Primarily a mural painter, Edward Simmons, a marginal member of the Ten, also excelled in plein-air figure and landscape painting. His mother’s brother was Ralph Waldo Emerson and his father was a Unitarian minister named George Frederick Simmons, making Edward a product of a rather austere, hearty, New England stock. Through the years, the parlor in his family home resembled the set of an American history pageant. He remembered seeing Emerson, Charles Sumner, former senator from Massachusetts, known for his anti-slavery stance, John Brown, Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the painter Charles H. Davis.
Simmons, born in Concord, Massachusetts on October 27, 1852, studied at Harvard, then traveled to Cincinnati where he met Frank Duveneck. Simmons continued west, and came face-to-face with swindlers and pistol-toting drunks; in his autobiography, From Seven to Seventy (1922), Simmons included a colorful description of San Francisco before the 1906 earthquake and fire. In 1879, after studying briefly with William Rimmer at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Simmons went to Paris to enroll in the Académie Julian. Initially, his situation seemed hopeless, with Boulanger advising him to become a shoemaker. But the academic master’s estimation was obviously incorrect, for in the spring of the following year, he was studying with Boulanger and Lefebvre at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and began exhibiting paintings at the Salon (1881-89). One entry of 1882 called Etude à Concarneau may have been executed during the previous year when he was in fact, “a founding member of the American artists’ group at Concarneau” (Weinberg, 1991, p. 234). As Sellin (1982, p. 43) explains, Simmons was followed by “Alexander and Birge Harrison, Walter Gay, Clifford Grayson . . .Arthur Hoeber, Howard Russell Butler and ‘Shorty’ Lasar.” Blanche Howard (1847-1898), who would become the Baroness von Teuffel after living in Germany, published a “best-seller” titled Guenn: A Wave on the Breton Coast in 1883, in which the Breton girl falls in love with an American painter; his indifference to her causes her suicide. Traditionally, it is believed that the author used Simmons as an inspiration for Hamor, the painter depicted in the novel. Simmons attested that the novel was written in his studio, and Birge Harrison (1894, p. 30) wrote how Simmons painted a portrait of “Guenn,” which was popular when exhibited in America. T his may have been Breton Girl, exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1892. Howard’s book, which contains picturesque depictions of peasant life and customs, was a favorite among American artists who planned to visit the area. While at Concarneau, Simmons met Willard Metcalf and Theodore Robinson.
Also in 1883, Simmons married a painter and writer named Vesta Schallenberger and he sent some of his canvases to the Doll and Richards Gallery in Boston, where they were favorably received. Two paintings from that year are Playing Jackstones and Spring, both in private collections. Weinberg says the latter hints of impressionism (1991, p. 234) “in the manner of Theodore Robinson.” We see more the influence of Whistler, in the flat, decorative treatment of the spontaneously painted blossoms. In the following year, Simmons painted Waiting for His Return (Private collection), a figure of a Breton peasant girl seated on the Atlantic’s rocky coast, another candidate for the “portrait of Guenn.”
Simmons and his wife relocated to St. Ives in Cornwall in 1886, two years before the St. Ives Art Club was founded. Karen Zukowski (in Blaugrund, 1989, p. 210) suggests that Simmons may have known Whistler’s series of St. Ives beach scenes. Simmons exhibited now and then at the Royal Academy and with the Royal Society of British Artists in London. In 1888, he became a member of the Society of American Artists. His Bay of St. Ives at Evening, a panoramic seascape (Private collection) won a bronze medal at the Paris Exposition of 1889. There, Simmons was a member of the American selection jury. During this period, he described his visits to Carrière St. Denis, Barbizon, Grèz-sur-Loing, and Stuttgart. At Barbizon, he mentioned the names of Charles H. Davis, Ruger Donoho, and Theodore Earl Butler. The bridge at Grèz delighted Simmons because it reminded him of a spot along the Concord.
Simmons returned to America in 1891 after a thirteen-year absence. After designing a stained-glass window for the Memorial Hall at Harvard, Simmons accepted a commission for mural decorations in the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, soon to be erected at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His contribution, The Four Forms of Labor, included Wood, Iron, Stone, and Fiber (or Hemp). At this point, Simmons (1922, pp. 214-215) found fulfillment in large-scale decoration and decided to devote himself to it. The four pendentives in Chicago won the praise of critics: “Here was strength, directness, simplicity and dignity,” exclaimed Arthur Hoeber (1900, p. 245), and Pauline King (1902, p. 74) thought the figures by Simmons were “decidedly classical in their semi-nudity, and their rugged outlines and feeling of strength gave an impression of boldness and originality.” Today, these allegorical figures seem weak and petty, especially if compared to Italian Baroque figures that boldly fill the entire decorative space. Most likely, Simmons was taking directions from the architect, and his creative input was limited. Besides these murals, one could see three canvases by Simmons in the Fine Arts Palace: Early Moonlight, Bay of St. Ives, Darby and Joan (both unlocated) and The Carpenter’s Son (Private collection), painted in 1888. Dressing or Morning, executed in 1893 (lost), a draped female figure in a classical pose, shows cross-hatched type brushwork and an attempt to soften contours.
