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 Myra Rhodes (Sarah) Thompson  (1860 - 1935)

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Lived/Active: Tennessee/Pennsylvania / France      Known for: portrait, figure and floral paintings

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Myra Rhodes “Sarah” Thompson was born on Nov. 22, 1860 to Rev. Frederick “F’ed” Augustus Thompson, a wealthy Old School Presbyterian Minister, and his wife, Sarah Sanford Thompson, in Spring Hill, Tennessee.  Forsaking a career as a missionary in India, he became the rector of the Presbyterian Church in Spring Hill and a plantation owner.  The estate run by Rev. Thompson was an original land grant from the government, and the main house was completed about 1830.  There were many other building, including the plantation “office,” smokehouse, slave cabins and the outdoor kitchen.  Incidentally, his slaves called him “Marso F’ed.”  Rev. Thompson communicated regularly with Rev. Lyman Beecher at his Alma Mater, the Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio.  He even communicated with Rev. Beecher’s daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe.  One letter, after the Civil War, has Rev. Beecher consoling his friend over the loss of his slaves!
 
Myra was the youngest of three children.  Thanks to Rev. Thompson’s money, all of the Thompson children were sent away to the finest schools in their late teens or early twenties.
 
In the Victorian world of the 1880s, little beside the arts gave women a chance for high accomplishment.  Two of the most elite schools of art that accepted women pupils were the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts—the oldest art school and museum in the United States.
 
Thompson was at home until she was nineteen and then entered the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.  Thomas Eakins was a teacher at the Academy from 1876 to 1886—first receiving a salary in 1878 and becoming director in 1882. Unlike its counterpart in New York, the National Academy of Design, the Academy was not established and run by practicing artists but directed by a board whose members were drawn from Philadelphia’s industrial and mercantile elite.  Eakins’ biggest supporter on the Academy’s board was the engineer and well-known horseman Fairman Rogers (1833-1900).
 
Eakins teaching methods were controversial— students received only a short study in charcoal, followed quickly by their introduction to painting, in order to grasp subjects in true color as soon as practical.  Eakins created a powerful analogue of L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts at the Pennsylvania Academy, emphasizing scientific study even more than did the Parisian schools.  However, he was attacked for his radical ideas, particularly his insistence that all of his students draw from nude male and female models. In those rigid Victorian times—when young women wore long-sleeved, high-neck dresses with hemlines down to their shoes—some of his female students were shocked.  Some even launched complaints.  Undoubtedly, Thompson, as a sheltered young preacher’s daughter from small-town Tennessee, was among those who objected.  In so doing, she inadvertently helped—in a tiny way—to hasten Eakins departure from the Pennsylvania Academy.  He was abruptly dismissed in 1886 and thereafter painted full time.
 
The connection between students’ complaints (undoubtedly Myra Thompson’s among them) and Thomas Eakins dismissal from The Academy may seem like “a stretch,” but a few particulars must be kept in mind.  When Eakins was forced to resign after tearing the loincloth from a male model in the women’s life class in 1886, it wasn’t a scandalous incident in isolation.  Complaints had been lodged against Eakins for many years and this 1886 incident was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.  Therefore to say that young Myra may have contributed to Eakins’ dismissal is fair enough.  In any event, Eakins, who had only sold $2,000 worth of paintings in the previous decade, had to increase his artistic output considerably to support himself.  In the process, he became one of the finest artists America has ever produced.
 
The oil portrait, Young Woman in a Bonnet was painted in 1884, the same year that Eakins married former student and model Susan Macdowell. This painting had to have been done under the watchful eye of Thomas Eakins. In fact, it was probably Myra Thompson’s passing out piece. Eakins bought his first camera in 1880, enabling students like Thompson to paint self-portraits like Young Woman in a Bonnet.(Typically self-portraits are only done straight-on because artists must use a mirror.) Thanks to pictures supplied by Myra Thomson’s relatives in Tennessee (photocopies h/w), it is clear that this is indeed a self-portrait of the artist as a young woman.
 
What is compelling is the similarity of palette and style in this Thompson piece and portraits painted by Thomas Eakins. The dark background, the thin—almost imperceptible—facial brushwork, and the muted palette are textbook Eakins. The master’s influence is undeniable.
 
Myra Thompson’s signature suggests some exposure to calligraphic techniques, probably learned from Eakins, a fabulous calligrapher, who learned the talent from his father, Benjamin, a writing master and teacher. Thomas Eakins was even listed in the Philadelphia city directories as a writing instructor for a time.
 
After completing her studies at the Pennsylvania Academy, Thompson moved to New York where she continued to paint. She studied further under the tutelage of Augustus St. Gaudens, whose prominence as a sculptor allowed him to teach steadily from 1888 to 1897. He tutored young artists privately and taught at the Art Students League.
 
Myra Thompson lived and painted in Paris during the 1906-10 period. In a New York Times article, dated February 20, 1910, she was listed as one of the members of the American Woman’s Art Association who exhibited their work at a salon in the Montparnasse quarter of the city. It is suggested in this article that the location of the exhibition might have kept the haughty French art critics from attending. At the time, the French claimed “Americans measure art with a yardstick.”
 
From Paris, Thompson returned to New York and ultimately settled back at her family’s plantation in Spring Hill. She lived with her mother, Sarah, until the older woman died sometime around 1910. The 1920 U.S. Census finds Thompson at fifty-nine-years-old living alone at the old plantation on Kedron Road in Spring Hill.
 
Miss Myra, as she was called, left the house exactly as her father and mother had decorated and arranged it, commandeering only one of the south rooms on the first floor for her studio and study.  In an Aug. 4, 1935 article in the Nashville Tennessean, the reporter John Lipscomb wrote “Miss Myra excelled in portrait painting and probably would have created a greater name for herself in New York and abroad had she not inherited from some of her ancestors a certain instability of temperament that seemed to be a stumbling-block in the pathway of her genius.” She accepted portrait commissions around Spring Hill, but completed only a few.  Still, one has to wonder why she always told census takers that she had no occupation.
 
In the last few years of her life, she lived with her dog, Jacques, and a black family who occupied one of the outbuildings and had been on the place “always.” Sam Mitchell, his wife and twenty-three children “looked after her and the plantation in the same way she and they had always known and done.” Miss Myra lived alone but always had plenty of visitors and was never lonely.
 
Myra Thompson died from a massive heart attack— after a colostomy— on July 3, 1935 and is buried in the old Jackson College Cemetery (near Spring Hill), Tennessee. She was seventy-five.
 
Sources:
Who Was Who in American Art
US Census reports
The New York Times
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art
Maury County (TN) Archives
the State Library of Pennsylvania and the Tennessee State Library
 
 
Written and submitted by Kevin Murphy.

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