxing prizefights. It is also said that she had herself transported around town in a carriage pulled by zebras!

But not all of Lady Meux’s ventures were acts of flamboyant self-indulgence. Upon hearing of the British Navy’s tough battles during the Second Boer War, Lady Meux personally ordered and paid for six “12 pounder” high-velocity artillery guns to be sent to the Royal Navy. The War Office refused the shipment, so Lady Meux had them sent directly to South Africa. According to Wikipedia, the Boer War chapter  of Lady Meux’s life – and her colorful life itself – ends this way:

When Sir Hedoworth Lambton, (the commander of the Naval Brigade at Ladysmith) returned to England, he called on Lady Meux at Theobalds to thank her for her gift and recount his adventures. She was so taken with him that she made him the chief beneficiary of her will, on condition that he change his surname to Meux (she was without direct heirs). When she died on 20 December 1910, he willingly changed his name by Royal Warrant and inherited the Hertfordshire estate and a substantial interest in the Meux Brewery.

I found online the New York Times obituary of Lady Meux, published in 1910.

Have a great weekend, friends! I’ve got more modeling – of course – and Momma’s birthday on Saturday. See you soon 🙂

18 thoughts on “Lady Meux

  1. fascinating! There is a story behind every portrait but it’s not often we get to hear of it. Meux reminds me of my great grandmother. It was common for the penniless aristocracy to marry into ‘trade’ or better still an American heiress (Churchill’s dad is a case in point). My great granny was humble Daisy Clinch, Oxfordshire brewer’s daughter who married my great grandad Somerville, condescending to change her name to the posher Margherita. Sadly she was never painted by Whistler.

    • artmodel says:

      Patrick,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! And I love the story of your great-grandmother. What a great name, Daisy Clinch 🙂

      Knowing the stories behind the portraits often enhances our perception and appreciation of the work, I think.

      Thanks so much for your comments!

      Claudia

  2. Dave says:

    Very interesting piece, Claudia. I love the two Whistlers, especially the Pink and Grey.

    Lady Meux liberally spent her fortune on herself and her hobbies, the arts, and even the British military but not, apparently, on causes to help the vast underclass from which she came. I find that depressing.

    Dave

    • artmodel says:

      Dave,

      It is a shame when someone of wealth doesn’t use a portion of it for charitable purposes. In fairness, many of them do, but in the case of Lady Meux it doesn’t appear that she did. Unless she did but there is no record of it for some reason. I wasn’t able to find anything.

      She did try to leave her Egyptian artifacts collection to the British Museum but they turned her down, which is rather odd.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  3. Steve Baker says:

    wonderful paintings, great story
    thanks for the post

  4. Bill says:

    I love Whistler’s portraits — especially his willingness to use neutrals. How many times have our teachers told us that we mustn’t use black, for example? Whistler knew better.

  5. cauartprof says:

    Claudia,
    Bravo! Great post. You may leave the corner at any time. 😉 The Frick is a gem. Another small but fascinating museum is the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston. Hopefully they will get their Vermeer paintings back some day.
    Best,
    Chris

    • artmodel says:

      Chris,

      I have humbly emerged from the corner, but my head still hangs in shame 😆

      The last time I was in Boston I was unable to visit the Gardner because I believe it was still closed for the renovations. I must get there now that it’s reopened.

      Thanks for your comments!

      Claudia

  6. Lynn Kauppi says:

    A fascinating book about the story behind a famous painting is: Deborah Davis, “Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X” (New York : Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin Group, 2003). A story similar to Madame Meux except that Madame X’s reputation (Madame X being Madame Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau) was permanently ruined and she retreated into seclusion.

    Lynn

    • artmodel says:

      Lynn,

      Thanks for the book recommendation! Madame X is probably the most famous and certainly most recognizable of standing portrait paintings.

      Good to hear from you!

      Claudia

  7. fredh1 says:

    Happy birthday, Elaine! Oh, and wonderful post, Claudia!

  8. Derek says:

    Happy wonderful 78 years Elaine
    My sister is that age too and you remind me of her
    I hope you have a great day from one parent and grandparent to another may I wish you nothing but great health.

    Claudia have a great modeling day and hope things are going well with your lovely mum.

    Derek

  9. Jennifer says:

    These portraits are both so gorgeous. I love the tones of the creamy-brown one, but also the slash of the white stole is outstanding.
    It sounds an amazing rags to riches (and remaining rich) story – I googled the property, which is now a luxury hotel.

    • artmodel says:

      Jennifer,

      That’s interesting about the property. Glad you Googled it and shared! And I agree with you about Whistler’s portraits. I think they’re both outstanding, although I favor the pink one if only for Lady Meux’s pose and expression.

      Claudia

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