Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield

Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield

1859 – 1918

Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield on the beach in Little Compton. LCHS Collection.

Forgotten No More

Just over 100 years ago, Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield died, a famous author and intellectual—or as famous as one could be in those days, as a woman with little formal education who wrote mostly under her husband’s name.  Over thirty years until her untimely death in 1918 at the age of 59, she authored dozens of books, articles, and speeches on art, art history, urban planning, theatre, literature, and the history of women.    

She was privately eulogized by a who’s who of thinkers, artists, activists, philanthropists, actors, and actresses, and though born in Little Compton, RI she was a quintessential New Yorker, but the only notice of her death in the Times was a brief letter to the editor from Kate Douglas Wiggin, the author of the beloved classic, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.  Wiggin wrote that “New York has lost a woman of very uncommon and very precious type.”  Evangeline Blashfield, she continued, “possessed a greater amount of knowledge about a greater number of subjects” than any other.[1] 

Many others privately echoed this statement.[2]  The architectural historian, Barr Ferree, wrote simply that she “was the most learned woman in the world.”  Julia Isham Taylor, who established Isham Park in upper Manhattan, wrote that “there was no one in New York like her.”  The American Impressionist painter, Edward Simmons, said that she was “One of the most charming while learned ladies whom I have ever met.”  Charles R. Richards, the technologist, educator, and director of Cooper Union, wrote of the “inspiration and exhilaration” that he felt “from contact with her brilliant mind.  I feel her death as I have felt few losses of this kind.  It seems like the passing of a vital force.”  She was similarly remembered by her childhood best friend, Gabrielle Clendenin née Greeley; by her close friend and fellow author, Edith Wharton; by the heiress and socialite, Mary Cadwalader Jones; by the young Broadway and film star, Edward Robinson; by the famed actress and suffragist Julia Marlowe; by William Rutherford Mead of the storied architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White; by Belgian painters and sisters, Héva and Diana Coomans; and by the scholar and translator Isabel Hapgood, among many others.

And yet today she is all but forgotten, as the Times itself wrote in 2003 on the occasion of the restoration of a memorial fountain long hidden beneath the Queensboro Bridge:  “Last week, 85 years after her death, Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield moved from the ranks of the forgotten to those of the vaguely remembered.”[3]  This fountain often makes lists of obscure New York landmarks, of the city’s “little secrets” worth discovering, but the extraordinary story of the woman it honors remains untold.

Evangeline Blashfield died at the end of an age, as quaint Gilded Age New York transformed into the modern metropolis.  She died in the Spanish Flu epidemic, four days after the bells rang for the armistice ending the Great War, a year before the passage of women’s suffrage.[4]  She was a pioneering feminist intellectual, art historian, and historian of women.  Her most brilliant work, Portraits and Backgrounds, published the year before she died, was a groundbreaking book on the history of women as artists, authors, slaves, and existential beings.[5]  She labored her life to give forgotten women a history, yet less than ten years after her death, her own voice was stolen, by another woman no less.  Vita Sackville-West, the author and lover of Virginia Woolf, “borrowed” without acknowledging Blashfield’s Portraits and Backgrounds as the source for much of her 1927 biography of Aphra Behn, the seventeenth-century playwright and novelist, who is today regarded as the first woman to earn her living by writing and as an innovator of the modern form of the novel.[6]  It was Evangeline Blashfield who first made these claims, but it is Sackville-West who has received the credit from scholars.

On the other hand, Evangeline’s husband has received credit for much of the rest of her writing.  Over fifteen years, the two published a series of influential essays and books on art history, among the earliest works of art history in American letters.[7]  Their writings were co-published, with her husband, Edwin’s name at the top, but it was Evangeline, according to contemporary sources, who did the writing, while Edwin, one of the era’s most famous artists, contributed illustrations.[8]  Edwin himself gave broad credit to Evangeline after her death.  Evangeline’s authorship was an open secret at the time, long since forgotten.[9] 

Urban art and architecture were at the heart of Evangeline’s approach to art history.  As she argued eloquently across her essays, no great civilization ever existed without great cities.  No great city ever existed without its investment in public art and beauty.  Evangeline’s art history formed the intellectual text for the movement in American art and architecture that produced the first great wave of public investment in art, architecture, and urban planning.  Nearly every grand monument, courthouse, library, capitol building, school, public park, and post office that defines our national image was built and decorated in the era between the Chicago World’s Fair 1893 and the Great Depression.[10]  It was Evangeline who made the intellectual argument for this investment in public beauty.  It was her husband who gave the speeches she wrote and who painted walls of the buildings that rose, in part as the result of her efforts. 

