Thursday, October 7, 2010

Virginia Keep Clark (1878-1962)

Virginia Keep Clark had a long and varied career in art and society. Descended from William Brewster, a Pilgrim of the Plymouth Colony, she was well connected by family and friendship. Born in New Orleans, she made her home in the Midwest and on the East Coast, studying under some of the most well-known art teachers of her day and creating portraits of everyone from poor girls to women of high society. She was a teacher of children and wounded men, an illustrator and a painter, a wife and a hostess, a friend to many, well loved and well remembered. Through her illustrations for Josephine Scribner Gates’ Live Dolls series of books, she is still loved and remembered by collectors of children’s literature.

Virginia Hynson Keep was born on February 17, 1878, in New Orleans to Charles B. and Katherine “Katie” Hynson Keep. Her father may have died when she was quite young, for when she was a toddler, her mother married Aretas Wallace Hatch, who moved his new wife and four-year-old stepdaughter to Indianapolis. Virginia Keep attended public school, but her formal education in art began under Mary Yandes Robinson, a children’s art teacher, and continued at the Indiana School of Art under William Forsyth. From there it was on to New York and the Art Students League, where she studied under Kenyon Cox, J. Carroll Beckwith, and Walter Appleton Clark, and the Chase School of Art, founded by and named for another Hoosier, William Merritt Chase. She studied briefly with Howard Pyle and alternated between New York and Indianapolis for several years. While in Indianapolis, Virginia Keep taught children’s art classes at the Herron School of Art between 1902 and 1906.

At the outset of her career, Keep specialized in drawing women and children.  She probably got her start  in 1901 with her illustrations for A Fearsome Riddle by Indiana author Max Ehrmann and The Story of Live Dolls and More About Live Dolls by Josephine Scribner Gates. At least nine more books in the Live Dolls series followed over the next decade. Other  work for Indiana authors included her decorations for An Old Sweetheart of Mine by James Whitcomb Riley (1902) and her illustrations--along with Maxfield Parrish and others--for Troubadour Tales by Evaleen Stein (1903). Her drawings for Ehrmann’s book, done in gloomy half-tone, are in sharp contrast to Keep’s later work--with one exception. A scene with a woman and a child is bright and delicate, an indication of what she was to accomplish with the Live Dolls series and other books.

Things changed for the young artist in 1906 when she married Marshall John Clark, scion of a prominent Chicago family. Although her new husband was supportive of her career, Keep left Indianapolis for his home in Evanston, Illinois. Keep opened a portrait studio in Chicago in 1908. At some point, she shared it with Cecil Clark, first cousin  to her husband, wife of Richard Harding Davis, and a self-taught painter of considerable skill. In 1911 Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida visited the Art Institue of Chicago and--impressed with the quality of student Ethel Coe’s work--extended an invitation to Coe and two fellow artists to follow him to his home country. Coe chose Virginia Keep and Lucy Taggart as her traveling companions, and the three enjoyed a season in Europe drawing and painting under the tutelage of an Old World artist. Keep also studied for a summer under Cecilia Beaux, a prominent portraitist, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1916.

According to her friend Lucy Taggart, Virginia Keep was never without a sketchbook. Throughout her career, she drew and painted wherever she went, in New York and New England, Maryland and Florida, Haiti and the Bahamas. Although she started out as an illustrator, Keep was most well known in her lifetime as a portraitist and took active commissions until 1946. Among her subjects were Elizabeth Harrison, daughter of Benjamin Harrison; members of Indiana’s Ball family; artist Charles Prendergast; and Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.

Keep and her husband moved from Chicago to New York during the early 1920s. They divided their time between a Manhattan home chock-full of servants and a summer home called “Windy Meadow” on Oyster Bay in Long Island. They moved again to Maryland and Connecticut before settling in Florida in 1942. During World War II, Virginia Keep taught painting to convalescing soldiers. At war’s end, she was of an age to retire, but it's hard to believe that she would have given up drawing and painting. Keep died on September 13 or 14, 1962, in Winter Park, Florida. She was survived by her husband, Marshall Clark, and laid to rest in the Evergreen Cemetery in Marion, Massachusetts, in her husband’s family plot, in the town where they had kept a summer home, and not very far from where her ancestor, William Brewster, first arrived in America.

The Toledo-Lucas County Public Library held an exhibit on Josephine Scribner Gates and her Live Dolls series this summer (ending in Aug. 2010).  The library also showed some of Virginia Keep's original art from its own collection.

Tiffany Benedict Berkson of Indianapolis has done a good deal of research on Virginia Keep Clark's life and career and has posted some of it on her own blog. Some of the information here comes from her efforts, and I thank her for it.

Virginia Keep's "Indiana Girl"--perhaps her answer to Charles Dana Gibson's "Gibson Girl"--from about 1903. The image here is from a newspaper microfilm and can only hint at the quality of the original.

The cover of The Live Dolls' House Party by Josephine Scribner Gates, illustrated by Virginia Keep (1906).

Two of Virginia Keep's interior illustrations. She never had any of her own children. Nevertheless, her drawings of women and children are full of warmth, tenderness, and sensitivity.

Note: My source for Virginia Keep's descent from William Brewster is from an unsubstantiated claim in the discussion section of AskArt. A reader who has done a great deal of research on Virginia Keep has never found evidence of that descent. If anyone can confirm or discount it, please let me know. March 9, 2011.

Text and captions copyright 2010 Terence E. Hanley


  1. My great Aunt was a very warm person. As i remember, I sat in my grandmothers barn in Birmingham Michigarn figiting like most 7 years old as she did my portrait. I still have it. I am 72 years old.

    Marshall Clark

  2. You may be interested to know that Canadian metaphysician Dr. Kenneth G. Mills mentioned Virginia Keep Clark in his memoirs, "The Candy Maker's Son" (Toronto: Kenneth G. Mills Foundation, 2007):

    "In 1945 I met Virginia Keep Clark, a weekend house guest at Mr. [Guy] Murchie's home. A famous portraitist who sketched patients in military hospitals as part of her war effort, she was best known for her portrait of the Duchess of Windsor. She sent me as a gift the first copy I ever had of 'Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures' by Mary Baker Eddy, along with a matching black, Moroccan leather-bound, King James version of the Bible. She inscribed a number of verses from Psalms that she felt were applicable to me in this lifetime."

    1. Thank you, Anonymous, for the additional information and to Marshall Clark for a nice memory of his great aunt. TH