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 Edward Emerson Simmons  (1852 - 1931)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts/New York/Maryland / France      Known for: mural, marine, landscape and figure painting

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Edward Emerson Simmons
from Auction House Records.
September Afternoon, 1891
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:

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.

Cook, Clarence. Art and Artists of Our Time. New York: Selmar Hess, 1988, vol. 3, pp. 298-299; Harrison, L. Birge. "Quant Artistic Haunts in Brittany: Pont-Aven and Concarneau." Outing 24 (April 1894): 25-32; Hoeber, Arthur. "Edward Emerson Simmons." Brush and Pencil 5 (March 1900): 241-249; King, Pauline. American Mural Painting. Boston: Noyes, Platt 1902; Brinton, Christian. "Modern Mural Decoration in America." International Studio 42 (January 1911): 175-190;  Art in California.... San Francisco: R. L. Bernier, 1916, pp. 131, 133-134; Brinton, Christian. Impressions of the Art at the Panama-Pacific Exposition. New York: John Lane Co., 1916, p. 48; Simmons, Edward. "The Fine Arts Related to the People." International Studio 63 (November 1917): ix-xiii; Idem, From Seven to Seventy: Memories of a Painter and a Yankee. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1922; Neuhaus, Eugen. The History and Ideals of American Art. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1931, p. 385; Isham, Samuel.  The History of American Painting. New York: Macmillan, 1936, pp. 553-560; Pierce, Patricia Jobe. The Ten. North Abington, MA: Pierce Galleries, Inc., 1976, pp. 109-113, 173; The Ten, Exh. cat. Corpus Christi, TX: Art Museum of South Texas, 1977; Sellin, David. Americans in Brittany and Normandy 1860-1910. Phoenix, AZ: Phoenix Art Museum, 1982, pp. 43-45, 47-48, 106, 161; Gerdts, William H. American Impressionism. New York: Abbeville Press, 1984, pp. 171-181; Jacobs, Michael. The Good and Simple Life: Artist Colonies in Europe and America. Oxford, UK: Phaidon Press, 1985, pp. 20, 40, 65-75, 153-156; Fairbrother, Trevor J. The Bostonians: Painters of an Elegant Age. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986, cat. no. 30, pp. 225-226; A Proud Heritage: Two Centuries of American Art. Chicago: Terra Museum, 1987, p. 190; Weber, Bruce and William H. Gerdts. In Nature's Ways: American Landscape Painting in the Late Nineteenth Century. West Palm Beach, FL: Norton Gallery of Art 1987, p. 12; Zellman, Michael David. Three Hundred Years of American Art. Seacacus, NJ: Wellfleet Press, 1987, p. 463; Ten American Painters. New York: Spanierman Gallery 1990; Hiesinger, Ulrich W. Impressionism in America: The Ten American Painters. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1991; Weinberg, H. Barbara. The Lure of Paris: Nineteenth-century American Painters and Their French Teachers. New York: Abbeville Press, 1991, pp. 234-238; Revisiting the White City: American Art at the 1893 World's Fair. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1993, p. 318; Weinberg, H. Barbara, Doreen Bolger, and David Park Curry. American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994, pp. 152-155, 356; Coles, William A. East Meets West: American Impressionism. Exh. cat. Scottsdale, AZ: Fleisher Museum, 1996, pp. 69, 83; Crane, Sumner and  Susan Lehman. "Edward Simmons: The New Amsterdam Murals." American Art Review 11 (September - October 1999): 186-191.

Submitted by Richard H. Love and Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Edward Emerson Simmons was one of the major painters of the American Renaissance, the post-Civil War movement that stressed the inter-relatedness of architecture, painting, sculpture and interior design. His career progressed through Impressionism, but retrospectively his primary distinction is for his mural work, especially the murals he did for the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition.

Simmons was born in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1852. His father, George Frederick Simmons, a Unitarian minister, died when Simmons was three. Simmons' mother, Mary Emerson Ripley, was a cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a Concord neighbor. Simmons, who had a very spartan but cultured childhood, entered Harvard in 1870 and after graduation in 1874, took a few odd jobs in New York City, Chicago and Cincinnati. In 1875, he went to California where he wrote a drama column for the San Francisco "Chronicle". He spent time with Childe Hassam, and the two of them visited the studio of Xavier Martinez.

Determined to become a painter, Simmons sailed for Paris to study in June of 1879 and entered the Julian Academy. He exhibited at the Paris Salon and the Royal Academy in London and also sent works to American exhibitions, one of which won a purchase prize of $2,000. His Harvard class report of 1883 states that in that year "there was an exhibition of many of his paintings in the gallery of Doll & Richards in Boston, which was highly commended by the press; his Salon paintings for 1882 and 1883 have also been on special exhibition in Boston."