She conceived of beauty as a public good, perhaps as a natural right, and certainly as a democratic value.  As Evangeline wrote in 1893 in a speech given by Edwin to mark the foundation of New York’s Municipal Art Society:

The commonwealths of Athens, Florence, Venice, the freeburgs of Germany, the great trading towns of Flanders, the cities which have passed through a period of natural evolution in art, considered it a national glory, and used it both as a means and as an end in a truly democratic spirit pro bono public.

They believed that certain benefits arose from the cultivation of beauty, that the pleasures of private life, the dignity of public life, were increased by the aid of the arts. It seemed only natural to such cities that the edifices which belonged to all should be the finest–the town hall, the palace of justice, the temple, or the church…And this art was the property of all men; it belonged to every citizen who had eyes to see; it was “of the people, for the people, by the people.”[11]

Evangeline organized and advocated for the Municipal Art Society, the first civic arts organization of its kind and the model for every such society in every city in America.  She wrote the speech to mark its foundation, but she was not allowed to serve on its board until 1916, when she became the first woman to do so. 

Evangeline was born and often summered in Little Compton, though she lived much of her life in New York.[12]  She attended the convent school of the Sisters of Saint Mary the Virgin on 47th Street West, with her childhood best friend, Gabrielle Greeley, younger daughter of Horace Greeley, for whom her father, Charles Edwin Wilbour, worked before he joined Boss Tweed at Tammany Hall and made the family fortune.  Charles was more than a kleptocrat, though.  He translated Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Misérables (a translation that is still widely available) and formed a close friendship with Hugo.  When the Tweed scandal broke, he moved the family to Paris and embarked on a new intellectual career as America’s foremost Egyptologist.  The Brooklyn Museum is today stuffed with his papers and archaeological collections.[13]

Evangeline spent a brief time in finishing schools in Florence and Paris, but there her formal education ended.  She became, nonetheless, by dint of insatiable curiosity and unceasing application, one of the most learned people of her era: fluent in French and Italian, capable in German, Arabic, and Latin; a world-class expert on history, art history, literature, and theatre. 

At a dance in Paris in 1876, Evangeline met Edwin Howland Blashfield, a young American student in the atelier of the famous French painter, Léon Bonnat.  Blashfield had a fine brush but had been a rather aimless young man to that point, who mainly painted pictures of ladies in fancy dress to earn money for parties and trips to London.  All at once, Edwin, began painting very interesting and peculiar things: female gladiators whacking each other with swords, ancient women artists, and theatrical female figures thrilling with passionate intensity.  The couple married in 1881 and returned to New York, where they lived in the newly built studios in the Sherwood Building on West 57th Street, home to many of the emerging young artists of the generation.[14]  Within a short time, Evangeline had lured Edwin away from painting pictures and into a larger and more ambitious artistic and intellectual career.  Under her influence, Edwin abandoned easel painting and began to establish himself in the early 1880s as America’s foremost authority on mural and monumental painting, becoming the nation’s most famous muralist after his success at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.[15]  

Evangeline came from a long line of feminists and suffragists.  Her mother, Charlotte Beebe Wilbour, founded and led half-a-dozen societies for the advancement of women, including Sorosis, the nation’s first women’s professional club.  Evangeline grew up around the leading women of first wave feminism: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Fuller, Emma Willard, and others.  Nonetheless, “It was hard to pigeonhole her as a suffragist,” wrote her husband, after her death, by which he meant that she was not an activist but a scholar.[16]  Evangeline was a feminist historian and intellectual, one of the first, but there was no category or established place for such a woman or for her ideas in Gilded Age America. The idea of a history of women was so radical in the nineteenth century as to be incomprehensible to much of Evangeline’s public, even to women themselves.  