After returning to New York, Simmons won a competition to decorate the courtroom of the Criminal Courts Building. Here his talents as a mural artist began to shine forth. On the wall behind the judge’s seat, Simmons painted three panels: The Fates, Justice, and Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, unveiled in 1895. Justice, raised on steps in front of a doorway like a Cinquecento Madonna, holds scales in one hand and a crystal ball (here a symbol of Christian truth) in the other. Around her shoulder is draped the American flag. Both the sword, held by a flanking boy, and the massive closed bronze door, suggest punishment. The Fates are typically garbed in the American Renaissance fashion. Another important commission followed in 1896: work in the Library of Congress, where Simmons painted The Nine Muses. Most often illustrated is Melpomene, a static, rather severe and slightly ridiculous figure with wind-blown drapery. She recalls the uninspired figures by Simmons and his colleagues at the World’s Columbian Exposition.
On 17 December 1897, when members of the Ten drew up their formal resignation from the Society of American Artists, Simmons (now forty-five) had already been won over by mural painting, so one might wonder about his motivation to join a company of rebels. His autobiography is somewhat helpful. For Simmons, the Society’s exhibitions had simply grown too large: “We were just a group who wanted to make a showing and left the society as a protest against big exhibits.” (Simmons, 1922, p. 221). Simmons expressed disappointment that his large-scale works were found to be objectionable by the others at the SAA who were exhibiting easel paintings. At the same time (1897) contracts for murals continued to come in his way. For the Waldorf and Astoria Hotels that year, Simmons devised neo-Rococo Months and Seasons. Meanwhile, he prepared for the Ten’s first exhibition in March of 1898, at Durand-Ruel’s, and he submitted a portrait and a “study.” Only one painting each by Childe Hassam, Robert Reid, and John H. Twachtman sold. At the group’s second exhibition in 1899, critics described the works displayed as “the extreme of modern impressionism” (Art Interchange, April 1899, p. 97) and the “ultra of the impressionist school” (“The Ten Painters,” 1899). Later that year, Mrs. Simmons died.
Simmons took part in the twenty-seven of the Ten’s subsequent thirty-eight exhibitions between 1900 and 1919. Titles indicate that he submitted mainly landscapes, few of which have been identified. One, called A July Afternoon, Lyme, Connecticut, signed and dated 1906, shows the painter’s whereabouts that summer. Simmons frequently exhibited works done much earlier; for example a painting from 1893, Boston Public Gardens or Boston Commons (Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago) was on display at the Montross Gallery in 1912. Gerdts (in Ten American Painters, 1990, p. 161) sees the influence of Japanese art in the composition. Critics in 1912 such as Charles de Kay slyly pointed out this “old snowscape . . . which shows how well Simmons painted fifteen years or more ago.” In 1908, his even earlier Mother and Child (City Art Museum, St. Louis) appeared in the Ten’s Philadelphia exhibition, where it must have looked like a dark old master picture, closer in tonalities to works by Robert Wylie than to high-keyed impressionism.
Simmons went on to execute murals: The Battle of Concord and Return of the Battle Flags for the Massachusetts State House in Boston (1900-02), executed in a matter-of-fact historicizing style and four pendentives in the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, which were done in the French neoclassical mode, recalling the mythological subjects of painters such as Pierre Prud’hon (1758-1823) and Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754-1829). Then, Morning and Night, which flank the archway, evoke the Italian eighteenth century. Indeed, Simmons was a stylistic chameleon, especially in mural painting. Finally, in 1915, at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, Simmons attempted to execute his allegorical figures in an impressionistic technique. A detail of one panel is reproduced in Art in California (1916, pl. 287). There is a kind of regular, parallel broken brushwork, similar to that found in Dressing (1893), while the more widely spaced dabs in the background sky resemble neo-impressionistic works. Simmons (1922, p. 338) explained how he used only the two of the three primary colors. Actually, green is also evident in one gown. Brinton (1916, p. 48) acknowledged that “Mr. Simmons’s scheme was full of technical novelty and interest.” A recently exhibited late plein-air work, Brook in Spring (1917) in the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company, proves that Simmons never lost his ability to paint sunny, spontaneous canvases, which most critics related only to the early years of the artist’s career. The artist died in Baltimore, on 17 November 1931.
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Submitted by Richard H. Love and Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.