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Friday, May 25, 2012


Esther Popel Shaw with her daughter Patricia Shaw Iverson. Photograph by Addison N. Scurlock. Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
I didn’t intend to write about Mother’s Day this year.  I briefly considered trying to redeem myself for the somewhat cynical observations about the holiday that I posted two years ago, but finally decided to seek an alternative subject.  After several weeks, my search seemed in vain.  My brain was parched in a desert of withered, dried-up ideas, and I stared at a tempting, shimmering mirage—the oasis of self-reference.  I could blog about blogging!  You get my drift: I was desperate for a topic.
Then I found my topic through an e-mail from Suzanne Jenkins, thanks to a conversation with our mutual friend Will Stapp (both are former emloyees of the National Portrait Gallery).  The e-mail concerned the Addison Scurlock portrait of Esther Popel Shaw above, which reminded me of my 2010 Mother’s Day blog, and I decided it’s time for an update.  So this is a supplement to my "Mothers, Motherhood, and Commerce," which noted how sentimental holidays such as Mother’s Day have been commodified and packaged for profit by the business world.  It is easy, after all, to grumble that familial love and other tender sentiments have been high-jacked or manipulated by the greeting card and advertising industries.   I closed that post with the Scurlock photograph of the Shaws, observing that it too was a commercial product, however customized and personalized it may have been in order to appeal to a specific family.  Scurlock was paid to produce this image for his customer, and he did his best to create a flattering, saleable portrait.  He knew all the elements, including appeals to sentiment and tenderness, which would guarantee a sale and augment his income.
Mother’s Day was celebrated less than two weeks ago, and I hope you readers observed it appropriately by honoring your own mothers and/or other mothers who are important in your lives.   I reproduce this Scurlock photograph again for somewhat different reasons--to demonstrate that it has a broader documentary significance beyond its function as a signifier of motherhood, and the fact that archivists and curators are continually learning about the objects in their collections and are being challenged to present new information to their publics in appropriate form.   In this case, a knowledgeable observer contributed historical information and I recorded it, having previously failed to note in our SIRIS catalog record basic information about the subjects that was readily accessible in many locations.  Mea culpa!
Esther Popel Shaw apparently was the first African American woman to graduate from Dickinson College, in 1919.  The Scurlock photograph suggests that she was a loving mother.  But she was also a noted poet, allied with the Harlem Renaissance.  Observe how Addison Scurlock suggests her unique personality by emphasizing her distinctive profile and hairstyle.  Her daughter Patricia hoped to follow in her mother's footsteps and also enrolled in Dickinson College, but discovered that racism still persisted when she was not permitted a room in a white dormitory.  In recent years Dickinson College has tried to atone for its past errors, as reported by Dickinson's Professor Sharon O'Brien.
In April I attended an exhibition opening at Towson University, a retrospective for the Baltimore painter, sculptor, and printmaker Amalie Rothschild (1916-2001), whom I had met in the 1990s, through her daughter Amalie R. Rothschild (sometimes called Amalie Junior), a photographer and documentary filmmaker.  I hope to acquire for the Archives Center some of Amalie R.’s work and am eager to curate an exhibition of her 1960s photographs of the Fillmore East.  The Towson exhibition opening was an opportunity to purchase the sumptuous new monograph on the artist, which Amalie R. and her husband have worked on continuously since her mother’s death—a true labor of love.  In a lecture preceding the reception, I learned more about the elder Rothschild.  I knew from personal experience how charming, witty, and forthright she was, as well as what a brilliant and talented artist she was; now I heard that, despite her prodigious creative output, she was always frustrated in her attempt to reconcile her artistic career with her domestic role.  She frequently articulated her insistence that her role as a wife and mother was paramount in her life, and her professional and creative work was secondary (although a very close second, it seemed to me).  A tireless, vocal advocate for the recognition of other female artists, she remains a major figure in the history of twentieth century art in the Baltimore area, and achieved international recognition as well.
After studying the Amalie Rothschild monograph last weekend, her conflicted career was on my mind.  And this week I was reminded that Esther Popel Shaw was a published author and activist, and I wondered if she too had difficulties in balancing family and career.  As a participant in the Harlem Renaissance, her career had a political component, and she has a place in the long history of the struggle for African American civil rights.  See the capsule biography in "Picturing the Promise: The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington" (2009), the book accompanying the exhibition of the same title, p. 43.   I made a connection in my mind between these two strong women, Mrs. Rothschild and Mrs. Shaw, and wondered if Mrs. Shaw ever faced similar conflicts between motherhood and her creative activity and cultural and political activism.  The exhibition label and note in the book emphasize the motherly, protective quality of her interaction with her daughter, which comes across clearly in the photograph and was the reason I selected it for my blog two years ago.  Now the portrait assumes an additional meaning for me.  There is little question in my mind that Addison Scurlock was impressed by this elegant woman, and he sought to emphasize, not only her motherly devotion and attentiveness, but also the personal strength which sustained her in her struggle against racial prejudice and injustice--if not gender discrimination as well. 
David Haberstich, Curator of Photography

1 comment:

  1. Dave,

    I am again impressed by your concise usage of the written language. Scurlock was indeed a exquisite visual artist and you indeed are a splendid wordsmith.

    I am left wondering if these two women (Amalie Sr. and Esther) where allowed to have met and become friends during their lifetime; would we all be in a better place.