Invited by a women’s club to speak on the rights of women, Evangeline countered that she would much rather speak about the condition of women under Roman law or the education of women in Renaissance Bologna.  Her interlocutor was astonished by these topics and that Evangeline could profess authority over them.  This incident offers a window into Evangeline’s historical interests and thinking.  A people without a history are slaves of the present, having neither memory of the past nor horizons for the future, save those that are shaped by the immediate desires and necessities of the body and soul.  History is the soil that cultivates human destiny.  To write women into history, to give them historical voice, was for Evangeline the means to proclaim the larger intellectual and cultural possibilities of women, beyond the narrow destinies of housewife or suffragette.

What Evangeline wanted for women was, perhaps, simply the right to achievement.  She adored the theatre and was close friends with the era’s most famous actresses—Mary Anderson, Ellen Terry, and Julia Marlowe, among others.  She saw acting as a “career opened to [women], one of the very few in which they have equally shared honors and rewards with men of the same profession.”[17]  Through her influence, Annie Russell, one of the era’s leading ladies, made one of the more interesting though today forgotten undertakings in the history of professional women in this country.  Nearing fifty and finding good roles hard to come by, Russell one season took the unprecedented risk of renting a theatre and producing her own shows on Broadway, producing, directing, and acting in a run of She Stoops to Conquer and The Rivals.  The successful venture caused quite a public stir, greatly enriched Russell, and perhaps marked woman’s first modern entrance into the business of Broadway production.[18]

In her writing and scholarship, Evangeline gave a voice to the forgotten; she argued for the rights of the poor and the downtrodden, for their right to achievement and to lives of aesthetic and civic self-esteem.  She grasped a deep problem that still troubles our country and politics: that the oppressed, forgotten, and disenfranchised cannot become equal citizens until they have equal voice, dignity, and history.  Evangeline, the historian, understood that remembering rather than forgetting the errors and abuses of the past is our best defense against future abuses of our shared humanity. 

Six months after her death, the Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield memorial fountain was dedicated at Bridgemarket, underneath the Queensboro Bridge.  Evangeline herself had lobbied for the fountain through her position in the Municipal Art Society.  In a New York on the cusp of its twentieth century transformation, the immigrant sons of toil who kept New York and the nation running trucked their vegetables across the bridge every day to the beautifully vaulted Bridgemarket, but the space outside was a muddy, rutted mess. Evangeline lobbied for the fountain to beautify this space and to water the horses of the vendors at the market.  She had in mind the ancient marketplaces of European cities, with their fountains and monuments, civic centers that dignify the city and civic life.  As the dedication ceremony approached, the vendors—nearly all poor, rough, immigrant men—insisted that all commerce should cease, and the market paid its respect to the woman who argued so eloquently in her life for the respect due to the poor and forgotten.[19]  Let Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield now be forgotten no more.

P. Scott Brown, Professor of Art History, University of North Florida

March 2020

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[1] Kate Douglas Wiggin, “Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield,” New York Times, November 20, 1918, https://nyti.ms/3bw0G9G.

[2] See correspondence and remembrances of Evangeline Blashfield in Edwin Howland Blashfield Papers, New York Historical Society Library, Manuscript Department, box 6, folder 5.

[3] Erika Kinetz, “NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: QUEENSBRIDGE — CITYPEOPLE; A Shadow From the Past, Back Into the Light,” New York Times, June 8, 2003, https://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/08/nyregion/neighborhood-report-queensbridge-citypeople-shadow-past-back-into-light.html.  See also the pamphlet prepared by the Municipal Art Society in connection with the restoration of the Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield memorial fountain beneath the Queensboro bridge in 2003: Municipal Art Society, The Evangeline Blashfield Fountain (New York: Municipal Art Society, 2003).   

[4] For details of her life story and death, see the unpublished biography written by her husband, Edwin Howland Blashfield, “Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield,” Edwin Howland Blashfield Papers, New York Historical Society Library, Manuscript Department, box 6, folder 5.

[5] Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield, Portraits and Backgrounds: Hrotsvitha, Aphra Behn, Aïssé, Rosalba Carriera (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917).