In 1883, Simmons married painter and novelist, Vesta Schallenberger, and they had two sons. From 1881 to 1886, they settled in Concarneau on the coast of France and he became one of the most prominent members of that Colony. In 1886 he and his family moved to St. Ives on the coast of Cornwall where most of the artists were Americans and Simmons was "the most respected among them." (Gerdts 180). There he did a series of marine paintings that remain his best-known easel paintings. Other subjects were peasant figures and landscapes.

Simmons returned to America in 1891, and a year later decided to devote himself to mural paintings. However, in 1898, accepted an invitation to join the "Ten American Painters", a group of primarily impressionist painters known as "The Ten" and let by Simmons' friend Childe Hassam. Their purpose was to assert stylistic and exhibition independence against the conservative American Society of Artists, where Simmons and others in "The Ten" had been exhibiting their work. Many members of "The Ten" such as Hassam, John Twachtman and J. Alden Weir were very prominent, but Simmons has been described as "the most unheralded member" (Falk 3035). Likely the major reason was his dedication to mural rather than easel painting.

In addition to his work at the 1893 Chicago Exposition, he also did murals for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco;, the Palace Hotel in San Francisco; state capitols of Saint Paul, Minnesota and Pierre, South Dakota; court houses in Mercer, Pennsylvania and Des Moines, Iowa; the Boston State House, Library of Congress and the Tiffany Building in New York City.

Edward Simmons painted until his death in Baltimore at the home of his son in 1931.

William Gerdts, "American Impressionism"
Peter Falk, "Who Was Who in American Art"
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"

Biography from Pierce Galleries, Inc.:
Painter-writer Edward Emerson Simmons was born October 27, 1852 in Concord, MA the son of Unitarian minister George Frederick Simmons and Mary Emerson Ripley. When his father died (ca. 1858), the family was left in poverty, and Simmon's was raised in Concord's Old Manse by his mother, grandmother and Bible-toting grandfather. For years, Simmons like to listen to his father's cousin Ralph Waldo Emerson tell stories because he "rendered the commonplace sacred," Simmons said in "From Seven to Seventy", p. 22. Throughout his staunch New England upbringing, the only solace Simmons found was through art, literature and song.

The artist entered Harvard (1870) and found academia exhilarating, even though classmates nicknamed him the "Wambat." As a member of the Hasty Puddings Club, Simmons became a founder of the Harvard Crimson (then called the Magenta) and was secretary of the Harvard Art Club. After obtaining an A.B. in 1874, Simmons went to NYC to become an architect but was talked out of it. Packing a gun for protection, he traveled alone to Cincinnati and met the famous teacher-painter Frank Duveneck, who convinced him to go to Europe and become a painter.

In 1875, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Simmons a letter of introduction that landed him a job as drama critic for the "San Francisco Chronicle" and a teaching position for $75 a month at the Strawberry Valley School. He socialized with painters William Keith and Thomas Hill and enjoyed California until a close friend was shot on a city street, Then he returned to Boston to study at the Institute of Technology. He met painter William Rimmer who convinced Simmons to study at Boston's Museum School with Frank Crowninshield who taught him to draw before he went to France.

In 1878, Edward Simmons studied in Paris at the Academie Julian with C.R. Boulanger, J.J. Lefebvre and was inspired by a friendship with J.A.M. Whistler. After winning an award at the Academie (1881), he painted in Concarneau and Pont Aven. His painting "La Blanchisseuse" won an honorable mention at the Paris Salon (1882). In 1891 he was commissioned to construct a stained-glass window for Harvard, and in 1893 Frank Millet chose Simmons to decorate the domes at the Manufacturer's Building for the World's Columbian Exposition. From that point on, Simmons devoted himself to murals of American life rather than painting canvases to hang on "strings" in the wrong light.

In 1898, he joined The Ten American painters to exhibit independent of juries and became famous almost instantaneously.

From 1887-91 Simmons lived with his wife Vesta Schallenberger (married 1883-1903) and their son in St. Ives in Cornwall, England, and Theodore Robinson accompanied Simmons on many painting adventures. Summers were spent in Denis, Montreuil and Grez, France; Stuttgart, Germany; and in the Forest of Fontainebleau outside of Paris. In 1903 he divorced his first wife and married Alice Ralston Morton, who gave birth to their son in 1904.

Simmons remained a dedicated, inquisitive painter and spokesman until his death in Baltimore, MD in November 1931.

Murals: Boston State House; Library of Congress; Astoria Hotel, NYC; state capitol buildings, St. Paul, MN and Pierre, SD and the Mass. State House.

Bibliography: Patricia Jobe Pierce, The Ten (NH: Rumford Press, 1976) and "Edward Simmons," American National Biography (Oxford Univ. Press, 1999); Edward Simmons, From Seven to Seventy: Memories of a Painter and a Yankee (1922); Arthur Hoeber, "Edward Emerson Simmons," Brush and Pencil, March 1900; Pauline King, American Mural Painting (1902).

Patricia Jobe Pierce, Historian

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Edward Simmons is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
"The Ten"

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