Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mabel Dodge Luhan: Patron of the Arts, Writer, and Muse of Taos

Mabel Dodge Luhan
1879 – 1962
ca. 1934
Carl van Vechten, Photographer
 
Most of my blog entries have been about specific female artists with a bit of history tossed in to allow for a greater understanding of the particular challenges faced by women, as they strove to create lives of purpose.

Mabel Dodge Luhan was less a visual artist but a writer whose account of her own complex life experiences, including her eventual self-healing in New Mexico, ran to four volumes. She was a force, a unique woman of profound contradictions; mercurial, domineering, generous, and endearing.

Luhan was born Mabel Ganson to society couple Charles Ganson and Sarah Cook. The Gansons lived in a Victorian mansion on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo mirrored the prosperity and power of the growing United States during the Gilded Age. The Gansons, who spent lavishly on their daughter, neglected her emotional needs. Her father had a violent and unpredictable temper and her mother, while decisive and strong, was not warm. Mabel grew up in a family and in a society that placed value on appearances and a lack of purpose... she was raised to charm and groomed to marry. Luhan, however, was a Victorian woman who rejected the constraints and expectations of what a woman was supposed to be. She became a symbol of the "New Woman:" self-determining, emancipated, and publicly opinionated about art, society and politics.

Her first of four marriages at the age of 21 occurred in 1900 when she wed Karl Evans, son of a steamship owner. Mabel and Karl had one son, John. When Karl died in a hunting accident two-and-half years later, he left her a widow at the age of 23. Mabel was sent by her family to Paris because she was having an affair with a prominent Buffalo physician however, just later that year she met and married wealthy architect Edwin Dodge. It was a marriage of convenience for Mabel as she needed financial support and a father figure for her son.

Photo of Mabel and her son John in the Gran Salone,
Villa Curonia, Florence, Italy
The Dodges settled in Florence, Italy at the Villa Curonia in Arcetri, a region in the hills to the south of the city center. Between 1905 and 1912, Mabel entertained local artists, expats and visitors such as Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, Alice B. Toklas, and French author and Nobel Prize winner AndrĂ© Gide. Bored with her life in Florence by 1912 and greatly influenced by Gertrude and Leo Stein's philosophy that the individual could overcome the ill effects of both heredity and environment and create herself anew, Mabel returned to New York.
Mabel Dodge's friend, Bertram D. Wolfe, founder of the American Communist Party and biographer, later recalled: "Wealthy, gracious, open-hearted, beautiful, intellectually curious, and quite without a sense of discrimination, she was Bohemia's most successful lion-hunter." Her apartment in New York City became a salon, a place where intellectuals and artists such John Reed, Lincoln Steffens, Margaret Sanger, Louise Bryant, Emma Goldman, Frances Perkins, Carl Van Vechten and Amy Lowell would meet.

Thornton Wilder Soiree, Mabel Dodge’s Greenwich Village salon
n.d.
Mabel Dodge Luhan Papers
In his book, Autobiography (1931), Lincoln Steffens claimed: "... Mabel Dodge managed her evenings, and no one felt that they were managed. She sat quietly in a great armchair and rarely said a word; her guests did the talking, and with such a variety of guests, her success was amazing."

Dodge was involved with one of the most important exhibitions of the Twentieth Century, the Armory Show of European Modern Art in 1913, and she published in pamphlet from a piece by Gertrude Stein, "Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia" which Dodge distributed at the exhibition. She contributed to The Masses, the leading left-wing literary and political journal of her day; wrote a syndicated newspaper column popularizing Freudian psychology; and supported a host of organizations, among them the Women's Peace Party, the Heterodoxy Club, the Women's Birth Control League, and the Twilight Sleep Association. She also published articles in leading modernist literary and art magazines such as The Dial, and Stieglitz' photographic magazine, Camera Work.

In 1916, Mabel and her third husband, artist and sculptor Maurice Sterne, moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, but found it too confining so they relocated to Taos. The 600-year-old Pueblo culture provided a model of permanence and stability; a total integration of personality achieved through the organic connection of work, play, community, and environment. She soon fell in love with Tony Lujan, a Pueblo Native American. She quickly divorced Sterne and wed Lujan, her fourth and final husband. Mabel viewed their alliance as a bridge between Anglo and Native American cultures but changed the spelling of her last name (Lujan to Luhan) to allow for an easier pronunciation.
Tony Lujan of Taos Pueblo, New Mexico
 ca. 1930
 Ansel Adams
In the 1920s, Luhan wrote her four-volume memoirs: Intimate Memories (1933), Background, European Experiences (1935), Movers and Shakers (1936), and Edge of Taos Desert (1937). She wrote a number of articles on behalf of the integrity of Native American culture, health, and the protection of tribal lands. She remained, as one reporter described her in the early 1920s, "the most peculiar common denominator that society, literature, art, and radical revolutionaries ever found in New York and Europe." In attempting to alter the direction of American civilization, she captured the imaginations of her generation's most talented writers, artists, and thinkers, and profoundly influenced their understanding of modern America.
Mabel Dodge Luhan House
 also known as Big House and St. Teresa House
 Taos, New Mexico
Declared a National Historic Landmark in 1991 
Luhan also wrote Winter in Taos (1935) and Taos and Its Artists (1947), a leading overview of the painters and sculptors from the art colony founders through the modernists of the 1940s. Up through the early 1950s, Mabel continued to produce the occasional newspaper and magazine article, many of which were dedicated to the history and culture of Taos.

Mabel Dodge Luhan, Frieda Lawrence,
and Brett at Kiowa Ranch
  ca. 1938
Mabel Dodge Luhan Papers
Mabel Dodge Lujan died in Taos, New Mexico, on April 18th, 1962.

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Sources
Taos.org, Look and Book,  Mabel Dodge Luhan, http://taos.org/women/profiles-legends?/item/78/Mabel-Dodge-Luhan, retrieved January 7, 2015.
The Muse of Taos, Stirring Still, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/16/garden/the-muse-of-taos-stirring-still.html, retrieved January 8, 2015
Women Artists of the American West, Susan R. Ressler, ed., McFarland and Publishers, Inc. Philadelphia, p. 85-86.
Spartacus Educational, Mabel Dodge, http://spartacus-educational.com/USAdodge.htm, retrieved January 8, 2014.
Mabel Dodge Luhan, Encyclopedia.com, http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Mabel_Dodge_Luhan.aspx, retrieved January 8, 2015.
New Mexico History.org, Mabel Dodge Luhan, http://newmexicohistory.org/people/mabel-dodge-luhan, retrieved January 8, 2015.