Art Mystery: Who Was Edwin Elmer

Edwin Elmer as Young Man
{Click on Images to Enlarge}  

I love art, but like many fans I sometimes OD on my favorites. It's always a great joy to discover someone new, or to become immersed in an art mystery. Place Edwin Romanzo Elmer (1850-1923) in the second category. To date I have viewed just six of his works—five oils and a chalk drawing. Though his niece Maud, wrote a small piece about him, we still know only the sketchiest details of his life.

Edwin was born in Ohio, the youngest of twelve children in a farm family that moved to Buckland, Massachusetts when Edwin was six. About all we know is that the family was poor but close-knit and religious. Edwin was particularly fond of his brother Samuel, whose portrait is on display at Smith College. It's a rather handsome picture housed in a neo-medieval frame that one would ordinarily think should hold some pre-Raphaelite offering. But Samuel seems dignified and at home inside the fancy woodwork.


 Insofar as I know, Elmer honed his art in Buckland and did some inventing as well as painting. There is a picture of his wife Mary at work on a machine that sewed silk ends onto a type of twisted horsewhip Edwin developed. It sometimes shows up to illustrate talks and books on rural industry, though that's probably a misreading. In all likelihood we are viewing a domestic scene from the Ashfield home into which the Elmers moved after 1890.


We'd probably not know Edwin Elmer at all were it not for an event from that year. Edwin grew up in a large family, but he and Mary had just one child, Effie Lillian. In 1890, nine-year-old Effie died of appendicitis and Edwin poured out his grief on canvas. His Mourning Picture, which inspired an Adrienne Rich poem of the same name, also hangs at Smith College and is much beloved by visitors. Some don't linger long enough to understand that they are viewing a quintessential late Victorian period grief scene. At first glance the painting is charming—a precious child in the sunlight embracing a lamb. A kitten is at her feet and typical girl toys are on the lawn fronting a handsome frame home. Then we look harder and notice that the parents are in formal black mourning clothing and sitting in shadow. The ovine references Christ, the Lamb of God. All of a sudden the details and tone seem like a marriage of Magritte's surrealism and Edward Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom.

The painting originally hung in a local post office, and then disappeared until Maud showed it to a Smith College curator in the 1950s. Were it not for that, would anyone have bothered to look for more details? As noted, the Elmers moved to Ashfield after Effie's death and lived with Mary's parents. At some point they went to New York City, where Edwin trained at the Academy of Design. Was this his only formal art training? He also invented some stuff there, including an improved butter churn, the whip snap machine in the picture with Mary, and a bracket for shingles.

It is said that Edwin painted landscapes both in Massachusetts and New York, but the only other pictures of his I know are a chalk scene of a Buckland apple orchard (at Smith) dated 1906, and Magic Glasses, an 1891 painting at Vermont's Shelburne Museum that tries to mess with our perception with a magnifying glass sitting in a crystal goblet that reflects a set of windows. We don't know if the windows are in front or in back, but the Shelburne Museum also owns the goblet, which sits beside the painting in a separate display case. Smith College also holds Our Village Carver, which dates
from 1906. It wasn't on display when I was there a few weeks ago

I'm sure there must be other works, but I've not been able to authenticate a few random images I've run across. The only other thing I can tell you is that Edwin was stricken with abdominal cancer and took his own life in 1923. Label this mystery "to be continued."  

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