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.
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 😉
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 🙂