Thursday, November 11, 2021

Mystery Solved!: Veblen House research Leads to Celebrated Arizona Painter, Kate Cory

By chance, there has been a Hopi-related discovery at Veblen House that happens to coincide with Native American Heritage Month.

A long lingering mystery has been solved in the most surprising way at Veblen House. That mystery was 2'x3'--the dimensions of what for two decades has been a blank space above the mantel in the living room. The story was told that, soon after the house was boarded up by the county in 1998, someone entered the house and tore the painting off from above the mantle, in search of hidden treasure.

In a previous post about paintings that once hung in the living room, I told how Bob Wells, who rented the house with his family from 1975 to 1998, described the painting as a desert, with scrub rather than cacti, with a view from a rise out across a broad valley, with mountains in the distance. Bob would sit there in the evening and gaze at that painting and let his imagination go.

A bit of an aside here. People often take little notice of paintings on their walls, but my brother recently sent me a photo of the painting that hung above the fireplace in our childhood home. It was of waves breaking on a rocky shore, and I realized that I too had been one to gaze for long stretches at that elemental scene. It's fitting to have a painting you can get lost in above a fireplace.

Of the desert painting above the hearth in the Veblen House, Bob had always believed it to have been painted by Robert Oppenheimer of the IAS, during his time at Los Alamos, New Mexico. That story fit to the extent that Oppenheimer loved the landscapes of the southwest. But we haven't found any evidence that he had painting skills, nor time to paint while leading the Los Alamos Project to develop the atomic bomb.  

The breakthrough came when our carpenter pulled the panelling away from the wall, and it occurred to me that we could remove the painting's frame from the surrounding paneling.

Perhaps the paint could be tested for age and origin,
but that expense was rendered unnecessary when my friend Clifford Zink stopped by to donate a workbench to use at Veblen House. I showed him the frame and he immediately noticed that the frame was not very well made, pointing to the bent nails. The close attention he paid caused me to look more closely as well, and notice that there was some writing on the back of the frame. 

The words "Cory", "Prescott", and "Arizona" were easily discernible,  
along with "#9" and what looked like an "11". 

Prescott has resonance because past internet research of the original owners of the house, the Whiton-Stuarts had uncovered the story of their unusual move from high society mid-Manhattan to a cattle ranch outside of Prescott, AZ. The earliest evidence we have of the Arizona connection thus far comes from the Nov. 17, 1911 issue of the Arizona republican, listing J.P. Whiton-Stuart as having spent the night at the Hotel Adams. 

1911 was the same year that the painter Kate Cory moved to Prescott, and Kate Cory is the extraordinary woman and artist you discover upon googling the words on the frame. Cory became nationally known for her paintings, which can be found in many museums. There are multiple points in her life that overlap with Whiton-Stuart's, both in NY city, where she lived and painted from 1880 to 1905, and in Arizona. Moving to Arizona in 1905, she lived with the Hopi for seven years, documenting their lives, language, and traditions in her notes, photographs, and paintings. In Prescott, she helped found the Smoki Museum. Fascinating bios are easily found on the internet.

The Arizona Women's Hall of Fame tells of her years spent living with and documenting the Hopi.

Enthralled by the light and life of the West, Kate stayed with the Hopi for seven years photographing, painting and writing about Hopi daily life. She took more than 500 photographs of the Hopi people. She was a schoolteacher at the Polacca Day School near the Hopi village of Walpi on First Mesa for many years. During this time, she compiled a dictionary titled, Hopi Alphabet, containing over 900 Hopi words and phrases. In addition to chronicling the Hopi people on canvas and film, she also wrote down her experiences of living with the Hopi in her unpublished journal, “Of Living with the Hopis.” The Hopi called her “Paina Wurta” meaning “Painter Woman.”

The Arizona Archives Online offers some other tidbits:
During the 1920s and ‘30s, Cory was a consultant for Western films in Hollywood. And in 1930, the Bureau of Reclamation hired Cory to paint the site where the Boulder Dam would soon after be built. She completed several works from the trip, each one residing in the Arizona Capitol Museum, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott.

Though Cory is described as having lived a very frugal life in Prescott, there are multiple points in her life where the world of business influenced her trajectory. Her family moved east from Waukegan, IL to Newark so that her father, an abolitionist and newspaper editor, could better manage his Wall Street interests. She was convinced to go to Arizona by a painter who had been employed by the Sante Fe railroad to do paintings out there to promote the rail line. In Prescott, she advised businessmen who were seeking to preserve the Hopi ceremonies. 

Life among the Hopi had caused her to reject materialism. An entry in Wikipedia tells of her combination of frugality and generosity:

In her earnest intention to avoid living a wasteful life, she became known in Prescott for being eccentric. Fellow church members offered to replace her torn and tattered clothes. She was frugal, but gave away two cabins she owned to renters. She removed debris from rain water and used it to develop photographs. Rather than sell her paintings, she bartered them.

From wikipedia:

She died in Prescott on June 12, 1958 at the Arizona Pioneers' Home and was buried at the Pioneers' Home Cemetery[3][17] near her friend Sharlot Hall.[21] The inscription at her gravesite names her "Artist of Arizona" below which is: "Hers Was The Joy of Giving".[22]

Though we now know the name of the painter, we still don't know what happened to the painting. It was not torn out, but in fact carefully cut out of the frame, so may well still exist. 

Of these paintings, Bob Wells thinks the Mesa With Indian Village in Distance most closely resembles the painting he remembers from his days at Veblen House.

Thus far, I've reached out to the Sharlot Hall Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Northern Arizona, the Prescott Public Library, and also the Museum of Indigenous People, seeking someone who can help us better understand the frame and lost painting that for 90 years had been embedded in the custom paneling at the Veblen House.

That Jesse Whiton-Stuart would have owned artwork by a prominent artist doesn't come as a surprise. He was, at least until the market crash in 1929, a man of considerable means, who accumulated not only horses, dogs, cats, and likely other animals as well, but also photography. His collection of "Rare Views and Maps of Old New York" was sold at auction by Anderson Galleries in 1918. 

The discovery of the source of the painting--a unique and courageous woman who left behind a remarkable legacy--and the painting's setting above the family hearth, speak to Whiton-Stuart's taste. Having grown up on Park Avenue in New York, in the center of a vibrant city, he later sought out people and places on the periphery. Before he and his family moved to Prescott, he had traveled widely, "crossed over- land through Persia, visiting missionaries and hermits who had not seen a traveller for twenty-five years." His interest in mathematics ("Between these travels I attended Williams College, Massachusetts, and Cambridge University, England, principally for the courses in mathematics") also turned at times to those on the periphery, like Charles Sanders Peirce, the philosopher and mathematician who was rejected by academia yet credited with being the "father of pragmatism."

Veblen House continues to serve as a window into the early 20th century, connecting to worlds otherwise unknown or forgotten.


The description of Kate Cory, later in life, as an old, somewhat eccentric woman dressed in rags reminded me of a scene in a movie that was Michael Douglass' cinematic debut, back in 1969. I know of "Hail, Hero!" only through Sandra Whiton-Stuart, granddaughter of Jesse Whiton-Stuart. She had a supporting role in the movie, and says that she and Douglass were involved at one point. Navigating the troubled world of a young man during the Vietnam era, Douglass's character visits an old woman who lives alone in a cave. Though the old woman in the movie lacks any of the substance of Kate Cory, it raises the question of whether the character is based on any woman or women who adopted a solitary and spare lifestyle in the early west. 

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