[6] Vita Sackville-West, Aphra Behn: The Incomparable Astrea (London: G. Howe, 1927).

[7] Between 1885 and 1900, the pair wrote and published numerous articles and books on art history: Edwin Howland Blashfield and Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield, “In Florence with Romola,” Scribner’s Magazine 2 (1887): 693-721.  Idem, “Pictorial Art on the Stage,” Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine 35 (1887- 1888): 533-46.  Idem, “The Man at Arms,” (in two parts) Scribner’s Magazine 3, no. 1-2 (January-February 1888): 3-19, 161-80.  Idem, “Castle Life in the Middle Ages,” Scribner’s Magazine 5, no. 1 (January 1889): 3-26.  Idem, “The Paris of the Three Musketeers,” Scribner’s Magazine 8 (1890): 134-55.  Idem, “Afloat on the Nile,” Scribner’s Magazine 10 (1891): 663-81.  Idem, “A Day with the Donkey-Boys,” Scribner’s Magazine 11 (1892): 32-50.  Idem, “The Art of Ravenna,” Scribner’s Magazine 12 (1892): 37-55.  Idem, “The Florentine Artist,” Scribner’s Magazine 13, no. 2 (February 1893): 165-84. Giorgio Vasari, Lives of Seventy of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, ed. and annotated by E. H. Blashfield, E.W. Blashfield, and A.A. Hopkins (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1896).  Edwin Howland Blashfield and Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield, Italian Cities, 2 vols. (New York: C Scribner’s Sons, 1901).

[8] One notice on the Blashfields in 1894 described their collaboration: “Articles written by Mrs. Blashfield, illustrated by her husband.”  Susan M. Ketcham, “Some American Artists,” The Outlook (8 September 1894), 380. 

[9] See the biography Edwin Blashfield, “Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield.”

[10] Concerning this period in American art, sometimes referred to as the American Renaissance, among other publications relevant to the Blashfields and the historical context of their ideas and works, see Brooklyn Museum, The American Renaissance, 1876-1917 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979).  Bailey van Hook, The Virgin and the Dynamo: Public Murals in American Architecture, 1893-1917 (Athens, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2003).  William Henry Wilson, The City Beautiful Movement (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).  Annelise K. Madsen, “Columbia and her Foot Soldiers: Civic Art and the Demand for Change at the 1913 Suffrage Pageant-Procession,” Winterthur Portfolio 48, no. 4 (2014): 283-310.  Eadem, “Civic Primer: Mural Painting’s New Education at the Library of Congress,” American Art 26, no. 2 (2012): 68-97.

[11] Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield and Edwin Howland Blashfield, A Plea for Municipal Art. New York: Municipal Art Society, 1893.

[12] See the unpublished biography, Edwin Blashfield, “Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield.”

[13] On Charles Edwin Wilbour, see Joseph M. Margiotta, Charles Edwin Wilbour and the Birth of American Egyptology (Raleigh, NC: Lulu Press, 2009).

[14] John Davis, “Our United Happy Family: Artists in the Sherwood Studio Building, 1880-1900,” Archives of American Art Journal 36, no. 3 (1996): 2-19

[15] On Edwin Blashfield’s artistic career see Mina Rieur Weiner, ed., Edwin Howland Blashfield: Master American Muralist (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009).  Anne E. Samuel, “Vision Conceptualized in the American Renaissance Murals of Edwin Howland Blashfield,” Ph.D. diss., University of Delaware, 2007.  Eric Zafran, “Edwin H. Blashfield: Motifs of the American Renaissance,” Arts Magazine LIV, no. 3 (1979): 149-51.  See also Leonard N. Amico, The Mural Decorations of Edwin Howland Blashfield, 1848–1936 (Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 1978). 

[16] Edwin Blashfield, “Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield,” 24.

[17] Evangeline Blashfield, Portraits and Backgrounds, 213.

[18] Ada Patterson, “Annie Russell and her Unique Venture,” The Theatre 17, no. 144 (February 1913):  56-58.  Edwin Blashfield, “Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield,” 3. 

[19] Edwin Blashfield, “Evangeline Wilbour Blashfield,” 10-11.